There is no question that the Industrial Revolution had an enormous impact on American society between 1870 and 1940, but the question is what kind of an impact did it have during this period. The overall effect of the Industrial Revolution turned out to be a positive push towards modernization in America. As Stephen Gardiner, a British architect and writer during the 20th century, said, “The Industrial Revolution was another one of those extraordinary jumps forward in the story of civilization.”
While Gardiner hit the nail on the head with his quote, the part of the story that most people tend to forget is just how quickly we Americans, made that extraordinary jump forward. There were Americans, who, at one point in their life were riding horses as a means of transportation and then at another point were driving automobiles. However, was this a good thing? Did America quite possibly rush the industrialization process?
In order to better answer these questions, we must take a step back and examine the most important changes economically, socially, and environmentally in America between 1870 – 1940.
After the Civil War was all said and done, and the Union had once again taken control of the Southern states, the question on everyone’s mind was, “what’s next?” Well, first, before anything could really change, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed on April 15, 1865, just six days after the war was over. Lincoln, who was loved in the North, had a strong will and sense of urgency.
He had already taken many steps necessary for reconstruction during the war, such as: the Amnesty Proclamation which granted a pardon to all Southerners who weren’t an officer and didn’t mistreat any Northern prisoners, the Emancipation Proclamation granted African-American’s in the South their freedom, and the National Bank Act, which enabled the U.S.
Government to use the debt owed to them for the government bonds they issued to the banks. Today, these proclamations and acts that Lincoln passed during the war are sadly overlooked. However, had this not been the case, had Lincoln not done we he did, America may have been a very different place today.
In the years following the war, once everything had settled down and the United States of America was whole again, technology really began to pick up. At the start of the 1870s, America was in the beginning stages of becoming a very technologically advanced nation.
Some of the key ingredients that America already had for the future were, electricity, steal, railroads, chemistry, and the most important one of all engineers of production. These engineers were innovators and wanted to be able to mass-produce anything that they could. In order to mass-produce at a high capacity, the engineers believed that America must create parts interchangeably.
This enabled manufacturers to manufacture things such as, guns, clocks, bicycles, typewriters, and even engines very quickly. Whether America knew it or not, this was the beginning to something that would forever change the way the world operated.
Because many manufactured goods were now being made interchangeably, the efficiency for manufacturing consumer goods was at an all-time high. Soon, the economies of scale technique was introduced and manufacturers were now able to figure out how much it cost per product depending on the supply, demand, and actual cost of the product. It was now much easier for innovators to focus on upgrading these products, instead of having to make them one by one. Once it was easier to upgrade machines, new and improved technologies and products followed.
Soon every type of machine and technology, from the railroad to the typewriter, was being manufactured, improved, and transported at a faster pace. This quickly led to the “big boom” for the American economy. For the first time people were able to buy manufactured goods at a reasonable price, and because it wasn’t nearly as expensive as it used to be, this made American consumers excited for the present and future again. Once consumers began to buy more goods, the American economy started to grow.
Then, once more companies became technologically sound, competition began, which drove the prices down and increased consumer demand. This was how the free economic market of America was supposed to work.
Andrew Carnegie even once said, “We accept and welcome… as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few; and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.” This became the beginning of economic America on a global scale.
However, not everyone was enjoying his or her new life during the Industrial Revolution. Many poor people were forced to share an apartment with 6 or 7 other people. Living in such unsanitary conditions usually caused disease and sickness. Factory conditions also made the workplace a very unsafe environment for people. It was always dark and there were never any precautionary safety measures taken.
During this time, so many Americans lacked the proper medical care to survive from diseases they obtained while working or while at home with seven other people. So even though the Industrial Revolution was a great time for the middle and upper class, think about all the poor people, including the factory workers, who were suffering and dying every single day. Lastly, what no one knew, or even thought about back then was the environment. The Industrialization Revolution did so much damage the o-zone layer and we didn’t have the slightest idea. Think about all those unfiltered factories, and all the pollution that was leaking into the atmosphere.
We should consider ourselves lucky that we did eventually figure this out, but scientists say the damage has indeed been done. As environmental activist and writer, Derek Jensen says, “no matter what we call it, poison is still poison, death is still death, and industrial civilization is still causing the greatest mass extinction in the history of the planet.” Although Jensen may be exaggerating a little bit, he does have a point. No matter what we say or do from this point forward, the damage has been done to the planet, the o-zone has acquired several rips and holes in it, and there is nothing we can do to do fix it.
Furthermore, I think it is safe to say that the Industrial Revolution had so many different impacts on America as a whole. Some would say that the good impacts outweigh the bad impacts and vice-versa, but I believe that what did happen could have been a lot worse. As Americans, even though the economy isn’t too great right now, we are whom we are today because of the Industrial Revolution and everything that happened, good and bad, between 1870 and 1940.
Henretta, James A.; David Brody; and Lynn Dumenil. America: A Concise History. 3rd Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006. Print.
Morris, Charles. Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution. PublicAffairs, 2012. Print.