*** war and social upheaval: industrial revolution

War and Social Upheaval: Industrial Revolution (1740/60-1830)

English child labor
Figure 1.--This is a 19th century image commonly used to illustrate school text books. We are not sure yet who the illustrator was. It highlights the poverty of the new industrial workers, including the use of child and women workers which was aart of the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand its gives the mistaken impression that the Industrial Revolution created poverty. In fact it created wealth and while the wealth created was poorly ditrubuted, it did not all go into the hands of rich factory owners. The Industrial Revolution was what massively expanded the middle class and made the West the wealthiest region of the world. Socialist influenced commentators use images like list to criticize capitalism, but fail to confront the fact that socialism destroys wealth as can be seen in the poverty of modern socialist states. Click on the image for a fuller discussion.

No development in modern history has affected individuals more than the Industrial Revolution. And the manufacture of textiles , especially cotton textiles, played a key role in the Industrial Revolution. Historians debate just where and when the Industrial Revolution began. We would set it at about the mid-18th century in the English Midlands. Some authors might take issue with this, but this would be the most widely accepted view. The first industry affected was the textile or clothing industry--one reason that the study of the clothing indusytry is so important. Cotton was at first first spun by machinery in England (1730). And as a result, workers instead of weaving piece work at home, began to work in factories where machinery could be installed. And cotton was especially important. Only so much wool could be produced. Cotton could be produced in greater quantities and at lower cost than wool. Here cotton manufacture became especially important and it was the first industry to be fully mechanized. [Ashworth, pp. 7-8.] Several inventions at this time were responsible, including the spinning jenny, flying shuttle, and a water-powered loom. This was soon followed by the key invention of our time which served as a catalyst for industrial expansion--the steam engine. John Newcomen and James Watt developed the steam engine. Watt between 1769-84 developed an efficient engine. The abundant supplies of coal in Britian combined with the technological advances by British inventors in part explain why Britain led the way in European industrial expansion. The significance was that the steam engine was an efficent source of energy that could be put to work in virtually every industry and because inexpensive energy was available, helped develop new industies. The railroad was essenially a steam engine on wheels. The railroad in turn revolutionalized the world economy. Many bulk goods like grain could not be sold at any significant distance from where it was grown or produced. The railroad allowed bulk goods to be transportd at great distance for limited costs, including ports where goods could be conducted aound the world. At at those ports awaited steam-powered boats, floating steam engines, to effiently move cargos at low cost around the world, including India which before the industrial Revolution wa produicung cloth at lower cost than England. The spread of the Industrail Revolution to the Continent generally followed the same pattern as in Britain with the mechanization and inroduction of the factory system first in cotton mills. [Ashworth, p. 12.]


The phrrase "The Industrial Revolution" was poularized in the 19th century bt British economist Arnold Toynbee. In addition to the actual tevhnical developments, the phrase includes the broad economic and social consequences which occurred as a result of the technical inovations.


Textiles were a much more important poart of the world economy than is is the case today. And they represented a much larger part of family expenses than is the case of modern families. And it must be remerbed than until the Industrial Recolution, the income of mist families was very low, in large part bcause the productivity of workers as a fraction of that of modern workers, except workers in countries that do not have modern capitalist economies. Intgerestingly as with the Industrial Revolution, England was a very important part of the medieval European economy--the English wool trade was vital. But the European population was growing, in large part posdsible because of the introduction of the Peruvian potato by the Spanish (16th century). This substantilly increased the food productive capacity of European agriculture leading to rising populations. A problem for Europe was that not only was there a finite limit on wool production, the orimary material used to oproduce clothing, but wool was expensive to produce. (Just compare the price of a cotton to that of a wool garment.) The answer was that a new raw material was needed that could be produced cheaply and in massive quantities. That material would be cotton. Cotton was not restricted by the limits on sheep production in Europe. In fact a shole new continunent was oopening up. Vast areas of virgin land, especially in the American souheast could be converted to farm land--cotton plantations. And the amount of cotton that could be produced on a acre of land far exceeded the quantity of wool from sheep ranching. There was, however, another problem. India could produce cotton textiles cheaper than Europe. As a result, a step into the unknown was requited. And that step woul be the Industrial Revolution. Eventually many other industries would be mechanuzed and new industries created, but that first vital step was textiles. And cotton would be at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.


