Did the Industrial Revolution Disrupt the American Family?

The Industrial Revolution had a profound impact on American life economically, politically, and socially. It affected every facet of American society from the political and economic structures of the country to the family unit. Historians, however, have varying viewpoints on whether the Industrial Revolution disrupted the American family.

One point of view, represented by Elaine Tyler May, is that it disrupted the American family because the changing lifestyle that resulted put enormous pressure on men to provide adequately for their wives and children, which led to the breakup of many families. The opposing point of view, represented by Jacquelyn Hall, Robert Korstad, and James Leloudis, is that it did not disrupt the American family because in some parts of the country such as the south, many families were still able to live and work together in ways that were similar to how they lived and worked on their farms.

Given the available data cited by May on divorces during this period, I subscribe to the point of view that the Industrial Revolution disrupted the American family. The problem with Hall’s argument is that it is supported by examples that are too narrow to generalize for the country as a whole.

May argues that the mass production and consumption of goods which resulted from the Industrial Revolution, as well as the changing lifestyle and widespread prosperity put enormous pressure on men to provide for their wives and children.

To make matters worse, many of these men who were skilled tradesmen could not find work because factories were mass producing, and there was no job security for those who had jobs because of the weakness of the labor unions at that time. This pressure, she reasons, which came mostly from discontented wives who may have experienced heightened frustrations due to the affluence around them, led to a dramatic increase in the rate of divorce by 1920, compared to the 1880s.

Furthermore, limited opportunities for women in the workplace led women to channel their energies to styles and leisure pursuits, and with little money of their own, they looked to men for their desires. May reached her conclusions based on a sample of five hundred divorce litigations in Los Angeles in the 1880s, five hundred in 1920, and two hundred and fifty in New Jersey in 1920. Here, she found out that not only did the rate of divorce increase dramatically, the number of divorces that resulted from money related issues also increased significantly.

On the other hand, Hall, Korstad, and Leloudis hold the view that the Industrial Revolution did not disrupt the American family, citing the family labor system employed by cotton mill owners in the south, where family units were hired in stead of just individuals. These mills built villages which provided housing and other basic amenities to the families who worked for them, and allowed for continuity with their rural past and family labor patterns. The Industrial Revolution notwithstanding, they argued, culture and traditions such as mutual aid flourished and continued in the mill villages.

My point of view is that the Industrial Revolution disrupted the American family, and the samples of the divorce litigation data from the 1880s and 1920 clearly support this viewpoint. Many men filed for divorce because they could not bear the pressures from their wives, and many women did so because they were either neglected by their husbands or they were greedy and discontented with their circumstances while there was so much affluence around them. Had the society remained simple, there would not have been such an increase in the rate of divorce.

The problem with the example of the mill village culture cited by Hall and others is that this was a unique case and does not reflect what went on in other parts of the country or in other industries. Moreover, this example is not a very positive outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution because the mill owners dominated the lives of their workers almost to the point of enslavement.

While the unity of the family as displayed by the mill village culture may be socially desirable, these traditions may have contributed to the backwardness of the south, compared to their northern neighbors, in terms of economic development. In the end, the southerners still embraced the social ills of divorce and greed to which their northern counterparts were accustomed.

Did the Industrial Revolution disrupt the American family? Elaine May argues it did because the changing lifestyle that resulted caused wives to put pressure on their husbands, which led to a higher divorce rate than was the case in the 1880s. Hall and others, on the other hand, argue that it did not, citing the mill village culture in the south where traditions flourished. While I agree with May that the Industrial Revolution disrupted the American family, I believe those were just growing pains and families were strengthened in the long run.

The economic growth and modernization that resulted may have accelerated the entry of women into the workforce, and consequently, their emancipation. It afforded women the opportunity to earn their own money and contribute to the economic wellbeing of their families, thereby gaining more respect and better treatment by their husbands.