Obrajes were textile manufactories, generally for woolens, in colonial Mexico. Attention was first drawn to the obraje in 1938 by Mexican economic historian Luis Chávez Orozco, who, in his Historia económica y social de México, wrote that the obraje was “a factory in embryo.” Since then, the obraje has been dealt with in about a dozen articles published in both the United States and Mexico and in one short Mexican monograph. Richard J. Salvucci now presents a book on the subject, in which he asks whether the obraje really was “a factory in embryo.”

Based solidly on documents from Spain and New Spain, the author first describes the variety of textile industry in colonial Mexico, especially the small-scale production of Indian peasants. He also discusses the artisan cotton production, and then the rise of the commercial cotton industry in Puebla near the close of the eighteenth century. In my opinion, the author uses the term “capitalism” too freely. For example, he calls the production of peasant weavers with backstrap looms “capitalistic.”

The author then undertakes a detailed description of the obraje and its manufacturing process. In the next chapter, Salvucci offers a biography of selected eighteenth-century obrajeros and their families. On the controversial subject of labor conditions in the obrajes, the author shows that in 1802, 60 to 70 percent of the labor force in Querétaro, then the center of the woolen industry, was free. The rest were peons locked up in obrajes.

Obrajes were on the decline in the eighteenth century, due to legal and illegal imports of foreign cloth. Their end came in the 1810s and 1820s as a result first of the civil war and then, in independent Mexico, of foreign competition. A new industry producing textiles with imported machinery arose beginning in the 1830s. The obraje was not “a factory in embryo” after all. This well-written and well-researched book is recommended to all students of Mexican economic history.