Historians debate just where and when the Industrail Revolution began. We would set it at about the mid-18th century in the English Midlands. The actual historical process varies from country to country. Cotton was at first first spun by machinery in England (1730). And it did not take long for the mechanization process to take off. The Industrail Revolution in Britain is usually dated at about 1740/60-1830. The dates would be generally later as one looked south and east in Europe. Some authors might take issue with this, but this would be the most widely accepted view. Western Europe at the beginning of the 18th century was still essentially at the handicraft stage of economic production. British textile mills created an exponential increase in the production of textils and the damand for cotton. The transition to other products was much more rapod as tghe Brirish had already developed the needed machnery abnd a host of scientific diuscovery had opened the advent of our modern era. The American and German Industrial Revolutions are often ascribed to the mid- to late-19th century, but both began as in England with textile mills

Historical Forces

Several historical and cultural influences accont for the Industrail Revolution. The opening of the Middle East to Europe during the Crusades began a flow of new ideas and stimulated commerce in Medieval Europe. The discovery of the New World and forging of trade routes to China, largely by Spain and Portugal further stimulated commerce as well as giving rise to increased speculative thought. The Renaisanve which first appeared in Itlay fundamentally changed the Medieval mind giving rise to a spirit of inquiry. This spirit was best symbolized by Galileo who rejected recognized authorities and turned to experimentaion and observation. This new outlook would lead to the critical scientific discoveries launching the Industrial Revolution. One who have thought that given the role of the Italian states, Portugal, and Spain in these processes that they would have lead the European Industrial Revolution. In fact, the Cathplic south were some of the last areas of Western Europe to begin the Industrial Revolution. Instead it was led by a small kingdom on the perifery of northern Europe--Britain.

Country Trends

Britain led the way into the Industrial Revolution. One historian writes, "Great Britain was the pioneer and a portent for the world's future economic organization." [Ashworth, p. 7.] One of the great questions in history and economics, but rarely asked in our modern politiclly corect world, is why this first occurred in Britain and not other richer countries like France or China. It is no accident that the Industrial Revolution was first centered in Britain a variety of factors coallesed that brought this about. A primary factor was that Britain was at the center of scientific debate and experimentation. One factor here was that like the rest of the Protestant north of Europe was that Britain was free of the Holy Office of the Inquisition which as the result of the suppression of Galieo (1564-1642) and other inquisitive minds discouraged or prevented scientific thought to varying degrees in Italy, Spain, and other countries of the Catholic South. The Inquisition not only curtailed scientific thought, but because it also attacked usury, also curtailed economic sevelopment. A year after Gaileo's death, Sir Issac Newton (1643-1727) was born in Engkland. His work meant that by the beginning of the 18th century that English and other scientists and tinkerers had through the Newtonian system a more sophisticated understanding of the fundamental laws of physics than ever before. Another factor in Britain's emergence as the center of the Industrial Revolution was English law. The limitations on absolutist, often aribitary rule. This promoted the interests of the middleclass and yeoman farmers, creating an interest and rewarding those able to put the increasingly important scientific discoveries to practical purpose. While more attention is given to the technolgical developments, underlying English law protecting property rights are a key factor in the economic utilization of the technical inovations. The abundant supplies of coal in Britian combined with the technological advances by British inventors were key elements explaining why Britain led the way in European industrial expansion. The Royal Navy and the acquiisition of colonies, especially India, helped create markets for Britain's expanding production. Other countries followed Britain in the 19th century. The process varied from country to country. The United States benefitted greatly by its linguistic and cultural ties even after separting politically as a result of the Revolutionary War (1776-83). Belgium was the first Continental country to experience the Industrial Revolution. Gradually similar developments spread to the Netherlanmds, Switzerland, France, Austriam, and the German states. The industrial revolution in Germany had iys own unique characteristics.


