An American Industrial Revolution Unit

for Middle School Students and their Teachers

home inventions horrors of workplace big business labor production

What Other Causes Can You Think Of?
Approximately, What Year Did The Industrial Revolution Come To America?
Why Did People Come To The Cities To Work In Factories Instead of Staying On The Farm?
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The Revolution Comes to America

When the Industrial Revolution came to the United States, several swore not to copy the English who had a permanent underclass living in wretched conditions.  Francis Cabot Lowell tried to set the stage in Massachusetts.  Lowell built a factory which spun cotton into thread AND wove it into cloth by machine.  He was as much concerned with the well-being of his workers as well as his profits.  He was set on not using children and poor families.   He hired young girls from the surrounding farms, housed them in nice dormatories, built them a church and paid them fairly for the work they did in his mill. Some of the girls were even able to send money home to help their parents back on the farm. While the Lowell System of hiring workers worked, it did not catch on.




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The Beginning of Child Labor


In Rhode Island, Samuel Slater's factory opened by hiring 7 boys and 2 girls between the ages of 7 and 12 to run his spinning machines.  They could be hired much cheaper than men.  They received between 33 and 67 cents per week, while adult workers in Rhode Island were earning between $2 and $3 a week.  By 1820 1/2 of Rhode Island's factory workers were children.  As factories and mines spread across the east coast, owners began hiring more and more children.

Children worked in many industries, like textile mills, tobacco factories, and garment workshops.

By 1900, there were close to 2 million children under the age of 15 working throughout the country.


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Working Conditions

  • Workers: In the 1840's as factories replaced the textile mills. The workers were primarily women and children, and very often, entire families worked in factories together. Every family member's earnings helped the family survive.
  • Hours: The factory workers began their day at 4:00a.m., and it ended at 7:30 p.m. They were allowed one break at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast, and another at noon for lunch.
  • Conditions:
    • Factories often had no windows to allow for ventilation, or heating systems to help the workers stay warm in the winter.
    • Poor lighting led to accidents.
    • Workers hands and arms were crushed by machines, because there were no safety devices on them.
    • Textile workers got lung deseases from breathing dust and fiber all day.
    • Steel workers risked injuries working close to red-hot vats of melted steel.
    • In mines, cave-ins buried miners alive.
    • If a worker got hurt, they got fired.
    • There was no such thing as insurance.
Workers Felt Lucky Because They Had A Job!!


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Life in the City

In the cities of the 1800's, poor people lived in the oldest part of the city, near the downtown district. The middle class lived farther out in neat row houses or new apartment buildings. Beyond them, lived the rich. They lived in large homes with big lawns which had lots of trees.

Do you think this pattern holds true in the cities we live in today?

Click on the pictures below to learn more.


The Poor


The Rich

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Connection to Today

  • Workers:
  • Hours:
  • Conditions:


Abuser List
  • Nike
  • Disney
  • Hyundai
  • Guess
  • Wal-Mart
  • Kmart
  • J.C. Penny
  • May Co.
  • Victoria Secret/Limited
  • Esprit

CBS aired a special 48 Hours TV program on Nike's factory operations in Vietnam. The transcript for the broadcast is available at

According to the report, fifteen Vietnamese women told CBS News that they were hit over the head by their supervisor for poor sewing. Two were sent to the hospital afterward. Forty-five women were forced by their supervisors to kneel down with their hands up in the air for 25 minutes.

June 1996 Life magazine photo essay detailed the use of child labor in Nike's Pakistan soccer ball factories.

Videos on Child Labor and Exploitation

1) Mickey Mouse Goes To Haiti: Walt Disney and the Science of Exploitation

2) Zoned For Slavery: The Child Behind the Label

Both videos run about 20-30 minutes and are available from the National Labor Committee

The problem of child labor is, in fact, nothing new. Early in this century, the extensive use of child labor was a fact of life here in the United States as Americans continued to convert from an agricultural to an industrial economy. However, the exploitation of children as workers exists as a major problem in many parts of the world. Estimates by human rights experts reveal that as many as 400 million children under the age of 15 are performing forced labor. Because these children are paid little and do not receive an education, they have little chance of breaking the cycle of poverty.


The child labor problem is predominantly confined to under-developed countries. The economic reality is that children are typically paid one-half to one-third what is paid to adults doing comparable work. In addition to low pay, the children are often exposed to significant health hazards and subjected to extreme physical, verbal and even sexual abuse. While many children work to add to their family's income, others are literally sold into bondage by their parents in return for cash or some form of credit.


In Los Angeles alone, an estimated 4,500 of the 5,000 garment shops are sweatshops.

Read about the Triangle Fire

Links to information on Child Labor

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Student Activities

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