The Factory System

During the Industrial Revolution, family-based cottage-industries were displaced by the factory system, a method of manufacturing using machinery and the division of labor.

The factory system was first adopted in Great Britain at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700's. It would later spread around the world. The main characteristic of the factory system is the use of machinery, originally powered by water or steam and later by electricity. The factory system began widespread when cotton spinning was mechanized. Raw cotton would be brought to the factory and spun, bleached, dyed, and woven into finished cloth.

Richard Arkwright is the person credited with being the brains behind the growth of factories. After he patented his water frame in 1769, he established Cromford Mill in England. His water frame was powered by a water wheel and was too large to house in a worker's cottage. Arkwright's water frame could spin 96 threads at a time, a faster method than ever before. 

Working hours in the factory were usually long, from dawn to dusk, six days per week. More unskilled workers were needed than ever before to work the massive machines. 

Before the factory system, many products such as shoes and muskets were made by skilled craftsmen who usually custom-made an entire item. In contrast, factories used a division of labor, in which most workers were either low-skilled laborers who operated machinery, or unskilled workers who moved materials and finished goods.

Since they had fewer skills, these workers were often seen as expendable by management. They were paid low wages and worked in often dangerous conditions. Early factories were dark, poorly-lit buildings with large, unsafe machines. There were few safety guards since these cost money and there were no laws requiring them. 

Young children were employed by many factory owners because they could be paid less money. They also were also small enough to crawl under machinery to tie up broken threads. It was not until child labor laws were finally passed in the late 1800's that children were protected from abuse by factory owners. 

From the textile industry, the factory system spread to other industries. Large furnaces and mills replaced small local forges and blacksmiths for producing metal. Eventually, machines replaced skilled craftsmen in the building of most goods.

The impact of the creation of all these factories was to drive people from rural areas to the cities where factories were located. 


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