World History 2 163 - 10.5.1 Regulation and Reform

The challenges of the industrial age must have seemed overwhelming to observers of the time, and the difficulties insurmountable. Nevertheless, governments attempted to solve some of the most important problems. Their motives varied. Many officials were sensitive to the criticisms of social activists and reformers, and some politicians came from their ranks. They genuinely wished to improve the lives of city dwellers and the working class.

Politicians often acted to please the wealthy and middle class, however, who found themselves threatened by dirty air, smelly streets, and infectious diseases that domestic servants might bring into their homes (Figure 10.16). Florence Kelley, an American activist who sought to end child labor, objected to it not only because it deprived young people of the freedom of childhood, but also because she feared the products made by children in tenement apartments might be dirty and infect her own family.

This photograph shows men and women working together in a small room. The room is cluttered, and trash covers the floor. Other buildings are visible through windows in the background.
Figure 10.16 Jacob A. Riis, an American social reformer and documentary photographer, often took photographs depicting urban life, such as this image of men and women sewing and ironing in a tenement factory around 1889. (credit: “Necktie workshop in a Division Street tenement” by Unknown/Library of Congress)

Many politicians at both the local and national levels also realized that protecting workers’ health and welfare made the nation stronger. Sick workers were unproductive, and travelers avoided cities suffering epidemics. Numerous laws were passed to combat disease and render cities clean. In 1848, Britain took a step forward by passing the Public Health Act, which created the National Board of Health to regulate such matters as the dumping of sewage. In 1863, Britain’s Alkali Act sought to reduce hydrogen chloride emissions by empowering investigators to suggest changes to factory owners, though without the power to compel obedience. In the 1880s, several American cities, including Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, passed ordinances to limit smoke emissions. None of these laws were very successful. Businesses ignored them, and cities usually did not enforce them.

Housing also became a concern of governments during the Second Industrial Revolution. Regulations often outlawed dangers such as apartments without windows or ventilation, where infectious diseases rapidly bred. Some municipalities built housing for the poor or tore down slums and relocated workers to other parts of the city. Between 1853 and 1870, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann redesigned Paris; as part of these efforts, workers’ dwellings in the center of the city were razed. Naples, Italy, was rebuilt between 1889 and 1918 to prevent the return of cholera. In the 1880s and 1890s, Japanese officials in Tokyo and Osaka also tried to clear slums and remove the poor from districts inhabited by the middle class. These efforts were often unsuccessful, however, and poor neighborhoods often abutted even the most prestigious ones. In 1906, one Japanese newspaper reported that the emperor’s palace was affected when the poor neighborhood adjacent to it flooded.

Link to Learning

Learn more about the modern buildings designed to fill the streets of Baron Haussmann’s redesigned Paris.

In 1883, Germany passed the Health Insurance Law, requiring that employers provide health insurance for their employees, using money drawn from workers’ pay and added to employers’ contributions. In 1889, the German government extended insurance to the elderly and those with disabilities. In 1898, France also provided insurance to those injured at work. In 1911, Britain’s National Insurance Act provided for the health care of about one-third of British workers. In 1912, Russia passed a similar law.

Concern for safety in the industrial workplace, especially of women and children, also inspired much legislation. Early laws applied to only certain industries like textiles and mining. Factory Acts passed in Britain in the 1860s through the 1880s expanded the types of businesses covered by the older laws. In 1860, the Coal Mines Regulation Act made twelve years the minimum age for boys to work in mines, and in 1891, Britain made eleven years the minimum age for factory work.

Many U.S. states passed laws limiting work hours for women in strenuous industries like laundry. Employers challenged these actions, though, and courts, favoring a policy of laissez-faire, commonly overturned protective legislation. Limiting adults’ working hours was thought to deprive them of their freedom of contract as well as burdening employers. Many efforts to limit hours or ban women and children from certain jobs altogether were also often resented by the working class. For those commonly paid by the hour or the piece, more time in the workplace meant more money, and people who were desperate often had to take the only jobs they could find.

