Industrial Revolution: The Emergence of the Factory System

vintage photo of worker

The Industrial Revolution, which occurred between the 18th and 19th centuries, was a period of significant economic, social, and technological change. It was characterized by the emergence of new manufacturing processes and the development of new technologies that led to the industrialization of many countries.

One of the key developments during this period was the emergence of the factory system, which revolutionized the way goods were produced. In this article, we will explore the factory system in detail, including its development, impact on society and the economy, and resistance to it.

What Was the Factory System?

The factory system was a method of manufacturing that emerged in the late 18th century and early 19th century. It involved the use of specialized machinery, such as power looms and spinning frames, to produce goods on a large scale in a centralized location.

The factory system differed from previous methods of production, such as the cottage industry, which involved the production of goods in individual homes or small workshops.

Goods were produced by skilled craftsmen who worked in their homes using hand tools. Production was limited to what could be done by individual households and was often subject to seasonal fluctuations in demand. The factory system, on the other hand, was able to produce goods on a much larger scale and at a more consistent pace.

The key characteristics of the factory system were the centralization of production in a large, purpose-built factory, the division of labor into specialized tasks, the use of machines to perform tasks previously done by hand, and the employment of a large number of workers. The system relied on economies of scale and standardized processes to increase productivity and reduce costs.

The development of this system was a significant turning point in the industrialization of many countries, including Britain and the United States. It allowed for the mass production of goods at a lower cost, which led to increased productivity and lower prices for consumers. However, it also had significant social and economic impacts.

The Development of the Factory System

factory system timeline during industrial revolution

The emergence of the factory system was the result of several factors, including technological advancements and changes in the economic landscape.

The invention and refinement of machinery, such as the spinning jenny and power loom, made it possible to automate previously manual tasks and increase production rates. This allowed factories to produce goods more quickly and cheaply than ever before.

Changes in the economic landscape also played a role in the development of the system. The growth of international trade and the expansion of colonial empires created new markets for manufactured goods, leading to increased demand and competition. This, in turn, led to a greater focus on efficiency and productivity in manufacturing.

The factory system evolved over time as new technologies were developed and new organizational models were tried. In the early days of the factory system, workers were organized into teams, with each team responsible for a specific task in the production process.

Later, a more hierarchical structure emerged, with supervisors overseeing groups of workers who performed specialized tasks. As machines became more advanced, the need for skilled labor decreased, and workers were increasingly replaced by machines.

Overall, the factory system had a profound impact on the economy and society. It led to the mass production of goods and the development of new industries, but it also had significant social and environmental consequences, such as the exploitation of workers and the degradation of the natural environment.

Positive Impacts

  • Increased productivity: It allowed for greater efficiency and specialization of labor, resulting in a significant increase in productivity. This led to increased production of goods and a reduction in costs, making goods more affordable for consumers.
  • Urbanization: The growth of factories in urban areas led to increased migration of people from rural areas to cities in search of employment opportunities, leading to urbanization. Urbanization brought about the development of new infrastructure such as roads, railroads, and housing, resulting in the growth of cities and towns.
  • Technological advancements: It spurred technological advancements, particularly in the areas of machinery and manufacturing processes. This led to the development of new machinery and innovations that helped improve productivity, efficiency, and quality.

Negative Impacts

  • Harsh working conditions: Workers in factories were subjected to harsh working conditions, including long working hours, low wages, and dangerous working conditions. The work was physically demanding, and workers often had to work in cramped and poorly ventilated spaces, leading to health problems.
  • Exploitation of labor: The factory system relied heavily on the exploitation of labor, particularly of women and children who were paid low wages and subjected to long working hours. The workers had little to no bargaining power, leading to poor working conditions, and they often lived in squalor.
  • Environmental pollution: The growth of factories led to environmental pollution, including air and water pollution, and deforestation. The factories often discharged untreated waste into the environment, leading to the degradation of natural resources and ecosystems.

The factory system had both positive and negative impacts on society and the economy during the industrial revolution. While it led to increased productivity, urbanization, and technological advancements, it also resulted in harsh working conditions, exploitation of labor, and environmental pollution.

factory system vintage photo

Resistance to the Factory System

Resistance to the new system during the industrial revolution took various forms, including protests, strikes, and the formation of labor unions.

Here are some details on each:

  • Protests: Workers often protested against the harsh working conditions and low wages in factories. These protests took the form of public demonstrations, rallies, and petitions. Workers hoped to draw attention to the unfair treatment and to put pressure on factory owners to improve working conditions.
  • Strikes: Strikes were another form of resistance to the factory system. Workers would refuse to work until their demands for better working conditions or higher wages were met. Strikes were often organized by labor unions and were more effective than protests in achieving their goals.
  • Formation of Labor Unions: Labor unions emerged as a result of the exploitation of labor in the factory system. Workers realized that they needed to organize and form unions to have a collective voice and bargaining power. Labor unions were instrumental in securing better wages, working conditions, and hours for workers.

The resistance movements against the system eventually led to the development of labor laws and regulations that we know today.

Here are some examples of how these movements influenced labor laws and regulations:

  • Factory Acts: The Factory Acts were a series of laws passed by the British Parliament from 1802 to 1850, which regulated the working conditions in factories. The Acts addressed issues such as child labor, working hours, and workplace safety.
  • Trade Unions: The formation of trade unions influenced the development of labor laws and regulations. The unions campaigned for better working conditions and workers' rights, leading to the establishment of laws such as the National Labor Relations Act in the US and the Trade Union and Labor Relations Act in the UK.
  • International Labor Standards: The resistance movements against the factory system also led to the development of international labor standards, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These standards aim to protect workers' rights and promote social justice.

The resistance movements such as protests, strikes, and the formation of labor unions during the industrial revolution played a crucial role in shaping modern labor laws and regulations, including those that protect worker’s rights.

In conclusion, the emergence of the factory system during the Industrial Revolution brought about significant changes in the economic landscape and society as a whole.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.