Banner Viadrina

The Globalized Periphery: Atlantic Commerce, Socioeconomic and Cultural Change in Central Europe (1680-1850)

Linen Weaving and Social Change in Silesia - a World Wide Integrated Proto-Industry in Eastern Central Europe

Hirschberg - Jelenia Gora - Laubengänge der Bürgerhäuser am Markt (2) ©Anka Steffen, 2012

Jelenia Góra (Polen/ ehem. Hirschberg), Laubengänge der Bürgerhäuser aus dem frühen 18. Jhd. in denen die Leinenweber den Kaufleuten ihre Ware anboten. (Fotografiert von Anka Steffen, 2012)


Sub-project A focuses on the integration of the Central European producer side through the case study of Silesia, probably the largest producer of linen for Atlantic markets. While it is generally acknowledged that Silesian trade responded to Atlantic demands from the 16th c. onwards, early modern Silesia has mostly been described as a region lacking innovation and risk taking as well as the purchasing power for consumption. It has been argued that the region was reluctant to introduce cotton processing or the production of novel types of linen until the end of the 18th c. or later. These findings do not settle easily with the success of Silesian fabrics on highly competitive Atlantic markets, evident at least until the 1760s. My own findings even suggest that production was in fact strong well into the first half of the 20th century (!).

The invoice books of the “Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading with Africa and successors” as well as the so called “Prize Court Papers” relating to captured ships by British Men-of-War located at the National Archive in London (Kew) are the basis on which the importance of Silesian linens as a barter commodity on the West African coast can be described and show what the connections of Silesian linen merchants to their colleagues in Hamburg, London, Cadiz or Bordeaux looked like in practice.

Despite of World War II losses of archival material, relevant documents have been unearthed in the municipal archives of Jelenia Góra (Hirschberg) and Wrocław (Breslau). The analysis of records discovered there allows me to explain why Silesian linen merchants preferred to stay “at home” and refrained from settling in sea ports in the western hemisphere and, therefore, did not rely on extended family networks like most of their colleagues in Hamburg, London, Cadiz or Bordeaux. At the same time some light is shed on the living conditions of the “un-free” rural spinners and weavers who produced the abundant masses of cloth for export and how this institution of serfdom helped the Silesian merchants to compete with relatively cheap textiles on world markets.

Lastly, the transition from proto-industrial linen processing to mechanical spinning and weaving enterprises is taken into consideration. This challenges the prevailing view that the Silesian linen industry declined because of the competition of English cotton textiles and disappeared shortly after the Napoleonic Wars.