The new machines developed during the Industrial Revolution, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, used steam engines or running water (rivers and streams) to provide power. To house such machines, factories were built.
For most of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, these factories, as well as the coal mines that supplied fuel for the steam engines, were the scenes of some of the most horrific working conditions ever known. In the absence of laws regulating the maximum work day or the minimum age of employment, men, women, and children toiled for twelve hours a day with barely a break. Conditions inside factories were often filthy and hazardous, and workers were often in danger of being maimed or killed as a result of industrial accidents.
These conditions came to the attention of journalists, novelists, and politicians who were horrified by what they saw and tried to bring about change by writing books, magazine and newspaper articles, or holding official hearings during which abused workers, especially children, told about their everyday lives. The public was exposed to the conditions of laborers and change was demanded.
Michael Sadler (1780–1835), a member of the British Parliament, issued the Sadler Report, bringing to light the findings of his investigation into child labor in factories. Émile Zola (1840–1908) wrote a novel depicting the conditions for workers in the coal mines of northern France.
In the United States, Congress held public hearings to investigate child labor, and workers like Camella Teoli were called to describe their experiences to lawmakers. Novelist Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) described the atmosphere for laborers in the Chicago stockyards in his landmark work The Jungle. Sometimes poor working conditions resulted in tragedy, such as the devastating fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which journalist William G. Shepherd chronicled for newspaper readers. America's first social worker, Jane Addams (1860–1935), also contributed to the written record of the impact of the Industrial Revolution in her autobiography Twenty Years at Hull-House.
In other cases, workers took the initiative to improve their own situation by organizing labor unions, groups that then bargained with employers for higher pay or improved working conditions. Samuel Gompers (1850–1924) was a leading organizer of unions, starting with a union of cigar makers and eventually leading the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which represented highly skilled workers. Gompers was inially motivated by the cramped, dark, and smelly houses where cigar makers both worked and lived in New York City.