Factory Work

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Barbara Bari

Factory work is at the core of industrialization, a process that defined economic change in Europe for more than a century. The factory system was a way to organize work and produce goods that differed from small-scale personal manufacture in homes and workshops. Beginning in Britain around 1750, industrial production eventually became the dominant form of manufacture, though not the dominant sector of the economy, in most European countries by 1914. Whether termed "industrialization" or "industrial revolution," the transformations were neither linear nor uniform. National, regional, industrial, and gender variations existed in the rate and extent of change. While factories gathered more of the manufacturing population, technology, power-driven machines, and large-scale production were a part of the broader process of industrial development. That process experienced variety, unevenness, progress, and regress because many production processes involved a combination of factory work, machines, handicraft workers, and domestic industry. Countless women worked in factories, especially in textiles, yet domestic manufacturing persisted as a critical way for thousands of women to contribute to the family economy. In many areas, especially on the Continent, a symbiotic relationship persisted between old and new techniques, mediating against the notion that industrialization was a startling event. The transformations that altered the economic and social characteristics of Europe were slow, particularistic, and complex. This essay offers insight into the multiple changes and continuities that form the social context for a broader understanding of factory work. It focuses on the major industrial nations of Britain, France, and Germany from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century. For western and central European workers, the role of factories in shaping work experience was especially critical in the nineteenth century. The twentieth-century brought the factory into eastern Europe, and especially after World War II it brought immigrants into the factories of the west. In eastern Europe—however differently communist ideology envisioned industrialization—the Soviet economic system produced many patterns similar to those observable in earlier industrial revolutions. Factory work has not been a constant, even in countries like Britain that industrialized early. Expansion of factory size and the growth of technical automation conditioned the work experience.

Despite variations with time and place, a number of patterns warrant particular attention. Factories changed the work experience in several important respects. They increased the pace of work, as machines tended to dictate speed. They encouraged work specialization, so ultimately the semiskilled worker, adept at a fairly narrow job, became the classic factory operative. Few workers participated in more than a small stage of the production process, and the separation of work from a clear sense of the end product contributed to what some observers have termed the alienation of factory labor. Factories created new problems with accidents and noise. They also subjected workers to detailed supervision either by other workers or, as time went on and organization became more formal, foremen or efficiency engineers. Finally, factories definitively separated work from home, forcing workers to deal with many strangers as colleagues. For many workers, both in the early days of factories and later amid more complex organization and technology, the quality of the work experience deteriorated. Various protests attempted to address this situation but with little hard-won success. Strikes and unionization often focused more on compensation for work—in the form of pay and benefits—than on the work itself.

BRITAIN, 1750–1914

Mechanization and factories. The strength of Britain's commercial and manufacturing success in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries formed the base for the first industrial revolution. Important factors facilitated Britain's industrialization. Innovations in agriculture and restrictions on land ownership made farming less viable as a full-time occupation. Domestic manufacturing, usually with whole families working together, established a large protoindustrial base. A considerable rise in population put pressure on existing resources. Large workshops, resembling factories but without mechanization, undergirded the imperial economy, functioning in printmaking, linen and woolen manufacturing, lace and stocking making, ironware production, and the other metal trades. Maxine Berg indicated that the large-scale woolen workshops of West Yorkshire moved into a factory system, incorporating division of labor, standardization, concentration of labor, and the use of unskilled workers, prior to mechanization. Thus factories predated the industrial revolution.

However, technology opened a new path. In 1765 James Watt modified a crude steam engine to make it more versatile, and steam power became available to run a variety of machines that changed the production process in essential ways. Inventions in spinning pushed textiles to the forefront of industrial production. The advent of the spinning mule in 1779 made England "the workshop of the world." Mechanized spinning was identified as the first significant change in the mode of production in Europe. It is symbolic of the factory system in Britain but also in other societies undergoing industrialization. By the 1790s almost all cotton spinning for market was located in factories. Weaving was technically more difficult to mechanize, and increased demand for cotton cloth initially resulted in expansion of hand weaving and home production. Domestic weavers were mostly men, whereas hand spinning was done by women. When power was introduced to weaving in the first years of the nineteenth century, thousands of handloom weavers who lived in the countryside were displaced. This disturbance was one of the most visible negative effects of industrialization, and its long-lived lament was expressed by artisans, who were confused and angry, and by labor historians like E. P. Thompson, who wrote The Making of the English Working Class (1963), one of the first great social histories of this group.

Among other textiles, industrial development varied according to the types of fiber and the work processes involved. Mechanization of woolens was slower than cottons because spinning and weaving wool fibers was more difficult and more expensive to do by machine. Machines could be used in only certain parts of the production process, such as preparing the raw wool for spinning and finishing the surface. West Riding in Yorkshire became the center of England's wool industry when steam engines were incorporated into various stages of production. The general trend in textiles was mechanization, but factories did not eliminate domestic industry and handwork because some operations resisted a technical solution.

It took most of the nineteenth century for the conversion to factory work to saturate industrial production. The early stages of industrialization were marked by the erosion of old crafts through division of labor and by the development of new skills suitable to mechanized production. New technologies changed the scale of production. Advances in metallurgy were as impressive as those in textiles and perhaps more influential to the expansion of mechanization because machines made from iron could sustain the heavy, repetitive demands of the factory system. Coke was used instead of charcoal for smelting, steam-powered engines increased production, and machines became the platforms for creating other machines. Most of the new equipment required large plants. Iron puddling furnaces, steam and water engines, silk-throwing mills, spinning factories, and weaving machines all needed space.