The creation of urban parks was the goal of reformers who saw green spaces as a solution to the dirt and chaos of the city. The nineteenth-century middle and upper-middle classes, like good Romantics, believed in the redemptive power of nature. Not only was fresh air good for city dwellers’ lungs, but the very sight of green grass, trees, and flowers was thought to be a source of moral uplift. Politicians were swayed by their claims. New York City built Central Park in 1858. The government of Japan decreed in 1873 that parks be built in urban areas (Figure 10.17). German emperor Wilhelm I ceded his rights to the Tiergarten, a royal hunting park, and made it part of the city of Berlin in 1881. The middle class sometimes feared the working class would behave inappropriately in parks, and places like Central Park often prohibited visitors from picnicking on the grass, picking flowers, and playing games on the lawn.

This photograph shows people visiting a public park. A bandstand sits in the center of the photograph. Buildings are visible in the background.
Figure 10.17 In 1873, the government of Japan decreed that public parks be established in the cities. Tsuruma Park opened in Nagoya in 1909. In its center is a European-style bandstand, shown here. (credit: “Tsurumai Park 1910” by Japan to-day/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Regulations and laws sometimes failed to yield the improvements many social activists thought were necessary. Reform movements arose both to change private behaviors the middle class believed harmful or immoral, such as drinking or having extramarital sex, and to pressure governments to make broader changes. Sometimes they were successful. In the United States, for example, prostitution was made illegal in many cities. In other countries such as France, prostitution was not prohibited, and new laws attempted to regulate it and prevent the spread of venereal disease.

The excessive consumption of alcohol was another problem addressed primarily through reform efforts. The middle class blamed drinking for myriad problems including poverty, street crime, worker absenteeism, workplace accidents, and domestic violence. Efforts to address these generally took one of two approaches—temperance, which forbade hard liquor and encouraged moderate consumption of other alcoholic beverages, and prohibition, which attempted to ban the manufacture and consumption of all alcoholic beverages.

Temperance and prohibition movements made the greatest headway in countries with large Protestant populations, such as the United States, England, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. The United Kingdom Alliance for the Total and Immediate Suppression of the Liquor Traffic by the Will of the People, usually referred to simply as the United Kingdom Alliance, intended to prohibit the trade in alcohol entirely. In the United States, the Anti-Saloon League attempted to close places where alcohol was served, including by physically destroying barrooms.

Women played crucial roles in many of these reform movements; such activism was considered an appropriate occupation for wealthy or middle-class women and directly related to their interests at the time. Husbands who visited prostitutes could bring disease home. Alcoholic men could leave families in financial ruin, and drunken husbands and fathers physically abused wives and children. Cleaning up the city was often equated to cleaning up the home.

The women engaged in reform movements usually realized they could be more effective if they had the right to vote, run for public office, or control property. Access to university education and the professions would also boost their ability to improve society. Many were therefore also active in women’s rights movements.

Reformers often regarded problems like poverty and drunkenness as the result of a lack of self-discipline and of a strong moral compass. The poor could best be helped, they believed, through moral uplift. The Scottish writer Samuel Smiles, for example, believed morality was the key to success. Adopting that attitude, charitable societies and religious organizations often established missions in poor neighborhoods through which they hoped to encourage the working class to change their ways.

Nineteenth-century reformers also insisted the poor not become dependent on charity. British housing reformer Octavia Hill was an advocate of this position. She worked with art critic John Ruskin to provide attractive housing for the poor, but the housing was not free, and while rents were low, those who failed to pay on time risked eviction. Hill also evicted tenants who allowed their homes to become overcrowded or failed to send their children to school.

Others believed the poor were irredeemable and that their personal traits, many of which were thought to be hereditary, made change impossible. Thus, attempts at charity and moral uplift were seen to do no good. Social Darwinism, a pseudoscientific belief that some people were better equipped for survival than others, was advocated by British sociologist Herbert Spencer. Spencer believed it was useless to help the poor because they were destined to die out. He regarded them as having “lost” the competition of life because they did not possess the traits necessary to rise to the top. He did not believe the poor should be helped to survive and opposed offering them financial assistance.

Dueling Voices

Helping the Poor

How best to help the poor was a great concern of nineteenth-century society. Some people, like Samuel Smiles, believed the poor could help themselves by adopting more disciplined habits. Others, however, like the Reverend Osborne Jay, believed they could not change. Jay came to hold this position after working with the poor in Bethnal Green, a working-class neighborhood in London’s East End. In the first of the two excerpts that follow, Samuel Smiles discusses the importance of self-improvement. In the second excerpt, the Reverend Jay, the minister of Holy Trinity Church in Shoreditch, a poor district in East London, answers questions posed by a reporter about the cause of “the degradation” of the poor and the best response to it.