It was the mechanization of the textile industry beginning in the 18th century that launched the industrial revolution. Here essentially the mrchanization involved was converting the humble spinning wheel to mass production. Inventions during the late 18th century were especially important in making the mass mechanical production of textiles possible. The three most important occurred within a 15 year period during the 1760s and 70s at the very time quite independently the American Revolution occurred. Hargrave's spining jenny (1764) permitted numerous threads to be spun at once. Arkwright's throstle machine (1769) used rollers to streach out rovings until the desired tenuity of the thread was achieved. Crompton's mule spinner (1779) set the spindles in a moveable frame, this reduce the strain on the thread caused by the rollers and enabled finer threads to be spun. The industrial revolution powered by the steam engine soon expanded into other areas, but it was the manufacture of textiles that launched it. Other important innovations were the flying shuttle and a water-powered loom. These inovations along with refinments and an unending host of minor and major inventions followed. These technical innovations were soon followed by comparpable developments in other industries. One historain writing about the 19th century argues that technological change was the fundamental factor explaining the industrial revolution. [Ashworth, p. 4.] HBC would not dispute that these technological advances were essential. We would argue, however, that a political and social system which promoted and rewarded inquisative minds were a critical factor in the inventive process.

Labor Inputs

Most discussions of the Industrial Revolution stress the many technical innovations which made the Industrial Revolution possible. Often mentioned along with Industrial Revolution is urban poverty as a result of industrial development. Actually cheap labor was a key element in making the Industrial Revolution possible. As already mentioned, it was the improvement in the manufacture of cotton goods that was the first step in the Industrial Revolution. Here two labor groups should not be overlooked. The first was the availability of extremely cheap English child labor who workedin the cotton mills. This is one of many examples of instances where children played a major, but unappreciated role in history. These children not infrequently labored under slave conditions with virtually no legal protection. The second was American slave labor which helped grow and harvest cotton at low cost. [Wilson, p. 250.]

The Luddites (1811)

Any powerful social movement, almost ievbtiablly, will generate opposition. The most famous incident associated with the Industrail Revolution was attacks in textile mills in the English Midlands. This occurred because the industrial revolution initially involved innovations in the production of textiles. Many of those innivations involved replacing mannual labor with mechancial processes, leaving many workers without a livlihood. The attacks were carried out by masked men led by King Ludd ans thus were called Luddites. The men destroyed the mechical looms in textile mills that were making them reduandant. The Luddites are normally expalined in a fcoitnote as a brief spasm of mindless violence against the efficent machines that were transforming Europe. In fact, that is aunfair characterization. Ludd and his colleagues were concerned abour their wages which were being lowered. They tried to get Parliament to enact a minimum wage. Only when that fauked did they attack the mills and primarily the mills whose owners had most aggressively reduced wages. They did not destroy the looms because they were resisting origress, bur rather to orotect their jobs agains a technology that not only replaced workers, but produced inferior good. There whole way of lfe was threatened. [Fox]

The Factory System

The central core of the Industrail Revolution was the rise of the Factory System. Here workers were brought together rather tahan working at home. At the factories they worked on expensive labor saving devices that were constantly being improved and that were first powered by water and later steam. Production also benefited by a division of labor. The first such factories in the 18th century were almost all textile factoriers.

English canal workers
Figure 2.--An English reader photographed this sculpture to honor canal people. He writes, "It reminded me about children who lived on canal barges and travelled along them with their parents." Image courtey of William Fersusson.


Transportation was a major constraint on commerce before the 19th century. Since the decline of the Roman Empire in Europe, there were no roads which could economically support commerce. As a result, only especially valuable product could be transported overland. As a result, the principal mode of transport became boats, both maritime transport by sea or riverine transport. The lives of great nations thus became associated with rivers: Austria (Danube), England (thames), France (Seine), Germany (Rhein), Russia (Dneiper, Don, and Volga). America of course was also built around great rivers (the Hudson, Ohio, and Mississippi). Major changes in transportation began to occur in the 18th century. Expanding economies created the need for improved methods of transporting goods. This meant the development of new technologies and massive investment in national infrastructure. The changes in the 18th century involved improving roads and canals. Railways appeared in the early 19th century. These improvements in transport had pervasive impacts upon economic life. The roads and canals shortened travel times and more importantlly the cost of transporting goods over longer distances. This helped the developing early European industrialists to create new markets in areas that the cost of transportation had made impossible to reach. These improvements created new markets for both raw materials and manufctured products. Lowering production costs enabled manufacturers to lower prices which also opened new markets.


Interestingly one of the early form of improved roads, cord roads was adopted to name a new fabric--corduroy.


