Industrial Revolution’s Impact on American Society: Progress and Challenges
Technological Advancements: Paving the Path for Economic Transformation
The Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s was the beginning of a time of change for America. Moving forward in a progressive way could be the best thing that happened for the country. Although some could argue that moving at a pace we, as Americans, could not keep up with could tear the country apart. It could also make life much more comfortable and open lots of job opportunities. In this era where technology is taking over jobs, the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the social, economic, and cultural conditions of the late 1700s was more negative than positive. Even though we are still in a revolution in our current day, cultural, social, and economic changes were made in the revolution because technological advances were made, immigrants were offered the opportunity, and women and child labor were utilized.
First, technological advances were made all over the states, causing changes in our economy. Looking back, the Industrial Revolution was led by Samuel Slater, an emigrant from Great Britain. Slater is dubbed as the Father of the American Factory System. Slater employed families, including children, to live and work at the mill site. He even went as far as to build a mill village later called Slatersville (PBS.org). This began the turn of the Industrial Revolution, and one could only hope that better things were to come for the economy.
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According to Narvell Strickland’s study on the Industrial Revolution, he found that “With the introduction of Slater’s spinning frame and Whitney’s cotton gin, cotton gained immediate commercial value, and a cotton manufacturing industry began to slowly develop in America.” (Strickland, A History of Cotton Mills and the Industrial Revolution) Introducing the textile industry to the United States gave America the ability to grow the economy in the North and South. This also expanded the job opportunities throughout the entire state, leading to a better future.
Social Struggles Amidst Economic Shifts: Factory Labor and its Toll on Workers
Strickland also mentioned that “Colonel Wesson… believed that hired whites were less expensive than either bought or hired slaves.” This is just a little insight into the work conditions that were being presented to the lower social class. Most of the slaves had left for the homesteads in Kansas, and few were left to employ in these harsh conditions. This is what led to the hiring of whites to work in cotton mills in the South. In Robert J. Gordon’s “Rise and Fall of American Growth,” he leads us to believe that “The century of Revolution in the United States after the Civil War was economic, not political, freeing households from an unremitting daily grind of painful manual labor.” (Gordon et al. of America Growth) Gordon was saying American households were going to have a more comfortable life.
That may have been true for their home life, but the revolution also impacted their work outside of the home as well. The factory conditions that workers were forced to work in made the work conditions much more difficult. The textile industry had a huge impact on the social conditions leading into the early 1800s. Laborers complained of the labor that went into the industries with very little pay. In Ashville, Norfolk laborers wrote a letter stating, “If a poor man is out of work and wants a day or two’s work, you will give him 6 per week, and then a little [XXXX] that does not employ a laborer at all”.
This letter is just an example that shows some of the complaints that were coming from the poor. (Letter, 1816) Farmers were receiving threats to their property from supporters of the revolution. Threats were harsh, like this found in a letter from the late 1830s: “The lane down to your farm is dark – we will light it up” (Letter, 1830). Having threats of your property destroyed that you have worked so hard to maintain, being forced into an industry, being threatened for paying low wages, and not using labor-saving machinery was not growth but more of harassment.
Challenges of Progress: Struggles and Setbacks in Southern Industrialization
In Johnathan Rees’s article “Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States,” he explains that “The South had lagged behind the rest of the country since before the Civil War. As a result, many advocates for outside investment in this region expanded their activities after the war. They were somewhat successful.” (Rees, Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States). Over time, America needed a means of communication. This is where Samuel Morse came into play. Morse created a special code that helped modernize communication in the United States and eventually internationally as well.
“The dots and dashes system of telegraph transmission that became known as Morse Code came into being once Morse began his collaboration with Alfred Vail. One of its earliest versions is seen on page 153 in the bottom line titled ‘2d For Letters.’ By 1844, what became known as ‘American Morse’ had emerged, with nearly every letter undergoing some small change.” (Library of Congress) The Bessemer Process was an invention which drastically changed the Industrial Revolution. This process was the first inexpensive process to create steel, which allowed for steel to be used in constructing railroads, buildings, and later vehicles. This allowed us to build taller and more damage-resistant buildings and stronger vehicles to help our transportation in the United States.
Over time, even with our communication and industrial changes around the early 1850s, the South was still struggling to keep up. This would cause some strife during the Civil War. If the economy was able to keep up, then Americans in the South would have been more willing to move forward with the advances that were being made in the industry. This is what led to the first attempt of industrializing the South to fail. Farmers refusing to advance just shows that not all of America was ready or could not keep up with these changes in the economy. This would lead to further social class separation than we can imagine.
