"A Boatful of Knowledge"

Social Reform and Global Communication in the Early 19th Century

Claudia Roesch

My project for my Habilitationsschrift investigates the transnational exchange of knowledge by early industrialist social reformers at the beginning of the 19th century. Starting from the correspondence of the Scottish factory owner Robert Owen, who established the model settlement New Lanark from 1800 to 1816, it analyzes the global exchange of knowledge for dealing with labor migration during the early industrial era.

Owen and other industrialists in the transatlantic area (e.g., the Boston Associates, a group of investors in New England) built up company towns affiliated with social reform projects in order to combat overpopulation, infectious diseases, poverty, and moral decay. Industrial towns were shaped by the immigration of a large number of people who had to adjust to the shift from rural to urban industrial life within a very short period of time.  

For New Lanark, Owen drafted a comprehensive idea of community that included schooling for the workers‘ children, provisions for maintaining traditions, as well as provisions for combating alcoholism and pregnancies out of wedlock. In order to make his project known, Owen frequented the circles of social reformers, had pamphlets printed, and corresponded with educators, noble families, and politicians in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Owen began to acquire land in the U.S. state of Indiana in 1825 with the aim of bringing his reform concept to rural areas as well.

The project consists of several case studies of model settlements in Europe and the Americas in order to ascertain how Owen’s reform concepts were implemented in various places. The goal of this project is to reposition reform projects and Owen’s correspondence within the framework of global history, utilizing the methods of migration history and history of knowledge. It should demonstrate that early industrialization presented the political and economic elites in the transatlantic area with similar problems, and that these elites sought and discussed solutions within global networks. All in all, the project thus aims to investigate the origins of the systematic production of qualitative knowledge about the population in light of social problems and social reforms in order to illuminate how questions of economic distribution were transformed into knowledge about social conditions.