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defining the factory
centralized production: eighteenth-century precursors
factory production from the 1780s to 1850
later nineteenth century and the growth of industrial zones
social impact and legislation

The rise of factory production is a major theme in discussions on European industrialization. Associated particularly with mechanization in the textile industries from the late eighteenth century, the factory is seen to have symbolized the emergence of "modern" or "revolutionary" forms of production, which not only vastly improved labor productivity (output per head) but which also brought fundamental changes in the way families lived and worked.

In considering the theme, several key matters need to be addressed. The most obvious, perhaps, is how factory production can best be defined. While premises using powered machines to process textiles are usually regarded as factories, what of premises using powered equipment in other branches of industrial activity? And must the use of power-driven equipment be seen as a necessary characteristic of a factory, or might premises in which sole reliance is made on handicraft techniques also be included? Furthermore, irrespective of whether or not powered machinery is used, how far does the size of premises enter into the account, either in terms of the numbers employed or the amount of capital expended in establishing them?

A further matter is how important factory production actually became in European economies. Certainly the factory system was extensively adopted during the nineteenth century, but even so, much economic activity continued to take place outside the factory environment, including that in the expanding service sector. Moreover, even with regard to manufacturing activity, domestic premises, along with workshops located in nondomestic premises, provided other locations than the factory in which production could take place. While in proportionate terms the contribution the non-factory sector made to European manufacturing output may have declined markedly during the nineteenth century, it was by no means negligible and did not necessarily signify the use of outdated or inefficient modes of production.

Other questions relate to the ways in which factory production grew in importance and its impact on working practices. Rising labor productivity was undoubtedly a major consideration, but how it was achieved and with what impact needs further study, as do the ways in which working practices and conditions changed for those who worked as factory operatives and the contemporary debates about their well-being.

defining the factory

Nineteenth-century British legislation to regulate industrial working conditions offers some useful insights into how a factory might be defined. At first, regulation was restricted to establishments where textiles were spun or woven by means of powered machinery. From the 1860s, however, regulation was extended to a range of non-textile industries, while broader distinction was drawn between workshop and factory, the former relying on manual power and the latter on mechanical power. Yet the categories were not precise because some types of factory were included as manually powered establishments while factories were, for a time, defined as premises in which fifty or more people were employed in any type of manufacturing activity.

Drawing a distinction between factories and workshops solely on the basis of the type of power used produced some rather curious results. Listing

small, water-powered iron forges or windmills used to grind corn as examples of factories does not seem to be particularly appropriate given the limited number of people they employed and the uncertainty as to how regular a work regime they imposed. Equally, manufacturing premises that were designed to house, say, a hundred or more hand looms and associated winding equipment might well be thought of as factories rather than workshops, especially if their proprietors sought to impose rigid work regimes; perhaps the term manufactory defines them better. The issue is complicated further because the growing use of gas engines and electric motors from the later decades of the nineteenth century provided power sources that could be used for a wide range of small-scale workshop manufacturing. It is clear, therefore, that both the type of technology employed and the size of the establishment need to be borne in mind when distinguishing between factory and workshop, a point that evidently exercised the minds of Britain's nineteenth-century factory legislators.

It is also important to distinguish between workshop and domestic production. This is particularly so where sizable workshops were attached to manufacturers' houses, the labor required being drawn mainly, if not solely, from nonfamily sources, like the two-story "frame shops" attached to hosiers' dwellings in Leicestershire, England. Yet production based on family groups working at home, whether it took place in rooms that doubled up as, say, workshop and bedroom or in rooms specially designed as workshops, was a major feature of European industrialization. Such forms of production are commonly described as being dispersed in order to distinguish them from centralized forms of production associated with factory and workshop activity, which take workers away from home.

When it comes to distinguishing between different modes of production, both during and before the nineteenth century, factory, workshop, and domestic forms were all to be found in European economies. Factory production became increasing important, especially from the late eighteenth century, but it would be wrong to assume that it superseded workshop and domestic forms of production. Nor should it be supposed that factory production was rarely to be found prior to this period. There was a marked shift in production modes, but each type offered opportunities for innovation to take place—not least regarding product development—in response to changing market circumstances, and the factory was not always best placed to respond to these changes.

centralized production: eighteenth-century precursors

Although centralized forms of production became such a notable feature of the European economies from the late eighteenth century, they were by no means absent in earlier times. For example, water-powered silk-throwing mills were constructed in the Po Valley of northern Italy from the end of the seventeenth century. Production was not always continuous, but it did take place for several months each year. The mills were evidently small-scale concerns, but examples of sizable centralized enterprises for manufacturing textiles emerged too. Among them is the famous silk-throwing mill opened at Derby, England, in 1721 by John and Thomas Lombe. The mill consisted of several buildings, the largest being the five-story, water-powered throwing mill, which was 110 feet long and 55½ feet wide. In 1732 the mill employed 300 people. Sizable concentrations of activity also occurred in handicraft production, such as the cloth manufactory established in 1715 by Count Johann von Waldstein at the small Bohemian village of Horni Litvinov. Accommodated in several buildings and employing skilled craftsmen from England and the Netherlands, the manufactory produced light woolen cloths (new draperies). By 1731 it employed no fewer than 401 workers, of whom 54 were weavers and 169 were spinners, in addition to numerous domestic outworkers.

