Industrial and Urban Classes

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Industrial and Urban Classes



Bourgeoisie or Middle Class. Prior to the Industrial Revolution there were people of the middling sort, as historians are now inclined to say, but there was not yet a bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie, or middle class, was created by the Industrial Revolution. The size, wealth, and political dominance of this group grew steadily from the late eighteenth century to the beginning of World War I (1914–1918). It also encompassed a wide range of occupations and wealth, leading to the common use of terms such as lower middle class, middle class, and upper middle class (or petite bourgeoisie, moyenne bourgeoisie, and haute bourgeoisie). In English some of these people are referred to as being “petty bourgeois.” The phrase is an anglicization of the French petit bourgeois and refers not to the attitudes of the person but identifies him or her as lower middle class. The bourgeoisie distinguished itself from the classes above and below it by its values, wealth, and lifestyle as well as by its occupations or source of wealth. Some bourgeois families were amazingly successful. The Rothschilds, for instance, became the wealthiest financial family in all of Europe. They founded banks and funded kings and governments in Frankfurt, Vienna, Manchester, London, Naples, and Paris. In Germany the Krupp family turned a small armaments factory into one of the world’s largest munitions plants, the Krupp Works of Essen. In Britain, the birthplace of industrialization, no one amassed the kind of wealth from manufacturing, commerce, or finance that continental or American families such as the Rockefellers,

Carnegies, or Vanderbilts did. The great fortunes in Britain were still largely invested in landed estates.

Occupations. In classic terms, the bourgeoisie constructed, owned, and operated the new factories, mines, and railroads; built and ran commercial enterprises—shipping lines and stores, for instance; and owned banks. As the nineteenth century progressed, the liberal professions— the ministry, law, medicine, and university teaching—also attracted sons of the bourgeoisie. These occupations too were products of the industrial era, acquiring relatively high status and specific educational requirements for entry. Technically, of course, people who built the early factories, such as English inventor Richard Arkwright, were merchants and tinkerers, not bourgeois. If their inventions and factories were successful, again like Arkwright, they became members of the new class. Below the richest level of the bourgeoisie was a large and growing number of people who managed factories, banks, shops, and shipyards; who owned and ran their own small enterprises (the proverbial butcher, baker, and candlestick maker); and who simply worked in these businesses. Indeed, more than three rungs are necessary on the bourgeois ladder to encompass the variety of occupations and wealth that provided one membership.

Bourgeois Family. As the scale of manufacturing increased, the bourgeois home and workplace became separated


In 1861 twenty-four-year-old Isabella Beeton and her husband published an enormously popular book of advice for middle-class women. The book (1,112 pages) instructed women how to cook, treat their servants, and rear their children. Writing the book, of course, fell outside of the role she advised women to play. She died before her thirtieth birthday.


I must frankly own, that if I had known, beforehand, that this book would have cost me the labour which it has, I should never have been courageous enough to commence it. What moved me, in the first instance, to attempt a work like this, was the discomfort and suffering which I had seen brought upon men and women by household mismanagement. I have always thought that there is no more fruitful source of family discontent than a housewife’s badly-cooked dinners and untidy ways. Men are now so well served out of doors,—at their dubs, well-ordered taverns, and dining-houses, that in order to compete with the attractions of these places, a mistress must be thoroughly acquainted with the theory and practice of cookery, as well as be perfectly conversant with all the other arts of making and keeping a comfortable home....

Chapter I.

The Mistress

1. As with the commander of an army, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all these acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a Knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well-being of a family. In this opinion we are borne out by the author of “The Vicar of Wakefield,” who says: “The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens. She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes.”

The mistress of a house...ought always to remember that she is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega in the government of her establishment; and that it is by her conduct that its whole internal policy is regulated. She is, therefore, a person of far more importance in a community than she usually thinks she is. On her pattern her daughters model themselves; by her counsels they are directed; through her virtues all are honoured;—“her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.” Therefore, let each mistress always remember her responsible position, never approving a mean action, nor speaking an unrefined word....

Cherishing, then, in her breast the respected utterances of the good and the great, let the mistress of every house rise to the responsibility of its management; so that, in doing her duty to all around her, she may receive the genuine reward of respect, love, and affection!

Source: Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management (London: S. O.Beeton, 1861), pp. iii, 1,18-19.

by greater distances, making it difficult for women to integrate the tasks of work and child care. In the course of a generation bourgeois women thus withdrew from the family business and devoted themselves to domesticity and child care. This new sexual division of labor gave these women responsibility for everything in the domestic sphere, while men took responsibility for the family’s economic or public concerns. A leisured, or at least nonworking, wife and the nurturing of children by their mother became hallmarks of the bourgeoisie and set members of the class apart from the other classes. Working-class women continued to labor for many decades, although, like bourgeois women, working-class mothers preferred not to work for pay if at all possible. An emphasis on the nurturing of children distinguished the bourgeoisie from both the aristocracy, which the former regarded as unfeelingly giving their children over to servants to rear, and the working class, where many children remained in the paid labor force. The nurturing of children also involved the provision of education and this value, too, became associated with the bourgeoisie.

