The American Industrial Revolution was as real an actual revolution as the war for independence in the eighteenth century. The birth and rise of industry in the United States vastly altered virtually every element of the nation, in transforming America from a widespread, agriculturally-based country to an increasingly urban, localized one. This enormous change in how and where Americans earned their livings had deeper repercussions in other arenas of living, and everything from gender roles to concepts of morality would be forever changed.
Origin and Rise
It is commonly thought the American Industrial Revolution was a period beginning in the late nineteenth century, when factories exploded within the nation’s cities and the population accordingly settled in the major urban regions of the Northeast. The reality, however, is that this revolution began decades earlier, and was marked for a rapid evolution with the advent of the first machines and railroads.
Not unexpectedly, the emergence of the trains and the machines was taking hold in England at the same period; technology on that scale of power and novelty could never be contained within one continent. Moreover, no single, new technology was solely responsible for the extraordinary changes taking hold nationally: “The industrial revolution has been recognized as a transformative influence on the predominantly agrarian economies of the time through the development of railroads, chemical industries, telegraph, electricity, and the internal combustion engine” (Krishna-Hensel, 2010, p. 8). Each element of transport and machinery either depended upon one having come into prominence just before it, or dictated the need for it.
As England initiated the railroad industry, the United States quickly picked up on the mechanics of it, and by 1830 actual railway networks were established. Steam was the power source, but it required a great deal of maintenance. By the later decades of the nineteenth century, electricity would replace steam, but the impact and necessity of the railroads was already firmly in place within the nation’s economy. Simply, transport on such a scale, and at such speeds, demanded that product match the capabilities of it, and the same electricity that ran the trains was generating power for new factories. As occurs within any reinvention of commerce, supply and demand were immediately engaged in an arms race, and one which would completely alter what had been the American way of life.
Impact on the American Citizen
It is difficult for a person living within the less traumatic shifts of the Information Age to appreciate how dramatically the Industrial Revolution changed the nation. An economy based upon agriculture is altogether distinct from an industrial one. For one thing, the former is dependent upon the unpredictable elements of nature and the weather, the consequences of which could lead to ruin and/or famine. Then, and somewhat obviously, an agrarian economy requires land, and a lot of it. As the work of farming was, and is, a relatively removed mode of living, so too did American communities and cultural behaviors reflect this rural isolation. “The predominance of isolated farmsteads – rather than nucleated villages – suggests that these men and women were planning for themselves much more than for their communities…” (Henretta, 1991, p. 73). Most influentially, this was, in essence, the standard way of life for the vast majority of Americans, and for hundreds of years. It would create a culture and national ideology with powerful, residual impacts felt even today.
The birth of the Industrial Revolution had one staggering advantage, even to the most distanced and skeptical farmer: a living could be made that was not subject to climate changes, and a man could actually be assured of regular, dependable wages. This did not, however, translate into a vast emigration of farmers to the new cities. What it did, and more insidiously, is take away the next generations. Young people, born to an expectation of living and dying within a radius of twenty miles of farmland, were now presented with the opportunity to both leave a way of life already well-know and possibly frustrating to them, and venture into realms of urban activity viewed even then as exciting and dangerously sinful.
The cities enticing them were not, of course, the established and monolithic presences known today. They evolved as did the transport and manufacture that demanded their existences, with sudden need dictating accommodation. As the work was in the factory within the city, the workforce needed easy access to it; this, along with the great tides of European immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gave rise to tenement living. Moreover, each great city grew in accordance with its initial commercial base. Pittsburgh, by virtue of proximity to mining and the transport enabled by a network of rivers, became a steel capital. Chicago, for some time the premier city of the nation, relied upon both meat-packing industries fed by Midwestern product and a consequent lead role in national financial activity. The options for the young person leaving the farm were, essentially, limitless, provided he was willing to work long hours and share space with a growing number of peers.