“He related the case of one woman whose two little boys, freezing and on the brink of starvation, had been caught stealing food. When a policeman took the boys home, he found the mother with six other children ‘literally huddled in a little back room, with no furniture but two old rush-bottomed chairs with the seats gone, a small table with two legs broken, a broken cup and a small dish. On the hearth was scarcely a spark of fire, and in one corner lay as many old rags as would fill a woman’s apron, which served the whole family as a bed.” – Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working-Class in England.
For the British working class, the crippling misery during the initial stages of the Industrial Revolution amounted to suffering that citizens of modern highly developed nations could scarcely imagine. To be poor during that time was to suffer chronic exposure to cold, wet, unhygienic living conditions, unrelenting undernourishment, illness, disease, and astonishingly dangerous working conditions.
Before widespread industrialization, even the wealthy merchants, landed gentry and royalty lived lives that would, in many ways, feel dreadfully inadequate by modern standards. The wealthy elite may have had access to large tracts of land, power, privilege, and the esteem and respect of their peers and subordinates. However, even the nobility lacked access to the most basic securities, amenities, and luxuries of modern life.
George III (1760 – 1820) may well have ruled over an Empire, yet the king lacked access to truly clean water, instantaneous communication, decentralized knowledge databases, effective medications, modern anesthetics, advanced dental care, intercontinental high-speed travel, inexpensive light, vaccinations, air-conditioning, central heating, and a thousand other advantages that we take for granted today.
Unlocking the seemingly limitless energy of coal and harnessing its chemical potential in driving steam engines kicked off the greatest transformation in human civilization since the Agricultural Revolution. For the 15,000 years preceding the Industrial Revolution, humans struggled to produce a surplus of goods, materials, and, most importantly, food. Pre-industrial poverty resulted in punishingly crushing and short lives.
Before industrialization, British child mortality was over 43 percent, and more than 900 women died in childbirth for every 100,000 births. More than 89 percent of the population lived in extreme poverty, and less than 13 percent of the population was literate. For nearly everyone, pre-industrial life was a hand to mouth fight for survival that looked nothing like the romantic settings of Downton Abbey. Between 1800 and 1900, industrialization gradually improved the standards of living in the West, [ … ]