Social and economic changes on 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.
Vincenzo Ferrillo

Vincenzo Ferrillo

07/06/2019 | Last update:


The fundamental characteristic of the 19th century is that it is a period of great transformations. There are changes of a social, economic and political nature. 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 labor 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.

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:

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

Mutations and continuities in continental 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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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

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 was considerable.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in 1845 “The Condition of the Working Class in England,” which is about how the labor movement was organized in England and living conditions they had workers.

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:

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.

All articles of the course: Late modern History in Europe (19th and 20th Centuries)

Europe and the colonial world at the end of the 18th centuryThe Napoleonic era (1799-1815)The Congress of Vienna and the Restoration of the European orderSocial and economic changes on the 19th centuryLiberalism and nationalism in the 19th centuryThe Revolutions of 1820, 1830 and 1848The expansion of the great industrial capitalismBismarck’s Europe and the liberal nation-stateImperialism and colonial expansion in the 19th centuryWorld War I (1914-1918)Consequences of the First World WarThe new territorial map of interwar EuropeThe Revolutions of Russia (1917) and Germany (1918)The democracies of interwar Europe: Britain, France and GermanyFascism's rise to power in ItalyStalinism in the inter-war USSRThe revision of the Treaty of Versailles and the reopening of the conflict in EuropeWorld War II (1939-1945)

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