As European economies developed, the existing rivers proved in adequate to the needs of commerce. Canals were buolt in England, France, and elsewhere in Europe. The canals played a major role in the early phase of the industrial revolution in Europe. Extensive canal construction began in England during the mid-18th century. The Duke Bridgewater at age 22 began the constructiin of canals hen he deciuded to connect his coalmines with cotton mills in Manchester 6 miles distant. The canal eventually extended 46 miles. The cost was enormous and the Duke had to sell his estates and borrow momey. He engaged a millwright, James Brindley, to construct his canal. Brindley had no formal education, but was inventive. He reportedly modeled his aqueducts in cheese. His designs set the standard for canals in the English midlands. The Duke's canal accomodated wide river barges. Brindley worked on many other canals, designinging them more narrow to sav money in construction. Narrow canal barges wer bilt which required little water in relation to carrying capacity. Bridgewater finally opened his canal in 1761, making him a fortune and helping to inspire canal building projects throughout the Midlands. Joseph Wedgewood and other 18th century industrialists were impressed. The economic advantages were starteling. Coal delivered by land had cost 65 pence a ton, delivered by canal it only coist 35 pence. Wedgewood proceeded to organize a group of potters to finance a canal to connect their factories with Liverpool wearhouses. Wedgewood and other English potters had a large domestic market, but faced severe difficulties in shipping raw marials to their factories and the finished product to markets. [Hornik, pp. 53-54.] An extensive canal system was never built in America, but some canals were built in the early 19th century. The Eire Canal in particular played a major role in the economy of the northeast and the opening of the West.


Railways appeared in the early-19th century and were a major factor in the economy by the mid-19th century. The new railroads which rapidly spread across Europe and America helped spread the new iundustrial economy. Railways pre-dated the steam engine. By the mid-18th century the plate or rail track were being used to move coal from the pithead to the colliery or furnace, especially in England. The coal was powered by ponies or people. After the turn of the 19th century, flat were being used outside London, Sheffield, and Munich. Soon they spread to other large cities as well. Europe's rapidly expanding industrial economy created a need for improved and more efficient transport. Richard Trevithick first employed an engine to pull trucks--at a Cornish mine. A railway was opened in the 1830s from Liverpool to Manchester. It was here that George Stephenson employed "Rocket" to pull a train of cars reaching 14 miles per hour. The histoy of railroads varied from country to country. England was the first country to be heavily covered by railroads in part because England led Europe in the industrial revolution. England experienced a railroad building boom in the 1840s. Railroads faced many difficulties, including vested interests. Canal operators, turnpike trusts, and horse breeders opposed the railroad, but the effiency of moving goods over rails made the railroads impossible to resist. Falling prices for iron and improvements in machine tools were other factors. England by the 185os possessed an extensive network of railways. Trains were transporting both people and goods 30-50 miles per hour--speeds unimagineable even a decade earlier. It was freight that became the minstay of the railroads. The British Government in the 1850s intervened to regulate the railroads, creating monopolies to prevent caotic bulding, but limiting prices. Even so, by World War I (1914-18) British railroads had developed problems--overcapitalization, rising costs, and state regulation. British railroad construction was soon followed by construction on the continenbt, in many cases financed by Britsh investors. British equipment and technicians also played an important role. France in the 1840s built a railway system combining private and public enterprise. German railway construction was complicated by the many different states. Army commanders by the 1860s saw the military potential of railways. Railways played an important role in the America Civil War (1861-65) and Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Railways were especially impotant in linking large countries like America, Canada, and Russia.


When the Industrial Revolution began, shipping was done by sail power. Early in the 19th century steam power was harnassed to drive ships. First by paddle wheel. This greated increased the speed and reliability of ocean shipping. It also before the railrosds had fully developed inproved the use of river transportation. Sails could not be effectively used on rivers. Barges could be used gong down stream, but going upstream was a problem. This was one of the advantages of canals, they could be easily navigated in both directions. The steam engine ushered in the fabulous Missisippi River boats in the United States. A young Sammuel Clements worked on one and got his pen name from the experience--Mark Twain. The screw propellars further improved ocean shipping and combined with the railroads put the riverboat out of businesss. Ocean travel became faster, cheaper, and safer. Important steamship lines played a major role in workd commerce. A HBC reader has provided us an account of one English boy, Jack Odell, during 1912 on an ocean liner--a very famous one. We also have an account of a an American child prodigy, Grisha Goluboff, who traveled on ocean liners in the 1930s.

