Elliot Fernandez

Historian and Front-end developer

Social and economic changes in the 19th century

In the nineteenth century there were profound social, economic and political changes that marked the beginning of modernity in Europe and in its colonial possessions.
Elliot Fernández

Elliot Fernández

He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).

Post on 07/06/2019 | Updated on 10/01/2023

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The fundamental characteristic of the 19th century is that it is a period of great transformations. The social and economic changes in the 19th century were really profound. In politics, the bourgeois revolutions changed political systems with the introduction of liberal regimes. The economy will also live its own revolution, with the arrival of industrialization in two phases: the first between 1750 and 1840, and the second between 1880 and 1914. And the new currents of thought, such as idealism, materialism, nihilism, or nationalism will impact on a society that leaves the rural world and rapidly urbanizes.

The Industrial Revolution

The image we have of the Industrial Revolution is dominated by a topic. Around 1750 the process of industrialization began in England, with the coexistence of the “domestic system” or “putting-out system” (workshop system that worked since 1600) with the “factory system”. In the English factories, the mechanization of labour had transformed a part of production. British industrialization was the result of an evolution. The term “revolution” in the English case is inadequate. The Industrial Revolution was not such a sudden or linear process.

Il·lustració que mostra un taller domèstic a Anglaterra
Illustration showing a home workshop in England (domestic system).

Characteristics of the English Industrial Revolution

The so-called Industrial Revolution was a radical transformation in the way of working and social relations (creation of new industrial centres).

What led to the Industrial Revolution for European agrarian society?

The demographic revolution: 1740-1870

Economic and social changes that were taking place throughout Europe during this period led to a general increase in population and a real demographic revolution lived for the following reasons:

Demographic evolution in France from 1800 to 2000
Demographic evolution in France from 1800 to 2000
Graph of population growth, mortality and birth rates in the UK
Graph of population growth, mortality and birth rates in the UK

In the 100 years between 1750 and 1850, the most populous country in Europe was Russia, followed a long way from France.

Map of Europe, main cities 19th century
Map of Europe, with the main cities classified according to their inhabitants. 19th century

Social and economic changes in the 19th century in Europe: the industrial centre and rural periphery

Around 1860, in Europe, there was a clear division between a developed and industrialized centre and a periphery behind and far from industrialization. This is because not all European countries experienced the same political and economic processes. There is a close relationship between the liberal revolutions, destruction of the Old Regime and creation of capitalist systems.

The industrial revolution in Europe
Map of Europe with evolution by countries of industrialization

After the Napoleonic Wars, the distances between industrial England and other European countries had increased. In 1790 there were 9,000 spinning Jenny machines in France, while in Great Britain there were 1,400,000. The era of wars from 1792 to 1815 did not stop, but increased industrial primacy of England, for mastery of the sea. The industrial prominence in England allowed it:

Regarding the level of industrialization, Western Europe in 1815 is constituted by a developed industrial core and peripheral (those backward states).

Industrializing countries

Advanced industrially or industrializing countries before 1850 were: England, Belgium, Switzerland and France, some Czech and German regions. Non-industrialized and did not begin their industrialization process until the second half of the nineteenth century were: Italy, some regions of Russia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and parts of Spain and Catalonia.

The map of the extent of industrialization in Europe also shows us the countries where the capitalist system was most developed. In order for the capitalist system to develop, a series of conditions had to be met:

The distance between Britain and Europe was shortened during the nineteenth century. Industrialization also came in the United States, around 1822. In the second half of the nineteenth, it jumps in Japan. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the United States already competed with the first capitalist power.

The most backward states did not have the appropriate political and social framework for the development of industrialization. Each state followed its own rhythm. Each model of Industrial Revolution is peculiar, unique.

Levels and living conditions in nineteenth-century Europe

What do we mean by living standards and living conditions?

What was the evolution of the living conditions of workers during the Industrial Revolution?

This question can be answered in an entirely opposite way according to two historiographical tendencies: liberal historiography tends to respond by affirming that workers improve their living conditions. Critics of capitalism affirm the opposite, assuring that workers’ conditions were not improved.

Esquema amb les condicions de vida de la classe treballadora anglesa. Font: BBC
Scheme with the main legislation affecting the living conditions of the English working class. Source: BBC

This debate between optimistic and pessimistic views has been a great discussion on the economic history of the English Industrial Revolution. Optimists emphasize particularly on two issues: thanks to the industrial revolution, there is a clear improvement of living standards and increased long-term welfare.

Optimistic vision

The “optimistic economic historians basically study a series of quantitative indicators (evolution of wages, evolution of consumption, evolution of purchasing power). These authors are, among others, Harold F. Williamson and Peter H. Lindert. These authors dominate much econometrics, an analysis method useful for economic history. But this methodology is often insufficient to meet other non-quantifiable elements, such as the perception of changes in lifestyle by those who lived it.

Pessimistic vision

On the other hand, the most “pessimisticauthors highlight the negative effects of the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, stating that:

Industrial revolution
The industrial revolution widened social inequalities between the rich and the poor. Source: BBC

These authors also insist on drawing attention to the ruin of many textile artisans, manual weavers, as a result of mechanical loom introduced by 1830. Industrialization led to increased inequality among the population. Negative effects on health and quality of life of the workers were considerable.

Marx’s vision

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in 1845 “The Condition of the Working Class in England”. The book is an investigation about how the labour movement and this organization in England and the living conditions of the working class.

