By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
Before the Industrial Revolution, Britain produced just 2% of the world’s industrial goods. By the middle of the 19th century, that percentage increased tenfold to a staggering 20%: one-fifth of the world’s industrial output. Yet, there were inequities. A by-product of industrialization, these were best seen in the cotton industry.
Increase in Agricultural Productivity
Before the Industrial Revolution, most Europeans engaged in subsistence agriculture. They grew the crops and made the household products, which their families needed to survive. Families worked together in the fields, in animal husbandry, and at home producing the goods they needed.
Beginning in the 18th century, land grew more productive thanks to the introduction of fodder crops such as turnips and clover. Rich in nitrogen, these plantings replenished the soil. Previously, a significant portion of land lay fallow so as not to exhaust the earth’s nutrients. Plus, the new crops could be grown in the winter and be used to feed livestock. So, land was continually in production. And the ability to keep livestock through the frigid winter months increased the natural production of fertilizer, which, in turn, improved agricultural yields.
Abundant Supply of both Capital and Labor
As a result of these factors, and the introduction of other new crops like corn and potatoes, European masses gained access to more food. The population began to rise.
At the same time, increased agricultural productivity meant fewer hands were needed to farm the land. This, combined with population growth, led to an ample supply of workers who were available for other work.
The expanding labor supply was especially pronounced in England. British landowners had identified an expanding opportunity for foreign trade in foodstuffs and wool. So, they enclosed what had been commonly used lands and incorporated them into private holdings. This generated greater wealth for English landowners while limiting the available land for small farmers. Agricultural laborers, driven by necessity, migrated to cities looking for work. England now found itself with an abundant supply of both capital and labor.
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Spinning Jenney and Steam Engine
For most of the 18th century, English cotton works were a tiny domestic industry in the north of the country. But in 1770, a man named James Hargreaves patented a device that spun cotton threads into cloth in a fraction of the time previously required. Hargreaves’s spinning jenny transformed the industry and, by extension, the world.
Simultaneous with Hargreaves’s breakthrough, the Scottish inventor James Watt was improving earlier models of the steam engine. So, textile production was no longer dependent upon windmills and waterwheels as sources of power. Instead, reliable power became mobile and production skyrocketed. Within 50 years, a single textile worker was able to spin the same amount of cotton that it previously had taken 200 workers to produce.
Cheaper and Faster Production and Transportation
Steam power made its mark in other industries as well. In 1788, steam engines began to be used to power blast furnaces in the iron industry. Iron production nearly doubled in less than a decade. And it was used to build more durable factory machines and railroads, which enabled the production and transportation of goods to become cheaper and faster.
The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830, made the railroad a central part of English life. It joined these two northern England cities at the breakneck speed of 16 miles an hour. Demand for goods grew, and national markets developed. This necessitated the building of more factories. Additional investment drove more production and generated still more capital.
Demand for Slaves Increased
The growth in the production of cotton, together with the falling price of textiles, allowed ordinary people in industrialized nations to have access to more textile goods than ever before, but it also led to an acceleration of the slave trade.
Because of the vast amount of money now to be made in cotton, there was increased demand for slaves to work the plantations of the Americas. And the number of slaves forcibly brought from Africa to the Americas each year more than doubled after the spinning jenny’s debut.
Once the first steamships made their maiden ocean voyages in 1819, the pace of transoceanic travel also quickened. With travel faster and safer than it had been in the age of sail power, steam power enabled international trade to multiply.
An Exploitative Situation
Initially, the supply of potential workers exceeded factory owners’ needs. This created a potentially exploitative situation. Employers didn’t have any reason to pay what might be construed as living wages. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that many factory jobs required little to no skill, and unskilled workers stood near the bottom of the labor hierarchy.
So, most early industrial workers labored long hours for low pay under arduous circumstances. Men, women, and children worked under conditions that compromised their health and safety. Families often worked together, and child labor was a necessity for most poor families.
Common Questions about Industrialization and Inequities in the Cotton Industry
Before the Industrial Revolution, most Europeans engaged in subsistence agriculture. They grew the crops, and made the household products, that their families needed to survive. Families worked together in the fields, in animal husbandry, and at home producing the goods they needed.
Increased agricultural productivity meant fewer hands were needed to farm the land. This, combined with population growth, led to an ample supply of workers who were available for other work. The expanding labor supply was especially pronounced in England.
In 1770, James Hargreaves patented a device that spun cotton threads into cloth in a fraction of the time previously required. Hargreaves’s spinning jenny transformed the industry, and, by extension, the world.