Social Impacts of the Industrial Revolution

The most intriguing to me and the most important to the society, as many historians agree was the social impact of Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. In fact, some historians like Rondo Cameron and R. M. Hartwell have ended up debating whether Industrial Revolution was an appropriate term for this revolution. Harold Perkin is another historian who shares the same viewpoint about Industrial Revolution as Cameron and Hartwell.

Perkin says that “the Industrial Revolution was no mere sequence of changes in industrial techniques and production, but a social revolution with social causes and a social process as well as profound social effects” in the preface of his book, The Origins of Modern English Society. This is one of the two books I’ll be using as reference for the purpose of this essay. The other book is titled, The Industrial Revolution in World History and is written by Peter Stearns.

The aspects of social impacts of Industrial Revolution that I will examine in this essay include changes in standards of living and family structure. Both the aforementioned books discuss these topics under a separate chapter. Perkin’s book solely discusses the Britain Industrial Revolution with facts and cited sources in the form of notes at the bottom of almost every page. It discusses a single aspect under a topic and how it progressed over a period of time.

On the other hand, Stearns’ book is an account of all the processes that took place during Industrial Revolution internationally. The book is more of a social account of industrialization while Perkin gives us a detailed economic analysis. Stearns cites no sources and doesn’t use any figures to convince the reader but does a very good job in writing an easy to read book.

Harold Perkin jumps straight to the issue of the changing living standards and realizes that it is a controversial issue in the sense that the short run changes in living standards might have had a downward trend. However, the long term trend was undoubtedly an upward one. He starts off by considering changes in income levels of the working class as income is a fairly good predictor of living standard. The two types of incomes mentioned are real incomes of the workers and the combined national income of Britain.

According to Perkin, real incomes of most of the people including middle class, upper class and some sections of the working class went up “by a multiple rather than a fraction” (Perkin 2002, 134) which contributed to a huge increase in national income throughout most parts of the nineteenth century. Perkin supports his claim by giving figures on nominal wages (money) and real wages between the period of 1790 and 1850.

To further ensure the accuracy of his claim he uses real wage data collected by various economists and statisticians rather than a single source. The data confirms that real wages for workers did decline in several periods but the long term effect stays positive.

The likeliest explanation for the decline in real wages is the increase in labor supply due to population growth and urbanization. In the early parts of Industrial Revolution the rich were the biggest beneficiaries. These were the factory owners who had discovered a whole new technology to aid their production or the entrepreneur for these factories. Their real wage increase exceeded the increase in real national product receiving more than their share of the national product. “Arkwright (leading entrepreneur of Industrial Revolution) made half a million pounds in less than two decades” (Perkin 2002, 140).

Adding to this, the new price structure of commodities based on the new patterns of production and demand also favored the rich. Food prices were higher as compared to the new manufactured goods. So, the poor who would spend all their income on food were gaining less than the rich who were the first ones to have the luxuries of industrialization, the new consumer goods.

The middle class including skilled factory workers and merchants followed the rich when it comes to enjoying the new consumer goods and the benefits of industrialism. These skilled factory workers are also referred to as the labor aristocracy. They were primarily craftsmen like printers, joiners, cabinet makers, cutlers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and the building crafts. A number of new occupations were added to the list later such as iron puddlers, fine spinners and the railway engine drivers. Their wages also kept up with the economic growth giving them an opportunity to improve their living standards considerably.

They could now afford “fine Georgian houses and furnishings, pianos and pictures, carriages and liveried servants” (Perkin 2002, 142). The middle class also emulated the rich in elaborating the variety of their food evident from their “obsession with French chefs, gargantuan feasts, and exotic foods, and from the spate of cookery books” (Perkin 2002, 142). The rich were first to enjoy other benefits of economic growth like improved transport, better houses, cleaner drains, piped water, improved medical treatment and taking holidays in new resorts. The middle class followed immediately afterwards in this trend.

Last to enter the circle of increased standard of living were the unskilled workers, farm laborers and the dislocated handicraft workers who were forced to revert to begging or criminal activities. The widening gap in income distribution was evident from the fact that number of servants increased faster than the population, indicating how easy it was for the rich to afford more of the poor labor.

These poor people discouraged early marriages because then they would have had to feed more mouths. They lived chiefly on bread, potatoes, very little or no milk, cheese or bacon once in a while; meat was a luxury to them. It wasn’t until after 1870 that they started to benefit from industrialization.

Perkins then talks about the effects of industrialization on the structure of family. In the early periods of industrialization when women started working in factories babies were neglected and handed over to baby-minders who would feed them badly and quieten them with opiates leading to a high rate of infant mortality. All members of the family would work, resulting in dissolution of family ties. According to some sources cited by Perkin, there was an increased sexual immorality both before and after marriage.

