The Impact of Early Industrialization

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how industrialization led to the early organized labor movement

The Rise of Consumerism

At the end of the eighteenth century, most American families lived in candlelit homes with bare floors and unadorned walls, cooked and warmed themselves using open fireplaces, and owned few changes of clothing. Almost all goods were made by hand and, as a result, were sometimes scarce and fairly expensive.

The automation of the manufacturing process changed that, making consumer goods that had once been thought of as luxury items widely available for the first time. Now all but the very poor could afford the necessities and some of the small luxuries of life. Rooms were lit by oil lamps, which gave brighter light than candles. Homes were heated by parlor stoves, which allowed for more privacy; people no longer needed to huddle together around the hearth. Iron cookstoves with multiple burners made it possible to prepare more elaborate meals. Many people could afford carpets and upholstered furniture, and even farmers could decorate their homes with curtains and wallpaper. Clocks, which had once been quite expensive, were now within the reach of most ordinary people.

The Work Experience Transformed

As production became mechanized and relocated to factories, the experience of workers underwent significant changes. Previously, farmers and artisans had controlled the pace of their labor and the order in which things were done. If an artisan wanted to take the afternoon off, he could. If a farmer wished to rebuild his fence on Thursday instead of Wednesday, he could. Their workdays allowed for socialization and, sometimes, breaks for drinking. Indeed, journeymen were often promised alcohol as part of their wages. One member of the group might be asked to read a book or a newspaper aloud to the others. In the warm weather, doors and windows might be opened, and work stopped when it was too dark to see.

Work in factories proved to be quite different. Employees were expected to report at a certain time, usually early in the morning, and to work all day. They could not leave when they were tired or take breaks other than at designated times. Those who arrived late found their pay docked; five minutes’ tardiness could result in several hours’ worth of lost pay, and repeated tardiness could result in dismissal. The monotony of repetitive tasks made days particularly long. Hours varied according to the factory, but most factory employees toiled ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. In the winter, when the sun set early, oil lamps were used to light the factory floor, and employees strained their eyes to see their work and coughed as the rooms filled with smoke from the lamps. In the spring, as the days began to grow longer, factories held “blowing-out” celebrations to mark the extinguishing of the oil lamps. These “blow-outs” often featured music and dancing.

Freedom within factories was limited. Drinking was prohibited. Some factories did not allow employees to sit down. Doors and windows were kept closed, especially in textile factories where fibers could be easily disturbed by incoming breezes, and mills were often unbearably hot and humid in the summer. In the winter, workers often shivered in the cold. In such environments, workers’ health suffered and communicable diseases such as typhus and scarlet fever spread easily.

The workplace posed other dangers as well. The presence of cotton bales alongside the oil used to lubricate machines made fires a common problem in textile factories. Workplace injuries were also common. Workers’ hands and fingers were maimed or severed when they were caught in machines; in some cases, their limbs or entire bodies were crushed. Workers who didn’t die from such injuries almost certainly lost their jobs, and with them, their income. Corporal punishment of both children and adults was also common in factories. Where abuse was most extreme, children sometimes died as a result of injuries suffered at the hands of an overseer.

As the decades passed, working conditions deteriorated in many mills. Workers were assigned more machines to tend, and the owners increased the speed at which the machines operated. Wages were cut in many factories, and employees who had once labored for an hourly wage now found themselves reduced to piecework, paid for the amount they produced and not for the hours they toiled. Owners also reduced compensation for piecework. Low wages combined with regular periods of unemployment to make the lives of workers difficult, especially for those with families to support. In New York City in 1850, for example, the average male worker earned $300 a year; it cost approximately $600 a year to support a family of five.

Workers and the Labor Movement

Many workers undoubtedly enjoyed some of the new wage opportunities factory work presented. For many of the young New England women who ran the machines in Waltham, Lowell, and elsewhere, the experience of being away from the family was exhilarating and provided a sense of solidarity among them. Though most sent a large portion of their wages home, having even a small amount of money of their own was a liberating experience, and many used their earnings to purchase clothes, ribbons, and other consumer goods for themselves. Despite this, wage workers—a population disproportionately composed of immigrants and poorer Americans—faced low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. Class conflict developed. Instead of the formal inequality of a master-servant contract, employer and employee entered a contract presumably as equals, with employers providing a wage and employees providing valuable labor. However, hierarchy was evident: employers had financial security and political power; employees were replaceable due to the free-market labor system and high competition for jobs. Finding themselves dependent upon the whims of their employers and the often mercurial turns of the free market, some workers advocated for strikes and labor unions in order to leverage their labor and demand better conditions or higher wages.

The Rise of Labor Unions

The long hours, strict discipline, and low wages, however, soon led workers to protest their working conditions and pay by organizing. In 1821, the young women employed by the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham went on strike for two days when their wages were cut. In 1824, workers in Pawtucket struck to protest reduced pay rates and longer hours, the latter of which had been achieved by cutting back the amount of time allowed for meals. In 1825 a group of journeymen in Boston formed a Carpenters’ Union to protest their inability “to maintain a family at the present time, with the wages which are now usually given.” Similar strikes occurred at Lowell and in other mill towns like Dover, New Hampshire, where the women employed by the Cocheco Manufacturing Company ceased working in December 1828 after their wages were reduced. In the 1830s, female mill operatives in Lowell formed the Lowell Factory Girls Association to organize strike activities in the face of wage cuts and, later, established the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to protest the twelve-hour workday. Even though strikes were rarely successful and workers usually were forced to accept reduced wages and increased hours, work stoppages as a form of labor protest represented the beginnings of the organized labor movement in the United States.

