World History 2 149 - 10.1.2 The Industrial Home

Industrialization brought profound changes to countries like Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. In the latter nineteenth century, western nations like these, already skilled in the production of textiles and iron rails, applied machine technology to the mass-production of consumer goods, the new availability of which changed people’s lives.

The wealthy and the middle class consisted of professionals such as doctors and lawyers as well as factory managers, bank employees, salespeople, engineers, and scientists. They had always been able to afford the handmade products of skilled dressmakers, tailors, shoemakers, jewelers, and cabinetmakers that were beyond the reach of simple laborers. Now, however, factories produced clothing, shoes, cookware, furniture, soap, toys, books, musical instruments, and costume jewelry in such quantities that they could be sold at prices the working class could afford. Working families could buy bedsteads, tables, and chairs that imitated in style those of the middle class. They could decorate their homes with inexpensive prints of famous works of art. Soap, not easily made by city dwellers because the required animal fat was not always available, was now mass-produced and simple to buy. City dwellers could readily keep themselves and their clothes clean, which in turn improved personal health and comfort. By the end of the nineteenth century in industrialized countries, workers’ real wages, wages measured in terms of the amount of goods and services they can purchase, had risen so that most people could buy the consumer goods turned out by European and American factories.

An abundance of food was produced on farms and ranches that employed mass-produced agricultural machinery (Figure 10.5). This food was then transported to cities in refrigerated railcars and processed in urban factories, slaughterhouses, and canneries, giving people access to canned meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables all year round. Sugar obtained from colonial possessions was inexpensive and plentiful, and sweet treats were widely available.

This image shows a farmer harvesting grain with a mechanical reaper which is pulled by two horses. A second man watches while leaning on a fence nearby.
Figure 10.5 An advertisement from 1875 promotes the use of the mechanical reaper to harvest grain. (credit: “Champion Trade Card, 1875” by Wisconsin Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

This food was sometimes a mixed blessing. The slaughterhouses in which meat was processed were often filthy, and canned meat was sometimes found to contain maggots. To keep vegetables bright and colorful in the can, dyes were added; green dye was made with arsenic and was notoriously poisonous. Mass-produced bread from an urban bakery might contain chalk dust or alum for bulk. Undoubtedly, fresh and unadulterated food would have been healthier and tastier, but packaged and processed foods at least provided the calories necessary for survival, and many workers did not have to settle for the bare necessities. A study of American laborers in 1874 revealed that they ate fresh meat every day. Just before the start of World War I in 1914, members of the German working class protested the increase of food prices in Berlin because it threatened their regular consumption of meat and wheat bread, which was considered superior to bread made with other grains.

Advances in science and technology contributed to survival. New medical instruments and processes, such as the ophthalmoscope and the x-ray, improved the diagnosis of injury and disease. Pharmaceuticals and anesthetics arrived, such as aspirin to relieve pain and fever and mass-produced quinine to treat malaria. The discovery by Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur of the first disease-causing pathogens, or “germs,” led to new vaccines that protected animals against anthrax and rabies, and humans against cholera and diphtheria. Pasteur’s discoveries also led to the pasteurization of milk beginning in the 1860s, making it safer to drink by heating it to destroy pathogens. The development of the antiseptic method by Joseph Lister in the 1860s and the identification of human blood types in 1901, which made safe blood transfusions possible, transformed the practice of surgery.

Changes in sanitation also improved the cleanliness, comfort, and health of people of all classes. Water pipes brought fresh water to cities from the surrounding countryside and into the homes of the wealthy and middle class. This access to clean water dramatically reduced the incidence of diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. Mass-produced bathroom fixtures made it easier for the wealthy and the middle class to stay clean, and the development of flush toilets and the laying of sewer pipe made homes, streets, and cities more sanitary.

The Second Industrial Revolution introduced new methods of illumination. At the beginning of the century, candles and kerosene lamps lit homes and workplaces, and gas lighting was still new. London installed its first gas streetlights in 1807, and by midcentury, more cities had adopted them; in 1860 Berlin had 250. Many wealthy and middle-class homes, as well as some working-class homes, had indoor gas fixtures as well. By the 1880s, most British families could rely on gas both to illuminate and heat their homes and to cook their food.

Gas had a number of drawbacks, however. It produced a relatively dim light, and it smelled. Gas lines had a dangerous tendency to explode, and if people blew out the flames of gas lights without remembering to also stop the flow of gas from the line, entire households could be suffocated as they slept.

Electricity transformed everything (Figure 10.6). Electric light was clear, bright, and relatively safe. People could stay up in the evenings to read or study. Night life became possible. Paris installed electric streetlights in 1875, Berlin in 1882, and Mexico City in 1897. Brightly lit amusement parks and urban pleasure gardens were magical places for city dwellers to enjoy.

This photograph shows a large factory where women and girls are building lamps.
Figure 10.6 This photograph shows women in a Swedish factory making parts for lamps at the beginning of the twentieth century. As electricity became more common, electric fixtures and electrical appliances were in greater demand. (credit: “Stockholms glödlampfabrik” by Tekniska museet/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Link to Learning

Visit this British science museum site to learn more about the history of electricity.

The combination of readily available mass-produced goods, running water, and gas and electricity improved the standard of living for many people. A new cult of cleanliness developed among the middle class because indoor plumbing and improved heating made bathing easier. By the beginning of the twentieth century, more middle-class homes had rooms set aside for bathing.

New and improved appliances also changed life at home. Cookstoves with ovens and surfaces that could be heated to different temperatures made it possible to prepare multiple dishes at the same time. Built-in reservoirs in stoves kept water hot, and improved washing machines (e.g., mangles that used rollers to squeeze out water) made it easier to launder clothes. In the early twentieth century, motor-powered vacuum cleaners made it easier to clean floors. These developments undoubtedly contributed to the comfort of the middle class, but they also raised expectations for middle-class women, whose chief job was to care for the home. Now that elaborate meals could be prepared every day, they became the expectation. Now that it was easier to clean the family’s clothes and home, it was unacceptable for them to be dirty.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the stresses caused by infectious disease and poor diets—the results of low wages and unsanitary living conditions—reduced life expectancy and increased infant mortality rates. However, in the second half of the nineteenth century, life expectancies increased, and infant mortality decreased. For example, in Germany, which began to industrialize in the middle of the nineteenth century, infant mortality rates first increased as the country began to industrialize but then started to decline in the 1870s. Other changes also revealed the benefits that industrialization could bring. Between 1876 and 1901, life expectancy for a German man rose from thirty-four to forty-five years. A German woman born in 1876 could expect to live until she was thirty-seven years old; the average German woman born in 1901 lived to be forty-eight years old.

Taken together, improved sanitation, reliable access to food, and better medical care reduced death rates and made life more comfortable in industrialized nations. Although the wealthy and the middle class were best situated to take advantage, the working class benefited as well. Workers could afford inexpensive food and clothing, and in many places free clinics provided the poor with health care. While workers might not all have running water and flush toilets in their homes, by the end of the nineteenth century, water taps in the street or in the basements of apartment houses, shared hallway sinks, and communal toilets allowed the working class to benefit from clean water and more sanitary streets. Although usually only the wealthy and the middle class could afford electric lighting in their homes, electricity illuminated city streets and protected the working class as they peddled wares at night or returned home from work at late hours.

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