This study demonstrates the power of culture to define the meaning of labour. Drawing on archival evidence from Britain and Germany, as well as historical evidence from France and Italy, the text shows how the very nature of labour as a commodity differed fundamentally in different national contexts. A detailed comparative study of German and British wool textile mills reveals a basic difference in the way labour was understood, even though these industries developed in the same period, used similar machines, and competed in similar markets. These divergent definitions of the essential character of labour as a commodity influenced the entire industrial phenomenon, affecting experiences of industrial work, methods of remuneration, disciplinary techniques, forms of collective action, and even industrial architecture. Starting from a rigorous analysis of detailed archival materials, this study broadens out to analyse the contrasting developmental path ways to wage labour in Western Europe and offers a reinterpretation of theories of political economy put forward by Adam Smith and Karl Marx. In this cross-national study, Richard Biernacki profoundly reorients the analysis of how culture constitutes the very categories of economic life.