World History
Sara Watts
Primary Readings
The West in the Age of 
Industrialization and Imperialism

As far-reaching as the transformation of Western civilization since the Renaissance had been, no one around 1800 could have predicted the even more profound changes that would occur in the nineteenth century. When Napoleon met defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Europe's population was 200 million, with as many as 25 million people of European descent living in the rest of the world. When World War I began in 1914, these numbers stood at 450 million and 150 million, respectively. In 1815 most Europeans and Americans lived in rural villages and worked the land; during the nineteenth century millions migrated from the countryside to cities, and by 1914, in highly industrialized nations such as Great Britain, a majority of the population was urban. In 1815, despite two decades of democratic revolution, most governments were aristocratic and monarchical; in 1914 representative assemblies and universal manhood suffrage were the norm in most of Europe, the United States, and the British dominions of Canada, Australia. and New Zealand. In 1815 most governments limited their activities to defense, the preservation of law and order, and some economic regulation; in 1914 governments in most industrialized states subsidized education, sponsored scientific research, oversaw public health, monitored industry, and provided social welfare care and, as a result, had grown enormously. 

Europe's global role also changed dramatically. In 1815 it appeared that the Europeans' political power was declining throughout the world. Great Britain no longer ruled its thirteen North American colonies, and Portugal and Spain were losing their colonies in Central and South America. Decisions by several European states to outlaw the slave trade seemed a step toward a diminished role for Europeans in Africa, and nothing Suggested that the Western nations had the power or inclination to extend their influence in Southwest or east Asia. Only the continuing expansion of British power in India hinted at what the nineteenth century would bring -- the West's take-over of Africa and southeast Asia, its Intrusions into the politics of China and southwest Asia, and its unparalleled control of world trade and investment. 

To a certain extent, these and other changes resulted from the acceleration of trends deeply rooted in Europe's past. The scientific and technological developments of the nineteenth century, for example, were built on a foundation dating to the Middle Ages. Nor was the profusion of a new literary, philosophical, and artistic movements unique intellectual ferment had characterized Europe since the twelfth century. Late nineteenth-century imperialism ,vas but another chapter in the long story of Western expansionism, and the struggle of disenfranchised groups such as factory workers and w omen for political rights was the logical extension of the doctrines of equality and individual rights enunciated during the Enlightenment and French Revolution. 

The single most important cause of the West's transformation and expansion in the nineteenth century was the Industrial Revolution, a series of wide-ranging economic changes invoking the application of new technologies and energy sources to industrial production, Communication, and transportation. These changes began in England in the late eighteenth century when power-driven machines began to produce cotton textiles. By 1914 industrialization had taken root in Europe, Japan, and the United States and was spreading to Canada, Russia, and parts of Latin America. As much as the discovery of agriculture many centuries earlier, industrialization profoundly altered the human condition. 

Industrialization and Its Impact

The English were the first and for many decades the only people in the world to experience the material benefits and social costs of industrialization. By the 1760s, new mechanical devices were transforming the textile industry, and by the early 1800s, machines driven by steam engines were producing not just textiles but also a wide variety of other industrial goods. England's early industrial lead had multiple causes: an abundant labor supply, strong domestic and overseas markets, plentiful capital, a sound banking system, good transportation, rich coal deposits, a stable government, a favorable business climate, and, finally, a series of remarkable inventions that first transformed the textile industry and subsequently, a host of' others. 

During the nineteenth century industrialization spread from England to continental Europe, the United States, and Japan, and in the process changed considerably. The last three decades of the nineteenth century saw the appearance of larger forms of business organization such as corporations, monopolies, and cartels; the growing importance of finance capital, the introduction of petroleum and electricity as energy sources, and, most important, the application of new technologies, especially in chemistry, to thousands of industrial processes. 