The goal was to rationally organize production by restructuring the work process and by increasing the productivity of workers. When machinery was applied to jobs in which skilled labor performed most operations, a revolutionary change occurred. Standardization and uniformity were achieved by dividing the whole work process into individual tasks that could be mechanized. Adam Smith believed that the division of labor enhanced productivity. With training and experience, worker efficiency increased, and simplified, repetitive work reduced the need for skilled labor, lowering costs. Smith argued,

The great increase in the quantity of work, which, in consequence of the division of labour, the same number of people are capable of performing, is owing to three different circumstances: first, to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman; secondly, to the saving of time, which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another; and, lastly, to the invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many. (Berg, 1979, p. 48)

Mass production in factories meant cheaper production. Although numerous studies on specialization were conducted at the turn of the century, the Charles Babbage report entitled "On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures" was significant in establishing the principles of factory organization. The report sold three thousand copies shortly after its publication in 1833. Babbage concluded that production costs could be substantially reduced by dividing a craft into its constituent parts. He also composed a list of questions for workers. The inquiry form was available to industrialists who wanted a clearer picture of their workforces and work processes. Questions for both employers and workers included: Were various parts of the same article made in one factory or elsewhere? If elsewhere, did the work processes differ? Did the "master" or men provide and repair the tools? What level of waste was tolerated by the "master"? What was the cost of the machinery, and was it made and repaired at the factory? How many persons were necessary to attend each machine? What was the composition of labor—men, women, children? Did age and gender affect job assignments? What wages were earned by each category of workers, and were earnings determined by time or piecework? What was the average daily work time, and did workers have to perform night or shift work? What degree of skill was required, and how were workers trained? Answers to these questions have also assisted social historians in reconstructing the social history of labor.

Structuring factory work: management and regulation. Large, mechanized establishments created new issues of labor management. Early factories depended on skilled, mature male workers, who made up the "labor aristocracy." In the manner of craft trades, these workers had considerable control over their work and the machines they operated. Robert Owen sought to implement his ideas of work civility in his New Lanark mill in Manchester, which he ran between 1800 and 1829. He advocated organizing his workers into a kind of family, in which community and factory were linked together and the humane treatment of labor would result in "pecuniary profit." Owen's style of paternalism was directed at problems of labor discipline and at transforming persons new to industrial work into a reliable and efficient labor force. Factory discipline was essential to the production process in all mechanized industries. Workers paid substantial economic and psychological costs in regions where machines displaced home industry and separated work from the household. In the early stages of industrialization, these violations caused overt resistance to machines and the mills. One of the most famous episodes of worker violence occurred in the woolen industry in the Midlands and West Riding. In the Luddite "outrages" of 1811 and 1812, workers broke into factories and destroyed the machines, which they identified as the major threat to their economic safety and way of life. Thompson wrote:

The main disturbances commenced in Nottingham, in March 1811. A large demonstration of stockingers, "clamouring for work and a more liberal price" was dispersed by the military. That night sixty stocking-frames were broken at the large village of Arnold by rioters who took no precautions to disguise themselves and who were cheered on by the crowd. For several weeks disturbances continued, mainly at night, throughout the hosiery villages of north-west Nottinghamshire. Although special constables and troops patrolled the villages, no arrests could be made. (Thompson, 1963, p. 553)

Factory workers left scant records, but inquiries and parliamentary debates over industrialization provide information about conditions on the job and about how workers lived. Housing, food and drink, clothing, and health were all subjects of investigation and evaluation. On the job concerns of factory workers focused on hours and wages. The hours issue was the subject of some of the first attempts to regulate factory work, particularly the use of child labor. Factory work required set hours, punctuality, and productivity rates governed by the machines. In areas of continuous around-the-clock activity, such as the iron and glass industries, laborers usually worked shifts of twelve hours. The glass industry had alternate six-hour shifts. The generally accepted workday for most industries was from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The twelve-hour day was normal in textiles, although with increased mechanization hours were extended, sometimes to 8:00 p.m. Owen addressed the issue in 1815. Consequently the select committee of 1816 formed, and in 1819 legislation restricted child labor to twelve hours daily. The act, however, had little effect. Employers ignored it, and enforcement was difficult. The six-day work week was the norm, with work lasting until 6:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Legislation in 1825 confirmed the twelve-hour day in the cotton industry and limited Saturday work to nine hours, but as with previous legislation, enforcement was practically nonexistent.

By the 1830s regulation of factory work was clearly part of the broader reformist climate in Britain. The parliamentary Sadler commission of 1832 intended to expose the conditions of children in factories, and testimony before the commission came from workers themselves. A twenty-eight-year-old cloth dresser reported that he had started in the flax mills at age ten. Work commenced at 5:00 a.m. and ended at 9:00 p.m. with a dinner break at noon. Boys and girls began working in the woolen mills as young as five or six. As adults they remembered working until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. in the summer while sufficient light lasted. As youngsters both boys and girls were "strapped" to keep them awake and working. One of the ugliest practices was employing orphans from asylums in cities. The children were shipped to the factories, where they were compelled to work in exchange for food and shelter.

