Just as a political revolution is a vast upheaval that transforms society beyond politics, so too the Industrial Revolution extended far beyond economics. The term "Industrial Revolution" was coined in the 1820s and 1830s to describe the monumental changes taking place throughout Europe, comparable to those wrought by the French Revolution. Contemporary responses to the Industrial Revolution varied considerably. Some observers were optimistic, impressed by the new means of production, which dramatically increased mankind's wealth and power over nature. Others were not so positive, concerned that the social and environmental effects of industrialization might prove disastrous. However much its legacy is debated, the Industrial Revolution marks a clear line between traditional society and a recognizably modern world.

Observers react to two overlapping processes: industrialization and a rapid rise of European population (begun before industrialization and bringing extensive distress and upheaval in its own right). European population rose from 140 million in 1750 to about 265 million in 1850. The introduction of the potato in Ireland, Germany, and elsewhere allowed more food per acre. Household textile production and the income it brought also allowed young people, at first, to form their own households earlier in life; rates of illegitimacy, children born outside marriage, rose as well. First children were born at an earlier age from the late-18th century on; over several generations the cumulative contribution to population growth was considerable. Medical advances, such as the control of smallpox, assisted in increasing life expectancy though its role in the acceleration of family formation and rising birth rates is debatable. From 1800 to 1850 population went from 11 to 22 million in Great Britain, from 5 to 8.5 million in Ireland (until famine struck in the mid 1840s), and from 39 to 60 million in European Russia, the largest of the countries. Against this general trend, the French population was among the slowest growing of Europe, rising from about 26 million during the revolution to almost 30 million by 1815 and 35 million by mid-century.

The relationship of the rise in population to the Industrial Revolution is ambiguous; the growing population in the countryside certainly created the oft-impoverished labor supply for the new factory cities. But, as apologists for the brutal conditions in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution point out, without industrialization there probably still would have been misery arising from over-population - Ireland, with its doubling of size and absence of industry, has been compared to India - and only a transformation of technology and production could absorb the new generations. In turn these transformations of technique with the capacity to create wealth by providing cheap textiles, new machines, and modes of transport revolutionized traditional human relationships.

The application of new energy sources - coal in particular - to machine-based production brought about far-reaching social changes. Perhaps the most obvious transformation was urbanization - the growth of cities - that was itself spurred by the rise of factory production. The 19th century witnessed a huge exodus of labor from the country to the city. For instance, only 15% of the English population lived in cities in 1750; by 1880, this number had skyrocketed to 80%. This pattern was evident in both Europe and America. Let's look at the population of a few cities from 1800 to 1910:










New York



At first, political institutions and social structures (not to mention basic infrastructure) could not keep up with this massive influx into urban centers. In these new industrial metropolises, the burgeoning proletariat or working class often struggled just to survive.

Impact On The Household

One of most dramatic (and disruptive) aspects of this new system of production was the disappearance of the traditional household, in which work and family life were intertwined.

The industrial factory was separate and often distant from the home.

The machinery and new sources of power required large concentrations of labor within factories.

Factory production created working and living conditions that were much worse than what had been the norm in rural life. Early factories and mines were crowded, dirty, and dangerous. The usual workday was twelve to fifteen hours long.

Workers' families were crowded together in dark, damp quarters.

Factory discipline could be severe - workers were often expected to pay for broken equipment out of their own wages. Harsh conditions were only natural considering the increasingly dehumanized industrial vision of the proletariat. The famed English manufacturer Josiah Wedgewood notoriously proclaimed his desire to make perfect machines out of his workers. Due to the great reserves of labor (thanks to rising populations and a shortage of land and jobs in the countryside), and in the absence of workers' unions, employers could get away with paying their workers minimal salaries, barely enough to support a family.(In what ways did factory labor disrupt traditional social organization? What were its costs? What were its benefits?)

