The industrial revolution is one of the most important periods in American history, as it marked the beginning of a transition from an agrarian economy based on farming and sustenance to one that would be characterized by advanced technology and a higher standard of living. As a result, the U.S. economy subsequently featured a wider array of jobs and luxuries, and also a dramatic increase in per capita real income (Hartwell 165). Ultimately, the industrial revolution brought about many positive changes between the years of 1870 and 1920. However, negative effects have also resulted from the industrialization of America, some of which are still being dealt with nearly a century later.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the industrial revolution was the invention of many modes of transportation that had previously been unimaginable. Whereas citizens previously traveled via horse and buggy, the industrial revolution would see the spread of railways, and most importantly, the automobile (Fine and Leopold 156). Not only did these inventions make traveling easier, which allowed for more Americans to migrate and visit other areas of the country, it would also benefit businesses as well. The success of businesses would result in a higher standard of living due to the increase in per capita real income.
The increase in real incomes and general higher standard of living would result in a number of positive changes in society. Most notably, the public school system was established to help better educate members of society. The schools served two purposes, particularly in urban areas: to educate the country’s youth and to keep young children off of the streets (Lane 291). Prior to the industrial revolution, many of the available jobs required little to no education, but that changed as the economy grew and better paying jobs were available, meaning educated individuals were needed to fill the positions.
Another benefit to the increased urban population was the formation of a police force. Describing how urbanization drastically changed society, Roger Lane writes:
The generation after 1830 witnessed proportionately the most rapid urbanization in our history… [which resulted in] the creation of professional police, the expansion of education, and the movement for the control of disorderly behavior best symbolized by the temperance movement (292).
The formation of a professional police force has increased public safety by working to curb disorderly behavior that was not expressly prohibited prior to the industrial revolution. Additionally, the establishment of a compulsory education system has provided all American children with an equal opportunity to obtain a high quality education, one of the most beneficial changes in society caused by the industrial revolution.
The industrial revolution led to the enactment of many important pieces of legislation in the United States. With an increased percentage of the population working long hours in often-rigorous conditions, it was necessary for the United States to pass legislation aimed at bettering the workplace. In the wake of the industrial revolution, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was passed to form workplace rights and provide better compensation to employees across the country. Central to the Fair Labor Standards Act was the establishment of a 40-hour workweek. Prior to the act, employees were paid a base pay per hour, no matter how many hours he or she worked per week. However, the FLSA stated that any employee working more than 40 hours per week must be paid “at least time-and-a-half for hours worked over eight in a day or 80 in any 14-day period, whichever is the greater number of overtime hours” (Quyen-Nguyen 79). In addition, the act made it illegal for employers to deduct salaries for “absences of less than a day, jury duty, attendance as a witness at trial, military service, minor disciplinary violation, or when work is not available” (Quyen-Nguyen 79).
With an improved economy and society, the Fair Labor Standards Act would be just the first of many pieces of legislation aimed at protecting the citizens and consumers of the United States. Other important acts passed later include the Social Security Act of 1935, the Clayton Act, and the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid. Without the improved standard of living and increased job opportunities that resulted from the industrial revolution, many of the most important social programs in the United States would not exist today.
Despite its successes, however, the industrial revolution also produced some negative consequences. The increased reliance on fuels to power industrial equipment has caused an increase in pollution. In particular, fossil fuel use has increased exponentially since the industrial revolution, leading to air pollution and. Massive amounts of carbon dioxide being the released into the atmosphere has been described as an “uninvited guest that shows up when coal, oil, or natural gas burn” (Monastersky 393).
