World History 2 148 - 10.1.1 The Industrial Workplace

Some of the most profound changes brought by industrialization were those that affected the workplace, bringing new challenges while also transforming the nature of labor. During the Second Industrial Revolution, new forms of energy were harnessed, transportation and communication became faster, and industrialized nations mass-produced not only steel and industrial machinery, which had been the focus of prior industrial efforts, but also consumer goods such as clothing, furniture, shoes, and packaged foods.

Perhaps the greatest change was the development of a new source of energy—electricity. Water power had earlier replaced animal power, and steam engines fueled by burning coal had driven the machinery of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. So too did electricity supplant steam by the end of the nineteenth century. Electricity ran machinery on the factory floors, as did internal combustion engines powered by petroleum. Electricity also turned night into day. When first oil lamps and then gas lights had illuminated the workplace, workdays in the winter were often short. Dependent on daylight to see what they were doing, workers were commonly allowed to go home after dark. With electric lights, though, the factory floor could be lit twenty-four hours a day, and workers could labor long into the night in all seasons.

Electricity also powered factories’ moving assembly lines. As conveyor belts brought interchangeable parts from station to station, working-class employees added parts or made other adjustments until the product was finished. The adoption of moving assembly lines made the close supervision of workers necessary. If anyone slowed down or was missing, the entire production process could suffer. It was therefore vital that everyone be present at the time the process began and maintain the same pace of work all day. While in earlier factories a laborer might command a work gang composed of family members, in late nineteenth-century factories, these male heads of family were replaced by paid foremen who were sometimes promoted from among the ranks of the laborers.

Assembly lines and the mechanization of each step of the manufacturing process meant that, for the most part, factory work was unskilled in nature. Laborers lived with the knowledge that should they give their wealthy employer reason to be displeased with their performance, they could be replaced at any moment. Some work, like the repairing of machines, was skilled, and workers who possessed such knowledge received higher wages. Most, though, performed repetitive tasks that anyone could master with a bit of instruction. The assembly line reduced employees’ sense of contribution to the finished process and rendered work boring and repetitive, almost transforming workers into machines themselves.

In addition to feeling alienated from the product of their labor, industrial employees worked long hours and earned low wages. As industrialization spread throughout North America, Europe, and Japan, business owners, driven by their hunger for profit, responded to increased competition by forcing their employees to produce more, tending more machines for lower pay.

Nineteenth-century workers commonly toiled ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. In 1897 in Russia, reform laws reduced the workday from fourteen hours (and sometimes as many as eighteen) to only eleven and a half. During night shifts and on Saturdays and the days before feast days, workers could stop after ten hours. Luckily for the subjects of the tsar, the majority of Russian factory workers could look forward to nearly one hundred holidays per year. They would have been envied by Japan’s cotton spinners, teenaged women who often worked for seventeen-hour stretches punctuated only by short breaks.

Adult men were the most highly paid workers. Adult women earned about half as much, and children less than adults, often only a quarter of an adult male’s pay. Work was not always steady; workplaces sometimes shut down unexpectedly when raw materials or work orders fell short. This meant that low pay was often accompanied by periodic unemployment, for which workers had no safety net. Most governments did not provide unemployment insurance, and government-subsidized housing for the poor did not exist. When workers lost their jobs, they were forced to turn to religious institutions or private charities for money for food and rent.

In addition to periodic shutdowns, international economic crises sometimes jeopardized the livelihoods of workers across the globe. In 1873, for example, a fall in the value of silver set off a worldwide financial panic, beginning a period known as the Long Depression. Banks failed, and more than one hundred railroads went out of business in the United States in the first year alone. The economies—and the workers—of Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Britain, and Russia suffered as well. In May 1873, the Vienna Stock Exchange collapsed (Figure 10.3). Railroads failed in Germany. Unemployment rates in Britain’s coal, iron, steel, and shipbuilding industries soared. Between 1873 and the end of the century, periodic recessions and depressions alternated with boom periods, rocking economies around the world.

This image shows a large crowd of people. Most of the people are men wearing business suits. Some women and children are also visible. Everyone in the image appears to be arguing with other members of the crowd. Large buildings are visible in the background.
Figure 10.3 On May 9, 1873, dubbed “Black Friday,” the Vienna stock market collapsed, causing widespread panic as illustrated by this wood engraving made that year. (credit: “Black Friday on May 9, 1873” by Die Presse Edition/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Despite such economic swings, industrial production increased overall, and factory owners faced a growing number of competitors. They responded by increasing the pace of work. Employees often tended several machines at a time, which kept them constantly on their feet. In the late nineteenth century, new methods were introduced to speed work even more. The principles of scientific management, introduced by Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 and often referred to as Taylorism, sought to improve productivity by reducing wasteful movements. One scientific management proponent, Harrington Emerson, claimed that U.S. railroads could save $1 million per day (about $13 million today) if they adopted these principles.

Discovering how workers could perform more efficiently often meant timing their movements with stopwatches to make sure they did not attach parts or move levers inefficiently. Even in workplaces that had not been Taylorized, the emphasis was on paying strict attention to work and speeding up the production process. Some factories forbade workers to talk to one another or to sit at their machines, even if they could. Workers greatly resented such controls.