The cities of Europe were not prepared for the population boom of the 19th century: streets were narrow and poorly lit, if at all; clean water was limited; and sanitation, or the lack thereof, was sickening (open cesspools might be emptied only a few times a year). In due course, epidemics ravaged Europe's cities; in some cities only the continuing migration from the countryside counterbalanced the unhealthy conditions within. Cholera, a new disease from Asia that involved massive diarrhea and fatal dehydration within a few days of onset, was a particularly deadly visitor in the 19th century (a million Russians died in the cholera epidemic of 1847-1851). Under these miserable conditions, social ills such as crime, prostitution, and drunkenness exploded. Cities not only lacked street lighting, sewer systems, paved streets, and adequate fire protection, but few had enough police forces to cope with the flood of new inhabitants. The living conditions of the working class began to improve noticeably after 1850, but for many decades, the Industrial Revolution brought little but misery to the ever-expanding urban working class.

New methods of production especially affected those who still relied on traditional techniques. Although the new, crowded conditions of the factories, industrial cities, and coalmines captured public attention, workers in pre-industrial occupations - such as spinners or handloom weavers working out of their homes - often suffered far more, even if their plight remained less visible. England's handloom weavers, for example, were once a reasonably well-off group of workers; however, they became desperately impoverished after the 1820s as more efficient factory weaving produced far more cloth in far less time.

The largest number of workers was still employed in the countryside, even in industrializing Britain. The widespread enclosure of common land in the late-18th century had deprived many independent but poor farmers of the gardens, wood, and grazing rights they had enjoyed and compelled them to sell their own inadequate, small lots and become hired laborers for wealthier farmers. Even if their standard of living remained roughly the same, they often felt the loss of independence. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the resumption of grain imports from the European continent into Britain, their income fell sharply as grain prices and wages collapsed. Many were released from their jobs and joined the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Some sought to organize early labor organizations but the Tory governments severely persecuted these efforts and their protests.


In the early-19thcentury, a movement of machine smashing known as Luddism broke out in various parts of England, protesting the introduction of early agricultural machines that they felt were displacing workers. Economists argued that the machinery would make agriculture more productive and ultimately lead to a higher demand for labor in the countryside, but the distressed workers saw only that their precarious jobs were at stake. The name Luddism or the term Luddite came from a supposed "King Ludd" who signed threatening notes found at the site of destroyed barns or machines. "Luddite" has remained a term for someone who opposes the introduction of advanced production techniques lest they cost workers traditional employment. While such new techniques usually create new jobs, they generally, in the short run, undercut the positions and wages of those employed at the work that is being changed. "Technological unemployment" has recurred over the history of the industrial era, but its magnitude and seriousness continues to be a subject of controversy. Those who benefit argue society must progress; those most directly impacted emphasize the short-term job loss. Contemporary industrial policy emphasizes an effort to retrain workers for new jobs, but even today its efficacy is partial. In the early nineteenth century it did not really exist; workers learned on the job. (Is opposition to technological advance a feature of politics today?)

The distress and suffering of the early industrial era did not go completely unnoticed. Around 1840, the first analyses of the social effects of industrialization began to appear. In 1844, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), future collaborator of Karl Marx (1818-1883), published The Condition of the Working Class in England, an influential and devastating critique of the effects of industrialization on the proletariat of Manchester, England. "The very turmoil of the streets," he wrote, "has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels." In France, the author Villermé investigated the impact of industrialization, as did official and unofficial investigators in other countries. These investigations led to the emergence of "The Social Question," which weighed the advancements of technology against the cost to standards of living and human dignity. In response to "The Social Question," authorities and individuals undertook a number of reform efforts.

Early Reforms

The most immediate problem at hand was that of poverty and unemployment. An early effort to cope with growing pauperization was the so-called Speenhamland, or "outdoor" system, of poor relief in which each parish in a community was responsible for guaranteeing a minimum wage to the local laborers. Speenhamland referred to the town where the landowners who served as local justices of the peace gathered in 1795 to discuss the growing distress caused by the rapidly rising price of grain, itself a result of the war with revolutionary France that disrupted imports from the European continent. The "JP's" decided to subsidize a minimal wage for laborers, paid out of local taxes so that landlords might have to pay higher taxes but did not have to pay higher wages. They would supposedly have no incentive to fire or evict their laborers; on the other hand, there was no incentive to restrain the rising prices of wheat and food. Speenhamland was termed "outdoor relief" because workers remained in their families and at work; they did not have to enter the poorhouses. Although the Speenhamland arrangements never became so widespread as reputed, it was seen as characterizing all the ills of the system as a whole - somewhat as the early 1990s' conspicuous abuses of food stamp programs or aid to dependent children were taken to be characteristic of welfare in general. By the 1830s the system was roundly condemned; meanwhile, bread prices had dropped, landlords wanted to reduce the number of workers, and laborers realized that, in the long run, the system held their wages down by keeping too many workers on the land.