Tintype photograph (a) shows two young women wearing work smocks standing side by side. Image (b) is a document titled “Constitution of the Lowell Factory Girls Association.”

Figure 1. New England mill workers were often young women, as seen in this early tintype made ca. 1870 (a). When management proposed rent increases for those living in company boarding houses, female textile workers in Lowell responded by forming the Lowell Factory Girls Association—its constitution is shown in image (b)—in 1836 and organizing a “turn-out” or strike.

Critics of industrialization blamed its unchecked growth for the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few citizens. The factory owners made vast profits while the workers received only a small fraction of the revenue from what they produced. Critics maintained that, under the labor theory of value, the value of a product should accurately reflect the “socially necessary labor” needed to produce it. Profits from the sale of goods produced by workers should be distributed so laborers recovered, in the form of wages, the value their effort had added to the finished product. While factory owners, who contributed the workspace, the machinery, and the raw materials needed to create a product, should receive a share of the profits, their share should not be greater than the value of their contribution. Thus, according to the labor theory of value, workers should receive a much larger portion of the profits, and factory owners should receive less.

Link to Learning

Visit the Marxist Internet Archive to read more about the labor theory of value and other writings which influenced the 20th century American organized labor movement.

Union Activism

In Philadelphia, New York, and Boston—all cities that experienced dizzying industrial growth during the nineteenth century—workers united to form political parties. Thomas Skidmore, from Connecticut, was the outspoken organizer of the Working Men’s Party, which launched a radical protest against industrial worker exploitation and was a forerunner to Marxism in Europe. Skidmore took his cue from the more radical ideas of the French Revolution (1789-1794) to challenge the growing inequity in the United States. He argued that inequality originated in the unequal distribution of property through inheritance laws. In his 1829 treatise, The Rights of Man to Property, Skidmore called for the abolition of inheritance and the redistribution of property. The Working Men’s Party also advocated the end of debtors’ prisons, a common practice whereby a person who could not pay their debts was imprisoned and his tools and property, if he had any, were confiscated. Skidmore’s vision of equality extended to all women and men, no matter their race. He believed everyone should be allowed to vote and receive property. Skidmore died in 1832 when a cholera epidemic swept New York City, but the state of New York did away with debtors’ prisons the same year.

Worker activism became less common in the late 1840s and 1850s. As German and Irish immigrants poured into the United States in the decades preceding the Civil War, native-born laborers found themselves competing for jobs with new arrivals who were willing to work longer hours for less pay. In Lowell, Massachusetts, for example, the daughters of New England farmers encountered competition from the daughters of Irish farmers escaping the effects of the potato famine back home. These immigrant women were willing to work for far less and endure worse conditions than native-born women because the alternatives in their home country were far worse. Many of these native-born “daughters of freemen,” as they referred to themselves, left the factories and returned to their families. Not all wage workers had this luxury, however. Widows with children to support and girls from destitute families had no choice but to stay and accept the faster pace and lower pay. Male German and Irish immigrants competed with native-born American men. Germans, many of whom were skilled workers, took jobs in furniture making. The Irish provided a ready source of unskilled labor needed to lay railroad tracks and dig canals. American men with families to support grudgingly accepted lower wages in order to keep their jobs. As work became increasingly deskilled, all workers were replaceable, and no one’s job was safe.

For the middle-class managers and civic leaders caught between workers and owners, labor unions enflamed a dangerous antagonism between employers and employees. They countered any claims of class discrimination or poor treatment of workers with the ideology of social mobility. Middle-class factory owners and managers justified their economic privilege as the natural product of superior character traits, including their wise decision-making, diligence, and inherent morality. There were no separate classes of capitalists and laborers in America, they argued. There was simply a steady ladder carrying laborers upward into management and ownership.

One group of master carpenters denounced their striking journeyman in 1825 with the claim that workers of “industrious and temperate habits, have, in their turn, become thriving and respectable Masters, and the great body of our Mechanics have been enabled to acquire property and respectability, with a just weight and influence in society.” In an 1856 speech in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Abraham Lincoln had to assure his audience that the country’s commercial transformation had not reduced American laborers to slavery. Southerners, he said, “insist that their slaves are far better off than Northern freemen. What a mistaken view do these men have of Northern laborers! They think that men are always to remain laborers here – but there is no such class. The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself. And next year he will hire others to labor for him.” It was this essential belief that undergirded the Northern commitment to “free-market labor” and won widespread acceptance for the industrial-capitalist market revolution of the 19th century.

Watch it

This CrashCourse video summarizes the market revolution and changing economic world in the early 1800s. It revolutionized the way Americans thought about employment, social classes, the roles of women, slavery, and labor rights.

You can view the transcript for “The Market Revolution: Crash Course US History #12” here (opens in new window).

Review Question

What effect did industrialization have on consumers?

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debtors’ prisons: institutions specifically for individuals who could not pay off their debt and defaulted on loans or mortgages. Inmates in these prisons worked to pay off their debt, but also to pay the costs of their own incarceration.

labor theory of value: an economic theory holding that profits from the sale of the goods produced by workers should be equitably distributed to those workers

labor unions: early on, these were simply an agreement between workers to strike or “turn-out” simultaneously in order to shut down production and force their employer to capitulate to their demands. Later into the 19th and 20th centuries, labor unions became formal organizations with member dues and bylaws.

social mobility: a distinctly American theory which posits that any poor or working-class person can move up the economic ladder and gain financial stability if they only work hard enough and maintain a sober, frugal lifestyle. The theory of social mobility conveniently ignores concepts such as the cycle of poverty, which keeps certain people trapped at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder for generations at a time.

Working Men’s Party: a political group that radically opposed what they viewed as the exploitation of workers