Industrial Revolution’s Impact on American Factory Workers

A Professor’s Position: What was the effect of the industrial revolution on factory workers?

The industrial revolution and the great economic success that accompanied it had a wide variety of victims. As we have previously discussed the American public, through the efforts of trusts, became a victim of the elimination of competition. The consumer was not the only victim however. The American worker was also victimized.

As America industrialized two things happened:

(A) There was a shift from rural (country) regions to urban regions. This population shift is known as urbanization. The reasons for urbanization should be obvious…that was where the work was! Urban centers were traditionally founded near waterways, this provided them with easy sources of labor (immigrants) and shipping.

(B) Factories began to replace small “cottage” industries. As the population grew so did wants and needs. Manufacturers realized that
bulk production was cheaper, more efficient and provided the quantity
of items needed. As a result more and more factories sprang up.

Factory work is very different from other types of labor. The introduction of the factory system had a profound effect on social relationships and living conditions. In earlier times workers and employees had close relationships. By contrast, the factory owners were considered to have discharged their obligations to employees with the payment of wages; thus, most owners took an impersonal attitude toward those who worked in their factories. This was in part because no particular strength or skill was required to operate many
of the new factory machines. The owners of the early factories often were more interested in hiring a worker cheaply than in any other qualification. Thus they employed many women and children, who could be hired for lower wages than men. These low-paid employees had to work for as long as 16 hours a day; they were subjected to pressure, and even physical punishment, in an effort to make them speed up production. Since neither the machines nor the methods of work were designed for safety, many fatal and maiming accidents resulted.

Factory owners, especially those involved in the steel industry and in the coal mine industry, often would build company towns. Workers were given cheap rent in these towns to go along with there low wages. In essence the worker was trapped. They company town afforded him a place to live and without the job he couldn’t leave.

Those in the garment industry worked in sweatshops. Sweatshops were poorly ventilated and lit rooms where seamstresses sat side by side doing piece work (specializing on one piece of the work thus never making a finished product.) The cloth would be piled high, workers were not allowed to talk. Often sweatshop employees where forced to work late into the night so that the job was completed or they wouldn’t get paid.

One of the most influential events in labor history was a direct result of sweatshop conditions. The Triangle Shirt Factory Fire killed 114 workers because the fabric could fire and tore through the building. There were no fire escapes and the doors opened out into the hall. The doors where blocked locking the workers in. As result stricter building codes and fire regulations where passed.

Inside the Triangle Shirt Factory
after the fire
Twisted Fire Escapes

Coal miners also faced difficult work conditions. Mine owners often hired children whose small hands could fit into narrow openings to scrape coal from the mine walls. Working 16 hour days with poor ventilation and frequent cave ins these children might be paid a dollar a day.

It was only a matter of time before these conditions would force change. The question was when. With America embracing a laissez faire philosophy few in government favored interfering on behalf of the worker, of whom many where immigrants. The ideals of social Darwinism and rugged individualism created the mentality that if the workers where to improve their lot in life then they would have to do it themselves, and it wasn’t easy!

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Working Conditions: What was the effect of the industrial revolution on factory workers?


The Industrial Revolution, spanning from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, was a period marked by rapid industrial and technological advancements. America, following closely in the footsteps of European nations, embarked on a transformative journey that saw its landscape, society, and economy undergo drastic changes. Central to this transformation were the factories, symbols of industrial prowess, which redefined the nation’s production capabilities. However, beneath the hum of machines and the rising factory chimneys, lay the stories of countless workers whose lives were equally, if not more, transformed by these developments. Understanding the effects of the Industrial Revolution on these factory workers is crucial, not just as a historical inquiry, but also to glean insights into the complex interplay between progress and its human cost.

Historical Background

Before delving into the direct implications of the Industrial Revolution on factory workers, it’s pivotal to set the historical backdrop against which these changes occurred. Pre-industrial America was predominantly agrarian, characterized by small farming communities where production was largely for local consumption. Artisans and craftsmen dominated the production scene, creating goods on a small scale, often tailored to individual needs.