Steam Engines

Technical improvements in the manufacture of textiles was soon followed by the key invention of our time which served as a catalyst for industrial expansion--the steam engine. Until the steam industry, labor saving machinery was basically limited to areas where cheap energy was available, primarily next to swift flowing rivers. John Newcomen and James Watt developed the steam engine. Watt between 1769-84 developed an efficient engine. The significance was that the steam engine was an efficent source of energy that could be put to work anywhere that inexpensive energy sources were available. Steammengines were harnassed by the textile industry, but gradually adapred to drive many other key industries. The economies and efficencies of steam power helped to launch whole new industries. Steam powe not only reduced manufacturing costs, but also transportation costs--a key component to large scalr manufacturing. The railroad was essenially a steam engine on wheels. The railroad in turn revolutionalized the world economy. Many bulk goods like grain could not be sold at any significant distance from where it was grown or produced. The railroad allowed bulk goods to be transportd at great distance for limited costs, including ports where goods could be conducted aound the world. At at those ports awaited steam-powered boats, floating steam engines, to efficiently move cargos at low cost around the world.


The first industry affected by the technological advances of the 18th centurt was the textile or clothing industry--one reason that the study of the clothing industry is so important. It was at this time that workers instead of weaving piece work at home, began to work in factories. The small sacle of production and lack of mecahnization meant that production was limited and costs high. Small improvements like the spinning jenny were refined and built upon other developments to revolutionalize the way that textiles were produced. These processes were soon transferred to an increasing number of other industries.


Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber in the manufacture of clothing. It has a number of qualities making it ideal for this purpose. Cotton played a critical role in the history of the 18th and 19th centuries. American slavery was decling in importance. Many though that in the South it would eventually disappear as it was in the North. The Industrial Revolution, however, led to Ely Whitney's cotton gin. The resulting efficiences changed the economies of cotton cultivation. New plantations were founded on King Cotton as Southern planters moved west into Alabama and Mississpi and eventually Texas. The revitalization of the South's slave-based economy began a process that was to laed inexorably to Civil War (1861-65). Cotton textiles were the most important element of the British export trade in the mid-19th century. The export of raw cotton was also the leading U.S. export commodity, in essence financing the beginning steps toward industrialization in the North. American became the leading source of raw cotton. Today we think of textiles as a realitively minor part of an industrial economy. This was the not the case in the 19th century. The manufacture of cotton texties became especially important in the 19th century. The technological advances in weaving and introduction of steam-powered equipment made the British the most effiencent producer. Britain's cotton textile industry by 1850 was the first industry to fully mechanize its operations. [Ashworth, p. 8.] The importance of American cotton was one of the reasons that the British were concerned with the American Civil War and many in Britain at first championed the Southern Confederacy.


The increased productivity provided another boost to European population growth. Europe's population which had been desimated by the plague was greatly stimuated when Spaish conquistadores brough the potato back from Peru in the 16th century. As a result of the Industrail Revolution cities grew in size as centers of production. Complex systems of transportayion were developed, including canals, steamboats, and trains and improved communications incliding the telegraph. The modern corporation rose as the dominant form of business organization. The technical advances fuled additional and expanded scientific investigation. One of the adverse consequences was the expanded use of child labor and the dreadful conditions that many children worked under in textile mills and other factories and mines.

Social Class

The Indiustrial Revolution led to the formation of two new classes, industrial employers and an urban proleteriat working class. The rapid expansion of factories and need of workers for jobs made the industrial working class within a short timeperiod a large, hungry, poor, and desperate class--the bottom of the social pyramid.

Working Conditions

The industrial factories were built with production in mind. Thought was rarely given to the enviroment of the workers. As a result the factories were extremely unpleasanr places to work. They were loud, dingy, hot in the summer and usually poorly heated in the winter. The work days might be 12 hours and there wrre no holidays. There were no laws or unions protecting workers. Workers could be fired for the slightest offence or no reason at all. People were desperate for jobs and it was easy to replace workers. Workers were entirely dependant on employers. Most were living on the edge even with their jobs, earning just enough to buy basic food needs. The loss of a job could mean dissaster for the family. Little attention was given to saftey and industrial accidents were common. This was especially a problem among children among whom the long working hours were prone to cause them to fall asleep.