With industrialization largely limited to Europe and the United States, the West's economic ascendancy was guaranteed. As Western businesses marketed their products throughout the world and as Western investors took control of the world's railroads, oil wells, mines, and factories, Europe and the United States established unprecedented dominion over the world's wealth and resources. Industrialization had its ugly side, however. Social dislocation, overcrowded cities, inadequate housing, worker exploitation. child labor, new extremes of wealth and poverty, political conflict, and Pollution were some of the costs that accompanied the transition from an agrarian to industrial society. 

English Workers in the Early Industrial Revolution

A key to England's early industrial growth was the large pool of available workers willing to accept low wages for long hours of labor in factories and mines. Many of these workers were displaced farmers or farm workers, forced from rural areas because of land shortages caused by population growth and the consolidation of small farms into large agricultural estates by wealthy aristocrats. Rural families moved to cities or coal-mining towns, where parents and children, some as young as five years old, went to work in tile factories or mines. Even with whole families working, few avoided poverty, crowded housing, and poor health. 

Eventually, the British government abandoned its commitment to unlimited free enterprise, and Parliament passed laws to protect factory workers and miners, especially children, from exploitation. When considering legislation, parliamentary committees held hearings to gather testimony from workers, employers, physicians, clergy, and local officials. Their statements present a vivid picture of working-class conditions in the first half of the nineteenth century. 

Section 1 is testimony from the records of the Sadler Committee, chaired by Michael Thomas Sadler in 1831 and charged with investigating conditions of child labor in cotton and linen factories; section 2 is testimony taken by a parliamentary commission appointed in 1833 to investigate working conditions in other textile industries; section 3 presents evidence taken by the committee chaired by Lord Ashley in 1842 to investigate conditions in coal mines. 


1. How young were children when they first began working in the textile factories, and how many hours did they work? 

2. What differences were there between working conditions in the mines and in the cotton factories? 

  1. As revealed by the questions they asked, what did the committee members consider the worst abuses of working conditions in the factories and mines? 
  2. What does the testimony of Hannah Richardson and George Armitage reveal about (a) the economic circumstances of working class families, and (b) attitudes of working class families toward their children?
  3. Consider the testimony of the workers themselves. Do the workers express anger? Do they demand changes?
  4. What do the workers' answers reveal about the reasons for the weakness of the working-class movement in England in the first half of the nineteenth century?
  5. Injury rates among factory workers were high. What in the testimony explains this phenomenon?
  6. Many English commentators observed that most factory workers were making immense wages in comparison to what they had earned in the countryside. Yet the testimony in the parliamentary hearings paints a picture of worker poverty. What might explain this contradiction?
  7. For what reasons do William Harter and Thomas Wilson oppose factory laws? In what ways do their views reflect the economic philosophy of Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations (Chapter 5, source 38)?
[1. Testimony before the Sadler Committee. 1831] 


What age are you, -- Twenty-three. . . . 
What time did You begin to work at a factory -- When I was six years old. . . . 
What kind of mill is It., -- Flax-mill. . . . 
What was your business in that mill, -- I was a little doffer. 
What were your hours of labor in that mill? -- From 5 in the morning till 9 at night, when they were thronged.2
For how long a time together have you worked that excessive length of time, -- For about half a year. 
What were your usual hours of labor when you were not so thronged? -- From 6 in the morning till 7 at night. 
What time was allowed for your meals? -- Forty minutes at noon. 
Had you any time to get your breakfast or drinking? -- No, we got it as we could. 
And when your work was bad, you had hardly any time to eat it at all? -- No; we were obliged to leave it or take it home, and when we did not take it, the overlooker took it, and gave it to his pigs. 
Do you consider doffing a laborious employment, -- Yes. 
Explain what it is you had to do-, -- When the frames are full, they have to stop the frames, and take the flyers off, and take the full bobbins off, and carry them to the roller; and then put empty ones on, and set the frames on again. 
Does that keep you constantly on your feet? -- Yes, there are so many frames and they run so quick. 
Your labor is very excessive? -- Yes; you have not time for anything. 
Suppose you flagged a little, or were too late, what would they do, -- Strap us. 
Are they in the habit of strapping those who are last in doffing? -- Yes. 
Constantly? -- Yes. 
Girls as well as boys? -- Yes. 
Have you ever been strapped? -- Yes. 
Severely? -- Yes. 
Could you eat your food well in that factory? -- No, indeed, I had not much to eat, and the little I had I could not eat it, my appetite was so poor, and being covered with dust; and it was no use to take it home, I could not eat it, and the overlooker took it, and gave it to the pigs . . .
Did you live far from the mill? -- Yes, two miles. 
Had you a clock. -- No, we had not. 
Supposing you had not been in time enough in the morning at the mills, what would have been the consequence? -- We should have been quartered. 
What do you mean by that? -- If we were a quarter of an hour too late, they would take off half an hour; we only got a penny an hour, and they would take a halfpenny more. . . . 
Were you generally there in time? -- Yes. my mother has been up at 4 o'clock in the morning, and at 2 o'clock in the morning; the colliers used to go to their work about 3 or 4 o'clock, and when she heard them stirring she has got up out of her warm bed, and gone out and asked them the time, and I have sometimes been at Hunslet Car at 2 o'clock in the morning, when it was streaming down with rain, and we have had to stay till the mill was opened . . . . 

