Working Conditions

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

(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
. 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

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
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!