Railroads: Uniting Industries and Societies Across America
At this same time, the country was also advancing with the rail systems as the steel industry was taking off. This transportation advancement further took off for the United States to begin having more of a connection to get resources down to the South. The rail maps shown below from the Library of Congress show that America was trying to help out each other for the growth of the economy and the culture. Having a transportation system in place could connect the North’s textile industry and the South’s agriculture industry, working together to keep America supplied with our own resources.
The railroad process was one that took many years but, over time, came together to become the greatest force in modern industry. We still use the rail system to transport steel, coal, and oil all over the United States. According to ushistory.org, “Perhaps the greatest physical feat of 19th century America was the creation of the TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD. Two railroads, the CENTRAL PACIFIC, starting in San Francisco, and a new railroad, the Union Pacific, starting in Omaha, Nebraska, would build the rail line. Huge forces of immigrants, mainly Irish for the UNION PACIFIC and Chinese for the Central Pacific, crossed mountains, dug tunnels, and laid tracks. The two railroads met at PROMONTORY, UTAH, on May 10, 1869, and drove a last, golden spike into the completed railway.” (ushistory.org) Now that all of these railroads were finished and connected, America had a new transportation system.
According to Robert Weir, “By the late 1870s, railroads crisscrossed the nation, bringing farm goods to industrial cities and moving factory products to market. (Weir, Workers in America) Our society was impacted over the course of the American industry changes. We had more of a middle class and lower class. The lower class was used for labor that the middle and upper classes would not do, which caused more complaints and harsh working conditions. A group of “Whigs” passed out fliers standing up for the poor: “Thus much, Sir, for Ourselves we dare to plead, And now, Sir, for our Poor – who stand in need Of lodgings, raiment, food and everything That honest labor should to poor folks bring!” (Whigs, 1836).
Legacy of Struggle: From Tragedy to Hope in the Wake of Industrialization
These harsh working conditions eventually led to the Triangle Factory Fire. This factory building was supposed to be fireproof. With over 600 employees, men, women, and children working there, 141 lost their lives. There was only one fire escape that was in the building, and it had been overcome with flames. Many of the girls jumped to their deaths. (New York Times) Harsh working conditions like this, unfortunately, were more common than we were told. Weir also noted that “Machines made goods faster and cheaper, but they also displaced skilled workers, many of whom formed labor unions to protect their wage rates and privileges.” (Weir, Workers in America) With labor unions being formed, Flyers from the Whigs were being passed out all over, trying to encourage workers to join to protect their rights.
With all the changes that were brought through the Industrial Revolution, America has really advanced forward. Yes, the country has progressed to what is now a thriving country, but our social and economic status has not progressed at all. We are still a struggling country in regards to the wage/labor issue. Hopefully, as time goes on and more history is made, we can overcome these challenges and show great progress to keep up with our technological advances. Time can only tell how far we can go.
- Samuel Slater “Who Made America” (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/slater_hi.html)
- Letter from anonymous laborers to the gentlemen of Ashill, Norfolk, Date: May 1816. Catalogue reference: HO 42/150, folio 130v-131 http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/humanrights/1815-1848/doc-ashill-image.htm
- Letter threatening to burn the property of farmers who were believed to pay low wages or use labor saving machinery, Date: 1830. Catalogue reference: HO 52/8, folio 208 http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/humanrights/1815-1848/doc-farmers-image.htm
- ‘The Glorious Working of the Whigs depicting ‘Grinding the Poor”(1836). Catalogue reference: MH 32/60 http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/humanrights/1815-1848/doc-grindingpoor-image.htm
- A History of the Cotton Mills and the Industrial Revolution (http://narvellstrickland1.tripod.com/cottonmillhistory2/index1.html) (Narvell Strickland 1995)
- The Rise and Fall of American Growth; Robert J. Gordon (Princeton University Press, 2017)
- Industrialization and Urbanization in the United States, Johnathan Rees (http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-327)
- Steiger, W. T, and United States General Land Office. Diagram of the United States of America, Mexico, the West India Islands and Isthmus of Darien; by W. T. Steiger, General Land Office. Baltimore, 1854. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/98688319/.
- ushistory.org. 2018. ‘Early American Rail Roads.’ US History Online Textbook. Accessed December 7, 2018. http://www.ushistory.org/us/25b.asp.
- Morse, Samuel Finley Breese. Bound volume—28 November -18 April 1838. 28 November -18 April 1838, 1835. Manuscript/Mixed Material. https://www.loc.gov/item/mmorse000012/.
- http://trianglefire.ilr.cornell.edu/primary/newspapersMagazines/nyt_032611.html New York Times, March 26, 1911, p. 1.