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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Queen of Scythes: The Protoindustrial Revolution of Louisa Catharina Harkort.

In the late 1750s and early 1760s, the Seven Years’ War, an intercontinental struggle that would largely determine the power structure of the world for the next two centuries, was waged with particular intensity in the lands that make up modern-day Germany. Russia, France, and Austria teamed up in a large-scale attempt to punish Frederick the Great’s Prussia for its successes in the War of the Austrian Succession the previous decade, and the Prussian people bore the heavy brunt of their king’s superhuman attempts to fend off invasions on multiple fronts. In the middle of this conflict, a Westphalian industrialist by the name of Johann Caspar Harkort III died, leaving his widow the task of not only raising their five children during wartime, but of running an intricate network of manufacturing and trade interests in the face of literal foreign invasion.

As it turned out, Louisa Catharina Harkort (1718-1795) was more than up to the task. Not only did she keep the Harkort business running, but expanded it over the course of the next two decades, putting it in a position to become a major player in the nineteenth century industrialization of Germany. She was the daughter of Johann Christoph Maercker, a doctor practicing in Essen, and a woman of landed ancestry from Wetter. Her family claimed numerous Prussian jurists among its members, and Louisa Maercker was therefore a woman of position and family, who could expect to marry well and die early in the process of having a dozen or so children.

Of her life before she married Harkort, we know shockingly little. She enters our historical awareness, emerging from the void of genteel anonymity that was the lot of so many unwed upper-middle class women in the eighteenth century, upon marrying Johann Caspar III in 1748. The Harkorts had been a family of substance at least since 1486, when their familial manor in Hagen was first placed on the Westphalian register. Johan Caspar Harkort I (1648-1714) built up the family trading business into an enterprise that made the Harkorts the wealthiest family in the region by the 18th century. Upon his death, his widow Ursula Catharina Harkort (born Hobrecker) ran the business for a decade, setting the precedent Louisa would spectacularly follow a half century later.

The two following Johann Caspars built up the Harkort business both as a trading and manufacturing enterprise in the full spirit of the proto-industrialization that was changing Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Local regions were specializing in the production of different goods, and after decades of organizing and directing the flow of that regional household production, traders were beginning to realize that if they undertook to centralize the production of manufactured goods themselves, it would make the process more efficient and yield more profit. The Harkorts were no exception, and under Johann Caspar II and Johann Caspar III began changing the family business from one of merely trading agricultural goods to manufacturers and supplying metalworkers with raw material to allow them to produce tools, to one of owning their own manufacturing equipment, purchasing interests in iron bar, steel, and scythe hammer mills and forges.

Johann Caspar III had married his first wife in 1746, but she died in childbirth the next year, with the daughter born from that tragedy dying herself only six years later. Johann was apparently not one to linger long in grief, however, as he married Louisa Catharina Maercker in 1748, and for the next thirteen years she closely observed as he expanded the business, undertaking construction of large new office and manufacturing buildings in 1756, at the very outbreak of the Seven Years’ War. Louisa Catharina had seven or eight children (the sources disagree) in those years, of whom five survived to adulthood.

Johann III died in 1761, two years before the end of the war, and with his heir, Johann IV, only eight years of age, it was left to Louisa to protect the family and run the business. Her first concern was ensuring that the estate and the businesses erected on it were protected from the depredations of the French Army, to which end she obtained, eight months after the death of her husband, a special dispensation from the French Marshal operating in Westphalia that the Harkort estate was not to be plundered or harmed, and troops were not to be stationed there.

Having spared the family from the direct consequences of war, it was now time to look to the business’s future. To this end, Louisa Catharina mapped out two realms of expansion, and one realm of research and development, that allowed the Harkort company to not only survive the economically lean 1760s and 1770s, but to grow and thrive. One of Harkort’s most important products was its scythes, but Louisa Catharina knew that lighter and more durable Austrian scythes, made of a superior steel, were beginning to make a dent in Harkort’s profits, so she directed that the Austrian steel be shaved down and analyzed so that Harkort could create metal of similar quality. That effort allowed the company to introduce a new “Steiermaerker” line of high quality scythes which they were soon producing by the thousands thanks to Louisa Catharina’s additional investment in water-driven forging hammers and new scythe mills.

Louisa’s investments in metallurgical research and in forges which she concentrated on the Harkort estates began to pay off, with Harkort scythes sold as far as St. Petersburg. In 1780, with Johann Caspar IV of age, Louisa signed a contract with Johann and his younger brother to split control of the company between them. Though now only a third partner in the business, she was still very much in charge of pushing the company into the industrial age, as in the 1780s she looked to secure Harkort’s lines of transportation. In 1783, she purchased a ship with a crew of three which would allow her to transport pig iron from Koblenz to Herdecke, where it could be transported by land to the Harkort hammer forges. This canny move allowed not only for faster transport of goods, but for the avoidance of the innumerable taxes that weighed down transport of materials by land in Prussia.

By the 1790s, Louisa Catharina had laid the groundwork for Harkort to enter into the emerging world of German industrialism. She had taken a company that had, a century previously, primarily concerned itself with organizing the manufacturing of regional household production, and changed it into a company that carried out its own materials science research, used that research to invest in on-site manufacturing centers, and secured access to its supply chain by investing in its own means of transport. The proto-industrialism that characterized the first and second Johanns was deepened and broadened under Louisa Catharina, and would be completed by her son, Johan Caspar IV, who would win renown not only as an industrialist but as a political and economic author in the Enlightenment tradition, and her grandsons, Friedrich and Gustav Harkort, who between them would introduce workers’ health policies to their factories, push to ban child labor in industry, and invest heavily in railroad construction, bringing the Harkort name into a socially-minded and economically sound Industrial Age.

Louisa Catharina died in 1795 after three decades of industrial leadership, playing her part as company head right up to the end. Her company would survive through the nineteenth century thanks to the forward-thinking habits instilled by her onto her descendents, and in 1910 Friedrich Harkort’s Harkort Machine Factory in Wetter would take part in a merger that formed Demag, which by 1960 was a billion dollar concern, and the only business in the world capable of assembling entire steel works facilities within its factories, a global industrial titan that would never have existed without the very particular genius of an eighteenth century widow who found a way to survive a war, and join an economic revolution.


There is, as far as I know, nothing of tremendous depth about Louisa Catharina Harkort available in English. Der alte Harkort: Ein Westfaelisches Lebens- und Zeitbild (1902) by Louis Berger, which is a 650 page behemoth of a history of the company and its surrounding region, is not as useful a source as one might hope. Ellen Soeding’s Die Harkorts (1957) is a two volume work which is highly spoken of as a source for Louisa Catharina, but that I have never been able to find a copy of for myself, so if you find one, gimme a call. Lacking that, I found Stefan Gorissen’s 2002 Vom Handelshaus zum Unternhemen: Sozialgeschichte der Firma Harkort im Zeitalter des Protoindustrie a much more useful piece for the background of the Harkort company and its place in the shift from feudalism to protoindustrialism to industrialism, while this profile from a site dedicated to Westphalian history has some good context for her precise role in developing Harkort over the 1760s, 70s, and 80s.


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