The Social Effects of the Industrial Revolution

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Vu Tran-Nguyen

C03, Katie Payerle

Final Paper: [MMW5 – WIN04]


The Social Effects of the Industrial Revolution

        During the period of 1760-1850, Great Britain experienced a phenomenon that earned it the title “the workshop of the world” (Ward 22).  It was an incident characterized by the rise of machine-powered factories, technological advances, an increase in population with a decline of agricultural population, and the expansion of trade.  These are the characteristics of the Industrial Revolution, defined by Arnold Toynbee to be the “substitution of competition for the medieval regulation” (Toynbee 1, 58).  Adam Smith envisioned it to be an economy free of government interference, driven by forces of competition and the nature of human greed.  Smith’s ideas were published in the book The Wealth of Nations, and these ideas manifested to produce the characteristics seen by the Industrial Revolution.  Therefore, it is implied, if not apparent, that one of the causes that led to the rise of the Industrial Revolution of 1760-1850 was the manifestation of the ideas Smith put forth to achieve wealth and productivity for a nation.

        The process of industrialization, however, resulted social effects that concern the standard of living of the working class.  Opponents to the Industrial Revolution, dubbed “pessimists” (Doty 5), feel that “the effects of the Industrial Revolution prove that free competition may produce wealth without producing well-being” (Taylor VII).  On the contrary, proponents supporting the process of industrialization and the introduction of the factory system, dubbed “optimists” (Doty 5), claim that the standard of living, or the quality of life, of the working class actually improved throughout the Industrial Revolution entire initial period.  Did the Industrial Revolution raise or lower the standard of living of the social working class?  These two different viewpoints clash when attempts are made to answer the preceding question.  However, upon examining statistical evidence, I contend that living standards of workers did improve throughout the duration of the Industrial Revolution, or at least there was no deterioration of their quality of life.  The reason for clashing of viewpoints lies in the different way each group defines the phrase “standard of living.”  Its definition is defined accordingly below.

        According to the optimists, standard of living refers to tangible “material conditions such as wages, purchasing power, food and diet, housing, health and length of life, population growth, and clothing” (Doty 5).  These are measurements that optimistic historians can obtain quantitatively.  In the proceeding arguments, proponents to the factory system and industrialization will provide quantitative evidence to prove that the quality of life of an average working class person did increase due to the process of industrialization.  One such optimist scholar G.R. Porter argues that the paramount objective to show progress, or a better quality of life, of a people is to show that its population increases from an earlier period to a relatively later period.  Thus “between 1780 to 1850 the population of England and Wales rose from some 7.5 to 18 millions” (Doty 113).  Additionally, there is evidence provided by Porter that mortality rates were decreasing.  Porter successfully shows that mortality rates decreased substantially in cities undergoing major industrialization, such as Manchester, Salford, England, and Wales, through statistics taken from the reports of the Registrar-General.  According to the data then available, “the annual mortality of England and Wales…was 1 in 40 in 1780; in 1801, it was 1 in 48; and in 1830, it had decreased to 1 in 58” (Doty 61).  A decrease in mortality rates, as these numbers clearly point out, suggests that people were living healthily, and that sanitary conditions were acceptable to produce a viable environment in growing manufacturing cities.  This argument disproves the notion that the general quality of life of people diminish by over-crowding of space, “by their being brought together in masses,” and by the introduction of the factory system (Doty 60).  Therefore, we can conclude from the quantitative evidence given above that the standard of living was improved.  The increase in population and the decrease in mortality rates indicate the factory system must have worked well to provide good living standards that allow long life spans.  If it is not convincing that industrialization improved the quality of life of the working class, then at least the evidence defends that the process of industrialization did not deteriorate their standard of living.

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        G.R. Porter defends the factory system and the process of industrialization through the use of evidence of population growth after 1780, and of a lower death rate.  Optimist scholar R.M. Hartwell agrees with Porter, and asserts that the decrease in death rate was a direct consequence of environmental and nutritional improvements (Hartwell 178).  Hartwell goes further in showing that there was an increase in savings during the industrial revolution.  He shows that “deposits increased to 14.3 million pounds by 1829, and to almost 30 million pounds by 1850” (Doty 100).  This increase in savings is due primarily to the introduction ...

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