In response to these protests, the British government reformed the system of poverty relief with the introduction of the New Poor Law of 1834, which made a distinction between the indolent and the "deserving poor" (those who could not work because of age or infirmity). The New Poor Law centralized the administration of relief rather than leave it in local hands; rather than pay outdoor relief, the New Poor Law forced the "deserving poor" into workhouses, domiciles in which men and women were separated and barely received enough to survive. This form of "indoor" relief was designed to make public welfare as unappealing as possible (the so-called "Principle of Less Eligibility"), intending to push those considered just plain lazy to find work instead. Poverty was envisaged as a moral lapse to be stigmatized in contrast to Speenhamland where poverty was often understood to lie outside the control of individuals or families. In fact, the New Poor Law tended to consign mostly the aged and infirm or those with children into workhouses (soon nicknamed "Bastilles") where sometimes appalling conditions led to public scandals. In fact, within several years recourse to the workhouse remained rather rare and patchwork remedies prevailed. The successive British efforts to deal with poverty reveal dilemmas that still make this problem difficult. The 1834 legislation had some analogue with the transition to "workfare" that the Clinton Administration introduced, but "workfare" was introduced at a time when prosperity and a vigorous economy allowed Americans to find jobs. The New Poor Law came into effect during a period when recent industrialization, with its boom-bust cycles and the generally depressed conditions of the 1830s and early 1840s, meant many families were without work and destitute through no fault of their own. Societies find it difficult to create incentives for work by making welfare less pleasant than labor and, simultaneously, to remove the moral stigma of poverty. (How does the New Poor Law of 1834 compare with contemporary welfare legislation?)

Reform also became increasingly necessary in the workplace. Many factories had come to rely very heavily on the labor of women and children. Industrialists reasoned that the small size of children made them useful for certain types of work; but more likely than not, manufacturers were happy to employ laborers to whom they could pay lower wages. The conditions in mines seemed especially horrible; parliamentary investigations of abuses found cases of young children and women being forced to drag carts of coal through narrow passages. Victorian legislators worried about the possibilities for sexual abuse; eventually, the conditions of child labor were investigated. In England, a parliamentary coalition of reform-minded liberals and so-called Tory radicals who wanted to curb the power of the new industrial middle class passed the Factory Act of 1833 which prohibited the employment of children under nine years of age and provided for inspectors to enforce the legislation. The next fifteen years witnessed other legislation forbidding the employment of women and girls in mines and limiting female and child laborers to ten hours of work per day (though still six days per week).

French and German legislators emulated some mine and factory legislation; continental poor relief, however, remained reliant on traditional church organizations and extended families. But while such kinship or local networks might suffice to support those without work in generally good times, when the business cycle turned down the scale of distress overwhelmed such traditional recourses. The problem of poverty, it should be emphasized, was not just a problem of the industrial proletariat, although the new crowded conditions of the factories, industrial cities, and coalmines captured public attention. Textiles in northern France, Flanders, and areas of northern Germany were still produced in "proto-industrial" settings in individual homes under the "putting out" system. However, these workers who received their fibers or threads each week from a "factor" or contractor were less efficient than workers in the new factory, their goods remained higher in price, and soon they were losing work to the factory towns, remaining trapped in eking out miserable wages. When times turned bad, as in the 1840s, they were as impoverished as the factory unemployed; sporadic uprising as among the Silesian workers testified to their desperation.

As the plight of the poor, whether laborers forced off the land or the new industrial proletariat, became an increasingly urgent problem in England, a slew of political writers came forth suggesting various remedies. The reformists included Tory Radicals such as the journalist William Cobbett, who called on Parliament to alleviate social ills, and Lord Shaftesbury, an Evangelical who introduced the idea of legal restrictions on work hours and factory conditions. British essayist and novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870) served up indirect but scathing critiques of the urban condition, highlighting the lives and living conditions of London's poor in novels such as Bleak House and Hard Times. Many agreed that the living conditions of the poorer classes were abominable. The question was what to do about it; some called for new social reform, while others looked backward to older forms of paternalism.