A Cult of Dependence: The Social Context of The London Merchant


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In his pathbreaking study of the effects of the Industrial Revolution on English society, Peter Laslett has argued that "the removal of the economic function of the patriarchal family at the point of industrialization created a mass society"; further, he contends that this new society "turned the people who worked into a mass of undifferentiated equals, . . . bereft for ever of the feeling that work was a family affair, done within the family."1 The primary economic unit of pre-industrial England was the extended household, consisting of a married couple, their young children, and any journeymen, apprentices, laborers, relatives, or servants who could also contribute to and be supported by the family business. When this system worked properly, its benefits were immediate and concrete, and they provided an implicit justification for the power structure which produced them; emotional security, social acceptance, and economic success could all be traced to the same source. However, when new methods of achieving social and economic success began to compete with the old system, the drawbacks of that system became more troubling, if only because the possibility of circumventing it had finally presented itself. Although by no means industrialized, London during the first half of the eighteenth century was, as Laslett puts it, "a city on an industrial scale,"2 and as such it was full of such possibilities.

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