Some historians who have most analysed the phenomenon of industrialization and its impact on the working classes have traditionally been the representatives of the “pessimistic” theses of Marxist ideology:

Escola de Londres
A school in London in 1853

The pessimists consider the invocation of long-term welfare as a criterion that justifies the effort of several generations to be incorrect. From 1790 to 1850 there was a slight improvement in material living standards and increased consumption levels. But there was an intensified exploitation of workers. In 1840 most of the English population was in a more affluent than their predecessors’ situation. Pessimists wondered whether the improvement achieved by the children and grandchildren of the new generations about the sufferings endured several generations justify talk of a general improvement in material living conditions.

The mid-nineteenth century British urban areas recorded higher mortality, lower life expectancy at birth and mortality generally higher than 20-25% for mortality in rural areas.

Època victoriana
Victorian streets of London where the working population with the worst material living conditions is concentrated.

Emergence of a new class society: Labor movement and socialism

Between 1800 and 1850 European society ceased to be estamental (end of the old regime) to become a capitalist-type class society. During the first half of the 19th century in Europe:

Origin of the labor movement and socialism

With the incipient formation of the new industrialized society, forms of vindication of the working population were appearing. Organizations that, in part, frame them. And some ideologies that support them (origins of socialism).

Incipient organization of workers

The first labour movements represent the persistence of a tradition of artisanal vindication, typical of trade groups. Most workers did not respond to the cliché of the industrial worker. An artisanal component predominates.

The working class was undergoing a process of erosion, dispossession of control of its work and danger of a proletarianization, closely related to the advancement of the mechanization of industry and the abolition of trade union regulations (limitations). This forced them to make common demands: they organized and set aside the divisions of the trades and proceeded to formulate common demands.

In England, the threatening effects of the Industrial Revolution on many workers caused:

Luddism. Social and economic changes
Luddism in 1812

In 1811 the number of hand weavers in Britain was 250,000, but in 1795, they were only 75,000. In England, very strong campaigns were developed for the need of the workers. Solidarity was formed between workers, beyond the limits of branches and activities. The “Great General Union of Spinning Workers of the United Kingdom ” was founded in 1819. Until 1824 the right of free association did not exist.

Cartism at London. Social and economic changes
Photograph of the Great Carthusian Meeting at Kennington Common, London in 1848. Photograph by William Edward Kilburn

Between 1830 and 1840, “Chartism” developed in England, a broad, very ambitious movement. It brings together the protest against social injustice and the demand for the democratization of public life.

In France, industrialization is later. Greater backwardness in industrialization. The demands will come later, from 1830. Its epicentre is in the artisan workers of Paris and the silk weavers of Lyon (this factory employed almost all the inhabitants of Lyon, 150,000 inhabitants).

Working class organizations

During the second half of the 19th century, the labour movement developed and acquired its main characteristics:

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels around 1860. Social and economic changes
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels around 1860.


France: Jacobin heritage, vindication of democracy. In the first half of the 19th century, a series of social changes arose, capitalism was blamed for the situation of the workers. Forerunners of the most widespread and elaborate critiques to be given during the second half of the nineteenth century: socialism and utopian socialists.

Utopian socialism

They do not have a common profile. Beyond the existing positions, we can highlight:

According to some representatives of these socialist currents, the sum of the interests does not lead to the common good. It is the collective interests that must serve as inspirers to create alternative societies to capitalism. They defend mutual societies and cooperatives.

A range to keep in mind is the didactic and also voluntary nature of many of the solutions they propose to us. Influence of Christianity on the formulation of early socialist doctrines:

The key figures of this period were: Louis Blanc, Charles Fourier, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Robert Owen,  David Ricardo.

Revolutionary communism

The top representatives of this current were Filippo Buonarroti and Lois Auguste Blanqui. Revolutionary communism is a subcategory of socialism, which changes slightly from socialism, because it considered it essential to appropriate the state apparatus by revolutionary means.

It is a doctrine based mainly on the experiences of the French Revolution of 1789 (particularly its Jacobin phase). The figure of Filippo Buonarroti stands out, who defended a communist and egalitarian society, based on the distribution of goods. To build the new society, the conquest of political power was essential, as it was impossible for him to change society only with the power of example and propaganda. The conclusion was clear: it was necessary to impose itself in a revolutionary way, using the “dictatorship” as a necessary period of transition.

Lois Auguste Blanqui followed Buonarroti’s postulates. Blanqui was convinced that men, determined and disciplined, would establish a transitional dictatorship to reach the new community and egalitarian society.

All articles of the course:

  • Link Europe and the colonial world at the end of the 18th century
  • Link The Napoleonic era (1799-1815)
  • Link The Congress of Vienna and the Restoration of the European order
  • Link Social and economic changes in the 19th century
  • Link Liberalism and nationalism in the 19th century
  • Link Liberal Revolutions of 1820, 1830 and 1848
  • Link The expansion of the great industrial capitalism
  • Link Bismarck’s Europe and the liberal nation-state
  • Link Imperialism and colonial expansion in the 19th century
  • Link World War I (1914-1918)
  • Link Consequences of the First World War
  • Link The new territorial map of interwar Europe
  • Link The Revolution of Russia of February and October 1917
  • Link Interwar Europe in the United Kingdom, France and Germany
  • Link Fascism’s rise to power in Italy
  • Link World War II (1939-1945)
  • Link The revision of the Treaty of Versailles and the reopening of the war
  • Link Stalinism in the inter-war USSR
  • Link The November Revolution of 1918 in Germany
  • Link The Nazi Rise to Power
  • Link Imperial system: the Middle East, India, Japan and China
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