Industrialization and emergence of the factory system triggered rural-to-urban migration and thus led to a rapid growth of cities, where during the Industrial Revolution workers faced the challenge of dire conditions and developed new ways of living.
Connect the development of factories to urbanization
- Industrialization led to the creation of the factory, and the factory system contributed to the growth of urban areas as large numbers of workers migrated into the cities in search of work in the factories. In England and Wales, the proportion of the population living in cities jumped from 17% in 1801 to 72% in 1891.
- In 1844, Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England, arguably the most important record of how workers lived during the early era of industrialization in British cities. He described backstreet sections of Manchester and other mill towns where people lived in crude shanties and overcrowded shacks, constantly exposed to contagious diseases. These conditions improved over the course of the 19th century.
- Before the Industrial Revolution, advances in agriculture or technology led to an increase in population, which again strained food and other resources, limiting increases in per capita income. This condition is called the Malthusian trap and according to some economists, it was overcome by the Industrial Revolution. Transportation advancements lowered transaction and food costs, improved distribution, and made more varied foods available in cities.
- The historical debate on the question of living conditions of factory workers has been very controversial. While some have pointed out that industrialization slowly improved the living standards of workers, others have concluded that living standards for the majority of the population did not grow meaningfully until much later.
- Not everyone lived in poor conditions and struggled with the challenges of rapid industrialization. The Industrial Revolution also created a middle class of industrialists and professionals who lived in much better conditions. In fact, one of the earlier definitions of the middle class equated the middle class to the original meaning of capitalist: someone with so much capital that they could rival nobles.
- During the Industrial Revolution, the family structure changed. Marriage shifted to a more sociable union between wife and husband in the laboring class. Women and men tended to marry someone from the same job, geographical location, or social group. Factories and mills also undermined the old patriarchal authority to a certain extent. Women working in factories faced many new challenges, including limited child-raising opportunities.
- Agricultural Revolution
- The unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain due to increases in labor and land productivity between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries. Agricultural output grew faster than the population over the century to 1770, and thereafter productivity remained among the highest in the world. This increase in the food supply contributed to the rapid growth of population in England and Wales.
- Malthusian trap
- The putative unsustainability of improvements in a society’s standard of living because of population growth. It is named for Thomas Robert Malthus, who suggested that while technological advances could increase a society’s supply of resources such as food and thereby improve the standard of living, the resource abundance would encourage population growth, which would eventually bring the per capita supply of resources back to its original level. Some economists contend that since the Industrial Revolution, mankind has broken out of the trap. Others argue that the continuation of extreme poverty indicates that the Malthusian trap continues to operate.
- A metropolis centered on cotton trading servicing the cotton mills in its hinterland. It was originally applied to Manchester, England, because of its status as the international center of the cotton and textile trade during the Industrial Revolution.
Factories and Urbanization
Industrialization led to the creation of the factory and the factory system contributed to the growth of urban areas as large numbers of workers migrated into the cities in search of work in the factories. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in Manchester, the world’s first industrial city, nicknamed Cottonopolis because of its mills and associated industries that made it the global center of the textile industry. Manchester experienced a six-times increase in its population between 1771 and 1831. It had a population of 10,000 in 1717, but by 1911 it had burgeoned to 2.3 million. Bradford grew by 50% every ten years between 1811 and 1851 and by 1851 only 50% of the population of Bradford was actually born there. In England and Wales, the proportion of the population living in cities jumped from 17% in 1801 to 72% in 1891.
Although initially inefficient, the arrival of steam power signified the beginning of the mechanization that would enhance the burgeoning textile industries in Manchester into the world’s first center of mass production. As textile manufacture switched from the home to factories, Manchester and towns in south and east Lancashire became the largest and most productive cotton spinning center in the world in 1871, with 32% of global cotton production.
Standards of LivingFriedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 is arguably the most important record of how workers lived during the early era of industrialization in British cities. Engels, who remains one of the most important philosophers of the 19th century but also came from a family of wealthy industrialists, described backstreet sections of Manchester and other mill towns where people lived in crude shanties and shacks, some not completely enclosed, some with dirt floors. These towns had narrow walkways between irregularly shaped lots and dwellings. There were no sanitary facilities. Population density was extremely high. Eight to ten unrelated mill workers often shared a room with no furniture and slept on a pile of straw or sawdust. Toilet facilities were shared if they existed. Disease spread through a contaminated water supply. New urbanites—especially small children—died due to diseases spreading because of the cramped living conditions. Tuberculosis, lung diseases from the mines, cholera from polluted water, and typhoid were all common.