The use of water-powered equipment gave rise to centralized production in a varied range of industrial activity in early modern Europe. As part of the finishing processes in wool manufacturing, for example, water-powered fulling stocks—essentially large, cam-driven mallets made from wood—were used to thicken and cleanse the cloth. In iron smelting, blast-furnace bellows were driven by water power, while water-powered forge hammers were used to refine pig iron (the product of the blast furnace) into wrought iron bars. Water-powered machinery was also used in corn mills, paper works, sawmills, and ore-crushing plants. Because of site availability, the use of water power favored the growth of centralized production in rural locations, a development that helped to loosen the restrictive influence of urban guilds.

As the case of the von Waldstein enterprise illustrates, the relatively large capital expenditure needed to establish centralized forms of production was sometimes met by the nobility. But merchants and monarchs were also involved. For example, in an attempt to free himself from dependency on foreign countries for weapons, Frederick William I of Prussia financed the construction of small arms factories at Potsdam and Spandau during the early 1720s. Workers from Liège who were experienced in arms manufacture were employed, and at the Spandau site musket barrels, bayonets, and ramrods were produced using water-powered forging, boring, grinding, and polishing equipment. Other parts of the muskets were manufactured at Potsdam, where they were also assembled.

factory production from the 1780s to 1850

From the closing decades of the eighteenth century, as European industrialization intensified, centralized forms of production came to have far greater significance than hitherto. They emerged with varying pace and to a differing extent, at first showing the quickest early growth in Britain's manufacturing districts. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, however, they had become a familiar sight in industrial regions on the European mainland as well, often drawing strongly on British equipment and expertise. The data are far from accurate, but the figures on factory production of cotton textiles in Britain and France give an indication of the advances made. There were over 2,300 cotton factories in Britain in the late 1830s, compared to about 700 in France a decade later. In both countries, as elsewhere in Europe, water power was widely adopted, giving rise to numerous factory colonies in rural locations. Steam power was also being widely used, although, again, emerging at differing speeds from one country to another. While around a third of the French cotton factories were steam powered, the figures for Britain had reached 70 percent.

Centralized production enabled employers to achieve better control over the quality of production than was the case with outwork, as well as making savings by avoiding outworkers' embezzlement of the materials their employers distributed to them. Additionally, productivity could be improved through the division of labor, as workers specialized in a particular part of the production process; by imposing more regular working hours than was possible under the domestic system of production; and by using powered equipment. In the cotton textile industry, the dramatic advances in productivity that could be achieved with powered machines have been illustrated by applying the concept of operative hours to process: whereas an Indian hand spinner took more than 50,000 hours to process 100 pounds of cotton, power-assisted mules could achieve the same end in just 135 hours.

The adoption of steam power, along with the development of more powerful and efficient steam engines, resulted in larger factories, although even in Britain most remained small or medium-size. Additionally, steam power helped to overcome the stoppages that could occur periodically, and for lengthy periods, where water-powered equipment was used. This was the case, for example, with the iron forges at Liessies and Consolver in northern France, which, according to a report published in 1848, had to be closed down for five to six months each year owing to water shortages. The switch to steam power concentrated factories in coalfield locations to reduce fuel transportation costs and on town outskirts to ease labor-supply and transportation problems. During the closing decades of the nineteenth century, electricity also emerged as an important source of industrial power, though by no means replacing steam. The fact that almost half of Berlin's engineering factories were powered by electricity in 1907 gives some idea of the progress made, though the general pace of advance was far slower, and steam engines, which were still being improved, continued to be installed.

The rise of centralized production reflected the continuing expansion of established industries, such as metal smelting and refining, in which it had traditionally occurred. But new industries also emerged, including various branches of engineering, that were based on centralized production from the outset and in some cases produced on an impressive scale, such as the famous Cockerill works at Seraing in Belgium. The founder of the enterprise, William Cockerill, moved from England to Belgium in 1798, establishing textile machinery works at Verviers and Liège. In 1817 his son John transferred the enterprise to Seraing, where steam engines as well as textile-spinning machinery were produced. In 1819 the works employed no fewer than 3,000 people and utilized steam engines with a combined capacity of 900 horsepower.