The Sadler hearings and debates led to the Factory Act of 1833. Robert Gray, in The Factory Question and Industrial England (1996), explained that provisions stipulated a maximum of eight hours and compulsory schooling for children between nine and twelve years old. For youngsters between thirteen and seventeen, the twelve-hour day was the limit. The act also established a factory inspectorate. With some exceptions, the provisions extended beyond the cotton industry to include all textile production that used power machines.

Once factory work was identified as the cause of debility, disease, and moral danger, the government intervened. This act established the model and structure for subsequent legislation. The Factory Commission's factory inspections legitimated further investigations. Medical opinion was instrumental in forming concern for factory labor and setting the rationale for regulation. Lung diseases, stomach and bowel disorders, varicose veins, leg ulcers, pelvic deformities, and childbirth problems were linked to factory work. In the 1840s, against the background of public and political pressure, the Chartist movement, and worker violence, legislation was expanded. In 1847 the Act to Limit the Hours of Labour of Young Persons and Females in Factories confirmed the ten-hour day in textiles. The precedent for government intervention and regulation of factory work, particularly in textile mills, where large numbers of women and children were employed, was generally accepted by the mid-nineteenth century.

The living standards of workers also came under scrutiny. Thompson described the average worker as living close to the subsistence level, but variations including industry, place of employment, skill level, and gender made the "average worker" somewhat elusive. The standard of living issue integrated questions about family, women's work, child labor, national health, and morality. Inquiries into diet, housing, and sanitation provided information on the living conditions of factory labor, which spurred later debates among social historians about the impact of industrialization on workers' standard of living. Most workers subsisted on a diet of cereal and potatoes. Meat was scarce, available only when someone earned extra money for a proper Sunday meal. Workers' wives bought inferior parts of animals, such as a cow's heel, a sheep's trotters, a pig's ear, and tripe. Beer was considered a necessity by many factory workers. It eased frustrations and encouraged camaraderie in the countless pubs that grew up in factory districts. Despite shop rules, workers liked to drink on the job, explaining that it gave them strength and quenched their thirst.

Change and continuity: 1875–1914. Many of the themes and problems of Britain's early industrialization persisted in the years before World War I, although working and living conditions improved somewhat. Regional industries were still a part of the economic landscape before 1914, with wide variations in the scale and concentration of production, levels of mechanization, wage systems, and workers' earnings. Factory work was almost complete in textiles, engineering, and metal work, but subcontracting had not been eliminated. Expanded and more sophisticated technology was troubling to workers, whose pride was bound up with the job. Although formal apprenticeships declined, skilled labor was required for many operations in the factory, where most workers were trained on the job. Evidence points to generational tension. Older skilled workers were reluctant to accept younger, less-skilled workers as equals. Some skilled workers went to extremes to protect their craft and independence. John Benson reported:

There used to be a craftsman in this shop who always came to work with a piece of chalk in his pocket. When he arrived each morning he would at once draw a chalk circle on the floor around his machine. If the foreman wanted to speak to him he could do so . . . as long as he stayed outside the circle. But if he put one foot across that line, he was a dead man. (Hinson, 1973, pp. 58–59)

A London engineer said that in 1897 he and his fellow workers used passive resistance and sabotage against new machinery and time monitoring. They deliberately slowed down the pace of work and complained to the "rate-fixer" that the production charts were wrong. The stopwatch was not welcome on the factory floor.

In the 1890s increased supervision became prevalent in most modern industries. New technology flattened the gap between the skilled and the unskilled. A factory inspector reported a policy used in some textile mills to guarantee production and enforce labor discipline requiring that female workers give the foreman a tally when they went to the toilet. The information was collected, and a woman was fined at the end of the month if the reckoning showed she spent more than four minutes for each visit to the facilities. Despite protective legislation, child labor was widespread before World War I. Working-class poverty was a recurrent theme, and children in textile families were expected to earn. Compulsory public education was introduced in 1876, but children continued to work part-time. In the textile mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire, children left school at age twelve to work half-time in the factory and full-time when they reached thirteen. This practice persisted until 1918, when it was legally abolished.

The British economy underwent structural changes between 1875 to 1914. However, it would be incorrect to assume that all traditional modes of production disappeared. The period of mature industrialization witnessed increased mechanization, wage systems based on speed of productivity, expanded use of piecework, and closer supervision of workers as many firms instituted systematic and "scientific" management. Child and female labor decreased. Trade union membership grew, and associations included more semiskilled and unskilled workers in their ranks. Although aggregate data on worker protests are incomplete, indications are that workers learned to use strikes as effective disruptions to force managements to meet at least some of their demands. Strike activity increased between 1908 and 1910, but in 1911 the number of strikes and the number of workers who struck rose dramatically. They stayed high until the outbreak of war.


Industrialization began on the Continent considerably later than in Britain. Wars, civil disturbances, and political particularism delayed innovation; guild restrictions were tenacious; the agrarian economy remained stable; domestic industry prevailed; and a shortage of raw materials retarded conversion to factory production. Also, deep social attitudes preserved traditional ways of work. By 1830 the only continental country that had introduced mechanization was Belgium, which converted various branches of the textile industry into factory work. France and several of the German states followed, along with southern European states like Italy and Spain, which progressed more slowly and with greater regional variations. For those entrepreneurs who realized the connection between wealth and mechanization, Britain was the source of technology, machines, and skilled labor. British workers installed machinery and trained others to use it efficiently; businesspeople developed factories in Belgium, France, and Germany; and British capital supported many industrial endeavors. W. O. Henderson stated in Britain and Industrial Europe (1965) that knowledge, inventions, machines, and personnel were transferred from Britain to the Continent, but conversion to factories also depended on national and regional economic, social, and political considerations.