1 A worker, usually a young child, whose job was to clean the machines used in textile manufacturing.
2 Busy.

[2. Commission for Inquiry Into the Employment of Children in Factories. Second Report. 1833] 


Are silk-mills clean in general? -- They are; they are swept every day, and whitewashed once a year.
What is the temperature of silk-mills? -- I don't know exactly the temperature, but it is very agreeable.
Is any artificial heat required? -- In the winter it is heated by steam. 
To what degree? -- I cannot speak positively; but it is not for the work, Only to keep the hands warm and comfortable.
Why, then, are those employed in them said to be in such a wretched condition? -- In the first place, the great number of hands congregated together, in some rooms forty, in some fifty, in some sixty, and I have known some as many as 100, which must be injurious to both health and growing. In the second place the privy is in the factory, which frequently emits an unwholesome smell; and it would be worthwhile to notice in the future erection of mills, that there be betwixt the privy door and the factory wall a kind of a lobby of cage-work. 3dly, The tediousness and the everlasting sameness in the first process preys much on the spirits, and makes the hands spiritless. 4thly the extravagant number of hours a child is compelled to labor and confinement, which for one week is seventy-six hours, which makes 3,952 hours for one year, we deduct 208 hours for meals within the factory which makes the net labor for one year 3,744; but the labor and confinement together of a child between ten years of age and twenty, is 39,520 hours, enough to fritter away the best constitution. 5thly, About six months in the year we are obliged to use either gas, candles, or lamps, for the longest portion of that time, nearly six hours a day, being obliged to work amid the smoke -- or of the same; and also a large portion of oil and grease is used in the mills. 

What are the effects of the present system of labor? -- From my earliest recollections, I have found the effects to be awfully detrimental to the well-being of the operative; I have observed frequently children carried to factories, unable to walk, and that entirely owing to excessive labor and confinement. The degradation of the workpeople baffles all description: frequently have two of my sisters been obliged to be assisted to the factory and home again, until by-and-by they could go no longer, being totally crippled in their legs. . . . 

3 A silk factory worker in his mid thirties. 


What effect would it have on your manufacture to reduce the hours of labor to ten? -- It would instantly much reduce the value of my mill and machinery, and consequently far prejudice my manufacture. 

How so? -- They are calculated to produce a certain quantity of work in a given time. Every machine is valuable in proportion to the quantity of work which it will turn off in a given time. It is impossible that the machinery could produce as much work in ten hours as in twelve. If the tending of the machines were a laborious occupation, the difference in the quantity of work might not always be in exact proportion to the difference of working time; but in my mill, and silk-mills in general, the work requires the least imaginable labor; therefore it is perfectly impossible that could produce as much work in ten hours as in twelve. The produce would vary in about the same ratio as the working time. 

