- The earliest economic development of Brussels reflected its role as a military and administrative center. The castrum built by Charles of France required provisioning, which led to construction of a loading dock on the Senne River and a bridge, first recorded about 1100, to facilitate bringing in grain and other supplies from the surrounding countryside. Market activities soon developed, and the existence of a mint is attested to by the discovery of coins marked Brocsa or Bruocsella from the 10th and the beginning of the 11th centuries.Early economic development was stimulated by the town's position along the East-West trade route between the Rhineland (Cologne) and Flanders (Bruges). An alliance between England and Brabant in 1179 launched a trade in precious metals and wool. By the 13th century, closed markets (halles/hallen) were being constructed in the midst of the open-air markets and town-based production was carried out in earnest, notably the processing of imported English wool into finished cloth. By the 14th century, Brussels enjoyed significant prosperity due to the success of its woven wool manufacturing. Other trades such as metalworking and leather processing flourished.Burgundian rule coincided with the decline of the cloth industry in the last years of the 14th century, ushering in a long period of economic depression, with unemployment and famine the consequence that lasted into the mid-15th century. Production of luxury items would help lead a revival as the city's importance as an administrative and a political center grew under Burgundian and, later, Haps-burg rule. Tapestry weaving reached its apogee in the 16th and 17th centuries. Other industries included metalworking and production of reredos, illuminated books and manuscripts, and stained glass. The manufacture of arms and weapons was of such renown that King Henry VIII of England asked Charles V for permission to recruit producers. City authorities refused. Port facilities gradually expanded following the opening of the Willebroeck Canal in 1561. A return of prosperity in the 16th century was followed by the departure of skilled artisans after the wars of religion, which weakened the economic infrastructure.Cloth mills, leather works, chemical factories, and soap-making plants arrived in the 17th century. Lace production soared in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At the end of the 1600s Brussels served as an important nerve center in the import-export trade. Imports included textiles, lead, tin, hides, and colonial primary products while exports centered on traditional luxury goods. The old guild-operated craft workshops began to give way to newer manufacturing enterprises employing several score of workers and using rudimentary mechanical means.The 1680s and 1720s were marked by economic depression with prosperity characteristic of the 18th century. Government monopolies, subsidies, and tax exemptions marked the Austrian regime. Protocapitalist forms of industrial organization emerged in the textile, glass, and tobacco processing industries. The 18th century was noted for the production of porcelain. Firm size continued to grow, although only the lace industry could be characterized as truly large-scale.Following the upheavals of the turn of the 19th century, Brussels benefited from the state-sponsored stimulus provided by the Dutch regime, which laid the groundwork for the economic growth that marked the first 20 years after national independence. The Société Générale de Belgique, founded in Brussels in 1822, was one of the world's first industrial conglomerates. It played a leading role in non-ferrous metal smelting and railway construction. Economic dynamism stemmed largely from the stimulus engendered by the railways, of which Brussels was the center of the Continent's first network. The Brussels-Charleroi Canal linked the city with the booming coal mines in Hainault. Five industries dominated the economy in the early 19th century: machine production; publishing; textiles; clothing; and luxury goods, including gold- and silver working. The last three constituted traditional crafts since the Middle Ages.The beginnings of modern-style retail trade began in the middle and late 19th century with the opening of three small, family-run novelty stores: Le Bon Marché, Le Grand Bazar, and À l'Innovation.Mechanization proved rapid by the mid-19th century. An industrial boom set in from 1870 to 1914 and firms began to locate in suburban locales. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) brought an influx of foreign capital. Leopard Il's reign saw much growth in the building trades, spurred by urban development and redevelopment. Machine shops and chemical plants proliferated along the Willebroeck Canal and Schaerbeek, Anderlecht, and Molenbeek-Saint-Jean witnessed the heaviest industrialization of nearby communities. Advances in mechanization led to a decline in luxury trades, notably lace, by the end of the 19th century.Extension of the harbor facilities after World War I led to the growth of northern industrial zones to beyond Vilvoorde. Major in-terwar activities included the manufacture of machinery, boilers, automobiles, refrigerated equipment, rubber, textiles, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. Production of clothing, leather goods, and soap together with food processing, especially chocolate and confections, remained concentrated within the city limits.Recovery proved rapid after World War II, and the postwar economy benefited from extensive infrastructural upgrading, including the building of a modern highway network. Brussels remains a primary industrial center and important activities include metalworking, chemicals, publishing, clothing, leather goods, gold- and silverware, and research in high technology.The outstanding development in the economy since the 1960s has been major growth in the service sector. Establishment of the headquarters of the European Union institutions, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and other international organizations hashad a major impact on the economic base. Multinational corporations, lobbying and legal firms, and nongovernmental organizations have established offices in the metropolitan area. Tourism fuels considerable activity in fostering a proliferation of restaurants and shops on the Grand' Place and surrounding streets.Brussels's contribution to the gross domestic product of Belgium has equaled between 15 and 20 percent since the 1960s.
Historical Dictionary of Brussels. Paul F. State.