The Industrial Revolution deserves the name with which historians have tagged it. It brought about thorough and lasting transformations, not just in business and economics but in the basic structures of society. Before industrialization, when the most significant economic activities in most European countries were small-scale farming and artisan handicrafts, social structures remained essentially as they had been during the Middle Ages. The advent of industrial development revamped patterns of human settlement, labor, and family life. The changes set in motion by industrialization ushered Europe, the United States of America, and much of the world into the modern era.
Most historians place the origin of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain in the middle decades of the 18th century. In the British Isles and most of Europe at this time, most social activity took place in small and medium-sized villages. People rarely traveled far beyond their home village. During the 18th century, the population of Britain and other European countries began rising significantly. Among the first signs of economic transformation was an increase in agricultural productivity, making it possible to feed this rising population. The combination of these factors led to profound changes in how rural people lived. Gradually, large-scale mechanized agriculture to serve the market began to overtake the kinds of subsistence farming most peasants had practiced for generations. The enclosure movement, which converted commonly held grazing lands into fenced-off private property, added to the new pressures facing the poor, rural majority.
The population increase added to the number of people facing difficulties making a living on the land. Many left their agrarian lives behind and headed for towns and cities to find employment. Advances in industry and the growth of factory production accelerated the trend toward urbanization in Britain. Industrial cities like Manchester and Leeds grew dramatically over the course of a few short decades. In 1800, about 20 percent of the British population lived in urban areas. By the middle of the nineteenth century, that proportion had risen to 50 percent. Other Western European lands such as France, the Netherlands, and Germany also experienced an increase in urban populations, albeit, more slowly. These changes thoroughly disrupted longstanding patterns in social relationships that dated back to medieval times.
The nature of work in the new urban industries also had significant social impact. Before the Industrial Revolution, artisans with specialized skills produced most of Europe’s manufactured goods. Their work was governed by the traditions of their craft and the limits of available resources. Human and animal muscle and the waterwheel were the era’s main energy sources. With the coming of factory-based industry, the coal-fired steam engine and other machinery set a new, faster pace for labor. In the factories, coal mines, and other workplaces, the hours were very long, and the conditions, generally, dismal and dangerous. The size and scope of manufacturing enterprises continued to increase throughout the 19th century as Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world industrialized. Larger firms that could achieve economies of scale held an advantage in the competitive sphere of international trade. In the industrializing world, the new means of production meant the demise of earlier, slower modes of labor and life.
The most insidious consequences of the new conditions may have been those affecting the most basic social unit: the family. The preindustrial family was fundamentally both a social and an economic unit. Married couples and their children often worked side by side on a family farm or in a shop, or otherwise divided their labor for the family’s overall benefit. It was also common in 18th-century Great Britain for women and men to work in their rural homes doing jobs such as textile spinning and weaving on a piecework basis for merchant owners. This decentralized form of employment was called the “putting-out” or domestic system. However, the rise of factory production and industrial cities meant a separation of the home from the workplace for most male workers. Very often, the need for income motivated men to leave their families behind for jobs in the city. Even without geographic separation, many types of industrial jobs were so demanding that they left little downtime for workers to spend preserving the relational bonds we associate with family life.
Women also worked outside the home. Unmarried women, in particular, often worked as domestic servants. Many British women, including mothers, were employed in the textile mills to help their families make ends meet. Child labor was also rampant in the textile industry during the first century of industrialization. Factory owners appreciated having workers whose fingers were small enough to manipulate delicately threaded machinery. Despite their importance to the industry’s output, these women and children were paid very little and were routinely compelled to work 16 hours per day or longer. Their jobs were perceived as less skilled than those of their male co-workers, although the working conditions were sometimes equally dangerous.
The United States underwent many of the same social transformations arising from industrialization. U.S. manufacturing began in earnest after the nation broke from England in the 1770s. An embargo on foreign imports during the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, and a British blockade of the Atlantic seaboard during the War of 1812, spurred domestic production. The United States became one of the world’s leading economic powers by the 1830s.
In the first half century after U.S. independence, a major proportion of the nation’s labor force shifted from the agricultural to the manufacturing sector. As in Great Britain, the textile industry led the way toward mechanization. In many industries, though, home-based production and artisan craft traditions gave way to wage labor in larger, machine-powered operations. Industrialization, along with great strides in transportation, drove the growth of U.S. cities and a rapidly expanding market economy. It also shaped the development of a large working class in U.S. society, leading eventually to labor struggles and strikes led by working men and women.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain, the United States, and other industrialized nations were debating and enacting reform laws to limit some of the worst abuses of the factory system. However, similarly oppressive labor conditions arose in many parts of the world as their economies industrialized in the 20th and 21st centuries. The reorganization of daily life wrought by industrialization had effects that weakened the material basis for the institutions of the family and the community. These effects were so lasting that they can still be felt in the present day—even as developed societies have shifted into an era that scholars describe as “postindustrial.”