Radical Change: The Social Impact of the Industrial Revolution

The social structure of America experienced radical change due to the fast-paced world the Industrial Revolution created.

Oct 16, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
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Textile mill workers in Union Point, Georgia by Jack Delano, 1941, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The Industrial Revolution changed the United States from a highly agrarian society to an urbanized country with industrial cities scattered across the nation. Industrialization and urbanization had a huge effect on the social structure of America. It opened up more job opportunities, altered the class system, and created a faster way of life made possible through new technological innovations and ideas that traveled from Great Britain.


The Industrial Revolution Comes to America

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Solvay Process Company plant in Syracuse, New York by Detroit Publishing Co., via Library of Congress, Washington DC


After several successful inventions and technological innovations, the first Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain. Beginning around 1750, mass production of goods began to take over the cottage industry. As ideas began to travel, the second phase of the Industrial Revolution came to the United States in the 19th century. Samuel Slater is often coined as the “Father of the American Industrial Revolution” after he emigrated from England to build a textile mill. Slater learned how mill machines operated while working in the textile mill industry in his younger years. Despite British government laws that prohibited textile workers from revealing new technological designs, Slater brought his knowledge to Rhode Island in 1789.


Hired by an American industrialist, Moses Brown, Slater built the first successful water-powered mill in the states. Slater’s factory system became known as the Rhode Island System. He built tenement housing around his mills, creating mill villages called Slatervilles. People who worked at the mill would live in the houses. Men, women, and children were employed. Other industrialists, such as Francis Cabot Lowell, introduced other technological innovations to the new American textile industry. By 1850, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and America rapidly urbanized in the North and Midwest.


Urbanization & City Life During the American Industrial Revolution

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Madison Square in New York City, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


In the early decades of the American Industrial Revolution, industrialization began to expand across northern states and spread to the Midwest. The one region of the US that remained largely unchanged was the American South. Although industrialization soon affected the South, it wouldn’t be until the early decades of the 20th century that it would experience major changes.

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Factories became the focal point of cities in northern and midwestern states. In the last two decades of the 19th century, American cities experienced explosive growth. Local residents of cities, combined with migrants from the South and immigrants traveling from overseas, caused city populations to increase by about 15 million people. Different communities began to pop up in cities and just outside city limits. Housing was needed as a result of the large influx of people flocking near industrial cities looking for work. Apartments, tenement housing, neighborhoods, and suburbs became more common. This housing setup was very different from the spread-out, rural farm life that most people lived in before the 19th century.


Standards of living began to change in cities. People interacted more on a daily basis. Housing conditions became crowded, which led to increased health risks, and other poor conditions became problematic. However, mass production of goods eventually led to an increase in quality of life. Society began to operate around industrial and consumerism ways. Modern big cities that are symbols of urban life in America today were built on the foundation of the early urbanization during the Industrial Revolution. New York City, Baltimore, and Boston were the most populated cities in the US by 1850. New York City’s population grew almost seven times its size in just half a century to about 3,500,000 people by 1900.


Industrialization Creates a New Class System

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Factory workers at Leland & Faulconer Manufacturing Co. assembling engines in Detroit, Michigan by Detroit Publishing Co., via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Factory positions changed the structure of the American class system. Most people were farmers beforehand. Wealthy elites owned large plantations and hired tenant farmers who would live on the land in exchange for working the plantation. Yeomen were considered the “middle class” at the time. They owned land and farmed for themselves. Poor and enslaved people were at the bottom of the class system. As the Industrial Revolution opened up more jobs, it helped to establish a working class.


The working class was those who worked in factory jobs and other positions that paid low wages. Working class individuals were still living in poverty due to low pay, but many were more than willing to accept the meager payments for fear of being unemployed. The middle class was individuals who took on management positions in factories and other facilities alike. They made considerably more than the working class. The wealthy upper class at the top were the owners of land and factories. There was still a big divide between the working class and the middle and upper classes. However, the working class was slowly growing, and this would eventually bridge some of the gap between the lower working class and the middle class.


More Goods in Exchange for Cheaper Labor & Poor Working Conditions

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14-year-old spinner at the Brazos Valley Cotton Mill in Texas by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1913, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The Industrial Revolution changed the way people moved throughout their daily lives. Consumerism created a new lifestyle as more goods were being produced. The textile industry was booming, and it benefited more than just those that lived in industrial cities. Cotton plantation owners in the South benefited from the textile industry’s high demand. More goods available also meant that the quality of life could improve. Although it would take some time before working and living conditions got better, new technological innovations would eventually make life easier than ever before.