National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy, and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils, will, for the most part, be found to be but the outgrowth of man's own perverted life; and though we may endeavour to cut them down and extirpate them by means of Law, they will only spring up again with fresh luxuriance in some other form, unless the conditions of personal life and character are radically improved. If this view be correct, then it follows that the highest patriotism and philanthropy consist, not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action.

—Samuel Smiles, Self-Help

There is no temptation like that of poverty. It is the greatest that can fall in the way of any man or woman. It fills our prisons and turns honesty into crime and virtue into dishonor. But it must also be remembered that at the very outset of our social problem we are met by the incontrovertible fact that the major portion of the submerged and semi-criminal class are in their present position through physical, moral, and mental peculiarities. . . . Cunning, not wisdom; sharpness, not intelligence, are stamped even on their faces. And yet all the time the well-to-do virtuous classes, walled off from temptation, surrounded by all that conduces to right living, wrap themselves in the wretched mantle of their detestable hypocrisy and pretend to believe that all in this life have equal chances, and must be uniformly fairly judged. But science in unmistakable accents teaches the reverse. . . . There is, it seems to me, only one solution to this problem. Education has failed, religious work cannot he expected to do what is needed, the Poor Law and prison systems are alike ineffective, and universal charity cannot rightly be considered a real factor in the case. The only method, I think, is to stop the supply of persons born to be lazy, immoral, and deficient in intellect. This can only be done by sending the present stock of them to what I will call a penal settlement. . . . The fact is, all men are not equal, nor can they be treated as such. This, through no fault of their own, I grant; but we can prevent them bringing into the world children stamped with the character of their parents.

—Osborne Jay, “To Check the Survival of the Unfit

  • What would Smiles have thought about efforts to solve social problems by, for instance, outlawing the sale of alcohol or banning prostitution?
  • Would Jay have agreed with the approach Smiles recommended? Why or why not? Would Jay have agreed with the ideas of Herbert Spencer?
  • In what ways are the attitudes of Smiles and Jay similar to or different from attitudes toward the poor today?

A particular type of reform movement resulted in the creation of trade and labor unions to represent workers in dealings with management. In trade unions, workers organized within a particular craft or industry. In labor unions, skilled and unskilled workers of all kinds joined together to promote and defend their interests. In Britain, trade unions were at the forefront of change. In 1866, the Trades Union Congress, a federation of English and Welsh trade unions, was formed primarily to represent the interests of skilled workers. In 1871, the British government legalized their existence, and in 1875, Parliament made it legal for workers to strike as well. The result was that trade union membership increased from about 100,000 to about one million by the middle of the 1870s. Coal miners, iron and steel workers, and textile factory employees were the first to unionize. In the 1880s and 1890s, unions began to make concerted efforts to organize unskilled laborers. Two million people had joined British trade unions by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Workers’ demands focused largely on improving wages, hours, and working conditions. Establishing an eight-hour day was the goal of many unions. When these goals were not met, they struck. In 1881, women in British match factories went on strike. They wanted relief from fourteen-hour days and the hazards of working with white phosphorous. Between 1910 and 1914, a period known as the Great Unrest, miners, dockworkers, and railway workers across Britain went on strike repeatedly, and workers in other industries walked off the job to place added pressure on the strikers’ employers to give in to their demands.

In the United States, both trade unions and labor unions existed. The American Federation of Labor (AFL), originally called the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, was established by Samuel Gompers in 1886. Like the British Trades Union Congress, it included many different unions, though originally, only skilled White male workers could join. The AFL supported strikes, but Gompers preferred to avoid them. Even if he had favored strikes, it would have been difficult for members to use them. Employers routinely called in the police, private detectives, or the military to disperse striking employees, and union leaders could be jailed.

When Pullman employees went on strike in 1894, more than 100,000 American railroad workers refused to handle any train with cars manufactured by Pullman’s company. Rail travel ground to a halt, and the transportation of the U.S. mail along with it. Violence broke out as striking workers and those who supported them burned buildings and attacked African American men who had been hired by railroad owners to replace the strikers. The U.S. Army was brought in to end the strike by attacking the workers. Many strikes ended the way the Pullman strike had.

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