FRANCE, 1850–1914

The factory worker was not characteristic of French labor in the mid-nineteenth century. Only about 20 percent of workers were employed in factories and mines in 1850. The pattern of development was regional with significant variations. Domestic industry and agriculture engaged most of the population in the first half of the nineteenth century, even while machines and mechanization were adopted in selected industries, such as textiles and metallurgy. However, tradition and relatively good earnings in the countryside made it difficult to entice labor into factories. Robert Magraw offered the following profile in A History of the French Working Class (1992). Textiles and clothing were the two largest branches of industrial production, employing about 58 percent of the non-agrarian population in the 1840s. About 10 percent of industrial labor was in metallurgy. Women and children were used extensively in factory work because they worked for lower wages and compensated for reluctant male labor. In 1866 about 30 percent of industrial labor was female. This figure rose to 40 percent by the outbreak of the war in 1914. Children comprised about 12 percent of factory workers in the 1840s, but that number declined gradually as a result of social concerns and the Labor Law of 1841.

Structuring factory work: management, resistance, and regulation. Generally the French were more traditional and less willing to submit to factory organization than the British. The French held strong ties to the land and to handwork. Industrialists had problems drawing workers, and the resulting labor shortage affected the composition of the workforce, wages, and the way employers treated their workers, especially those whose skills were essential to production. Employers found it easier and cheaper to use domestic industry instead of investing large sums in machines and factory buildings. Employers also faced seasonal interruptions. Factory workers who maintained connections with family and village usually went home for the harvest. In such an industrial environment, skilled workers could command high wages, and many employers offered further inducements to secure a stable core of workers.

It took several years of training and experience for textile workers to reach quality performance, but skill was not the only constraint. French factory workers tended to treat requirements for punctuality and discipline with distaste. They took unauthorized breaks, stole materials, showed up for work drunk, and insisted on observing Holy Monday as a day off to recover from Sunday. If none of these maneuvers relieved the pressure, French male workers often changed jobs and locations, a practice that disturbed production because new people had to be trained and integrated into the factory system. In metallurgy and other kinds of heavy industry, a skilled male labor force was essential. Because of the nature of the work, women and children were not appropriate substitutes. Metal firms paid high wages and raided other plants to keep a full complement on the job. Skilled English workers were used initially to train men in metals, and fifteen years was not an unusual length of time to reach full proficiency.

In textiles women made up half of the factory labor force. More women worked in spinning than in weaving, and more women worked in cotton production than in woolens production. But the composition of the labor force varied from region to region. Several factors mitigated against increasing the use of child labor. Male wages were high enough to limit the need for youngsters to enter the factories. New technology and larger machines eliminated tasks usually performed by children, especially the very young. Indications suggest that employers were aware of the effects of factory work on children's health and morality. Concerns culminated in the Child Labor Law of 1841. The law stipulated that children under eight years of age were prohibited from factory work, it banned night work for children under thirteen, and it required that children receive at least some elementary education. As in Britain, the law was evaded by both employers and families, who needed the meager earnings to get by. Factory inspection was unreliable, and the law applied only to firms with more than twenty workers. At least the issue of child labor was in the public domain, but humanitarian concerns did not override the cost benefits of child labor until the 1870s.

Wages in factory work were higher than in domestic industry, and they rose in the nineteenth century. The level of mechanization affected wage rates in various industries and regions. Notions of a "just wage" were included in pay considerations. What was deemed fair was supposed to be a notch above subsistence and reflective of the worker's skill, strength, and experience. To maximize return on the investment of machines and to keep costs low, manufacturers tried to insure that workers produced to capacity. High wages were one incentive, but piecework contributed to increased production and also to regulation of the work process. Laborers were commonly paid by the day, but skilled workers earned price per piece. Some evidence, however, shows that workers deliberately adjusted their productivity to prevent employers from setting standards of output at higher levels. Fines were imposed for disciplinary violations. It was expected that workers would clean and repair their own machines. To counter absenteeism and job changing, some of the larger manufacturers required that workers sign a contract. Employers often withheld a small part of a worker's pay, which was returned only if the reason for leaving was acceptable. Factory rules also promoted standardization, regularity, and quality work. Too much independence was not tolerated. Peter Stearns wrote in Paths to Authority (1978) that workers were prevented from "wandering" about the factory floor, carousing, drinking and smoking around the machines, and even singing. Fines were imposed for such behaviors.

