Urban Real Wages in Constantinople-Istanbul, 1100-2000

Urban Real Wages in Constantinople-Istanbul, 1100-2000

By Sevket Pamuk

Paper given at Towards a Global History of Prices and Wages (2004)

Introduction: One of the more important questions regarding the world economy in the early modern era concerns the emergence and evolution of the gap in levels of real income between today’s developed and developing countries. With the exception perhaps of a handful developed countries, estimates for per capita GDP for the period before 1820 are difficult to construct and not sufficiently reliable. Moreover, it has not been possible to construct detailed estimates for any of the developing countries for the period before 1820 or even 1870. An alternative approach for studying the gap in levels of per capita income or the standards of living has been to compare real wages of specific occupations, most often of skilled and unskilled construction workers in urban areas. Real wage data are of far better quality than per capita GDP estimates especially for the period before World War I for all of the developing countries and available for a wider sample. In fact, real wage series are virtually the only solid piece of information we have for the standards of living in the developing countries for the period before 1870 if not 1914. In short, real wages continue to be the most reliable source of information about the standards of living of at least part of the population. They also provide the most convenient vehicle for international comparisons of standards of living.

Although they can not be claimed to be “national” in any sense, urban real wage series exist for many regions and large inter-regional differences within the same country are not apparent in these series. Nonetheless, real wage series are open to valid objections. Even if we accept the representative wage as an adequate proxy for the annual per capita earnings of labor, this does not mean that it should be a good proxy for income per capita. That depends on the further assumption that factor shares across countries are similar. In many parts of Europe and Asia during the early modern era and until World War I, incomes of households were often determined by changes in employment levels, participation ratios of men, women and children, and above all, by non-market incomes.

Despite these qualifications, the link between wages and the standards of living remains. A decline in real wages did result in a decline in the standards of living or welfare of the household because more labor had to be supplied to buy the same amount of goods thereby leading either to a decline in other types of income, or in the case where the household responded to the decline in real wages by working harder or longer, a decline in leisure time.

Utilizing a large volume of archival documents, this study examines the long-term trends in wages of skilled and unskilled construction workers in Istanbul, and to lesser extent in other urban centers in the Near East and the Balkans from about 1100 until World War I. Urban construction workers were a relatively homogeneous category of labor over time and space. Moreover, in contrast to the payments made to other employees, urban construction workers received a high proportion if not all of their pay in cash rather than in kind or in the form of shelter, food and clothing. As a result, their wages allow for useful intercountry comparisons between pre-industrial societies. These trends will also be inserted into a larger framework of price and wage trends in European cities during the same period. For the period since WWI, our real wage series for construction workers are linked to the average real wages of manufacturing workers in Turkey.

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