What may be said about the sum invested in your mill and machinery? -- It is not yet near complete, and the investment is a little short of 20,000 pounds. 

Then to what extent do you consider your property would be prejudiced by a bill limiting the working hours to ten? -- All other circumstances remaining the same, it is obvious that any property in the mill and machinery would be prejudiced to the extent of value, or upwards of 3,000 pounds. 

How would the reduction in the hours of labor affect the cost of your manufactures? -- The cost of our manufactures consists in the raw material and of the expense of putting that said material into goods. Now the mere interest of the investment in buildings and machinery, and the expense of keeping the same in repair, forms a large item In the cost of manufacturing. Of course it follows, that the gross charge under this head would be the same upon a production of 10,000 pounds and 12,000 pounds, and this portion of the cost of manufacturing would consequently be about 16%. 

Do you mean to say, that to produce the same quantity of work which your present mill and machinery is capable of, it requires an additional outlay of upwards of 3,000 pounds? -- I say distinctly, that to produce the same quantity of work under a ten-hours bill will require an additional outlay of 3,000 or 4,000 pounds; therefore a ten-hours bill would impose upon me the necessity of this additional outlay in such perishable property as buildings and machinery, or I must be content to relinquish one-sixth portion of my business. 

[3. Testimony before the Ashley Committee on the Conditions in Mines. 1842] 


I am a coal worker, and the manager of the South Hetton colliery. We have about 400 bound people (contract laborers), and in addition our bank people (foremen), men and boys about 700. In the pits 427 men and boys; of these, 290 men . . . . 

Of the children in the pits we have none under eight, and only three so young. We are constantly beset by parents coming making application to take children under the age, and they are very anxious and very dissatisfied if we do not take the children; and there have been cases in times of brisk trade, when the parents have threatened to leave the cottlery, and go elsewhere If we did not comply. At every successive binding, which takes place yearly, constant attempts are made to get the boys engaged to work to which they are not competent from their years. In point of fact, we would rather not have boys until nine years of age complete. If younger than that, they are apt to fail asleep and get hurt; some get killed. It is no interest to the company to take any boys under nine . . . . 


I've one child that works in the pit; he's going on ten. He is down from 6 to 8 . . . . he's not much tired with the work, it's only the confinement that tires him. He likes it pretty well, for he'd rather be in the pit than to go to school. There is not much difference in his health since he went into the pit. He was at school before, and can read pretty well, but can't write. He is used pretty well; I never hear him complain. I've another son in the pit, 17 years old . . . . He went into the pit at eight years old. It's not hurt his health nor his appetite, for he's a good size. It would hurt us of children were prevented from working till 11 or 12 years old, because we've not jobs enough to live now as it is . . . . 


I am now a teacher at Hoyland school; I was a collier at Silkstone until I was 22 years old and worked in the pit above 10 years. . . . I hardly know how to reprobate the practice sufficiently girls working in pits; nothing can be worse. I have no doubt that debauchery is carried on, for which there is every opportunity; for the girls go constantly, when hurrying, to the men, who work often alone in the bank-faces apart from every one. I think it scarcely possible for girls to remain modest who are in pits, regularly mixing with such company and hearing and such language as they do - it is next to impossible. I dare venture to say that many of the wives who come from pits know nothing of sewing or any household duty, such as women ought to know - they lose all disposition to learn such things; they are rendered unfit for learning them also by being overworked and not being trained to the habit of it. I have worked in pits for above 10 years, where girls were constantly employed, and I can safely say it is an abominable system; indecent language is quite common. I think, if girls were trained properly, as girls ought to be, that there would be no more difficulty, in finding suitable employment for them than in other places. Many a collier spends in drink what he has shut up a young child the whole week to earn in a dark cold corner as a trapper. The education of the children is universally bad. They are generally ignorant of common facts in Christian history and principles, and, indeed, in almost everything else. Little can be learned merely on Sundays, and they are too tired as well as indisposed go to night schools. . . . 


