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Change In Urban Society Essay, Research Paper

Change In Urban Society

At the end of the 18th century a revolution in energy and industry began in England and spread rapidly all around Europe later in the 19th century, bringing about dramatic and radical change. A significant impact of the Industrial Revolution was that on urban society. The population of towns grew vastly because economic advantage entailed that the new factories and offices be situated in the cities. The outlook of the city and urban life in general were profoundly modified and altered. Modern industry created factory owners and capitalists who strengthened the wealth and size of the middle class. Beside the expansion of the bourgeoisie, the age of industrialization saw the emergence of a new urban proletariat – the working class. The life of this new group and its relations with the middle class are controversial issues to modern history. Some believe that the Industrial Revolution “inevitably caused much human misery” and affliction. Other historians profess that Industrialization brought economic improvement for the laboring classes. Both conclusions should be qualified to a certain extent. Economic growth does not mean more happiness. Given the contemporary stories by people at that time, life in the early urban society seems to have been more somber than historians are usually prow to describe it. No generalities about natural law or inevitable development can blind us to the fact, that the progress in which we believe has been won at the expense of much injustice and wrong, which was not inevitable. Still, I believe that industry was a salvation from a rapid population growth and immense poverty. Furthermore, by the end of the 19th century the appearance of European cities and life in them had evolved and change for the better.

Industrialization was preceded and accompanied by rapid population growth, which began in Europe after 1720. People had serious difficulty providing their subsistence by simply growing their food. There was widespread poverty and underemployment. Moreover, the need for workers in the city was huge. More and more factories were opening their doors. The result of this was a vast migration from the countryside to the city where peasants were already being employed. “The number of people living in the cities of 20000 or more in England and Wales jumped from 1.5 million in 1801 to 6.3 million by 1891″ (Mckay, 762).

With this mass exodus from the countryside, life in urban areas changed drastically. Overcrowding exacerbated by lack of sanitation and medical knowledge made life in the city quite hard and miserable. A description of Manchester in 1844, given by one of the most passionate critics of the Industrial Revolution, Friederich Engels, conveys in great detail the deplorable outlook of the city. “?the confusion has only recently reached its height when every scrap of space left by the old way of building has been filled up or patched over until not a foot of land is left to be further occpupied” (Engels 2). Lack of sanitation caused people to live in such filth and scum that is hard to imagine. “In dry weather, a long string of the most disgusting, blackish-green, slime pools are left standing on this bank, from depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the surface of the stream” (Engels 2).

The appalling living conditions in the city during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution brought about two important changes. By developing his famous germ theory of disease, Louis Pasteur brought about the so-called Bacterial revolution and lead the road to taming the ferocity of the death in urban areas caused by unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions. The theory that disease was inflicted by microorganisms completely revolutionized modern medicine and brought about the important health movement in the city. After 1870 sanitation was a priority on the agenda lists of city administration in most industrialized European countries. Urban planning and transportation after 1870 transformed European cities into beautiful and enchanting places. Water supply systems and waste disposals construction were accompanied by the building of boulevards, townhalls, theaters, museums. The greatest innovation in this area at the time -the electric streetcar- immensely facilitated the expansion of the city and helped alleviate the problem of overcrowding. A good example of urban planning and transportation was the rebuilding of Paris, which laid the foundations of modern urbanism all around Europe. The appearance of the city and the quality of life in it greatly improved by the end of the 19th century. But, living conditions in the city during the Industrial Revolution were pretty bad, a factor that greatly contributed to the bad plight of the working class at that time.

As urban civilization was starting to prevail over rural life, changes in the structure of the society and in family life became inevitable. Urban society became more diversified while the classes lost a great part of their unity. Economic specialization produced many new social groups. It created a vast range of jobs, skills and earnings, which intermingled with one another creating new subclasses. Thus the very rich and the very poor were separated by the vast space occupied by these new strata. Urban society resembled the society from the age of agriculture and aristocracy by one thing. The economic gap between rich and poor remained enormous and income distribution stayed highly unequal with one fifth of society receiving more than the remaining four fifths.

With the emergence of the factory owners and industrial capitalists, he relations between the middle and the working class changed. But did the new industrial middle class ruthlessly exploit the workers? I believe that at the begging this was certainly the case. People were coming to the city as “family units” and as such worked in the factories. “In the early years some very young kids were employed solely to keep the family together” (Mckay 718). The conditions of work were appalling. An excerpt from Parliamentary Papers in England named “Evidence Before the Sadler Committee”, mirrors the quite dark side of life in the factories. In this testimony several people who worked at factories in different industries and towns in England draw a vivid picture of the factory reality. Both children and grownups were made to work fourteen to sixteen hours a day with only an hour brake and a salary that was hardly intended to compensate the tremendous load of work. Children were “strapped” “severely” if they lagged and deteriorated their work. The sight of the workers reflected their sad plight. “Any man ?must acknowledge, that an uglier set of men and women, of boys and girls, taking them in the mass it would be impossible to imagine?Their complexion is sallow? Their sature low?Their limbs slender and playing badly and ungracefully? Great numbers of girls and women walking lamely or awkwardly, with raised chests and spinal flexures” (Gaskell, 1). Miserable life and poverty allowed people few recreational outlets and money to spend. For this reason a process of corruption and degradation of morals spread among working class people. An illustration of this is the proliferation of prostitution at the time. The continuing distance between rich and poor made for every kind of debauchery and sexual exploitation. Important factor in the degradation of morals that spread through urban society and the working classes in particular was the diminishing role that religion played in daily live. Urban society became more secular and more and more people started to regard the church as conservative institution that defended social order and custom. As a result of this illegitimacy and sexual experimentation before marriage triumphed during the 19th century.

Women’s actively entering the labor force was a new development spurred by the Industrial Revolution. In the preindustrial world women did leave home at an early age in search for work but their opportunities were limited. The service in another family’s household was by far the most common. The employment of girls and women in factories had an important effect on their stereotypic role of household carers. It weaned them away from home and the domestic tasks. “Shut up from morning till night, except when they are sent home for their meals, these girls are ignorant of and unhandy at every domestic employment” (”Observations on the Loss of Woolen Spinning, 1794″).

However, the plight of the urban working class changed as the growth of modern cities approached the end of the 19th century. The average real income raised substantially. The practice of employing children from an early age was abandoned. Less and less women were working in sweated industries. Instead men were the primary wage earners while women stayed at home taking care of the household and the children. The early practice of hiring entire families in the factory disappeared. Family life became more stable, as mercenary marriages were substituted by romantic love. Sex roles in urban society became highly distinct.

The most distressing changes brought to urban society -overcrowding, lack of urban planning, unsanitary conditions, unemployment and poverty -were eventually offset by the compensation and remedy of economic growth. Urban society not only change for the better. This change was a remarkable step for humanity. For one thing, the city promoted diversity and creativity. It was the uncontested home of new ideologies, ideas, movements, crucial scientific discoveries, customs, fashions, developments in art and literature.


Gaskell, P. “The Physical Deterioration of the textile Workers.”

27 Sept. 1997. 23 April. 2000.


Engels, Friederich. “Industrial Manchester,1844.”

27 Sept. 1997. 23 April. 2000.


“Observations on the Loss of Woolen Spinning,1794.”

27 Sept. 1997. 23 April. 2000.


“Evidence Given Before the Sadler Committee.”

27 Sept. 1997. 23 April. 2000.


McKay P., Buckler, Hill. “History of Western Society.”

3th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.


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