Engels’ interpretation proved to be extremely influential with British historians of the Industrial Revolution. He focused on both the workers’ wages and their living conditions. He argued that the industrial workers had lower incomes than their pre-industrial peers and lived in more unhealthy environments. This proved to be a wide-ranging critique of industrialization and one that was echoed by many of the Marxist historians who studied the industrial revolution in the 20th century.
Conditions improved over the course of the 19th century due to new public health acts regulating things like sewage, hygiene, and home construction. In the introduction of his 1892 edition, Engels notes that most of the conditions he wrote about in 1844 had been greatly improved.
Chronic hunger and malnutrition were the norm for the majority of the population of the world, including Britain and France, until the late 19th century. Until about 1750, in part due to malnutrition, life expectancy in France was about 35 years, and only slightly higher in Britain. In Britain and the Netherlands, food supply had been increasing and prices falling before the Industrial Revolution due to better agricultural practices (Agricultural Revolution).
However, population grew as well. Before the Industrial Revolution, advances in agriculture or technology led to an increase in population, which again strained food and other resources, limiting increases in per capita income. This condition is called the Malthusian trap and according to some economists, it was overcome by the Industrial Revolution. Transportation improvements, such as canals and improved roads, also lowered food costs. The post-1830 rapid development of railway further reduced transaction costs, which in turn lowered the costs of goods, including food. The distribution and sale of perishable goods such as meat, milk, fish, and vegetables was transformed by the emergence of the railways, giving rise not only to cheaper produce in the shops but also to far greater variety in people’s diets.
The question of how living conditions changed in the newly industrialized urban environment has been very controversial. A series of 1950s essays by Henry Phelps Brown and Sheila V. Hopkins set the academic consensus that the bulk of the population at the bottom of the social ladder suffered severe reductions in their living standards. Conversely, economist Robert E. Lucas, Jr., argues that the real impact of the Industrial Revolution was that the standards of living of the poorest segments of the society gradually, if slowly, improved. Others, however, have noted that while growth of the economy’s overall productive powers was unprecedented during the Industrial Revolution, living standards for the majority of the population did not grow meaningfully until the late 19th and 20th centuries and that in many ways workers’ living standards declined under early capitalism. For instance, studies have shown that real wages in Britain increased only 15% between the 1780s and 1850s and that life expectancy in Britain did not begin to dramatically increase until the 1870s.
Not everyone lived in poor conditions and struggled with the challenges of rapid industrialization. The Industrial Revolution also created a middle class of industrialists and professionals who lived in much better conditions. In fact, one of the earlier definitions of the middle class equated it to the original meaning of capitalist: someone with so much capital that they could rival nobles. To be a capital-owning millionaire was an important criterion of the middle class during the Industrial Revolution although the period witnessed also a growth of a class of professionals (e.g., lawyers, doctors, small business owners) who did not share the fate of the early industrial working class and enjoyed a comfortable standard of living in growing cities.
Changes in Family Structure
In the laboring class at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, women traditionally married men of the same social status (e.g., a shoemaker’s daughter would marry a shoemaker’s son). Marriage outside this norm was not common. During the Industrial Revolution, marriage shifted from this tradition to a more sociable union between wife and husband in the laboring class. Women and men tended to marry someone from the same job, geographical location, or social group. Miners remained an exception to this trend and a coal miner’s daughter still tended to marry a coal miner’s son.
The rural pre-industrial work sphere was usually shaped by the father, who controlled the pace of work for his family. However, factories and mills undermined the old patriarchal authority to a certain extent. Factories put husbands, wives, and children under the same conditions and authority of the manufacturer masters. In the latter half of the Industrial Revolution, women who worked in factories or mills tended not to have children or had children that were old enough to take care of themselves, as life in the city made it impossible to take a child to work (unlike in the case of farm labor or cottage industry where women were more flexible to combine domestic and work spheres) and deprived women of a traditional network of support established in rural communities.
“The Condition of the Working Class in England.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Condition_of_the_Working_Class_in_England. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Industrial Revolution.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_Revolution. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“History of rail transport.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rail_transport. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“British Agricultural Revolution.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Agricultural_Revolution. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Life in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_in_Great_Britain_during_the_Industrial_Revolution. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“Cottonopolis1.jpg.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cottonopolis1.jpg. Wikimedia Commons Public domain.
“Die_Lage_der_arbeitenden_Klasse_in_England.png.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Die_Lage_der_arbeitenden_Klasse_in_England.png. Wikimedia Commons Public domain.