I have been resident here as chief minister for 22 years. I think the morals of the working classes here are in an appalling state. . . The ill manners and conduct of the weavers are daily presented to view in the streets, but the colliers work under ground and are less seen, and we have less means of knowing. . . . The master-sin among the youths is that of gambling; the boys may be seen playing at pitch-and-toss on the Sabbath and on week-days; they are seen doing this in all directions. The next besetting sin is promiscuous sexual intercourse; this may be much induced by the manner in which they sleep -- men, women, and children often sleeping in one bed-room. I have known a family of father and mother and 12 children, some of them up-grown, sleeping on a kind of sacking and straw bed, reaching from one side of the room to the other, along the floor; they were an English family. Sexual intercourse begins very young. This and gambling pave the way; then drinking ensues, and this is the vortex which draws in every other sin. 


I object on general principles to government interference in the conduct of any trade, and I am satisfied that in the mines it would be productive of the greatest injury and injustice. The art of mining is not so perfectly understood as to admit of the way in which a colliery shall be conducted being dictated by any person, however experienced, with such certainty as would warrant an interference with the management of private business. I should also most decidedly object to placing collieries under the present provisions of the Factory Act5 with respect to the education of children employed therein. First, because, if it is contended that coal-owners, as employers of children, are bound to attend to their education, this obligation extends equally to all other employers, and therefore it is unjust to single out one class only; secondly, because, if the legislature asserts a right to interfere to secure education, it is bound to make that interference general; and thirdly, because the mining population is in this neighborhood so intermixed with other classes, and is in such small bodies in any one place, that it would be impossible to provide separate schools for them.  

5 The Factory Act of 1833, which regulated employment of children and woman, applied to textile factories. 

A Working-Class Family in Berlin
63 - Otto von Leixner, LETTERS FROM BERLIN WITH

One should not assume that working conditions described in early English Sources were the norm throughout the nineteenth century. As a result of trade unions, pro-labor political parties, the extension of the franchise, legislation, and the realization by many factory owners that improved working conditions meant increased productivity, workers made solid gains in wages, hours, and housing. Nevertheless, even relatively well-paid workers in the late 1800s needed regular employment and strong discipline to avert economic failure. 

The following description of a Berlin working-class family in 1890 is taken from a book published in 1891 by Otto von Leixner (1847-1907), a prolific German writer of poetry, short fiction, literary criticism, and political comment. In his Letters from Berlin, based largely on personal interviews and written for the general public, he described living and working conditions of Berlin factory workers. The following excerpt portrays the situation of a worker in a brass factory and his family. 


  1. What percentage of the German family's expenditures falls into the categories of housing, clothing, food, entertainment, and health care?
  2. How does this document shed light on the status of women in the late nineteenth-century German working-class families?
  3. On the basis of von Leixner's description, how does the situation of this late nineteenth-century Berlin family differ from the conditions described in the parliamentary bearings (Source 62)?
  4. What might explain these differences?
The first question to be answered is: "Can a Berlin working, class family really live on the wages of the father, "On the basis of my experiences, I can answer that question "Yes," even if that "Yes" must be qualified in certain circumstances. 

As is the case with other social classes, there also exists among workers gradations in income from "master" and foreman to the young apprentice and even among the former are differences according to various branches of industry. But the most fundamental difference is in moral character. If the husband is sober and decent, the wife frugal and hardworking, then a small salary suffices. If these characteristics are lacking, then even a larger salary is inadequate. This is the same for every class. Also decisive is the number of children below a certain age; but respectable parents do better on their income than the disreputable even if they have a number of children. 

To prove this, I refer to my visits to families. . . . 

The first household belongs to a relatively well-paid worker. He is employed as a molder in a bronze ware workshop, and is a hard-working, respectable man, and a worthy spouse and father. . . . He hardly attends political meetings, the tavern very rarely. His wife, who previously was a servant girl, is, despite her infirmities, very industrious and thrifty. Their apartment consists of a rather sizable room, with an attached kitchen. Although the husband, wife, and two children live and sleep here, everything is meticulously clean. Colorful calico curtains hang on the two windows, and plants are growing on the window sills. Two beds and a simple sleeping sofa for the children occupy one long wall; the others are taken up by a cupboard, a wardrobe, and a washstand. A table and some chairs complete the furnishings. 

