Christmas Stockings and the Morality of Capitalism

A somewhat off the wall article in the Wall Street Journal makes a case, by accident, for the value of capitalism.

The article was a short note on the history of Christmas stockings, part of the Christmas holiday ritual developed in the 19th century in Europe, especially in England.

One part of the innovative middle class celebration of Christmas was for children – Santa Claus, who brought gifts to children who had been nice, not naughty, during the year, then ending. Small gifts were put in stockings, hung from a mantle over the fireplace.

Stockings used for that special purpose evolved from stockings made for daily wear.

The first modern stockings were knitted by hand and by a machine invented in 1589 called a stocking frame. Foot-powered stocking frames evolved over time. By the mid-18th century, England had some 14,000 stocking frames. Stockings were no longer only for the aristocracy. Very ordinary people could acquire such status coverings for their legs.

In mercantilist France, stocking frames were restricted to protect hand workers.

In 1758, Jedediah Strutt invented a way of incorporating the purl stitch into the making of the fabric, resulting in ribbed stockings. With his profits, Strutt financed the first spinning mills built by Richard Arkwright, whose invention of the water frame transformed cloth making from a low-productivity craft to an industrial product. Arkwright’s invention took only minutes to make enough wool yarn to make a pair of knee socks, when previously that task would have taken five hours.

Cotton hosiery, more desirable than wool, was one of the first consumer products made from the newly abundant thread. What could be produced in quantity could profitably be sold at lower prices and so could become more affordable to more people and so also more abundant in the lives of the many.

And Christmas stockings, too, could become part of most every English family’s Christmas celebration.

Thanks to the capacity of capitalism to evolve technology, expand and expand productivity, new wealth, including ownership of stockings, was created, which could more inclusively devolve to the people.