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The Black Cloud on Progress

Updated July 6, 2022
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The Black Cloud on Progress essay

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As far as most historians are concerned, there have been approximately three industrial revolutions since the initial one that began during the 18th century in England, and, in large part, we can thank the first one for pushing the growth of industry into motion. The revolution’s aftermath still affects us today, but the strongest impacts of the revolution were not felt by us. They were felt by the men, women, and children who worked day after day in crowded, dirty, and dangerous factories. These working class people experienced a swift and unpleasant shift in their lifestyle, economic situations, and health; however, today we can appreciate these peoples’ gifts to our modern world.

The Industrial Revolution created a new need for people to move into cities in order to make any sort of livable wage. The Spinning Jenny, Power Loom, and dozens of more textile related machinery effectively drove cottage-industry textiles out of the British economy. No longer were whole families, women and children included, able to make a manageable living from the comfort of their homes. Machines could do the work in far less time, with greater precision, and far cheaper. In “Observations on the Loss of Spinning,” the author disheartenedly reports that the sudden inability of families to spin at home denied children of the household, “wholesome employment” and that the factories that they began to labor in no longer “kep[t] them in constant exercise, and upright” as children ought to be (Halsall, 1).

With the increasing mechanization of a formerly agrarian society, the author implies that children were losing a positive focus of their lives, strength both in a physical capacity and a mental one, and a thorough lack of character building and family values. During this pre-industrial period, children were often considered members of a family business of sorts. They were expected to contribute to their family unit’s financial security, but they were also allowed to maintain diversity in their lives, whether that be in the format of a formal education, time outside to work their family’s land, or the learning of domestic duties. Their lives maintained some resemblance of freedom, and they did not experience extreme regimentation as they would in the factories and mines.

Not only was this period marked by a loss in childhood, but also a loss of space. As families began to flee to urban areas, leaving their farms behind in search of work their living conditions became extremely compromised. Cities such as London experienced extreme overcrowding. People were packed into inadequate dwellings in order to make the best use of the limited available housing near to factories. (Though the rise of the train commute occurred during this period, most people simply walked to their factory jobs everyday.) Even if viable living quarters could be procured, often this housing led to more problems than it solved because wherever people went, disease followed. Sickness and death hovered around metropolitan areas because there was simply no system to deal with this influx of people and consequently: influx of waste.

Streets were filled with rotting corpses of animals, food scraps, and feces, and this waste did not stay in the streets. Sewage leached into water supplies and whole blocks were torn apart by cholera outbreaks. Diseases during this period shockingly, as conveyed by Edwin Chadwick’s report from The Poor Law Commissioners on an Inquiry into the Sanitation Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, resulted in, “…the annual loss of life from filth and bad ventilation [being] greater than the loss from death or wounds in any wars…the country has been engaged in modern times”(Chadwick, 1). This does not appear to suggest an improvement in the lives of working class people during this time.

An additional health concern during this period was a significant increase in the burning of coal and other natural resource. There had to be an influx of mining in order to fuel the rapid industrialization of the British economy. A lack of mining would mean a lack of coal. A lack of coal would mean a lack of production. A lack of production would mean a lack of exports and thus a lack profit for the factory owners. But, this cycle was not without negative environmental implications. This new industrial movement became a movement in the darkness. Smog and coal dust hung on buildings and in the air because, unfortunately, what is in the air rarely stays in the air.

Products of industry began to inadvertently inhaled by factory workers and non-factory workers alike. Cotton particles were inhaled in the textile industry and even minors were plagued by respiratory issues. Buildings became painted with smog and ash, and each urban area operated under a cloud that was killing its occupants. Infact, interestingly enough, science even saw other species struggling to operate in this new, dark world. A particular breed of moth, the peppered moth, an inhabitant of the UK, slowly began to adapt. It transformed from a salt and pepper color to a dark black-gray ash hue in order to fly uneaten through its charred environment. However, peppered moths were not the only creatures to experience a physical change.

Scientists and observers of the working class began to observe changes in the new generation of man. There was notable a lack of height and robustness throughout the lower class. Partially to blame was a new less nutritious diet. Previously, when the poor owned their own farmland, people were able to grow their own food and rely upon their land to provide for them. But, in cities, food was often scarce. People were limited by what they could afford in shops, and a less nutritious diet led to a weaker and more malnourished worker. With adults and even children needing to work, sometimes, 16 hour days, there was little time to experience anything aside from work; meals were infrequent. With an already unhealthy lifestyle it did not help that workers were frequently beaten and abused by their employers.

According to an 1832 parliamentary investigation of conditions in the textile factories conducted by Michael Sadler, child workers often experienced routine beatings and floggings for inability to work due to lack of sleep, tardiness, and in one provided interview with a factory worker: attempts at running away. And though it was not in the interest of factory owners and overseers to beat these children into unworkable physical states, it seems highly unlikely that this occurrence would be unheard of. This combination of routine beatings and frequently skipped meals probably accounts for the observable lack of luster and vibrancy in this generation.

Another common occurrence was mild to severe crippling incidents. Workers experienced conditions that lacked safety regulations and thus resulted in injuries that could keep them out of the workforce. These people and others who were unable to find other types of work often resorted to prostitution and other unpleasant lines of work. This class of people, who found work however they could led to an opinion among higher ups in society that the poor was full of degenerates. Many believed that these people simply lacked morally and were born to “live precisely like brutes, to gratify…the appetites of their uncultivated bodies, and then die, to go they have never thought, cared, or wondered…(Petrov, Lecture 9/19).” The upper echelon elites believed that these people were becoming more and more like animals. They oversaw these peoples’ demise and happily pocketed the majority of the money being made by their “brutish” counterparts.

And, this is the main consideration that must be made when attempting to answer the question of the Industrial Revolution’s effects in the lives of “people” because yes, the world would be a very different world had it maintained its agricultural pre-industrial simplicity. Would it be a better world? Probably not, but who is to say? However, pretty clearly, the Industrial Revolution for many was a period of back breaking work, lack of equality or equity in society, classism, and filth. The lower classes lived in squalor, were paid low wages while their labor effectively fueled the industry, not the coal. People were what kept the cogs from stopping, but they were being tossed aside as replaceable, inhuman labor. Today, we can attempt to appreciate and memorialize what these generations contributed to the world that we continue to enjoy because though the revolution was less than kind to them, their work has been extremely important in this new society.

Though innovators such as Hargreaves, of the Spinning Jenny, and Stephenson, of the first real train, made the revolution possible, it was those that suffered most that kept the trains running on time and clothes being exported. We should also appreciate that this suffering has transcended the First Industrial Revolution. It hasn’t simply disappeared. There are still thousands of people abroad in developing countries that experience similar working conditions to those aforementioned. There is a reason that Americans and Europeans are able to work in offices and not in factories. Infact, until there is a way to completely mechanize the production of goods that we deem luxuries and necessities, there will be a stream of lower class people being taken advantage of by the wealthy.

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