Even if, ultimately, the number of jobs increased through innovation, the industrial revolution brought with it another drastic change for the general public. Wages spiraled downward as tasks could be performed by less skilled workers.
Industrialization’s Impact on Wages: The Shoe Industry
The shoe industry provides an interesting case study. In the early 1800’s, custom work paid, on average, from $1.40 to $2.75 per pair of shoes. In 1835, wholesale work paid only $1.12 per pair. What had caused such a drastic change? According to historian Norman Ware, the most important change was “in the position of the shoemaker,…displaced by the factory owner as the chief organizer of production.”
While many see industrialization as a cure for poverty because of its ability to provide higher wages, taken as a whole, historian Paul Gilje claims “industrialization expressed and exacerbated widening gaps in income distribution”. It is true that some of the skilled workers and machine tenders received wages on the higher end of worker pay scales, but Gilje contends that “the income awarded to the bulk of less skilled workers nitched into through factory births left wide seams of the industrial labor force struggling to purchase the necessities of life, not excluding the manufactured items upon which they now increasingly depended.”
Industrialization Highlights Class Distinction
As the gulf between the classes widened, the wealthy spent their fortunes arrogantly while the urban masses lived in poverty or near it. Some of the wealthy tried to argue that because of industrialization, the poor was also getting richer and that they were better off than in past generations. Many social critics did not deny the improvement in the standard of living for many workingmen because of industrial growth.
What many did criticize was the increasing disparity and the methods by which it was being accomplished. John Cummons, a nineteenth-century social critic, pointed out the perspective of the worker: “Men do not compare themselves with their ancestors, but with their contemporaries. You cannot appease a restless workman by telling him how much better off he is than his simian progenitor. What he feels is his dependence on his fellowman, who is growing richer every day upon the fruits of his poorly paid toil.”
Henry George, a social critic of the late nineteenth-century, attempted to make a living at a number of different jobs and found that he was barely able to provide for his family. Many times, they almost starved. He reflected on “his manifold misfortunes and the misfortunes of his friends, that there was something radically amiss in a society in which a few enjoyed great wealth while the mass of the people lived in poverty” (Smith 196). The growing gulf between rich and poor intensified a deepening social conflict for Americans who had “cherished the view that class divisions did not exist in their country.”
In the early nineteenth-century, with the development of the factory system and wage labor, there were critics who argued that industrial workers were, in some ways, worse off than black slaves. What many claimed were the results of this wage-based system with be discussed in Industrialization’s Impact on Society: Two Distinct Classes of People.
Gilje, Paul A., ed. Wages of Independence: Capitalism in the Early American Republic.Madison: Madison House, 1997.
Juenger, Friedrich. The Failure of Technology. Chicago: A Gateway Edition, 1956.
Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1984.
Ware, Norman. The Industrial Worker: 1840-1860. Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1959.
Yellowitz, Irwin. The Position of the Worker in American Society, 1865-1896. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969