The Industrial Revolution, which began roughly in the second half of the 1700s and stretched into the early 1800s, was a period of enormous change in Europe and America. The invention of new technologies, from mechanized looms for weaving cloth and the steam-powered locomotive to improvements in iron smelting, transformed what had been largely rural societies of farmers and craftsmen who made goods by hand. Many people moved from the countryside into fast-growing cities, where they worked in factories filled with machinery.
While the Industrial Revolution created economic growth and offered new opportunities, that progress came with significant downsides, from damage to the environment and health and safety hazards to squalid living conditions for workers and their families. Historians say that many of these problems persisted and grew in the Second Industrial Revolution, another period of rapid change that began in the late 1800s.
Here are a few of the most significant negative effects of the Industrial Revolution.
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1. Horrible Living Conditions for Workers
As cities grew during the Industrial Revolution, there wasn’t enough housing for all the new inhabitants, who were jammed into squalid inner-city neighborhoods as more affluent residents fled to the suburbs. In the 1830s, Dr. William Henry Duncan, a government health official in Liverpool, England, surveyed living conditions and found that a third of the city’s population lived in cellars of houses, which had earthen floors and no ventilation or sanitation. As many as 16 people were living in a single room and sharing a single privy. The lack of clean water and gutters overflowing with sewage from basement cesspits made workers and their families vulnerable to infectious diseases such as cholera.
2. Poor Nutrition
In his 1832 study entitled “Moral and Physical Condition of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester,” physician and social reformer James Phillips Kay described the meager diet of the British industrial city’s lowly-paid laborers, who subsisted on a breakfast of tea or coffee with a little bread, and a midday meal that typically consisted of boiled potatoes, melted lard and butter, sometimes with a few pieces of fried fatty bacon mixed in. After finishing work, laborers might have some more tea, “often mingled with spirits” and a little bread, or else oatmeal and potatoes again. As a result of malnutrition, Kay wrote, workers frequently suffered from problems with their stomachs and bowels, lost weight, and had skin that was “pale, leaden-colored, or of the yellow hue.”
3. A Stressful, Unsatisfying Lifestyle
Workers who came from the countryside to the cities had to adjust to a very different rhythm of existence, with little personal autonomy. They had to arrive when the factory whistle blew, or else face being locked out and losing their pay, and even being forced to pay fines.
Once on the job, they couldn’t freely move around or catch a breather if they needed one, since that might necessitate shutting down a machine. Unlike craftsmen in rural towns, their days often consisted of having to perform repetitive tasks, and continual pressure to keep up—“faster pace, more supervision, less pride,” as Peter N. Stearns, a historian at George Mason University, explains. As Stearns describes in his 2013 book The Industrial Revolution in World History, when the workday finally was done, they didn’t have much time or energy left for any sort of recreation. To make matters worse, city officials often banned festivals and other activities that they’d once enjoyed in rural villages. Instead, workers often spent their leisure time at the neighborhood tavern, where alcohol provided an escape from the tedium of their lives.
4. Dangerous Workplaces
Without much in the way of safety regulation, factories of the Industrial Revolution could be horrifyingly hazardous. As Peter Capuano details in his 2015 book Changing Hands: Industry, Evolution and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body, workers faced the constant risk of losing a hand in the machinery. A contemporary newspaper account described the grisly injuries suffered in 1830 by millworker Daniel Buckley, whose left hand was “caught and lacerated, and his fingers crushed” before his coworkers could stop the equipment. He eventually died as a result of the trauma.
Mines of the era, which supplied the coal needed to keep steam-powered machines running, had terrible accidents as well. David M. Turner’s and Daniel Blackie’s 2018 book Disability in the Industrial Revolution describes a gas explosion at a coal mine that left 36-year-old James Jackson with severe burns on his face, neck, chest, hands and arms, as well as internal injuries. He was in such awful shape that he required opium to cope with the excruciating pain. After six weeks of recuperation, remarkably, a doctor decided that he was fit to return to work, but probably with permanent scars from the ordeal.
5. Child Labor
While children worked prior to the Industrial Revolution, the rapid growth of factors created such a demand that poor youth and orphans were plucked from London’s poorhouses and housed in mill dormitories, while they worked long hours and were deprived of education. Compelled to do dangerous adult jobs, children often suffered horrifying fates.
John Brown’s expose A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, an Orphan Boy, published in 1832, describes a 10-year-old girl named Mary Richards whose apron became caught in the machinery in a textile mill. “In an instant, the poor girl was drawn by an irresistible force and dashed on the floor,” Brown wrote. “She uttered the most heart-rending shrieks.”
University of Alberta history professor Beverly Lemire sees “the exploitation of child labor in a systematic and sustained way, the use of which catalyzed industrial production,” as the worst negative effect of the Industrial Revolution.
6. Discrimination Against Women
The Industrial Revolution helped establish patterns of gender inequality in the workplace that lasted in the eras that followed. Laura L. Frader, a retired professor of history at Northeastern University and author of The Industrial Revolution: A History in Documents, notes that factory owners often paid women only half of what men got for the same work, based on the false assumption that women didn’t need to support families, and were only working for “pin money” that a husband might give them to pay for non-essential personal items.
Discrimination against and stereotyping of women workers continued into the second Industrial Revolution. “The myth that women had ‘nimble fingers’ and that they could withstand repetitive, mindless work better than men led to the displacement of men in white collar jobs such as office work, and the assignment of such jobs to women after the 1870s when the typewriter was introduced,” Frader says.
While office work was less dangerous and better paid, “it locked women into yet another category of ‘women’s work,’ from which it was hard to escape,” Frader explains.
7. Environmental Harm
The Industrial Revolution was powered by burning coal, and big industrial cities began pumping vast quantities of pollution into the atmosphere. London’s concentration of suspended particulate matter rose dramatically between 1760 and 1830, as this chart from Our World In Data illustrates. Pollution in Manchester was so awful that writer Hugh Miller noted “the lurid gloom of the atmosphere that overhangs it,” and described “the innumerable chimneys [that] come in view, tall and dim in the dun haze, each bearing atop its own pennon of darkness.”
Air pollution continued to rise in the 1800s, causing respiratory illness and higher death rates in areas that burned more coal. Worse yet, the burning of fossil fuel pumped carbon into the atmosphere. A study published in 2016 in Nature suggests that climate change driven by human activity began as early as the 1830s.
Despite all these ills, the Industrial Revolution had positive effects, such as creating economic growth and making goods more available. It also helped lead to the rise of a prosperous middle class that grabbed some of the economic power once held by aristocrats, and led to the rise of specialized jobs in industry.