However, factory owners and operatives defend these accusations by saying that they employed no married women and that husbands didn’t want their wives to work. The situation improved when new factory rules were implemented where husbands could hire their own co-workers from among the family. “Thus transferring the family functions of child-rearing and moral education to the factory” (Perkin 2002, 156).

Later, in 1833, children were restricted to eight hours of labor and by 1850 a new role of the family was created with fathers working in factories, and wives were to stay at home with the children. This “left the family free to concentrate on more fundamental functions of child-bearing and rearing, and the emotional satisfaction of affection and companionship” (Perkin 2002, 157) was seen.

However, women felt useless in this family structure and certain women did raise their voices against this. In 1855 Barbara Bodichon, with support of the Law Amendment Society collected 26,000 signatures for a Married Women’s Property Bill. The bill got rejected but it made way for the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, which set up the Divorce Court. This laid the foundation of modern family laws. According to Perkin, “it was the Industrial Revolution which, if only indirectly, brought about the emancipation of women” (Perkin 2002, 160).

Peter Stearns analyzes the social impact of Industrial Revolution only from the viewpoint of factory workers, unlike Perkin who talks about all classes and sub-classes of the English society. He begins by pointing out the difficulties that factory workers had to face during some periods of low wages and high prices of some goods. At the same time, he agrees with Perkin on the issue of standards of living in the long run.

Both reckon standards to have gone up. However, Stearns thinks that the low living standards in the short run was not the biggest difficulty faced by the workers and does not mention income fluctuations for the workers and owners of factories, unlike Perkin. Instead he draws our attention to the job conditions in the new factory setting which Perkin didn’t talk about. New rules, fines and supervisors were introduced to increase the pace of work in factories.

Workers had to arrive when the factory whistle blew and those who were late would be locked out and would lose half a day’s pay in addition to the fine. Supervision was decentralized in many factories where a spinner would be allowed to hire his assistants. This decentralization was quickly replaced as it didn’t ensure the pace that owners sought. So, workers now had to work under the supervision of strangers for a life-time.

Later, firms constructed worker housing, provided some medical care, and in other ways extended assistance beyond wages to certain workers to give them incentives to cope with the new job rules and more importantly, to attract more skilled labor. This was similar to the treatment that Manorial Lords used to provide to their peasants and was welcomed by the workers.

They were still not comfortable with this new schedule at work but were working in the factories in order to return to the countryside with some savings. Employers realized that most workers “preferred to earn less but have more free time” (Stearns 1998, 59) when they started taking Mondays off to extend their Sunday leisure. With time, workers developed another strategy and the skilled labor also called ‘aristocracy of labor’ demanded higher pays and shorter hours to accept changes in the work situation. This approach was called instrumentalism and “was one of the novel results of the factory environment” (Stearns 1998, 60).

Another serious difficulty for the factory workers was a lack of recreational opportunities. They were used to the traditions of village festivals but could not arrange for anything of that sort because workers lived amongst strangers in the cities. Employers curbed any such effort to replicate a traditional procession with the help of police who thought that it was a threat to city order. This resulted in the increase in popularity of Taverns.

Drinks provided workers an escape from their tedious work and the tavern offered them with a chance to socialize with people in the new town. This was a huge transformation from village life to city life that Perkin failed to discuss in his book. Its significance lies in the fact that bars are still a favorite place to socialize for most working men in the modern world.

The role of family changed enormously during Industrial Revolution according to Stearns. The removal of work from home made it a “sanctuary in which innocent children could be taught morality” (Stearns 1998, 61). Women increased time with the family playing the piano and reading stories aloud. Marriage was now a relationship purely based on love with the husband and wife closer than ever before. Duties of the wife now included running the household with the aid of employed servants. Men were supposed to generate financial support for the family.

Women would also maintain contact with relatives as the man of the family would have very little time to socialize after the job. Women would only work before marriage to contribute to the family income. And it became a middle class notion for women to take care of domestic duties after marriage. Furthermore, child labor became increasingly unnecessary with improvements in machinery and “children’s role was redefined by the growing belief that the task of childhood was education” (Stearns 1998, 65). A new concept of adolescence emerged.

A new barrier between children and fathers was created. People started thinking when to have kids since they were no longer a source of income. This caused the birth rates to plunge. A whole new family system was developed.

Lastly I think Stearns neglects a couple of very important issues like emancipation of women, changes in diets and alterations inside the home with respect to decorations. However, both Perkin and Stearns agree on the larger picture how life for the middle class families changed. But Perkin stressed too much on the short run problems created in the family probably so that the reader is aware of the advantages and disadvantages of industrialization and is in a position to weigh them in order to reach a conclusion.

WORKS CITED:

Perkin, Harold. The Origins of Modern English Society. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History (second edition). Colorado: Westview Press, 1998.