Donald B. Wagner, Background to the Great Leap Forward in Iron and Steel

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Iron production in two distinct sectors in 18th-century Norway and Sweden

The phenomenon we have seen in the Guangdong iron industry, with a small-scale and a large-scale sector in close proximity, is not unique for this place. The same is found in pre-modern times in other parts of China (for example in Hunan and Jiangxi), and also elsewhere in the world.

Family ironworks in Dalarna, Sweden, beginning of the 18th century. The man is charging a bloomery furnace, the woman works the bellows (with her feet, while spinning with her hands), and the boy is cleaving a red-hot bloom with an axe. (Jernkontorets annaler, 1845, 29.1, pl. 3).
Blast furnace works in Sweden, beginning of the 19th century. (Joh. Carl Garney, Garney’s handledning uti svenska masmästeriet, Stockholm 1816, title page).
In Sweden and Norway in the 18th century there were still many peasant families who produced iron in small bloomeries at the same time that most of the iron consumed came from large blast-furnace ironworks.The drawing on the left shows a peasant family in central Sweden, ca. 1732, smelting iron in a small bloomery. They used some of the iron themselves, and sold the rest at local markets. At the same time in the same region (Kopparberg County) there were 79 large blast-furnace works, which resembled that shown in the drawing further below. There is no doubt that the production cost of the peasants’ iron, measured in labour hours, was much higher than that of iron from the blast-furnace works, but outside of the busy agricultural seasons the family had very little to use their labour for. Their comparative advantage lay in iron production.

Data on blast-furnace works in Kopparbergs Län comes from Emanuel Swedenborg, Regnum subterraneum: sive minerale de ferro, 1734, pp. 62–63; Swedish translation Mineralriket: Om järnet . . ., tr. by H. Sjögren, Stockholm: Wahlström & Widerstrand, 1923, p. 79. He gives an incomplete list of 362 blast-furnace works in seven Swedish counties.

In Norway somewhat later, in 1782, Ole Evenstad calculated the cost of bloomery iron production at the wage levels which at that time prevailed in the countryside and concluded:

Det Kongelige Danske Landhuusholdningsselskabs Skrifter, D.3, København 1790, pp. 446–448.

One skippund [ca. 160 kg] of excellent refined iron thus costs 4 rix-dollars and 47 skillings. This iron is in every way just as good as the iron produced by the ironworks for 10, 11, or 12 rix-dollars per skippund; in fact the former is much better than some of the latter. When the peasant must pay so much for the iron at the ironworks, and thereafter transport it 20 or 30 miles [1 Norwegian mile = 11.3 km] to his home, how much more advantageous is not the bloomery for him, when he can produce not only for his own needs but also so much that he can sell to others.

Nevertheless he regretfully finds that the Norwegian peasants no longer produce their own iron, but use their labour in the timber industry instead. Clearly their comparative advantage has altered, no doubt because of improved transport and market conditions for timber.

The small blast-furnace works in Guangdong seem to have been rather larger than the family bloomery works in Norway and Sweden, but they had the same function: they gave poor peasants employment in the slack agricultural seasons.

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