The factory system is a mode of capitalist production that emerged in the late eighteenth century as a result of England’s Industrial Revolution. Preindustrial England was largely organized around localized forms of production. Goods were produced on family-centered farms, and items such as yarn and other textiles were contracted for larger distribution or produced independently to be sold at a market. After technological innovations created the ability to produce textiles using waterpower, production became centralized in a single place: a factory owned in many cases by members of the former aristocratic class and staffed by workers who were paid a wage (see E. P. Thompson’s 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class ). While this mode of production began with the cotton and textile industries, it was the development of the steam engine that fully established the shift from craftspeople and localized production into production under the factory system.
There are several interconnected factors beyond technological innovation that created the factory system in England in its particular moment in history. One was the development of banking institutions, which were able to channel investments into the establishment of factories, and which were also able to facilitate economic exchange. Similarly, landowners were able to take advantage of the banking industry’s low interest rates to facilitate and finance the development of transit systems, created to move goods produced under this new system. At the same time, a rise in the British population not only increased demand for goods, but also created a large pool of laborers who would eventually work for a wage after the development of the factory system. Finally, social changes in Britain at the time both facilitated the training of upper-middle-class men who would administrate the factory system and also the development of British persons as free workers, as opposed to serfs, who could sell their labor power in exchange for a wage.
As such, the development of the factory system was central to the eventual entrenchment of capitalism on a world scale. It was this very shift in production and landownership, combined with the legal backing of free individuals who may enter into a state-sanctioned contractual relationship, that created what Karl Marx (1818–1883) would identify as the two classes in capitalist society: those who own the means of productions and those who own labor power, which they exchange for a wage in the marketplace. Although both workers and owners share the distinction of equality under the law, it was the old aristocrats who were able to develop the infrastructure and purchase the land to develop factories, and the old serfs who had nothing to sell and exchange but their capacity for labor. This system, whereby the owners of the factories could, through the labor process, transfer the value of the worker’s productivity into the value of a commodity, established the efficient yet exploitative mode of capitalist production that is still with us today.
The factory system was not only the foundation for the development of capitalism; it also radically shifted many aspects of social organization and daily life. Agricultural families were largely disenfranchised by this process, and in many cases were required to move to industrial centers in order to survive. They were thrust into the system of wage labor, fundamentally changing relationships between men and women. Whereas in preindustrial societies, all members of the family were involved in production work, the advent of the factory system created a gendered division of labor for middle- and working-class families, whereby men went to work for a wage and women were relegated to household work. In poor and nonwhite families, women worked for a wage outside the home in both formal and informal settings. Men were nearly always wageworkers, while women were either relegated to unpaid work to support the work of the men in their families or themselves worked for wages as a means of survival.
The link of the wage system to factory production created not only a different work process and a gendered division of labor, but also a new form of work. Whereas work under preindustrial forms of organization was often exploitative, particularly under systems of slavery and feudalism, the development of the factory system as a defining feature of capitalism created alienated work for the first time. Work is said to be alienated when the worker is in a relationship of production whereby he or she has no autonomy or control over what he or she is producing, where the goods being produced belong exclusively to the owner of the factory, and whereby this process makes the worker alien to himself or herself and his or her community. Marx, in his book Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (1867) argued that workers are alienated to the same extent that they are subject to livelihood exclusively through the wage labor market. This same process has created a social life whereby workers are more fundamentally tied to the workplace than to their homes in terms of livelihood and dependence. This process has also created levels of bureaucracy that divide labor into segmented, de-skilled tasks.
There has been tremendous resistance to the organization of work and social life under the factory system of production. Historically, that resistance has resulted in the abolition of child labor, the creation of the eight-hour workday, and various other labor laws regulating the extent to which owners of the means of production may exploit their workers. Moral arguments about whose labor is fair to exploit, and under which conditions that labor power may be extracted, have resulted in change. Many of the first nations to develop the factory system are now seeing a decline in factory production, as its mode of efficiency under capitalism seeks ever-cheaper ways to produce goods outside the limits of environmental and labor laws. These same nations have seen a shift from factory production to a service economy. However, the fundamental form of factory production, and the inherent link to exploitative relationships under capitalism, is as yet unaltered.
SEE ALSO Factories
Marx, Karl.  1906–1909. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Chicago: Kerr.
Thompson, E. P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.
Ward, J. T. 1970. The Factory System, Vol. 1: Birth and Growth. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Ward, J. T. 1970. The Factory System, Vol. 2: The Factory System and Society. New York: Barnes & Noble.
Meghan A. Burke
David G. Embrick
From the employers' point of view, this factory system had such manifest advantages that it was widely adopted, especially in the textile industries, where the Lombe silk factory in Derby was a marvel of the age. It was also used by the heavy iron and steel industries, by manufacturers of pottery, glass, paper, and chemicals, and by processes in the food and drink industries, such as breweries. Indeed, the factory system became the dominant form of industrial organization throughout the 19th cent., and remained important in the 20th cent. However, the introduction of electricity and road haulage has made possible a significant dispersal of industry, and the ‘information revolution’ of modern electronics and telecommunications has enabled an increasing number of people to work at home, so that the general trend of recent decades has been for factories to become smaller.
Architecturally, the factory system developed through several phases. Early factories were solidly built to accommodate the necessary machines and sources of power, with the minimum of embellishment. But the hazard of fire in such confined environments compelled entrepreneurs to develop forms of fire-proof construction, using little wood and depending on a solid framework of cast-iron pillars and girders. The need for natural light in some of the processes, moreover, directed attention to improved glazing, and many factories became well-built structures with ample windows and decorative flourishes such as ornate chimneys to carry the furnace flues from the boiler room. Idealistic entrepreneurs, such as Robert Owen or Titus Salt, saw their factories as part of a human community, and provided good housing and public amenities for their workers. Modern ‘industrial estates’ are typically composed of a series of temporary boxes which, while providing good light and a comfortable working environment, have little architectural distinction and can be easily scrapped when they become obsolete. The factory system has thus changed substantially over 200 years, in response to new industrial processes, changing sources of power and transport, and new social needs. But it provides, typically, the modern workplace, symbolizing life in industrial society.
R. Angus Buchanan