In terms of social structure, the Industrial Revolution witnessed the triumph of a middle class of industrialists and businessmen over a landed class of nobility and gentry. Ordinary working people found increased opportunities for employment in the new mills and factories, but these were often under strict working conditions with long hours of labour dominated by a pace set by machines. As late as the year 1900, most industrial workers in the United States still worked a 10-hour day (12 hours in the steel industry), yet earned from 20 to 40 percent less than the minimum deemed necessary for a decent life. However, harsh working conditions were prevalent long before the Industrial Revolution took place. Pre-industrial society was very static and often cruel — child labour, dirty living conditions, and long working hours were just as prevalent before the Industrial Revolution.
The first factories were full of children. At this time there was no education for most children and it was expected that by the age of 7, children should be working. In the fields and workshops that existed before the revolution, children worked as part of family groups of workers, and this tradition lived on into the revolution. Parents saw it as natural that their children should be bringing in a wage.
Conditions in factories varied, with the worst being corporal punishment, little food, no pay and being chained into their workstations. Some of the best, as shown by Robert Owen, proved that it was possible to provide safe conditions whilst still making a profit. He lessened the hours of his child employees, even not employing children under the age of 10. He provided schooling for all underage employees, paid workers when they were sick and provided classes such as dance for his workers.￼
There were several benefits that came from these factories and their terrible working conditions. These include factory wages being higher in the factories than in the countryside, the prices of food and manufactured goods going down and a higher standard of living.
Higher wages and lower costs meant that more and more families could afford to put food on the table, have clothes and houses to live in and improve their standard of living. This was one of the main reasons as to why people put up with the terrible conditions.￼
During the early revolution, the workers had to put up with the conditions without any way to fight back. While they weren’t required to stay at their jobs, the unemployment rate was high, and employers wouldn’t think twice about firing their employees, as they were easily replaceable. Because of this workers continued to work in these conditions as they didn’t want to miss out on their pay, no matter how small it was.
With all the horrible working conditions and cheap company towns, many protests and riots took place. Labor unions were formed. The first ever labor union in the US was formed by Philadelphia tailors in 1869, and were called the “Knights...