Factory System


Factory System, working arrangement whereby a number of people cooperate in the production of items. Today the term “factory” generally refers to a large establishment employing many people involved in mass production of industrial or consumer goods. Some form of the factory system, however, has existed since ancient times.


Pottery works have been uncovered in ancient Greece and Rome. In various parts of the Roman Empire factories manufactured glassware and bronze ware and other similar articles for export as well as for domestic consumption. In the Middle Ages, large silk factories were operated in the Syrian cities of Antakya and Tyre; and in Europe, during the late medieval period, textile factories were established in several countries, notably in Italy, Flanders (now Belgium), France, and England.

During the Renaissance, the advance of science, contact with the New World, and the development of new trade routes to the Far East stimulated commercial activity and the demand for manufactured goods and thereby promoted industrialization. In Western Europe and particularly in England, during the 16th and 17th centuries, many factories were created to produce such goods as paper, firearms, gunpowder, cast iron, glass, items of clothing, beer, and soap. Although heavy machinery, operated by water-power in some places, was used in a few establishments, the industrial processes were generally carried on by means of hand labour and simple tools. In contrast to modern mechanized plants with assembly lines, the factories were merely large workshops where each labourer functioned independently. Nor were factories the most usual place of production; although some workers used their employer’s tools and worked on the premises, most manufacturing was done by workers who were supplied with raw materials, worked in their own homes, returned the finished articles, and were paid for their labour.


The factory system began to develop in the late 18th century when a series of inventions transformed the British textile industry and marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Among the most important of these inventions were the flying shuttle patented (1733) by John Kay, the spinning jenny (1764) of James Hargreaves, the water frame for spinning (1769) of Sir Richard Arkwright, the spinning mule (1779) of Samuel Crompton, and the power loom (1785) of Edmund Cartwright. These inventions mechanized many of the hand processes involved in spinning and weaving, making it possible to produce textiles much more quickly and cheaply. Many of the new machines were too large and costly for them to be used at home, however, and it became necessary to move production into factories.

One of the major technological breakthroughs early in the Industrial Revolution was the introduction of steam engines. When textile factories first became mechanized, only water-power was available to operate the machinery; the factory owner was forced to locate the establishment near a water supply, sometimes in an isolated and inconvenient area far from a labour supply. After 1785, when a steam engine was first installed in a cotton factory, steam began to replace water as power for the new machinery. Manufacturers could build factories closer to a labour supply and to markets for the goods produced. The development of the steam locomotive and steamship in the early 19th century made it possible to ship factory-built products to distant markets more rapidly and economically, thus encouraging industrialization.

The Arkwright method of spinning was introduced into the United States in 1790 by Samuel Slater, who started a factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In 1814, at a cotton mill established in Waltham, Massachusetts, all the steps of an industrial process were, for the first time, combined under one roof; here, cotton entered the factory as raw fibre and emerged as finished goods ready for sale.


Textiles, particularly cotton goods, were the major factory-made products during the early 19th century. Meanwhile, new machinery and techniques were being invented that made it possible to extend the factory system to other industries. The American inventor Eli Whitney, who stimulated textile manufacturing in the United States by inventing the cotton gin in 1793, made an equally, if not more important, contribution to the factory system by developing the idea of using interchangeable parts in making firearms. Interchangeable parts, with which Whitney began experimenting in 1798, eventually made it possible to produce firearms by assembly-line techniques, and to repair them quickly with pre-made parts. The idea of interchangeable parts was applied to the manufacture of timepieces from about 1820 on. Then, in the 1850s, at Waltham, Massachusetts, automatic machinery was used for the first time to make watches by consecutive processes in a single factory. Thus, by the middle of the 19th century, American factories had begun to develop the outstanding feature of the modern factory system: mass production of standardized articles.

The clothing industries were revolutionized by the sewing machine and underwent a tremendous expansion during the 1860s. Spurred by the urgent demand for uniforms during the American Civil War, clothing manufacturers developed standardized sizes, a prerequisite for mass production of ready-made garments. At the same time, the military demand for shoes stimulated the creation of shoe-sewing machinery to mass-produce footwear.


As the 20th century began, the factory system of production prevailed throughout the United States and most of Western Europe. Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, and Belgium became, to a great extent, importers of food and raw materials and exporters of factory-made commodities. In 1913 Henry Ford, the pioneer motor manufacturer introduced assembly-line techniques to motor-car production in the Ford Motor plant. In time the factory system spread to Asia, where cheap labour attracted capital from the industrialized countries of the West. Japan, which had begun industrialization in the late 19th century, rapidly became the foremost industrial power in Asia and a competitor to the Western nations.