Centralized production also expanded as traditional industries switched from domestic production, textiles providing the major example. From the late eighteenth century cotton, wool, and linen spinning became increasingly factory based, the transformation in Britain taking place within a generation but more slowly on the European mainland. Cotton printing also became a factory industry in the same period. However, textile weaving became mechanized and hence moved to factory production at a much slower pace. In Britain the decisive shift in coarse cotton production occurred during the 1840s, as the development of much-improved power looms coincided with a major investment boom in the economy associated with railway building. But in Britain and other countries, the transition was much slower in the manufacture of finer and fancier cottons and in other branches of textile production. For example, at Krefeld, the most progressive of the German silk-producing towns, only 5,400 power looms had been installed by 1890, with 22,500 hand looms still in use.

later nineteenth century and the growth of industrial zones

The rise of factory production in Europe's main industrial districts during the latter half of the nineteenth century dwarfed that of the preceding half-century, a point that is well demonstrated in case of France. According to French government statistics, the number of industrial establishments using one or more steam engines grew from 6,500 in 1852 to as many as 63,000 in 1912. To obtain a more accurate measure of factory growth from these data, premises using other forms of power than steam would need to be added to them, while those for mines would need to be removed. Yet such adjustments would not alter the conclusion that remarkable change occurred. That is even more evident when the tendency for factories to become larger is taken into account. Variation in size remained marked, with small and medium-size units predominating. But economies of scale arising from using larger and more sophisticated pieces of equipment and the integration of successive stages of production on a single site created numerous works across a range of industries that occupied extensive sites and employed sizable labor forces. In France, an industrial census taken in 1906 counted 574 establishments, including mines, that employed more than 500 people. In the case of manufacturing, the large-scale factories were to be found mainly in textiles (200) and metal production (163) but were also well represented in chemicals (21), glass (20), and papermaking (20). In the larger European factories, employees were numbered in the thousands. For instance, the Singer sewing machine factory in Scotland employed 7,000 people in 1900.

As factories and factory sites increased in size, and because they were often built in close proximity to one another, they created industrial zones that became a major feature of European urban growth. These zones might be located alongside lines of communication, which not only facilitated transport needs but, in the case of canals, also provided water supplies for steam raising and condensing. The steel and engineering works located in the lower Don Valley, to the northeast of Sheffield, provide a striking example. Built alongside both sides of the North Midland line, which was opened in 1838, the zone developed into a major concentration of manufacturing activity in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Several steelworks of an unprecedented size were constructed, including that of John Brown. By the early 1860s, his Atlas Works, comprising an extensive range of iron and steel furnaces, rolling mills, and tilt-hammer forges, covered some sixteen acres and gave employment to between three thousand and four thousand people.

The rise of centralized production in workshops and factories did not entirely supersede domestic production, however, not least as far as the manufacturing of clothing was concerned. In England and Wales, about a third of the 591,000 tailors and dressmakers recorded in the 1911 census worked at home, the majority on their own account. In the French clothing industry, a million domestic workers were still employed in 1896, including 220,000 in shoe manufacturing. From the employers' perspective, the continued use of domestic workers saved on the cost of investing in premises and equipment and enabled employment of nonunionized labor. Moreover, when downturns in demand occurred, labor could be laid off without the costs of idle machinery still having to be met. Short production runs might anyway prove costly if undertaken by machine. From the employees' perspective, staying at home enabled more flexible patterns of work to be undertaken, a matter of particular importance to married women, given the domestic responsibilities they were expected to assume. Indeed, married women formed only a small proportion of the European factory labor force even in such industries as textiles, which made considerable use of female workers.

social impact and legislation

The threat that centralized production brought to flexible forms of working was a matter that critics of the factory system were keen to emphasize. Drawing on graphic accounts of appalling conditions that at least some factory workers endured, along with the rigid discipline that factory working rules sought to impose, they denounced the long hours that factory work could bring, especially for children; the dangers to life and limb associated with using powered machinery; and the moral lapses they thought could arise when young people of both sexes congregated together. Supporters of the factory system maintained that such concerns were greatly exaggerated, however. They argued that working with powered machinery required less effort than with hand technology, and they opposed calls for state regulation of factory work on the grounds that the liberty of the individual would be threatened: the employer would not be free to deploy labor to the best advantage nor parents to send their children to work in factories as they thought fit.

Yet at times that varied from country to country, and with periodic revisions, factory legislation was introduced that was especially concerned with controlling the age at which children could begin work and the number of hours they could work each day. Educational clauses were also incorporated. In Britain the 1833 Factory Act, which applied to the textile industry, had particular significance because a paid inspectorate was established to help enforce its provisions. How effective the inspectorate proved has been debated, but many thousands of prosecutions were brought against both parents and employers. Paid inspectors were gradually introduced in other countries. For example, a factory inspectorate was established in Prussia in 1853, when the Child Labor Law of 1839 was revised to raise the minimum age for factory work from nine years to twelve and to reduce the working day for those age twelve to fourteen to six hours.

Factory workers might also benefit from the paternalism of their employers, which could be manifested in various ways, such as providing good quality housing; social facilities, including schools; and treating at festivals or other occasions. The paternalistic dimension of the entrepreneur's role has been seen as being stronger on the European mainland than in Britain, helping to promote the goodwill of workers and hence their efficiency. However, following the 1848 revolutions in Europe, paternalism is seen to have taken a more defensive turn, with the aim of diverting workers from participation in the labor movement. Thus Friedrich Alfred Krupp, who provided subsidized housing for his employees as well as a range of welfare facilities, urged his employees in 1877 to concern themselves, after the working day was over, with house and home rather than with politics.

See alsoIndustrial Revolution, First; Industrial Revolution, Second; Working Class.


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John Geoffrey Timmins