The roots of the Industrial Revolution can be traced back to Europe, notably in Britain, where innovations in textile manufacturing, iron production, and steam power began to reshape the contours of traditional production and commerce. These advancements, fueled by a blend of scientific curiosity, entrepreneurial spirit, and economic imperatives, gradually spilled over to America. By the dawn of the 19th century, America began to witness the establishment of its first factories, especially in the textile sector, marking the beginning of its own industrial saga.

As factories began dotting the American landscape, especially in the Northeast, they signaled the decline of the artisanal and craft-based mode of production. The demand for factory-produced goods surged, driven by both domestic needs and export opportunities. The shift from an agrarian framework to an industrial one was not just about machines and factories; it entailed a complete overhaul of societal structures, economic models, and, most importantly, the nature of work itself.

Transformation of Labor: From Farms to Factories

The emergence of factories heralded a seismic shift in the nature and structure of labor. The agrarian societies of pre-industrial America were marked by seasonal work rhythms, intertwined with nature’s calendar. Farming families would sow, tend, and harvest crops, adapting to the ebbs and flows of natural cycles. With the rise of factories, these rhythms were disrupted, giving way to the consistent hum of machinery and the relentless tick of the clock.

As factories proliferated, there was a compelling push and pull effect on the labor force. The promise of steady wages, even if meager, drew many from their farmlands to the burgeoning urban centers. The allure of a new life, juxtaposed with the declining profitability of small-scale farming due to technological advancements in agriculture, made the choice seemingly clear for many. However, this migration from farms to factories wasn’t just a physical relocation; it was a profound shift in lifestyle, values, and work ethics.

In the factories, production was scaled up, standardized, and streamlined. The artisanal pride of crafting a product from start to finish was replaced by the monotony of repetitive tasks. Workers became cogs in a vast industrial machine, each responsible for a tiny fragment of the production process. This compartmentalization of tasks, while efficient, devalued individual skill sets and reduced workers to mere appendages of the machine.

Working Conditions Inside Factories

The inner workings of factories painted a grim picture for many of its inhabitants. Most factories were characterized by long, grueling work hours, often stretching up to 14-16 hours a day. Breaks were few, and the concept of weekends or holidays was virtually non-existent for many.

The physical environment within factories left much to be desired. Packed with machinery and workers, many factories were poorly ventilated, leading to stifling heat during summers and unbearable cold during winters. The lack of proper sanitation facilities and the buildup of dirt and grime from machines compounded the woes of workers. Gas lighting, used in many factories, emitted fumes and reduced air quality, making respiratory ailments common among factory workers.

Safety standards were rudimentary at best. Machinery was often unguarded, and accidents – ranging from minor injuries to fatal mishaps – were frequent. Protective gear, if provided, was minimal, exposing workers to the relentless noise of machines, flying sparks, and harmful substances. Young children, with their nimble fingers, were often employed in tasks that adults found challenging, further elevating the risk factor. Child labor was not just an economic necessity for many families but also a grim reality of the factory system that prized dexterity over safety.

The emotional and psychological toll on workers was immense. The monotony of tasks, the relentless pace of machinery, and the dehumanizing treatment by overseers and factory owners led to feelings of alienation. Many workers felt disconnected from the end product, leading to a sense of purposelessness and loss of pride in one’s work.

Economic Impacts on Workers

On the surface, the rise of factories promised a stable source of income for the masses. Wages, instead of being dependent on unpredictable agricultural yields or fluctuating demand for artisanal goods, were now more consistent. However, the nature of this economic transition was more intricate than it appeared.

Factory wages, though regular, were often meager. Owners and capitalists, driven by the desire for higher profits, frequently suppressed wages, justifying their actions with the abundant availability of labor. The influx of workers from rural areas to cities resulted in an oversupply, allowing factory owners to dictate terms. The wage system also introduced the concept of ‘wage slavery’ where workers, despite being technically ‘free’, were economically bound to their employers due to debt, poverty, and lack of alternative employment opportunities.

