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Reading Recommendations

When a business hangs on a silk thread

 Dr Karolina Hutkova's reading choices

Karolina and book cover

Karolina researches 19th century industrialisation on the periphery; business history and business organisation. Her current work focuses on the era of the British empire, particularly India’s connections with Britain. She chooses two books and an article which trace her growing interest in business history, and talks about how they have influenced her forthcoming book on a British-Bengali silk manufacturing enterprise.

‘The organization of work: a comparative institutional assessment’
Oliver E Williamson, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Volume 1, Issue 1, March 1980, Pages 5-38

I used to hate studying the theory of firms but when I started my PhD I was forced to do more reading on it, including by Williamson. This article is really good as the methodology allows for application in historical studies.  Williams looks at transaction costs of  different forms of business organisation, and I did the same with the British East India Company and their venture into the silk industry (see below). This got me interested in doing more business history since I had already done a lot of study of organisation and  transaction costs and so on.

The Genesis of Modern Management: Study of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain
Sidney Pollard (Edward Arnold, 1965) 

This book has also been very useful to me.  It’s very nicely written and contains a very detailed analysis of the development of key industries during the Industrial Revolution, of the firms at the time, and of management in the 18th and 19th century Britain. It was very useful for my study of the East India company’s silk venture in Bengal. It connects business history and economic history really well, whereas I find the majority of studies often focus on one or the other.

Banking and industrialisation in Austria-Hungary
Richard L Rudolph (CUP, 1976)

I really love this book. I read it when I was doing my masters thesis and it made me interested in 19th century industrialisation in countries that were catching up. It covers a lot of material, it’s very empirical and detailed, has a very strong argument and is very readable. I don’t think another book has been written as comprehensively on this topic since. And it covers the Czech Republic – which is nice for me as a Czech! The good thing about the book is that it looks at industrialisation and the role of banks at a business level in the late industrialisation period (1870-1914). He makes a strong argument that banks were actually not as essential in the industrialisation as previously thought, going against previous wisdom that banks played a key role across the whole of central Europe in industrialisation. by looking at many cases where banks were not the first to offer credit.  I can also give an example of this from my masters thesis on the sugar industry. There it was cooperatives formed by the employees of the sugar refineries which actually funded many of the sugar ventures, rather than banks.

 The English East India Company's Silk Enterprise in Bengal (1750-1850)
Dr Karolina Hutkova (Boydell and Brewer, 2019)

My book is on the English East India Company and its venture into raw silk manufacturing in1750s-1850s. Bengal raw silk was used in the British silk industry. The book links the Company’s initiative to changes from mercantilist to laissez faire policies in Britain and examines how these economic policies actually affected the venture. I argue that the whole business of making silk in Bengal was significant because the Company transferred silk technologies from Italy through Britain all the way to Bengal - this was the first global transfer of silk technology from Europe back to Asia. Before that technology was transferred in the other direction. Previously it was held to be an unsuccessful venture but I focused on the question of profitability and found it was actually a success. I was  also interested in  the impact of the British economic policies. I found that the venture worked well during the mercantilist era when the Company was involved, but in the period of laissez-faire policies when the Company had to stop doing business in Asia the venture failed. Silk production in Bengal for the British market stopped because of significant fragmentation of the business activity, lack of capital and the difficulties small entrepreneurs faced in conquering the distances involved and lack of knowledge of global market. My argument is that its ultimate failure was due to the unintended effects of imperial policies rather than some kind of deliberate attempt of British economic policy to harm  the Bengal silk industry.