The pace and long hours of mechanized labor took a toll on workers’ health and safety. Injuries were common. Fingers and hands were often lost to moving machine parts. Constant standing resulted in back problems, swollen feet, and miscarriages. In textile factories, inhaled fibers caused breathing problems that left workers permanently disabled. The constant noise of machinery led to hearing loss. Summer temperatures combined with the heat generated by machinery and moving bodies left workers on the brink of heat exhaustion. Laborers in Japan’s silk industry were often scalded while boiling silkworm cocoons. Toxic chemicals used in largely unregulated production processes also played havoc with workers’ health and safety. In some places, workers, especially women, were beaten by their supervisors; young women sent to work in the Japanese cotton industry by their impoverished parents were often caned or whipped.

In Their Own Words

“Phossy Jaw”

In 1943, Dr. Alice Hamilton was reflecting on her earlier career investigating the causes of illness and injury among industrial workers. As Hamilton relates, American physicians had told her repeatedly that the seriously disabling conditions that afflicted many European workers, such as “phossy jaw” (Figure 10.4), a condition caused by accidentally ingesting the phosphorous used to coat the heads of matches, did not exist in the United States.

Photograph a shows a woman staring directly into the camera. A large portion of her lower jaw is missing. Photograph b shows the same woman from the side and provides another view of her abnormally shaped jaw.
Figure 10.4 (a, b) This set of undated photographs depicts a Dutch woman whose lower jaw has been eaten away by phosphorus, a condition commonly known as “phossy jaw.” The use of phosphorus for match production in the Netherlands was banned in 1901. (credit a and b: modification of work “Occupational Disease: Phosphorus Necrosis, front and side views” by Nationaal Archief (Dutch National Archives)/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Hamilton quickly discovered, however, that her colleagues were incorrect:

Living in a working-class quarter, coming in contact with laborers and their wives, I could not fail to hear tales of the dangers that workingmen faced, of cases of carbon-monoxide gassing in the great steel mills, of painters disabled by lead palsy, of pneumonia and rheumatism among the men in the stockyards. Illinois then had no legislation providing compensation for accident or disease caused by occupation. . . . There was a striking occurrence about this time in Chicago which brought vividly before me the unprotected, helpless state of workingmen who were held responsible for their own safety. [. . .]

Phossy jaw is a very distressing form of industrial disease. It comes from breathing the fumes of white or yellow phosphorus, which gives off fumes at room temperature, or from putting into the mouth food or gum or fingers smeared with phosphorus. Even drinking from a glass which has stood on the workbench is dangerous. The phosphorus penetrates into a defective tooth and down through the roots to the jawbone, killing the tissue cells which then become the prey of suppurative germs from the mouth, and abscesses form. The jaw swells and the pain is intense. . . . Sometimes the abscess forms in the upper jaw and works up into the orbit, causing the loss of an eye. In severe cases one lower jawbone may have to be removed, or an upper jawbone—perhaps both. [. . .]

All this I had learned, but I had been assured by medical men, who claimed to know, that there was no phossy jaw in the United States because American match factories were so scrupulously clean. Then in 1908 John Andrews . . . showed me the report of his investigation of American match factories and his discovery of more than 150 cases of phossy jaw. . . . Some of the cases he discovered were quite as severe as the worst reported in European literature—the loss of jawbones, of an eye, sometimes death from blood poisoning.

—Alice Hamilton, “The Poisonous Occupations in Illinois

  • What conditions within industrial workplaces likely exposed workers to phosphorous? What steps could employers have taken to prevent this problem? Why might employers not have provided safer working conditions for employees?
  • Why might American doctors have been reluctant to admit that industrial poisoning was a problem for American workers?

Despite low pay, long hours, and difficult conditions of factory work, many working-class people preferred it to other types of available labor. Jobs like driving wagons and unloading ships were also low-paying jobs but required working outside in all kinds of weather. Railroad workers were vulnerable to incapacitating injuries from being caught between railcars or falling under their wheels. Miners toiled in dark, cramped environments, where temperatures sometimes rose so high they had to work naked to keep from passing out. Cave-ins were a constant threat. Industrial labor, regardless of the type, was also more highly paid than agricultural labor. For example, in London in the 1860s, a male common laborer who possessed no particular skills could earn about twenty shillings a week. In industries not yet mechanized, skilled crafts workers, all men, earned thirty shillings a week. A male English farmhand at the time would have earned approximately fourteen shillings a week.

Factory work was especially desirable to unmarried women, whose most common alternative was domestic service. Living in their employers’ homes, domestic workers were expected to be available at all times of the day and night, were constantly watched, and made very little money. Factory workers put in fewer hours, and after work their time was their own. Their freedom was sometimes dearly bought, however. On the factory floor, unmarried young women might be sexually harassed by male employers, supervisors, or coworkers.

Because women were paid less than men, unmarried women did not earn enough to live independently. They tended to live at home, where they were expected to give their wages to their parents and accept a small allowance in return. Even if they rented living quarters with other female workers and shared expenses, they might grant sexual favors to young men in exchange for meals or clothes, a form of casual prostitution known as “treating.” Nevertheless, many young female factory workers enjoyed relative independence before marriage, free evenings and Sundays when the factories were closed, and the inexpensive entertainment found in industrial cities.

Link to Learning

Shoes (1916) is a silent film by director Lois Weber that dramatizes the plight of underpaid young working women. In the 48-minute feature, Eva, a shop clerk, exchanges sexual favors for a new pair of shoes.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax