8.The Work Ethic and the Industrial Revolution

Roger B. Hill, Ph.D.
© 1992, 1996

As work in America was being dramatically affected by the industrial revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, the work ethic had become secularized in a number of ways. The idea of work as a calling had been replaced by the concept of public usefulness. Economists warned of the poverty and decay that would befall the country if people failed to work hard, and moralists stressed the social duty of each person to be productive (Rodgers, 1978). Schools taught, along with the alphabet and the spelling book, that idleness was a disgrace. The work ethic also provided a sociological as well as an ideological explanation for the origins of social hierarchy through the corollary that effort expended in work would be rewarded (Gilbert, 1977).

Some elements of the work ethic, however, did not bode well with the industrial age. One of the central themes of the work ethic was that an individual could be the master of his own fate through hard work. Within the context of the craft and agricultural society this was true. A person could advance his position in life through manual labor and the economic benefits it would produce. Manual labor, however, began to be replaced by machine manufacture and intensive division of labor came with the industrial age. As a result, individual control over the quantity and methods of personal production began to be removed (Gilbert, 1977).

The impact of industrialization and the speed with which it spread during the second half of the nineteenth century was notable. Rodgers (1978) reported that as late as 1850 most American manufacturing was still being done in homes and workshops. This pattern was not confined to rural areas, but was found in cities also where all varieties of craftsmen plied their trades. Some division of labor was utilized, but most work was performed using time-honored hand methods. A certain measure of independence and creativity could be taken for granted in the workplace. No one directly supervised home workers or farmers, and in the small shops and mills, supervision was mostly unstructured. The cotton textile industry of New England was the major exception.

Rodgers (1978) described the founding, in the early 1820's, of Lowell, Massachusetts as the real beginning of the industrial age in America. By the end of the decade, nineteen textile mills were in operation in the city, and 5,000 workers were employed in the mills. During the years that followed, factories were built in other towns as competition in the industry grew. These cotton mills were distinguished from other factories of the day by their size, the discipline demanded of their workers, and the paternalistic regulations imposed on employees (Rodgers, 1978). Gradually the patterns of employment and management initiated in the cotton mills spread to other industries, and during the later half of the nineteenth century, the home and workshop trades were essentially replaced by the mass production of factories.

In the factories, skill and craftsmanship were replaced by discipline and anonymity. A host of carefully preserved hand trades--tailoring, barrel making, glass blowing, felt-hat making, pottery making, and shoe making--disappeared as they were replaced by new inventions and specialization of labor (Rodgers, 1978). Although new skills were needed in some factories, the trend was toward a semiskilled labor force, typically operating one machine to perform one small piece of a manufacturing process. The sense of control over one's destiny was missing in the new workplace, and the emptiness and lack of intellectual stimulation in work threatened the work ethic (Gilbert, 1977). In the secularized attitudes which comprised the work ethic up until that time, a central component was the promise of psychological reward for efforts in one's work, but the factory system did little to support a sense of purpose or self-fulfillment for those who were on the assembly lines.

The factory system also threatened the promise of economic reward--another key premise of the work ethic. The output of products manufactured by factories was so great that by the 1880's industrial capacity exceeded that which the economy could absorb (Rodgers, 1978). Under the system of home and workshop industries, production had been a virtue, and excess goods were not a problem. Now that factories could produce more than the nation could use, hard work and production no longer always provided assurance of prosperity.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the industrial system continued to dominate work in America and much of the rest of the world. Technology continued to advance, but innovation tended to be focused on those areas of manufacture which had not yet been mastered by machines. Little was done to change the routine tasks of feeding materials into automated equipment or other forms of semiskilled labor which were more economically done by low wage workers (Rodgers, 1978).

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