Paternalism was a distinctive feature of large firms. Benefits were seen as a way to insure a disciplined, stable complement of workers, especially skilled adult men. While the approach was more prevalent in heavy industry, large textile plants eventually offered similar benefits. Benevolent policies did more to steady the work force than high wages. Among the benefits were company housing, pension plans, medical care, and on-site company schools, all of which bound workers more closely to their employment. Paternalism was clearly a strategy to promote manufacturers' self-interests and also to transmit middle-class values of family, order, cleanliness, and sobriety. Large textile firms in Nord and Alsace established mutual aid groups that provided a small amount to workers who were out because of illness or accident, and burial funds were popular. Voluntary or compulsory savings banks were also a part of company packages. Firms that established schools not only improved the quality of families and future workers but also complied with the 1841 Child Labor Law. Commonly children went to school for a few hours to learn the basics of reading and writing, then went to the factory. While paternalism provided mutual benefits for industrialists and factory workers, only a minority of France's labor force was eligible. Most workers, especially women, were employed by companies whose approach to labor was cost-effective and exploitative.

Change and continuity, 1870–1914. Between 1871 and 1914 French industrial structure continued to exhibit the characteristics of uneven development. Compared with Britain, small-scale, workshop production persisted in many sectors. The crisis of military defeat in 1870 and a depression that lasted almost until the end of the century slowed industrial advancement.

However, by the turn of the century a "second industrial revolution" was underway. The pressure of foreign competition expanded mechanization and stimulated new industries. Peugeot in eastern France changed from making metal hoops for corsets to producing automobiles. By 1914 France was home to the second largest car industry in the world. Lorraine became one of Europe's major steel areas. Technical knowledge enhanced chemicals, electricals, rubber, and aluminum. In Lyon the number of mechanized looms for silk production rose from five thousand to forty thousand by 1914, and industry diversified to include chemicals, metals, pharmaceuticals, glass, locomotives plants, factory-made clothes, and shoes in 1914.

As with early industrialization, France faced labor shortages prompted by rapid technological change and industrial diversification. The composition of the labor force was marked by certain particulars that were not seen in Britain. The number of women rose due to aggressive recruitment by employers. Women made up 31 percent of the labor force in 1866 and 37 percent in 1906. In Lyonnais half of the chemical workers, two-thirds of the clothing workers, and one-fifth of the metal workers were women. Interestingly, in contrast to England and Germany, married women tended to return to the factory after they had children. Migrant labor also figured largely in French industry. Belgians and Germans were supplemented by thousands of Italian workers brought in for the iron and steel industries. By 1914 about 1 million foreigners worked in France.

The standard of living improved at the turn of the century. Even with variations among industries and economic fluctuations, job security was less uncertain. The severe survival crises of the past subsided, and workers came to think of former extras as necessities. Workers' diets were more varied, often including fruits, butter, and condiments. By the 1900s workers allotted about 30 percent to 40 percent of their budgets to food, whereas at mid-century it hovered around 70 percent. Health and hygiene improved. Clinics for working-class mothers in major industrial areas affected prenatal and maternity care, and child morbidity fell considerably. Contemporaries measured worker health, at least in males, by the increased number of conscripts who qualified for military service. Reducing child factory work ameliorated health generally. Protective legislation of 1874 and 1892 set age restrictions, banned child labor in certain industries, and increased the number of factory inspectors. Parents often subverted the provisions by asking inspectors to ignore the illegal jobs of their children.

As wages improved and work time lessened, more workers had time and energy for leisure. The so-called "English week" of five and a half days allowed workers to think in terms of the weekend. Drinking, of course, was always important, but younger workers also looked to sports for excitement and relaxation. Some factories encouraged workers to organize soccer teams not only for healthy exercise but also to build company loyalty.


When Britain's industrialization was described as mature, the German states were just starting to adopt mechanization. Before the mid-nineteenth century mechanized factories were uncommon. Around 1840 German manufacturing was infused with technology from Britain. It is generally accepted that Germany's industrialization took place comparatively quickly and that changes occurred even more rapidly after unification in 1871. Regionalism was a noticeable feature of German industrial development. The centers for textiles were in Silesia and Saxony in the east and the Rhineland and Westphalia in the west. Heavy industry, iron, and metallurgy were located in the Ruhr Valley and Saar. Other areas maintained relatively traditional conditions to the beginning of the twentieth century. The large coal reserves in the western provinces of Prussia were not yet fully exploited. Metalworking establishments were small, scattered, and powered by water. Iron making was usually a supplement to peasant farming. The Solingen metal works employed large numbers of skilled men who worked in the traditional handicraft mode. Following unification, many of the hindrances to industrialization were eased and replaced by government support for economic advancement. The most aggressive period of industrial development was between 1895 and 1914. Huge firms organized in factory production accounted for the greatest increase in labor.

Germany experienced variations in the growth of specific industries and time differences in the process of mechanization and factory concentration. Most obvious were discontinuities between the capital goods and consumer goods industries. Because of the nature of production, an expanding market, and an available supply of skilled and semiskilled male labor, heavy industry could profitably introduce machinery and mechanization. In textiles, clothing, and tobacco a fluctuating market, foreign competition, and a ready pool of unskilled and semiskilled labor, almost 50 percent of which was female, made nonfactory work more flexible and more profitable. In the period of Germany's rapid industrialization, approximately 50 percent of industrial female labor was employed in the clothing industry, which further expanded into domestic industry and the putting-out system with the introduction of the foot-operated sewing machine.