As the world economy has grown, factory operations (especially in the developed world) have sought to increase productivity and efficiency through greater use of automation and new technology. This and the closure of uncompetitive factories (often forced by competition from newly industrialized developing countries) has resulted in the phenomenon of de-industrialization in many developed national economies, where the proportion of national output and employment accounted for by industry falls. Some machines, aided by computers, semiconductors, robots, and other technological innovations, are so nearly self-regulating that an entire factory may be kept running by a few people operating sets of controls. This new Industrial Revolution has required much more sophisticated approaches to the management of factories, both in terms of strategy and of day-to-day operations. To stay ahead of the competition, great skill, imagination, and rigour must now be applied to everything from decisions on machinery and equipment purchases to quality control.


The introduction of the factory system had a profound effect on social relationships and living conditions. In earlier times the feudal lord and the guild master had both been expected to take some responsibility for the welfare of the serfs, apprentices, and journeymen who worked under them. By contrast, the factory owners were considered to have discharged their obligations to employees with the payment of wages; thus, many owners took an impersonal attitude towards those who worked in their factories. This was in part because no particular strength or skill was required to operate many of the new factory machines. The owners of the early factories often were more interested in hiring a worker cheaply than in any other qualification. Thus they employed many women and children, who could be hired for lower wages than men. These low-paid employees had to work for as long as 16 hours a day; they were subjected to pressure, and even physical punishment, in an effort to make them speed up production. Since neither the machines nor the methods of work were designed for safety, many fatal and maiming accidents resulted. In 1802 the exploitation of pauper children led to the first factory legislation in England. That law, which limited a child’s workday to 12 hours, and other legislation to regulate child labour that followed were not strictly enforced.

The workers in the early mill towns were not in a position to act in their own interest against the factory owners. The first cotton mills were located in small villages where all the shops and inhabitants depended on a single factory for their livelihood. Few dared to challenge the will of the person who owned such a factory and controlled the lives of the workers both on and off the job. The long hours of work and low wages kept a labourer from leaving the community or being otherwise exposed to outside influences. Later, when factories were located in larger cities, the disadvantages of the mill town gave way to such urban evils as overcrowded sweatshops and slums. In addition, the phenomenon of the business cycle began to manifest itself, subjecting industrial labourers to the periodic threat of unemployment.


By the early 19th century the condition of workers under the factory system had aroused concern. One who called for reform was Robert Owen, a British self-made capitalist, and cotton-mill owner, who tried to set an example by transforming a squalid Scottish mill town called New Lanark into a model industrial community between 1815 and 1828. At New Lanark, wages were higher and hours shorter, young children were kept out of the factory and sent to school, and employee housing was superior by the standards of the day, yet the mill operated at a substantial profit. In Owen’s day, modern trade unions were beginning to develop in the British Isles, and he sought to organize them into a national movement. His aim was to improve working conditions as well as effect basic social and economic reforms. In his concern for the increasing differences between capital and labour, Owen was joined by such economic theorists as the Frenchmen Charles Fourier, Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, and Pierre Joseph Proudhon and the Germans Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, each of whom analysed the processes of modern industrial society and proposed social and industrial reforms. Meanwhile, the factory reform acts were passed in an attempt to remedy these ills.

In time, organized protest forced owners to correct some of the worst abuses. Workers agitated for and obtained the right to vote, and they established political parties and labour unions. The unions, after a considerable struggle and frequent setbacks, won important concessions from management and government, including the right to organize workers in factories and to represent them in negotiations. Furthermore, issues and problems germane to the factory system came to figure prominently in the formulation of modern political and economic theory as the discipline of labour relations. In the Soviet Union, China, and other Communist states, the factory became a social and political, as well as an industrial, unit. Abuses of the factory system remain prevalent in many developing, and some developed countries.

One important and often overlooked consequence of the factory system was its promotion of the emancipation of women. The factory created wage-earning opportunities for women, enabling them to become economically independent. Thus, industrialization began to change the family relationship and the status of women.


The inspection of factories by state agencies began in England in the early 19th century in response to the public protest against the working conditions for women and child labourers. Today, throughout the developed world regulations exist governing such matters as child labour, working hours, health and safety, and minimum wages. One important early international regulatory agency was the International Association of Factory Inspection, established in 1886 by Canada and 14 states of the United States. After 1919 the International Labour Organisation, acting in cooperation first with the League of Nations and later with the United Nations, correlated the regulation of factory conditions throughout the world, though with no guarantee of enforcement of its standards.

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