Bourgeois Values. Hard work and frugality are also associated with the bourgeoisie. They tended to invest profits back into their businesses. In 1860 Scottish author Samuel Smiles wrote Self-Help, neatly summing up what by then was the bourgeois business ethic. “Youth must work in order to enjoy,” he concluded. “Nothing credible can be accomplished without application and diligence.” Moreover, the ideal man should be self-reliant. “Heaven helps those who help themselves,” he quoted. “The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual.... Help from without is often enfeebling in its effects, but help from within invariably invigorates.”

Consuming Class. Contradictorily, the frugal bourgeoisie became a consuming class, desiring more-spacious, elegant homes; fancier clothing; and better food. In many countries secularism became associated with bourgeois men who, among other things, saw some of the messages of the Christian churches as antithetical to their capitalistic desires. Bourgeois women, in contrast, often became more

religious. They placed high value on love and morality, and both men and women engaged in charitable giving and assistance to the poor.

Artisans and Merchants. The artisan usually was an independent craftsman who made and sold a particular product. Sometimes these people were called merchant artisans. Merchants who were not artisans primarily produced and sold foodstuffs or ran establishments such as cafes, taverns, and small hotels. Some artisans and merchants became wealthy producers, but most remained lower on the economic scale, working hard to just make a living. Manufacturing and marketing existed everywhere in preindustrial Europe. A multitude of artisans produced everything people needed, and countless mer-chants brought goods to market: fabric, shoes, stockings, clothing, needles, thread, sheets, blankets, bricks, boards, ropes, barrels, plows, furniture, baskets, horseshoes, pots, pans, and nails. Artisans milled grain into flour, baked bread, tanned hides, brewed beer, and made wine. Artisans and petty merchants in small towns and villages put down their tools and helped with the harvest, but otherwise they did not engage in agriculture.

City Artisans. While merchants and artisans existed everywhere, their crafts dominated employment in towns and cities. Until the nineteenth century, artisan manufacturers were organized into guilds that controlled the teaching of skills, the quality of products, the number of people working in the trade, and sometimes even the amount charged for goods or paid in wages. Children were apprenticed to a particular trade at young ages. They then lived with and assisted a craftsman or craftswoman, sometimes for as long as seven years. When they reached the end of their apprenticeship, they became journeymen who, at least formally, traveled around the country, assisting and learning even more skills from master craftsmen. When young men (and much less often women) completed both stages of learning, they could establish a shop of their own and become masters. If anything interrupted the journeyman stage, such as a decision to marry (journeymen were often forbidden to marry), he would never become a master craftsman. For one reason or another, a great many young men and women never completed the journeyman stage and remained in that subordinate position for life. Most artisans were the children of artisans. They learned the craft from their fathers and, if they were old enough, sometimes took over the family shop when the father died.

Family Businesses and Division of Labor. During the eighteenth century husbands and wives in prosperous artisan and merchant families usually worked together to keep the family business solvent and growing. The workshop or

salesroom might occupy the ground floor of the home or a building adjacent to or across the backyard from the house. This arrangement made it possible for women to participate fully in the business and to engage in minimal child care, which was culturally assumed to be a woman’s responsibility. Women who were married to artisans often kept the books, dealt with customers and suppliers, per-formed preparatory or finishing tasks, and knew how to do all of the artisan’s work. Indeed, if an artisan or merchant died without a grown son, his widow often carried on the work. Most artisans were men, although some were women, and here again one finds a distinct sexual division of labor. In France skilled female artisans made lace, embroidery, lingerie, and verdigris; spun fine yarns; and worked alongside their artisan husbands in crafts such as brocade weaving, although technically only their husbands were master weavers. Everywhere, female seamstresses sewed women’s and children’s clothing, and male tailors sewed men’s clothing.

End of the Artisan. In the eighteenth century, textile merchants who imported raw cotton from the United States and Asia began to circumvent the guilds’ control of urban work. Hiring wagoners and traveling merchants, they sought out rural dwellers to produce yarn and fabric. The low pay for which peasants would work offset the transportation costs and led merchants to hire more and more of them. This competition undermined the urban guild system. Guilds also came under attack during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by the new free-trade ideology of liberalism. In country after country, legislation was passed abolishing guilds. What legislation failed to do, industrialization finished. Artisans had been a self-conscious social group aware and proud of their independent status, but over the course of the nineteenth century they fragmented into subclasses of mechanics, waged factory workers, and shopkeepers. By 1914 the traditional artisan had ceased to exist.