Prior to the industrial revolution, Americans did not have much need to burn coal, oil, or natural gas, because few machines required such fuels at the time. Since then, American has become dependent on fossil fuels, with the automobile as the major symbol of America’s reliance on fossil fuel. The increase in carbon dioxide levels has caused a number of problems in recent years, with one example being rising temperatures that result in the melting of polar icecaps and glaciers. A 2013 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that each of the last three decades was warmer than any decade since 1850, and also that the period between 1983 and 2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period in over 1,000 years (“Working Group I Contribution…” 3). Considering that each of the last decades has been warmer than those prior to the industrial revolution, it seems clear there is a link between increased dependence on fossil fuels and rising temperatures.
In addition to an increase in pollution, the industrial revolution has resulted in poor labor conditions at times. Following the urbanization that accompanied the industrial revolution, workers started abandoning rural farms in favor of factories most often located in cities. The conditions, as outlined in novels such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, were often brutal, with many workers becoming injured on the job due to unsafe working conditions. Although conditions have improved a bit over the years, many accidents and workplace deaths still occur each year because workers are employed in positions that require the operation of dangerous machinery.
Congress has enacted many laws to help correct poor workplace conditions. Unfortunately, it can take years of employer abuse before such laws to finally become a reality. Prior to laws such as the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers would frequently subject employees to harsh working conditions while paying unlivable wages. Urbanization meant thousands of people migrated to places that did not have enough good paying jobs, leading many to accept work from unscrupulous employers whose sole motivation was to profit from desperate workers. This exploitation of the lower and middle classes became another negative side effect of the industrialization of America.
Lastly, discriminatory immigration policies also occurred following the industrial revolution. With a lack of jobs, many United States citizens felt that immigrants should not be permitted to enter the country because they did not want uneducated laborers taking potential jobs. This resulted in the government preventing uneducated and unskilled laborers from immigrating to the United States (King 166). The practice seems contradictory to American history, as nearly every citizen of the United States comes from a family that immigrated at some point in time. Many consider the prevention of foreigners from obtaining the same economic opportunities that U.S. citizens enjoy due to inclusionary immigration policies as a negative consequence of the industrial revolution.
In conclusion, although the industrial revolution provided a much higher standard of living and a more educated citizenry, not all results were positive. There is no denying that a higher per capita real income and the establishment of public schools, a police force, and comprehensive labor laws are positive effects. In addition, with the invention of computers, automobiles, and the spread of railroads, life has become more convenient and many industries have thrived as a result of an increased client base. However, there are certainly negative effects that have resulted as well. Despite what one may believe in regard to the legitimacy of global warming, few would argue that pollution in the form of unsafe drinking water and exposure to dangerous chemicals in the air are anything but a negative effect of the industrial revolution. Additionally, grueling, oftentimes deadly, working conditions have also become more common especially in industries that rely on factories. Lastly, it has become much harder for families to immigrate to the United States since the industrial revolution, a privilege that every American citizen’s forebearers was afforded at some point in history. The industrial revolution has benefitted Americans in many ways and provided increased opportunities, but has also produced negative effects that would have seemed unimaginable centuries ago.
Fine, Ben, and Ellen Leopold. “Consumerism and the Industrial Revolution.” Social History, vol. 15, no. 2, 1990, pp. 151-179.
Hartwell, R.M. “The Causes of the Industrial Revolution: An Essay in Methodology.” The Economic History Review, vol. 18, no. 1, 1965, pp. 164-182.
King, Willford I. “The Effects of the New Industrial Revolution upon Our Economic Welfare.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 149, 1930, pp. 165-172.
Lane, Roger. “Crime and the Industrial Revolution: British and American Views.” Journal of Social History, vol. 7, no. 3, 1974, pp. 287-303.
Monastersky, Richard. “Good-Bye to a Greenhouse Gas.” Science News, vol. 155, no. 25, 1999, pp. 392-394.
Quyen-Nguyen, Bich. “Workplace Rights: The Fair Labor Standards Act.” The American Journal of Nursing, vol. 101, no. 8, 2001, p. 79.
“Working Group I Contribution to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis.” International Panel on Climate Change, 27 Sept. 2013, Climatechange2013.org, 27 Sept. 2013.