The average income is 1700 marks.1 In many years it is larger, but also occasionally smaller. The work is difficult, and when there is much to do at the shop, exhaustion sets in for the father, and he sometimes takes to bed for a week. 

259 marks must be paid for rent. The small apartments are expensive, despite their deficiencies, because of high demand. . . . 

When the molder is paid on Saturday, he puts aside a part for the rent that must be paid every month. The wife receives 18 marks for household costs per week, in other words, 2.57 marks per day or 64 pfennig for each person; from this the bill for lighting must be paid. The husband pays for heating, specifically in the following manner: in winter, in other words for five months, 20 small coal briquettes are purchased (6 marks per 100) and a few pieces of kindling wood; they have to make do with this. When needed, they sit by the cookstove in the kitchen. . . . 

Their daily food consumption is instructive. The following sketch is an average, and the menu is not always the same. The use of dried peas and lentils, potatoes, flour, bread, and milk is high. Meat products, except for some cheap sausage - spread on bread, [lot put on in slices - is mostly chopped beef or lungs, in the form of meatballs (K1ops) or meatloaf (ground meat mixed with bread crumbs or spices and baked in a little fat). To plan ahead for Sunday and holidays, the family cuts back oil ,workdays. 

The expenditures show the following averages: 
Milk, 2-2 1/2 liters . 36-45
Meat, 1-2 pounds .70-1.40
Vegetables, potatoes, legumes or rice .05-.15
Coffee and chicory2 .10- 15
Bread .30-.40
Breakfast rolls .12 1/2
Sausage .30
Fat, salt, and spices . 10-.15
Totals 2.03 1/2 - 3.12 1/2
The average of the two numbers is 2.58 marks, a total which fits with their daily budget; because this much is not spent every clay, when a surplus remains, it is used for lighting and small purchases. Not even the smallest item is purchased on credit. This is a prime requirement if the small household is to remain on a sound footing. When larger expenses are necessary, then each week a partial amount is put aside, so that the expense can be paid for. 

The husband takes coffee with him in the morning in a tin container, and in the evening and at midday he drinks at the most three glasses of beer, with each costing 10 pfennig (he hardly ever drinks anything stronger). On weekdays he smokes two cigars, on Sundays, three, at three pfennig each. He goes to the tavern perhaps once a week, but when he does, he is home by 10:30. 

I now summarize what I could ascertain about their expenses in the following numbers: 

Income 1700 

Rent 259 
Housekeeping 924 
Taxes 30 
Health Insurance and other premiums 13 
Heating, on average 45 
Winter coat for the husband 30 
Hat 2.50 
Boots for the husband 16 
Boots for the wife 11 
Boots for the children 10 
Clothing for wife and children 23 
Physician and pharmacist for wife 20 
Newspaper, shared with another 3 
Miscellaneous (mending, washing, amusements) 64 
Husband (drinks, tobacco, donations, etc.) 162 
Total Expenses 1612.50 

In 1889 savings totaled 82 marks. A glance at expenditures shows how much thriftiness is needed not to exceed the amount of income. Husband and wife have to draw upon all their moral strength in order to make it through, and must know how to keep their expenses within the limits of economic reality. Amusements which cost money are rare. They consist of excursions to the zoo, where they, take a lunchbasket, or to a country park. That is it. Very rarely, once every several years, they go to a cheap vaudeville theater. . . . The husband makes do; he borrows books from the public library and reads them in the evening if he is not too tired; the wife is satisfied with serialized novels and local news in the daily press, or she chats with neighbors after the children have gone to sleep. 

So long, as things remain on even keel, then a better paid worker, if he lives decently, can get by. . . . But even this requires above-average moral strength. . . . But if the husband and wife are frivolous, or irresponsible, then disaster begins. . . .