The structure of factory work. Sexual division of labor was a statement about social and economic issues related to factory work. Earning a living was integrated into definitions of masculinity and femininity. When women worked in factories, their employment was often seasonal and intermittent, as industrial demand and personal and family needs guided their work outside the home. Over the course of their work lives, women changed jobs. They combined various kinds of work in factories, domestic industry, and agriculture and stayed at home if male earnings were sufficient for family viability. In the factory gender segregation was integral to questions of wages, skills, turnover, and legal protection. Controlled work assignments segmented industries and operations, as employers, government, religion, and society at large separated men's work and women's work into categories of labor. Sexual division preserved the contours of traditional gender roles by removing women as far as possible from direct competition with men. Protective legislation divided men and women workers by gender and regulated women's participation in the labor force. The same theme was adopted by male-dominated labor unions in an effort to control and even eliminate women from factory work, but that proved impossible.

During Germany's rapid industrial expansion in the 1880s and 1890s, a persistent labor shortage made women the appropriate choice for factory work. Women's factory work is best captured by examining the textile industry, where, as in France and Britain, women made up the core workforce before 1914. Kathleen Canning noted in Languages of Labor and Gender (1996) that, in the textile regions of the Rhineland and Westphalia, the lives of both single and married women included work in the factory. Censuses report that the number of women employed in the mills in all of Germany rose by 63 percent between 1882 and 1907, while male employment barely changed. The western provinces were also areas of heavy industry, which drew male workers away from the textile factories. Many factory women came from domestic industry, but the influx of hundreds of young women from the countryside aroused the most attention and worry. The single mill girls symbolized the worst effects of industrialization and factory work. However, employers were concerned not only with filling the line but also with developing a mature, reliable, and productive group of women, many of them married, to "regulate" the younger workers. Most entrants could learn enough in several weeks to do passable work and were considered fully productive within a year. Despite feminization, men continued to earn higher wages in textiles because they had the formal training to execute jobs that required skill, strength, and the know-how to handle the machines. Gender division of work processes and supervision made it difficult for women to improve wages or conditions on the job.

Industrialization brought an entirely new perception of time management and an opportunity to use time to regulate and discipline factory workers. Michael Schneider pointed out in Streit um Arbeitszeit (1984) that mechanization increased weekly work hours in textiles from seventy-five in 1825 to ninety in 1850. In the decade from 1860 to 1870 the work week was eighty-one hours. Worker protest was evident by mid-century. In Wuppertal two thousand factory workers went on strike to demand a twelve-hour day with extra pay for overtime. In the metal industries skilled male labor in the huge Krupp and Borsig factories worked a sixty-six-hour week, while male workers in printing and woodworking were in the factory from sixty to seventy hours a week.

Wage structures varied by industry and skill level. Systematic data on wages are not available for Germany for 1871 to 1914, but the existing material is sufficient to convey a sense of earnings by industry and operation. Total wages and wage rates varied according to employers' assessments of the work and the

A survey conducted by the Union of Factory Workers gathered the following information.
Men Workers Women Workers
Weekly Wages (in marks) Percentage of Workers Earning the Wage Weekly Wages (in marks) Percentage of Workers Earning the Wage
Franzoi, 1985, p. 43
less than 121.12%less than 88.92%
This information was collected by industry.
Occupation Men's Wages (in marks) Women's Wages (in marks) Women's Wages in Percentage of Men's Wages
Franzoi, 1985, p. 44
Painting and Varnishing20.5311.2855%
Day Work16.7210.5963%

worker, a hierarchical system influenced by custom and social status. Generally workers were considered skilled, semiskilled, or unskilled depending on their training and experience. Many skilled workers in heavy industry had family members in the same trade, and some had apprenticed. But as industrialization progressed, training under the supervision of a skilled worker was carried out in the factory. Skilled workers preferred piecework because it suggested a measure of control over production and gave them the opportunity to increase earnings. Piecework usually sped up production and put extra demands on labor. Many of the workers in the Daimler car factory complained of exhaustion, and textile workers spoke about chronic fatigue from the pace of the machines. Although most indices show that skilled male workers in heavy industry earned good wages, cycles of prosperity, recession, and depression caused underlying insecurity and unpredictablity. Employers also used wages as disciplinary tools. Base wages could be reduced if workers defied regulations. A textile company in Gera docked its workers 25 pfennigs if they arrived late or left work five or ten minutes early. The same fine was imposed on any worker caught dirtying the factory or smoking. Disturbing other workers, mutilating cloth, or tampering with machines could cost a worker half a day's pay.

Children were used heavily in the early factories, especially textiles, because they were a source of cheap labor and often were part of a family unit. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century children worked almost as many hours as adults. For example, in Dortmund in Westphalia children were in the factory for ten to fifteen hours daily. In Cologne in the Rhineland work time was eleven to fourteen hours, and in Breslau (present-day Wrocław), an eastern textile center, the workday lasted for ten to fourteen hours. The work was dirty, dangerous, and exhausting. In 1839 a petition from the provincial assembly in the Rhineland to the king of Prussia requested that children under nine be forbidden from working in factories, that daily work time for children nine to sixteen years old not exceed ten hours, and that children not be in the factories on Sundays and holidays. These provisions were adopted by the North German Confederation when it was formed in 1867.