Living Conditions

Families of industrial workers lived in terrible conditionsThere might be as many as 10 or 12 people in a single room. Here they cooked, ate and slept. Often families had large numbers of children which they had difficulty feeding and clothing. Often they were forced to have their children work as soon as they were old enough which could be quite young. It was not uncommon for children to begin working at about 8 years old.


The adverse working conditions in the factories and mines, long working hours, and inadequate diets contributed to the poor health of workers. L The life expentancy of industrial workers was low. One study of 22,094 factory workers in factories in Manchester and Stockport, only 143 were older than 45 years.


The consequences of the adverse working conditions and poor soon deaths were that the working class consisted primarily of children and young adults.

Child Labor

Child labor is perhaps the single greates indictement made on 19th century capitalism. There is no doubt that children, often quite young children, labored under horendous conditions. There are many accounts of this, both contemporary literary works, as well as journalistic and academic accounts document the apauling conditions for children. The one question that is often ignored is whether the conditions under which the children labored in the new factories of the industrial revolution were a decline or improvement in their condition. Most assessments demonstrate that conditions were terrible for the children, but the comparison is usually made with the situation of contemporary middle class children. Rarely do authors address the question of what life was like for children before the industrial revolution. Child labor was clearly not an inovation of the Industrial Revolution. Some authors suggest, however, that the depersonilization resulting from large industrial labor resulted in greater abuses of labor. Increasing condemnation of child labor at the turn of the century was a major suue addressed by the Progressive Movement in America and the Liberal and Socialist Movemets in Europe. This eventualy led to the child labors laws which prevented the most serious abuses of children. Here the socially minded photoghers of the turn of the century played a major in exposing the abuses of the children.

Life Style Changes

No development in modern history has affected individuals more than the Industrial Revolution. Until the industrial revolution, the vast proportion of mankind around the world, including Europe, was almost entirely concerned with ekeing out a mere existence. The onset of the Industrail Revolution dramatically increased the efficency of production and the accumulation of wealth and increased learning and scientific endeavor. This permitted the advancement of personal incomes and living standards to unprecdented levels for families thata generation ot two earlier had barely participated in the political process. Diets and housing improved. People wanted to dress more fashionably. More families were able to educate their children, or at least the boys. Demands for an expanded role in the political process increased. The concept of leisure arose.

Work Houses

One of the negative consequences of the industrial revolution was that the employment of large numbers of people were destroyed by the new technologies and machines. People in the garment industry who had done piece work could no lonbger compete with the machiery developed for the textile industry. Many farm workers were also made reduant by the enclosures and the shift to sheep ranching to provide wool to the expanding garment industry. One way of addressing the problem of the unemployed and destitute was the work house.

Children's Clothing

The consequences of the indistrial revolution were vast. The economies of Europe were fundamentally changed with consequent changes in European society. Even the most minite aspect of European life was affected in ways that were not always apparent. The industrial revolution emerged out of the textile industry which began to produce inexpensive cotton textiles. These textiles were expensively suitable for children. The heavy ornate clothing that weatly children swore were restrictive and not very suitable for children. Poor children wore coarse woolen wears. Cotton textiles were light, soft, flexible, and inexpesive. This essentially desctibes fabrics that were ideal for children. Virtally at the same time, Enlightenment authors began describing childhood as a destinctive period requiring special treatment and care. Hitherto, children tended to be treated as simply small adults. This by the end of the century and beginning of the 19th century, we begin to see speciall, less formal and restructive clothing for children.


Ashworth, William. A Short History of the International Economy Since 1850 (Longman Paperback: London, 1977), 318p.

Fox, Bicols. Against the Machine: The Hiddent Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives (Iskland Oress), 405p.

Hornik, Susan. "A float with fly boats & leggers," Smithsonian, June 2000, pp. 50-58.

Wilson, A.N. The Victorians (A.N. Wilson: New York, 2003), 724p.


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Created: November 7, 2002
Last updated: 6:13 AM 3/17/2015