Industry: Economic Transformations

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Industry: Economic Transformations


Factories. Before the Industrial Revolution, people worked at home or in small workshops. Factories as concentrated sites of production where multiple tasks were performed under one roof were rare. The increasingly widespread appearance of factories was a clear sign that the process of manufacturing was changing. Indeed, they became a fundamental image in the European artist’s eye, appearing on canvasses with regularity. French Impressionists in the 1870s and 1880s often included them as a matter of course in their landscapes.

Beginnings. Factories were initially small and spread around the countryside. Hardly more than large work-rooms, women working with spinning jennies (a system by which eight threads could be spun rather than just a single thread) powered the machines by hand. As the machines grew larger and needed external sources of power, factory building was concentrated along streams, especially those with falling water, where waterwheels could be constructed to generate power. The next stage of development came with the introduction of the steam engine to power factory machinery. In the early years of factory work, people walked from their homes to the mills and back again. These treks could be several miles. As the size of the mills increased, urbanization around the factories followed. More and more housing was built nearby for workers and their families, and people began to abandon farming for factory work.

Routines and Dangers. Factories routinized work in a way that had not been the case before. Work began and ended daily at prescribed times, unless the factories ran overtime, and then workers were expected to stay on the job. The pace of work was determined by the machines and varied only when employers decided to increase the machines’ speed. The introduction of gaslight in 1806 made night work possible, and owners began to standardize work into shifts. In the 1880s electric-power plants and electric light were introduced, furthering the standardization

of labor. Initially factories had no protective coverings over the machines, and it was easy for workers to be pulled into the machines and seriously injured. Machines were especially hazardous for women, whose long hair could be tangled in a whirring gear. The result was what workers referred to as “scalping.” In textile mills the prevalence of lint in the air damaged workers’ lungs and led to the aptly named “brown lung” disease. The passage of protective laws in the mid to late nineteenth century and workers’ use of the strike began to shorten the workday and to improve working conditions.

Light Industry. Textile production in cottage industry occupied almost as many people as agriculture did in the preindustrial world. By 1750 virtually every rural woman possessed a spinning wheel and spent at least part of her work time using it. In fact, spinning was so associated with women that the terms spinster (a female spinner) and distaff (the stick on which one stuck the raw fibers to be spun) became synonymous with woman and female in English. Fabric was made from four fibers—wool, flax, silk, and cotton. Wool-producing sheep and flax plants existed throughout Europe. Mulberry trees and silk worms existed only in the region of Lyon, France. Silk weavers in other places had to import silk from there or from Asia. Cotton, too, was an imported fiber. It was not grown anywhere in Europe, but it was becoming popular because it was light-weight (compared with linen and wool), easily washed, and much less expensive than silk. The earliest machines associated with the Industrial Revolution were constructed for the spinning of cotton.

Bottlenecks. Spinning was a bottleneck in the production process. It employed far more people than weaving, but the spinners still did not produce enough thread to supply weavers with the necessary material to meet demand. The problem was made even more severe by John Kay’s invention of the flying shuttle in the 1730s, which speeded up weaving, and a carding machine, invented in 1748, which increased the speed with which raw fibers could be prepared for spinning. By 1750 it took anywhere from six to ten spinners working full-time to keep one weaver fully supplied with thread for an entire workday. In the 1760s inventors began to tinker with ideas and materials to elimi-nate the spinning bottleneck. James Hargreaves invented the first spinning machine around 1764. He called it a spinning jenny. By employing multiple distaffs of raw fiber and bobbins around which to spool the thread, a woman could produce up to twenty times more thread than she could have with a spinning wheel. The jenny produced fine, but not particularly strong, yarn and was immediately successful. The first machines were built and used in England, but the technology spread rapidly to the Continent. Though larger than the spinning wheel, the jenny was small enough to be set up in women’s homes. In 1769 Richard Arkwright patented a second spinning machine— the spinning frame, or water frame. It operated on a different principle from the jenny and made stronger, but not very fine, yarn. Threads from the water frame were used for the warp threads on the loom while the threads from the jenny were wound onto bobbins and used for the weft threads. The water frame needed a nonhuman source of power—coursing water—and had to be set up in mills or factories. With the jenny, mass production of cotton fabric became possible for the first time in Europe. A third invention, Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule, was patented in 1779. It spun stronger yarn than the jenny and finer yarn than the water frame. Its name derived from the fact that it was a hybrid of two processes, just as the animal of the same name is a cross between a donkey and a horse. The mule worked on the same principle as the jenny but was powered by water (and later by steam). Like the water frame, it was too large to be set up in people’s homes, and spinning moved rapidly into mills. Because the mule produced a better product, it was worthwhile for factory owners to invest in ever larger machines. By the turn of the nineteenth century, technology was adjusted so wool and linen spinning could also be done by these machines. Women and children were initially hired to operate the new machines. Later, factory spinning became men’s work.