Regulation of factory work. As in France and Britain, child labor in Germany was one of the first concerns categorized within the social question (soziale Frage), followed quickly by women in factories. The work-time issue was a central theme of the organized labor movement. The socialist trade unions took up the campaign, demanding adoption of the ten-hour day as the normal workday, and that became both the goal and the slogan for improving conditions of the working class. The Hirsch-Duncker Unions called for the protection of child labor and for the ten-hour day. Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler and other prominent Catholic spokespeople argued for industrial reforms to protect the family and to preserve morality. Owners and industrialists, of course, resisted reforms because to them productivity was directly connected to hours at work. For those who were willing to consider reducing hours, the only trade-off was intensification of the work process by speeding up the machines.

Desires to alleviate workers' suffering and at the same time to curtail their efforts to gain political power led conservatives to support social reform. Otto von Bismarck, who saw the Social Democratic Party and its related trade unions as a threat to the Reich (empire), devised social welfare programs to prevent workers from participating in marxist-based labor organizations. Although only about twenty-five thousand industrial workers out of approximately 5 million were involved with these unions in 1875, the number was growing and labor agitation, including an increased frequency of strikes, was becoming disruptive. In 1878 the Reichstag (parliament) passed antisocialist legislation that dissolved the Socialist Party and its affiliated labor unions. Government anxiety and pleas for social activism by both the Protestant and the Catholic Churches coalesced in the social reform legislation of the 1880s. A national health insurance program formulated in 1883 mandated contributions from both employers and workers. In 1884 national accident insurance became available for workers injured on the job. Lastly, a kind of social security system was introduced that provided workers with a small pension at age sixty-five, but only a minority of workers qualified for the program.

The culmination of the public outcry, agitation by the trade unions, Reichstag debates, and Catholic social reform work was the Labor Law of 1891, the most comprehensive employment law in Germany in the prewar period. The new regulations stipulated general conditions for all workers and mandated specific provisions for children and women. The following conditions pertained to all workers regardless of age or gender. Protections for life and health included prescriptions for workrooms, machinery, light, air space, and ventilation. Preservation of morality and decency required separating the sexes where work processes permitted and providing separate facilities for toilets, washing, and changing. All Sunday and holiday work was prohibited. Children under fourteen years old were forbidden employment, and children had to attend school until age fourteen. Work time for boys and girls between fourteen and sixteen could not exceed ten hours. Daily work time for all women could not go over eleven hours and ten hours on Saturday. Employment in industries with special problems of health, safety, or morality was subject to restrictions. The time-work issue of the 1890s was the struggle for the ten-hour day for all workers, but employers increased machine speeds and used rationalization to prevent any loss in productivity. Between 1890 and 1914 the continued pressure on manufacturers brought down work time, but it was accomplished industry by industry and factory by factory.


At the beginning of World War I older men in Germany substituted in factories for those called to military service. Quickly, however, women, many of whom had been strangers to factory work, were recruited for industrial jobs. In armaments factories and metallurgical plants the composition of the workforce changed dramatically. Women were actively sought as workers after 1916, when management recognized that the war would be one of attrition. In critical industries the proportion of women rose from 22 percent to 33 percent. The number of women in textiles declined as women sought better-paying work in armaments industries. Sexual division of labor and job segregation diminished in textiles, and women moved into operations that were previously reserved for men. However, men who were essential to the war effort resented the huge infusion of women and fought to preserve occupational exclusivity. The climate was often tense on the factory floor, as men engaged in criticism and ridicule and only reluctantly helped women learn the job. Employers paid lower wages to women, and the male-dominated trade unions were less than supportive of the notion that fair treatment for all should include women. Men interpreted the presence of women in traditional male jobs as future male unemployment and lower male wages. Employers used the labor crisis to further dilute jobs and rationalize the work process. Many tasks were segmented, so operations that formerly required skilled and semiskilled men could be performed by unskilled women.

Reform movements were suspended during the war, but workers responded to increased pressure with sporadic strikes. To maintain the civil truce and to assure a steady supply of labor in armaments industries, the government and employers understood the importance of organized labor in the management of the workforce. Trade unions were recognized, and worker councils and arbitration boards were established. Shop stewards gained tremendous power on the factory floor. Organized protests gradually increased during the war, reaching its highest level in 1917 and 1918. After the 1918 revolution initiated the German Republic and brought the Social Democratic Party into prominence, the eight-hour day was established in all industry branches with the understanding that no reduction in pay would result.

The labor shortage problem that nagged French industry reached crisis proportions during the war, as massive mobilization drained the factories of adult men. Of chemical workers, 58 percent were drafted. The leading engineering and armaments plant, Le Creusot, lost 5,500 workers in the first year of the war, and only around 25 percent of Renault's workforce remained after call-up. The labor deficit was filled by recruiting women, rural migrants, and immigrants and by returning thousands of skilled men from the front to the factories. Women in factories were hardly novel in France, but the war economy deepened existing trends. From 30 percent of the industrial labor force in 1914, women's participation grew to about 40 percent in 1918. Most obvious, however, was the presence of women in previously male industries and jobs. Women were employed extensively in munitions, chemicals, and metals. Women's work in the war sector was usually classified as semiskilled or unskilled, and they were normally under male supervision. They were told that their steadiness and dexterity made them particularly suited to dangerous jobs in munitions factories. Male-female pay differentials narrowed somewhat, but female wages did not reach equality with male wages. As women left the traditional consumer goods industries, wages there increased, too. To retain their female employees, some large companies provided nurseries and infant-feeding rooms. The pressure to produce caused exhaustion and accidents. Reform legislation restricting hours and night work were cast aside, and safety regulations were ignored. Dust, toxic fumes, and dangerous metals caused respiratory ailments, skin diseases, miscarriages, and stillbirths.

