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The Standard of Living in Europe During the Industrial Revolution – Foundations of Western Culture:

The Standard of Living in Europe During the Industrial Revolution

In Britain during the Industrial Revolution, large changes were beginning to take place regarding the standard of living for the people living at this time. No matter which class a person was in, from poorer working class families, to middle class families with a bit of extra spending money, to extremely wealthy nobles, advances in technology, along with new ideas of how to manufacture goods, would change the face of the classes and their living standards forever. This page will attempt to show how these events and changes transpired, as well as how these changes had the effect of raising standard of living for some, while lowering it for others. In addition, this page hopes to shed some light on the debate about whether the Industrial Revolution had a more positive or negative effect on the standard of living for the people in this time.

Between 1760 and 1860 in England, the Industrial Revolution resulted in many different outcomes. One of these outcomes was a steady rise in income, and this spread to the rest of the Western world. Critics and defenders of free markets debated about ideological arguments.  The critics viewed the process of industrialization in England as hurting the middle class by taking out more surplus value over the years.  The defenders of free markets, a system where prices are decided between privately owned businesses, viewed this process as a new beginning of the development of consumer goods, which led to greater availability to the middle class of England.1  The standard of living during the Industrial Revolution has been debated too by historians.  Although people think that the debate is about whether people benefited from the industrial revolution, the real debate is about when the standard of living improved for them.  Some historians argue that improvement wasn’t seen until the 1840s and 1850s, but others presume that improvements were already being made the 1810s and 1820s.2 Some of the positive effects of the revolution may have turned into negatives because of the war and high taxes that resulted.  It is said that the industrial revolution began important changes that lead to high or improved living standards for people.

Why do you think that these historians had such different opinions on when the improvement of the standard of living occurred?

During the Industrial Revolution, living conditions for new industrial workers were much different than they had been before. These new industrial workers were forced to move out of their homes, where they had always farmed, and into cities, seeking jobs in factories or mines. These cities were not very good places to live. They were extremely crowded, as they were not built for all of this huge influx of people caused by industrialization. In addition, urban development was not high quality during this time, meaning that housing was being put up very quickly, and much of it was made poorly. Sanitation seemed to be almost nonexistent during this time period. Since there was no indoor plumbing, one of two strategies were often used. Many of these new living spaces had outhouses in their backyards. In even poorer areas where there were no outhouses, waste was often thrown outside close to the buildings.3  These living conditions suggest a lack of improvement for working class people, but there are other parts of standard of living that show a lack of improvement.

Working conditions also did not improve during the Industrial Revolution. Once people moved into these dirty, cramped cities, they also needed to find jobs. These jobs were very different from the work these people had previously done on their farms. Instead of setting their own hours and getting done as much work as they needed, these new workers were now pushed much harder while they worked, as well as forced to work longer hours, sometimes up to fourteen hours a day, and up to six days a week.4  Although workers did make more money working at these factories than they could on their farms, this did not truly increase their standard of living.



Which of these factors do you believe had the largest effect on people during this time?

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According to the historian T.S. Ashton, one reason that standard of living did not improve during industrialization was that machinery took over man’s job leading to employers firing people or downsizing the amount of workers, due to machinery being introduced into workplaces.5 The invention of new machines such as the spinning jenny and the power loom that permitted increased production with a smaller expenditure of human energy.6 While these machines were doing a good job, manual labor was still needed in certain areas. These workers were subjected to the dangerous labor close to the machines, as well as long workdays, few or no breaks, no regulations, and poor conditions.

An image of the Bridgewater Foundry, alongside the Bridgewater Canal and the Liverpool to Manchester railway line at Patricroft. via Wikipedia
An image of the Bridgewater Foundry, alongside the Bridgewater Canal and the Liverpool to Manchester railway line at Patricroft.
via Wikipedia

Another thing that Ashton pointed out was that most of a person’s income would go towards rent and other necessities such as food and drink. People didn’t have enough extra money or any leftover money because of the fact that most of the money went to housing and food7. Often, people wouldn’t have enough money after rent to even purchase food to feed the entire family, which led to rationing of the food that they had been able to purchase. Sometimes people wouldn’t even be able to eat due to their jobs dissipating or most of their checks going to housing. Although there was an increase of supplies for clothing, such as fabrics, many people of the working class could not afford them, which made them look more impoverished 8. Many of these lower class workers were subjected to awful working conditions and had less regulations in place at their jobs, were getting paid much less, which in turn made things worse for them9  In modern diction, it would be said that they could barely make ends meet.

In this last paragraph it was talked about where most of people’s money went. Where did most of it go and why?

During industrialization the classes of people were affected differently. With the rise of industrialization, the majority of upper and middle class workers were well off and able to have jobs in management, where they had more structure to their work week, hours they worked, and got paid more. In this way, industrialization improved their standard of living because they were able to move away from the inner city, where there was a lot of poverty, and into the suburbs. They were able to move up in society, and overall, everything about their life changed for the better. On the other hand, the standard of living decreased for many of the people in the working class and immigrants.

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikipedia
Lewis Hine – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikipedia

Yet another way to show that standard of living did not increase is literacy rate. According to an article by Stephen J. Nicholas and Jacqueline M. Nicholas, not only did literacy not grow during the Industrial Revolution, but actually decreased for most of it. For example when literacy rates for urban men are compared from year 1795 (50%) to year 1807 (10%), it is easily shown that these rates drop. What is even more interesting is that urban males begin with a higher literacy rate before the industrial revolution began than rural males, but after a few years, the literacy rate for urban males drop dramatically, while the urban rate stays about the same, causing the literacy rate for rural males to pass up the literacy rate for urban males.10  This shows yet another way that standard of living failed to increase during the Industrial Revolution.

There are solid arguments for both positive and negative effects of industrialization on the standard of living. While the standard of living was improved for the middle and upper classes, it may have worsened for the lower and impoverished classes. Many people in the upper classes benefited during this time, however, the majority of people that were being affected by industrialization were the people in poverty and immigrants. They were suppressed by dirty tenant housing which often was crammed with too many inhabitants. These people were dealing with poor working conditions due to industrialization, and also had depressing conditions at home, including very little money, overworked families, and not enough food to go around. The overall effect of the Industrial Revolution on standard of living was positive for those in the higher classes, but much more negative for the working class.

1. Clark Nardinelli, “Industrial Revolution and the Standard of Living,” The Library of Economics and Liberty, accessed April 26, 2016, http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/IndustrialRevolutionandtheStandardofLiving.html.

2. Nardinelli, “Industrial Revolution and the Standard,” The Library of Economics and Liberty.

3. The Open Door Website, “Urban Conditions,” The Open Door Website, accessed April 27, 2016, http://www.saburchill.com/history/chapters/IR/039a.html

4. Modern World History, [Page #], accessed April 28, 2016, http://webs.bcp.org/sites/vcleary/ModernWorldHistoryTextbook/IndustrialRevolution/IREffects.html.

5. T. S. Ashton, “The Treatment of Capitalism by Historians,” last modified 1954, PDF.

6. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, “Industrial Revolution,” Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed April 27, 2016, http://www.britannica.com/event/Industrial-Revolution.

7. Ashton, “The Treatment of Capitalism.”

8. Ibid.

9. James Kay-Shuttleworth, “The Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes of Manchester in 1832,” A Web of English History, accessed April 27, 2016, http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/p-health/mterkay.htm.

10. Stephen J. Nicholas and Jacqueline M. Nicholas, “Male Literacy, ‘deskilling,’and the Industrial Revolution,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23, no. 1 (1992): [9], accessed April 27, 2016, doi:10.2307/205479.


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