Social Class During the Second Industrial Revolution: Overview & Structure

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  • 0:01 2nd Industrial Revolution
  • 0:33 Steel & Railroads
  • 3:27 Social Problems
  • 6:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the second half of the Industrial Revolution and the momentous changes industrial life had on late 19th and early 20th-century society, from where people lived to how they measured time.

2nd Industrial Revolution

With the rare exception, sequels to your favorite movie tend to be bad ideas. Whether because it's different actors playing the parts, lower production value, or just a recycled plot, sequels are usually far worse than the original movie. In history, however, things are a bit different. For example, the sequel to the Industrial Revolution, the Second Industrial Revolution, markedly changed European and Western societies and helped shape European society into something closer to the Western society we inhabit today.

Steel and Railroads

Despite the analogy, it seems slightly unfair to call the Second Industrial Revolution a sequel. Indeed, separating the Industrial Revolution really only demarcates two halves of the larger Industrial Revolution from one another. The biggest difference between the first and second industrial revolutions was the advent of cheap steel created by the Bessemer process. The Bessemer process, pioneered by the Englishman Henry Bessemer, created steel far quicker and cheaper than had previously been possible.

The availability of cheap steel encouraged the growth of steel-based industrial products and services, like factories and railroads. Indeed, in the second half of the 19th century, railroads sprang up across Europe and North America, the length of track laid quintupling in just a few decades. The vast expanses now covered by railroads changed society considerably during the Second Industrial Revolution; journeys that had previously taken days or weeks traveling by animal or foot could now be completed in a matter of hours. It also encouraged further industrialization, as goods could now be transported faster as well. This created a more interconnected society, as what happened to people and goods in Chicago now mattered in New York more than ever before.

Rail travel and the industrial factory also irrevocably changed the nature of time. Don't be mistaken - early trains were not time machines - but the detailed train schedules that emerged changed the way people thought about time. Prior to the railroad and heavy industry, time was largely relative: 'noon' was whenever the sun was the highest in the sky, and it rarely mattered to anyone if it was 5:00 pm or 6:00 pm so long as there was still enough light to keep working. Railroads and factories changed that, and clocks became as ubiquitous as they are today. Now it mattered if it was 5:10 or 5:20 since you had a train to catch or a factory shift to work.

In a similar way, the creation of electric lighting by Thomas Edison made a significant impact on society. Outdoor activity and factory work was no longer bounded by the hours kept by the sun; factories could now be kept open as long as there were men to man the machines and do the work.

Though it would take two world wars before women would become a significant portion of the workforce, the second wave of the industrial revolution and its need for laborers began the process of breaking down barriers to women in the workplace. Though women were still primarily seen as caregivers and belonging solely in the home, women who had not married at times took up work in industrial factories, especially as seamstresses and other positions in the textile industry. Though this was socially not considered ideal, it was often a necessity for low-income, wage-laboring families who lived off the meager salaries they collected as early industrial laborers.

Social Problems

As goods needed for heavy industry, like steel, became cheaper and transportation of goods across vast distances became easier, more and more people flocked to the cities in Europe and North America looking for industrial work. The situation was highly favorable for employers and factory owners: the cost of doing business was cheap, and labor was so plentiful, good laborers could be paid little for their efforts.

If a worker got upset with the wages they earned or physically broke down on the job, they could simply be replaced. These highly profitable circumstances led to the rise of enormous businesses in Europe and North America and a large wealth disparity where a select few possessed an enormous amount of the collective wealth.

For some, this situation was justified by the emerging philosophies of the day, especially Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism applied the British naturalist Charles Darwin's theories concerning natural selection and survival of the fittest to human society. Factory owners and successful entrepreneurs claimed they were the most fit and strongest members of society, and therefore entitled to their vast economic empires. The theory similarly justified these same men of industry paying their laborers next to nothing, as they only received pay commensurate with their ability to survive.

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