Job security was another significant concern. The transient nature of factory work, combined with the vulnerability to economic downturns, meant that layoffs were common. Workers lived in perpetual fear of losing their jobs, especially as technological advancements often meant machines could replace human labor for certain tasks. This precarity was further exacerbated by the absence of social safety nets or unemployment benefits.

The challenging economic conditions, coupled with the exploitative practices of many factory owners, eventually led to the rise of labor unions. These organizations aimed to unite workers, challenge unjust practices, and push for better wages, shorter working hours, and improved working conditions. Strikes, protests, and negotiations became common, as workers began to understand the power of collective bargaining.

Social and Psychological Impacts

The Industrial Revolution didn’t just transform economies; it deeply influenced societal structures and individual psyches. Traditional family roles were upended, as factories became the primary workplaces for both men and women. Women, traditionally confined to domestic roles or agrarian tasks, now found themselves working alongside men in factories. This shift, while empowering for many women, also introduced new challenges, especially concerning childcare and household responsibilities.

Children, too, were not spared from the rigors of factory work. The economic necessity of having multiple earning members in a family meant that children, some as young as six, were thrust into the harsh world of factories. This robbed them of their childhood, education, and opportunities for upward mobility in the future.

Urbanization, a direct consequence of the Industrial Revolution, brought about significant changes in community structures. Close-knit rural communities were replaced by vast urban sprawls. While cities offered opportunities for social interactions and cultural experiences, they also bred anonymity. The sense of community, intrinsic to rural life, often faded in the face of urban individualism.

The psychological implications of these shifts were profound. Factory work’s monotony, the alienation from the end product, and the relentless pace of urban life led to feelings of disconnection and purposelessness among many. The traditional pride associated with craftsmanship was lost, leading to a void that was hard to fill. For many workers, the factory system, despite its economic promises, felt dehumanizing and soul-crushing.

Reforms and Responses

The bleak working conditions inside factories and the challenges faced by workers did not go unnoticed. As the 19th century progressed, public awareness and outcry against these conditions grew, leading to calls for reform and intervention.

Journalists and writers played a significant role in highlighting the plights of the factory workers. Muckrakers, investigative journalists committed to exposing societal ills, wrote extensively on the conditions inside factories, often going undercover to provide firsthand accounts. Literature too became a medium of protest, with authors penning novels and articles that portrayed the hardships of the industrial working class. These publications raised public awareness and sparked debates on the ethical implications of unchecked industrialization.

Legislative action became inevitable as public pressure mounted. The government, initially hesitant to interfere in the free market, began to see the need for regulation. Various Factory Acts were passed, which aimed at improving conditions inside factories. These laws mandated safety measures, established minimum age criteria for child labor, and in some cases, regulated working hours.

However, the most influential force advocating for workers’ rights was the labor movement. Unions became more organized, vocal, and strategic. Strikes became a common tool for negotiation, and although they often led to confrontations and were met with resistance from factory owners, they gradually resulted in tangible benefits for workers. The labor movement’s achievements included better wages, shorter working hours, and the recognition of workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.

While these reforms were significant, they were often incremental and met with stiff opposition from industrial capitalists. Nevertheless, they laid the groundwork for more comprehensive labor rights and protections that would continue to evolve in the 20th century.


The Industrial Revolution, a transformative period in American history, brought about unprecedented changes in production, economy, and society. Central to this narrative were the factory workers, whose lives were reshaped by the promises and challenges of industrialization. While the revolution brought about economic opportunities and laid the foundations for modern industrial society, it also exposed workers to exploitative conditions, economic vulnerabilities, and deep-seated societal changes.

The story of the Industrial Revolution is not just a tale of machines, factories, and innovations; it’s a human story, marked by aspirations, hardships, protests, and reforms. As we reflect on this period, it serves as a poignant reminder of the delicate balance between progress and its implications. It underscores the importance of ethical considerations in economic pursuits and highlights the enduring spirit of humanity in the face of overwhelming challenges.