White-Collar Workers. Clerical work in offices, stores, banks, government offices, post offices, shipping companies, and other areas were traditionally held by men, many of whom were learning the ropes and climbing the company ladder. In the 1880s these jobs underwent significant change. The number of people employed in what were now called white-collar jobs rose precipitously; machines such as the typewriter and telephone were introduced; and employers began to seek out women as well as men to work in their offices and shops. Initially, as employment expanded, far more men than women were hired in these fields, but over time there was a gradual shift to an all-female labor force in offices and shops. As the labor force became feminized, upward mobility was severely restricted, as were the variety of tasks each man had previously performed. Women were hired to do one task; they did it all day long and for the entire time they were employed. They were typists (originally called typewriters in English), stenographers, receptionists, and file clerks. In shops women worked as salesclerks, cashiers, stock girls, and cash girls. White-collar jobs did not pay well, and their work was as routinized as that of factory workers. Nevertheless, the jobs were highly desired. Workers wore white shirts and shirtwaists—the distinctive uniform that gave the jobs their descriptive title. They were required to have the equivalent of a high-school education and were paid a weekly salary. White-collar workers perceived themselves, and were perceived by others, as having higher employment status than factory and other manual workers. The daughters and (for a long time) the sons of working-class families who took these jobs became members of the lower middle class, or the petite bourgeoisie. White-collar women had much shorter careers than men. Only young, single women were hired to be office help, salesclerks, and telephone operators. When they ceased to be young or when they married, they were let go from their jobs.

Domestic Servants. In the eighteenth century youths and adults who lived with and worked for families other than their own were categorized as domestic servants. The age at which youths usually entered domestic service was between thirteen and fourteen, although poverty forced some children to enter service at younger ages. The vast majority of servants worked for families whose economic resources were slim but whose productive work required more help than members of their own


A medical doctor, journalist, and railroad official, Samuel Smiles exemplified middle-class liberal attitudes that justified the position of that group in society. In books such as Self-Help (1860), liberals such as Smiles claimed that the poverty and oppression of the working classes were their own fault, Here Smiles explains that the work ethic was a fundamental basis of English success during the age of industrialization.

Indeed, all experience serves to prove that the worth and strength of a State depend far less upon the form of its institutions than upon the character of its men. For the nation is only an aggregate of individual conditions, and civilization itself is but a question of personal improvement of the men, women, and children upon whom society is composed.

National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils, will for the most part be found to be but the outgrowth of man’s own perverted life; and though we may endeavor to cut them down and extirpate them by means of Law, they will only spring up again with fresh luxuriance m some other form, unless the conditions of personal life and character are radically improved. If this view be correct, then it follows that the highest patriotism and philanthropy consist, not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action.

One of the most strongly marked features of the English people is their spirit of industry, standing out prominent and distinct in their past history, and as strikingly characteristic of them now as at any former period. It is this spirit, displayed by the commons of England, which has laid the foundations and built up the industrial greatness of the empire. The vigorous growth of the nation has been mainly the result of the free energy of individuals, and it has been contingent upon the number of hands and minds from time to time actively employed within it, whether as cultivators of the soil, producers of articles of utility, contrivers of tools and machines, writers of books, or creators of works of art. And while this spirit of active industry has been the vital principle of the nation, it has also been its saving and remedial one, counteracting from time to time the effects of errors in our laws and imperfections in our constitutions.

Source: Samuel Smiles, Self-Help (Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1881), pp.48-49.

family could provide. This kind of domestic service was one of the largest employers of labor through the end of the nineteenth century.

Marriage among Servants. Having worked as a farm servant or a cotton, wool, or linen spinner, a woman had the skills she would need if she were to marry a farmer or weaver—two of the most common male occupations. In addition, of course, she had to have acquired the minimal goods required to set up housekeeping—a pot or two, a mattress, sheets, her own clothing, and a chest in which to store extra linens and clothing. Owning a few pillows also was nice. The acquisition of these items in most cases took a decade or more, making the marriage age high for women. Men were supposed to bring land to farm or an occupation to pursue (weaving was a possibility, although many weavers also farmed), and land usually had to be inherited. So younger sons who worked as farm and textile servants, and who would never inherit land, were less likely than female servants to leave service and marry, although they could try to survive as day laborers, living on their own, possibly marrying, and performing the same type of work as when they were servants. Many men and women never acquired the necessary economic foundations of marriage and worked as servants for life. Servants were almost always unmarried; one could not aspire to marry a fellow or sister servant and remain in service. To marry was to set up a household of one’s own.