Weaving Machines. Weaving was the last stage of the textile manufacturing process to be mechanized. Carding, scutching, and roving machines were introduced; bleaching and dyeing were improved; steam engines replaced water-wheels as a power source; and the invention of the cotton gin in the United States (1793) increased the supply and reduced the cost of raw cotton. Even after a power loom had been invented by Edmund Cartwright in 1787, its use spread slowly. Hand-loom weavers were intensely hostile to its introduction, and many early weaving factories were invaded, the machines broken, and the pieces burned. The power loom was an inevitable development, however, and its adoption in the early nineteenth century spelled the end of hand-loom weaving. As weaving moved into factories, it became women’s work.

Railroads and Heavy Industry. In the early nineteenth century, railroads (called railways in Britain) seemed even more emblematic of the Industrial Revolution than factories. They made it possible to transport raw materials, manufactured goods, agricultural products, and people faster and in larger quantities than ever before. Traveling at up to 30 mph, the early trains moved faster than coaches pulled by horses (maximum speeds of 10 mph). People felt as if they were flying through the countryside, a feeling enhanced by the fact that in the beginning they were sitting in the open air. Like factory production, railroad building began in Britain, starting slowly in the late 1820s. Ten years later railroads were being constructed on the European continent. In 1830 in Britain there were only 100 miles of track, but then a building frenzy set in and by 1852 there were 6,600 miles. By 1901, 19,000 miles of rails crisscrossed Great Britain.

Railroad Constructing. Railroads were huge construction projects. Laws allowed the railroad owners to purchase property for their tracks, regardless of the social standing, wealth, or opposition of local landowners. Bridges were built, tunnels dug, viaducts erected, railroad stations constructed, land smoothed out, and track laid. In major cities the stations were massive and ornate as befitted what the railroad entrepreneurs thought of as the grandeur of their undertaking. As Michael Freeman, in Railways and the Victorian Imagination (1999), has observed, “Directors did not call their railway companies ‘Great’ for nothing.” The rail-road introduced more people to industrialization than fac-tories. They were marvels of engineering and construction. They brought steam engines and manufactured goods to far-flung villages. The future had arrived, but it came on the backs of men and boys working at a furious pace with preindustrial tools—shovels, pickaxes, horses, wagons, and gunpowder. Disabling accidents and death were common among the workforce. Local residents and bourgeois observers were appalled at the workers’ lawlessness, squalid living conditions, heavy drinking, and lack of religion.

Financing the Railroads. Building a railroad required large amounts of capital investment. In Britain, where no expense was spared, the capital outlay was £34,000 per mile in the 1840s. Initially the new British manufacturing elite (largely cotton-mill owners) financed the building of rail-roads with its accumulated wealth. Landed aristocrats wanted nothing to do with the railroads; they fought the appropriation of their land and the invasion of their estates by the noisy, smoke-belching machines. When public stock was offered as a means to attract investment capital and returns promised handsome profits, however, landed aristocrats as well as the wealthy bourgeoisie invested in the construction projects. The risks and rewards could be great. Some investors made millions; many others lost everything. In Belgium, France, and Germany the governments were heavily involved in the financing and building of railroads.

Class Distinctions. Trains both reinforced and disturbed class distinctions. In the beginning everyone sat on benches in the open air. Those who purchased first-class tickets could ride in trains that made fewer stops and reached their destinations faster. Quickly, first-, second-, and third-class cars were created. First- and second-class passengers entered compartments

with comfortable seats and glass windows. As one might expect, first-class cabins had more comfortable seats and larger windows. In Britain third-class passengers continued to ride in open cars until the British Parliamentary Railway Regulation Act of 1844 required that all passengers be protected from the weather (and concomitantly from the danger of falling out). Then, having little consideration for their working-class and poor rural passengers who traveled on inexpensive tickets, railroad companies herded third-class travelers into windowless boxcars for their journeys. On the Continent, class was even enforced in railroad stations, where passengers were required to wait in first-, second-, and third-class waiting rooms.

Working-Class Riders. While the wealthy were traveling in comfort, workers were using the trains to commute to and from work and for holiday excursions. By 1913 one-quarter of all train trips in Britain were made by working men and women. Cheap special-excursion train trips were created, and the working class rode trains to the beach and resort towns for weekend and summer vacations. Affronted by the invasion of “their” towns by the lower classes, wealthy residents and vacationers complained fruitlessly about their lack of manners, poor clothing, excessive drinking, and generally indecorous behavior.


Phyllis Deane, The First Industrial Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965).

Michael Freeman, Railways and the Victorian Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999).

David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969).

Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (London: Routledge, 1930).

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

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise (New York: Urizen Books, 1979); translated by Angela Davies as The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

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

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Industry: Economic Transformations

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