The Industrial Revolution
Author: Timothy Knight
Each year, Time Magazine names the "Person of the Year" heralding, for better or worse, a person who recently had a significant impact upon the world. In 2006, the editors of Time stunned readers when they chose "You," a reference to the birth of the YouTube generation and the rapid proliferation of social media platforms such as Facebook. History is a subject often interpreted through the lens of prominent figures and events, but Time's choice to highlight the commons - relatively unknown individuals of different backgrounds, genders, religions, and ethnicities - reminded us that a gaping hole exists in our interpretation of history. Comparative to the entire population, famous historical figures comprise a tiny fraction of all the people that have participated in and contributed to human history. Long before Time announced "You" as the "Person of the Year," the common person played a critical role in shaping the world, but no other commoner-led phenomenon contributed more to our understanding of modernity, or in particular Western notions of a working class, as the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution cannot even technically be described as a single event, but rather a series of events that unfolded over the course of several decades and led to significant social changes. Historians now commonly refer to multiple industrial revolutions that have even continued and transitioned today into technological revolutions. A revolution typically refers to an event that signals a distinct and abrupt transition, or a historical break from the patterns that preceded it. The original Industrial Revolution, which began in Britain in the early 19th century, demonstrated a departure from labor practices used for centuries, namely agriculturally-based and production-based economic traditions, where the vast majority of people (around 80% in the late 18th century) hand-produced labor-intensive goods (such as clothing) in their own homes, often lived in sparsely populated rural communities, and had relatively little access to excess material or monetary wealth. The social system across Europe prior to the Industrial Revolution remained largely separated based on the medieval structure of the ancien régime, where society was roughly divided into privileged classes of nobility and clergy, and a vast class of rural peasants, urban commoners, and middling sorts. After the Industrial Revolution, human behaviors and social structures of the West began to change: people increasingly began to relocate to urban areas to seek out work in factories, the production economy transitioned into a consumer economy where material goods were produced by machines in mass quantities to be purchased by consumers, and wealth slowly began to be obtained by segments of the population who, for centuries prior, had very few economic freedoms.
But what role did commoners play in the early days of industrialization? If Time magazine had existed in the 1830s, what could be written of the experience and contribution of the average urban worker as they saw the Industrial Revolution unfold? Surely, the conclusions we may come to today about the effects of industrialization in Europe and North America may have been difficult to predict. But perhaps the lingering effects that industrialization has on lesser developed nations of modern times would be less surprising to those who worked in the factories of the early years of industry. One of the most well-known testimonies describing the worker's experience is found in Alexis de Tocqueville's Journeys to England and Ireland, where he described living conditions of the textile manufacturing city of Manchester:
"On ground below the level of the river and overshadowed on side by immense workshops, stretches marshy land which widely spaced muddy ditches can neither drain nor cleanse. Narrow, twisting roads lead down to it. They are lined with one-story houses whose ill-fitting planks and broken windows show them up, even from a distance, as the last refuge a man might find between poverty and death. None-the-less the wretched people reduced to living in them can still inspire jealousy of their fellow beings. Below some of their miserable dwellings is a row of cellars to which a sunken corridor leads. Twelve to fifteen human beings are crowded pell-mell into each of these damp, repulsive holes. The fetid, muddy waters, stained with a thousand colours by the factories they pass, of one of the streams I mentioned before, wander slowly round this refuge of poverty."
Alexis de Tocqueville, Journeys to England and Ireland (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958).
This grim depiction leaves the reader with stunning mental imagery of how devastating the living and working conditions were for those most intimately involved in this revolutionary time. Of course, for anyone familiar with the slums of modern-day Mumbai, Jakarta, or Manila - de Tocqueville's description of industrialization is hauntingly alive today.
Since 1830, the governments of Britain, the United States, and Western Europe have passed legislation improving upon the social conditions of the working class. Early industrial working conditions were so abhorrent by our modern measure of humane labor practices, it is tough to imagine how commonplace they were just under two centuries ago. Child labor, 14-hour work days, working six days a week, accompanied by terrifyingly few securities and dark, dangerous conditions where injury and ill-health were both expected and unremunerated. Naturally, such conditions do still exist today - but conveniently out of plain view of the contemporary Western worker. The most well-known photographs of the remnants of American child labor, for example, were captured by the camera of Lewis Hine in the early 20th century. Compared to 2018, Hine's photographs are a testament to how quickly industrialization, and indeed the working class, has changed society. Since the mid 19th century, it is no surprise governments were often prompted to implement changes by the masses of workers themselves - whose sole defense against the barbaric conditions was to interrupt the industrial system through strikes, or unleash the terrifying prospect of revolt.
While the labor class of today's Western nations certainly doesn't face the level of abuse experienced by those of the early Industrial Revolution, modern workers are not without strife - particularly in lesser developed nations in parts of Africa and Asia. Even in the West, the ripples in the pond emanating from the stone of the Industrial Revolution have created economic conditions that prevent upward social movement and entrenched unfathomable sums of money in the hands of a few. Such conditions must be understood by history's most important actors, common individuals, in order for progress to continue to be realized.