Household Servants, Chamber Maids, and Janitors. The middle class hired servants in increasingly large numbers during the nineteenth century. In these urban families, servants performed household tasks (for example, cleaning, laundry, cooking, silver polishing, and waiting on table) and similarly were unable to remain in service if they married. In the nineteenth century another occupation, often labeled domestic service, emerged. As factories, shops, banks, and hotels grew in size, they hired increasing numbers of women and men as janitors and chambermaids. This work was akin to that which many servants performed for individual families—hence the name domestic service. Unlike other forms of service, men and women who worked in these jobs lived on their own and were able to marry.

The Proletariat. People have always worked, but they have not always identified themselves as workers. Before industrialization, occupational identities were specific. One was a shoemaker, silk winder, blacksmith, seam-stress, and so on. With industrialization a new category was created—waged factory work. Men who labored in factories were identified as simply “workers.” Female fac-tory workers constituted a kind of anomaly, even though the majority of early factory workers were women, and they tended to be identified as “women workers” in England. In France the two groups were distinguished by endings on the word oeuvre (work). Male factory workers were ouvriers and female factory workers were ouvrières.

Before the twentieth century, factory workers worked for piece rates. They were paid for the amount they produced just as workers in cottage industry and the putting-out industries were. They worked long hours—as many as fourteen hours a day—for wages that were differentiated by age and sex. Children earned the least, men the most, with women falling in between. In the earliest textile mills, primarily women and children were employed, but as spinning machines grew larger the nature of the work changed and with it the gender classification of jobs. Men and women rarely competed for the same jobs despite women’s willingness to work for lower wages. Nevertheless, men often perceived women as a threat and preferred to have no women working in factories, a desire that was almost met except in the textile and garment industries.

Standard of Living of the Working Class. Whether fac-tories, and the towns and cities that grew up around them, worsened or improved people’s standard of living has been a source of great debate among historians. No broad generalizations are possible, but, in the short run, living standards deteriorated for many people. This downturn included those people whose cottage jobs were being taken away by mechanization and many who worked in the new cotton mills. For some factory workers, however, life was better than it had been on the farm. This improvement was especially true for children who had worked on agricultural “gangs.” By the second half of the nineteenth century, mechanization had led to rising wages for everyone (men, women, and children) and the withdrawal of married women and young children from the labor force. Work might be monotonous, fast paced, and dangerous, but it paid better, and people ultimately lived better lives.

Working-Class Consciousness. Men and women who worked in factories had much more contact with their fellow workers than farmers, cottage workers, and putting-out workers. By the 1830s many of them were organizing themselves into unions so they could put pressure on their employers. Early protests were often about control of the workplace and were led by skilled workers who had formerly been independent artisans. Later issues included increased pay, reduced hours, and the end of a whole set of practices that workers found insulting and demeaning. The creation of working-class organizations led to a second great debate among historians about the formation of class identity and class consciousness. The most persuasive of these historians was E. P. Thompson. In The Making of the English Working Class (1963) he argued that “class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born—or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms.” The great advantage of Thompson’s formulation of class identity is that he regarded it as arising from something people did. They discovered their shared interests through common actions. For Thompson, workers were not simply passive victims crushed by the overwhelming and abstract forces of industrialism, but rather were effective actors who adjusted themselves as best they could to new and often hostile circumstances and thereby went about making rational decisions about their lives. As convincing as Thompson may be in this regard, he tended to ignore women’s experiences in the workplace. He also disregarded the role of families in which members worked at different kinds of jobs. A wife might work in an office (a lower-middle-class occupation) and a husband in a fac-tory (a working-class occupation). How these two occupations in the same family affected class identity is difficult to determine, and this situation cautions one from too easily simplifying such a complex issue as class consciousness.


Geoffrey Crossick, ed., The Lower Middle Class in Britain, 1870-1914 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977).

Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850 (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987).

James R. Farr, Artisans in Europe, 1350-1914 (Cambridge 6c New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

Colin Heywood, Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France: Work, Health, and Education among the “Classes Populaires” (Cambridge 6c New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

E. J. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (London: Weidenfeld &Nicolson, 1964).

Olwen Hufton, “Women and the Family Economy in Eighteenth-Century France,” French Historical Studies, 9 (Spring 1975): 1-22.

Jurgen Kocka and Allen Mitchell, eds., Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Oxford & Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1993).

R. J. Morris, Class and Class Consciousness in the Industrial Revolution, 1780-1850 (London: Macmillan, 1979).

William M. Reddy, The Rise of Market Culture: The Textile Trade and French Society, 1750-1900 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Samuel Smiles, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct (London: Murray, 1860).

Bonnie G. Smith, Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Gollancz, 1963).

Louise A. Tilly and Joan W. Scott, Women, Work and Family (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1978).