Mobilized workers (mobilisés) were those called back from the front to take charge of operations that required skilled labor in the war factories. They were still formally in the military and were subject to military discipline. These "soldiers in the factory" rejected army pay and demanded war wages appropriate to skill level. Their presence in factories and factory towns caused tension and criticism. Many of these workers in heavy industry had been involved in labor protest movements before the war, and their skills gave them privileged status. They were most likely to express hostility to speedups, dilution of work, and company paternalism. However, considerable resentment against them existed. They were accused of shirking and of causing the massive slaughter of men below their station. In the context of the devastating war, all worker complaints appeared trivial and unpatriotic, but a great deal of labor unrest and labor militancy broke out, especially in the spring of 1917. Workers went out on strike to protest falling wages, speedups, long hours, and high accident rates.

In Britain enthusiasm for the war against Germany brought in enough volunteers to deplete the industrial labor force. Thousands of skilled workers enlisted, amounting to a fifth of male engineers and a quarter of the skilled workforce in munitions and explosives. The government recognized the need for formal controls. Cooperation between industry and labor was considered necessary to sustain the increased pressures of the war economy, and British trade unions were encouraged to participate in decisions regarding war production. The government compromised its laissez-faire policies to intervene in areas most troublesome to workers. Food prices doubled, and rents jumped enormously where war industries were located. Industrialists sought justification for demoting skilled jobs to unskilled categories, but certain skilled workers were exempted from military service. To prevent disturbances in production, some employers told male workers that rationalization and technology would be reduced or eliminated after the war to permit the return of "normal" production and work relations. British union workers negotiated written promises that rationalization and women would disappear from the factories when peace returned. The Munitions of War Act of 1915 made strikes illegal, criminalized worker interference with productivity, and suspended safety regulations.

In 1916 six thousand women went on strike at the munitions factory in Newcastle against low wages. To integrate women into the factories, to lessen worker discontent and protest, and to promote productivity, Britain devised the idea of a factory-based welfare system with female supervisors. The welfare principle that women and children needed special treatment was only one part of the objective. As an adjunct to management, the policy seemed a more humane and efficient approach to insuring steady and energetic production. It was argued that the notion of family on the factory floor was more comfortable to women workers and more conducive to worker well-being. Supervisors were not only responsible for canteens, infirmaries, soap, toilet paper, and sanitary napkins, they had control over work, discipline, and interaction with foremen. Their function as supervisors in many ways paralleled that of management, but only regarding women. They were supposed to identify troublemakers, but more importantly, in the spirit of harmony and sometimes of maternalism, they tried to redress grievances over conditions and wages while at the same time minimizing absenteeism and production interruptions. Middle-class values were a part of their mission. Rough women, irregular relations with men, and inappropriate dress all came under the scrutiny of the "welfare lady." Not surprisingly, skilled male workers resented their presence, and foremen viewed them as a silly intrusion.


The massive dislocations and hardships of Europe's postwar years involved demobilization and reconstruction of the economy. Efforts to handle unemployment and inflation were directed toward rationalization and reclassification of the labor force. Many components of rationalization were intensifications of wartime production methods. Companies increased mechanization by introducing labor-saving machines and standardization of parts. Simple, tiny, and repetitive tasks vastly improved the flow of production with its automated and impersonal assembly-line precision. New forms of work direction, often called Taylorization after the engineer Frederick Taylor, were imported from the United States. New Soviet factories introduced these patterns as well. Dilution of work processes meant the substitution of semiskilled and unskilled labor for skilled workers. Sexual division permitted reclassification of women into a differentiated category of labor that was low skilled and cheap. While this allowed new levels of women's work in industries like chemicals and electrical appliances, it also created a framework in which many women could be structured out of the labor force and reassigned to the housewife role. Indeed, analyses of women in postwar economies have confirmed material and social impulses for restoring gender roles. This approach certainly went a long way to eliminate redundant labor. Old industrial branches were generally slow to recover or actually went into decline. New industries, such as chemicals and electricals, promised recovery and innovation for the future. Automobiles and radios were growing, vibrant, and representative of the new consumer culture, at least for those who could afford them.


Historically factory work is not an isolated phenomenon. It is best examined within economic and social contexts related to time and place. Yet recurrent themes persist over three centuries. Workers' relationships to machines and the work process influence the sense of self. Factory production evokes images of urgency and depersonalization. Gender and sexual differentiation of labor, with the corollary of anxiety about women's proper role, are evident in the early stages of industrialization and are apparent in schemes to reclassify women in postwar economies. Child labor, the central focus of reformers and protective legislation throughout the nineteenth century, was eliminated from modern societies but continued as an ingredient in developing countries, ironically in those sectors of the economy influenced by globalization. National, regional, and gender factors influence manufacturing in the world economy, while changes in factory production are at the center of labor-management relations. Technology, dilution, and the search for cheap labor are concerns of the modern market.

See alsoTechnology; Protoindustrialization; The Industrial Revolutions (volume 2);Working Classes; Labor History: Strikes and Unions; Social Welfare and Insurance (volume 3);Gender and Work (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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