From Robert Hessen, The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Women and Children:
The factories were held responsible, by such critics, for every social problem of that age, including… the desire for luxuries… It is a damning indictment of the pre-factory system to consider what kind of “luxuries” the Industrial Revolution brought within reach of the working-class budget.
While reading The Woman Who Toils by Mrs. John Van Vorst and Marie Van Vorst several things become apparent. One, the factory was a liberating experience for many girls. Two, the factory allowed much more than subsistence and allowed women to buy luxuries of which they once did not have access. Three, Thomas Sowell was right in that it was rich, condescending busybodies who created the most problems for the poor. The Woman Who Toils was written by an aristocrat who went undercover as a worker (1903). The condescending viewpoint drips from every page, but that does not mean we can’t learn from her work. She interviews several women, and there is a reoccurring theme:
“Yes; I don’t have to work, I don’t pay no board. My father and my brothers supports me and my mother. But,” and her eyes twinkle, “I couldn’t have the clothes I do if I didn’t work.”
“Do you spend your money all on yourself?”
“Does your mother work?”
“Oh, my, no. I don’t have to work, only if I didn’t I couldn’t have the clothes I do. I save some of my money and spend the rest on myself. I make $6 to $7 a week.” [putting that amount in perspective, housing per week was estimated by the author at $3]
“I bet you can’t guess how old I am.”
..”Twenty,” I hazard as a safe medium.
“Fourteen,” she laughs. “I don’t like it as home, the kids bother me so. Mamma’s people are well-to-do. I’m working for my own pleasure.”
The author’s narrative:
I hear fragmentary conversations about fancy dress balls, valentine parties, church sociable, flirtations and clothes. Almost all the girls wear shoes with patent leather and some or much cheap jewelry.
Monday is a hard day. There is more complaining, more shirking, more gossip than in the middle of the week. Most of the girls have been to dances on Saturday night, to church on Sunday evening with some young man. Their conversation is vulgar and prosaic; there is nothing in the language that suggests an ideal or any conception of the abstract. They make jokes, state facts about the work, tease each other, but in all they say there is not a word of value-nothing that would interest if repeated out of its class.
Of course she describes, as well, woman who had to support their husbands, women who were unmarried with children, and crippled children working. But the point is that this factory system was a progression out of poverty. It represented a better life than the farms. People were actually BUYING luxuries. They were buying clothes for themselves, going to parties, and living. This was a marked change from life before.
Here is Hessen, again, writing of the pre-industrial era:
This was written of an age characterized by staggeringly high mortality rates, especially among children— crowded towns and villages untouched by sanitation—notoriously high gin consumption. The working-class diet consisted mainly of oatmeal, milk, cheese, and beer; while bread, potatoes, coffee, tea, sugar, and meat were still expensive luxuries. Bathing was infrequent and laundering a rarity because soap was so costly, and clothing—which had to last a decade or generation—would not last if washed too often.
The factory system liberated men, women, and even children (as was argued before).