Before the Industrial Revolution, the laborer of the household was the man. Women would cook, clean, and care for the children and household. As families migrated to industrial cities, women and children began entering the workforce. Child labor was very common during the Industrial Revolution before laws were put in place to stop it. Factory conditions were already deplorable and dangerous, and it was especially dangerous for children. Many injuries came as a result of factory equipment that wasn’t designed for child use.


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Children coal miners after a day of working in the Pennsylvania Coal Mine by Lewis Wickes Hine, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


It wasn’t uncommon for young boys to begin learning the ropes of plantation work and farming under their fathers before industrial times. However, the working conditions were different. Boys under the age of 14 were being sent down into mines to break up coal. Young boys and girls were employed by textile mills, glass factories, and other urban industrial workplaces. Mines were one of the most dangerous places to work, not only for children but also for adults. As the demand for coal grew, the coal mining industry took off. This was arguably one of the most dangerous jobs to work in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it still is today. There were fewer skilled professionals working in coal mines, and the risk of mines collapsing was high. Other coal mining hazards included lack of oxygen and clean air, falling rocks, and flooding.


Although factory work came with many negatives, it did benefit women to a certain extent. Women could enter the workforce and separate themselves from domestic duties they had long been tied to for centuries. In an attempt to establish superiority, men were paid more than women. One of the benefits of hiring women and children as workers was cheap labor. Women were still seen as homemakers, a perspective that would remain strong well into the 20th century. However, it gave women a sense of independence and helped encourage the women’s suffragist movement. This would lead to the women’s rights movement that would later take place in the 1960s when topics on equal rights would be explored.


Migration & Immigration Powers the Early Industrial Age

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Newly arrived immigrants on Ellis Island looking toward New York City, via National Park Service


The American Industrial Revolution was born in the northern US, but it quickly spread to the Midwest and attracted people from all over the world. After the Civil War, the South was coming to terms with rejoining the Union. This put many southerners in a bad position as the war destroyed their economy and land. As a result, many people migrated to the North and Midwest in search of better opportunities that industrial cities offered.


Joining industrial Americans were immigrants coming to the states for work or to escape the conditions of their homeland in search of the American Dream. Immigrants accounted for a large portion of the industrial workforce. In the mid-19th century, many Chinese immigrants came to the West Coast. Restrictions were implemented, especially in the state of California, to lower some of the social tensions that were arising between Chinese immigrants, European immigrants, and Americans over jobs.


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Immigrants arriving to America at Ellis Island, New York, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


The Chinese Exclusion Act was created to solve some of the tension over work, which was approved in 1882 and put a temporary ban on Chinese immigration to the states. On the East Coast, immigrants continued to arrive through the Castle Garden immigration center before Ellis Island was established in the New York Harbor. Almost 12 million immigrants came to America between 1870 and 1900, most of which arrived from European countries such as Germany and Ireland.


Employers welcomed immigrants for cheaper labor. Immigrant men were paid less than American men. Stereotypes and racial discrimination as a result of animosity and tensions over the availability of work began to grow as a result of immigration during the Industrial Revolution. However, immigration helped speed up the industrialization of America. Many immigrants moved to industrial cities and established neighborhoods. Shortly after the end of the second Industrial Revolution around the 1920s, immigration slowed down significantly. This opened more jobs for Americans, especially for those who were migrating to the North and West from the South.


How the Industrial Revolution Shaped the Future of American Society

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Women grinding barrels for machine guns during WWI in the Colt Patent Fire Arms Plant in Hartford, Connecticut, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Between the changes to the American class system and the formation of industrial cities across the North and Midwest, the Industrial Revolution greatly impacted America’s social structure. A working class was established, which would soon be closely associated with the middle class. The gaps between the working and the wealthy eventually got smaller. It gave people the opportunity to enter a workforce that didn’t require a specific skill. Factories hired more unskilled laborers than not because new machinery made factory tasks possible for those who weren’t trained in a specific profession.


People were moving to cities, which involved closer living quarters and more community interaction than rural America had experienced. New cultures were introduced as immigrants came from other countries and built communities around industrial cities. Mass production of goods made room for additional technological improvements and innovations that increased the quality of life. The American Industrial Revolution rapidly changed how people of the nation interacted and went about their daily lives. The agrarian way of life quickly dwindled, leaving just the rural South to still remain predominantly agricultural.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.