The Industrial Revolution: Fact & Reverie

I owe a lot of my interest in Western history not just to textbooks but to historical fiction. The works of Charles Dickens particularly had me imagine the industrial sprawl of urbanized London in the nineteenth century from a young age. As a child, we would read A Christmas Carol every year. It was my favourite story during the holidays. The book we had was hard-cover with beautiful illustrations. I still remember reading the opening paragraph as an eight year old; ‘Jacob Marley was as dead as a doornail’. On the next page, there was an illustration that captured Dickens’ descriptive analysis of the harsh realities of the Industrial Revolution. To this day, that illustration has been photographed perfectly in my mind. It was an illustration of an alley way. In between two stone-cold brick buildings were about ten people. The alleyway was their home. Dressed in rags, they attempted to catch a stray cat for dinner. Though I was only eight when I first read this book, the novel’s message stood out. Dicken’s story of the selfish and cold Ebenezer teaches readers to be mindful of our actions and that our impact on the world we live in is greater than we realize.

Recently I decided to try out portraits using theatrical makeup to capture this important period in history. Before the Industrial Revolution, technology was still limited. Dress making for example was done by hand and usually within the home; that is until the birth of technological advances such as the Spinning Mule or Water Frame. This era was the catalyst for the Western world’s now capitalist structure. Before this period any wealth that was accumulated within society went to either one of two places; the church or the nobility. Both entities weren’t necessarily producing anything new to turn a profit, but had rather passed down wealth and real estate through title or divine right. The property that was owned by either of these entities grew in value through not only taxing the public but through the maintenance and care employed by the lower classes. It was rare for an English farmer to work the land that he himself owned. He would of course have accommodations and autonomy to manage a farm; however the revenue would ultimately go to the land’s owner.

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This scenario is a perfect example of why the Industrial Revolution was initially so enticing to the lower classes of society. Capitalism took off during the fur trade from the New World at the end of the sixteenth century. Known today as the United States and Canada, the French royalty would ship men and women out to grow the population of their new found territory and bring the prize of furs and pelts back to Europe for sale and profit. For French royals and nobles, the fur trade brought in new wealth; quite a concept for the time. It was wealth generated through the exploitation of land and people. The impoverished that were shipped to the New World were often not even given the choice. Many who were shipped out were criminals or in the care of institutions. Rejected their whole lives, France’s destitute were shipped across an ocean to a brand new climate and way of life.

Fast forwarding a couple of hundred years’ later, there were new ways to generate wealth. With royalty having less of an authority within society, it gave others the opportunity to leverage power. Merchants turned industrialists and capitalists could market employment within European factories as an opportunity for the lower classes of society. The concept of developing one’s own wealth was intriguing to people. In the past, peasant families had to rely on one another for survival. The Industrial Revolution however was marketed in a way that benefited the individual, starting the growth of individualism. The day-to-day of this era however was not idyllic. Money was not being showered from factory rafters but instead paid out in small sums that made the promise of independence completely flawed. Family members were separated to work in factories. The days consisted of long work hours, and poor and unsafe working conditions. And with growing urban populations, many people suffered from malnutrition, dehydration or starvation. Without ethical labor legislation children were placed to work in factories as it would lower the production costs for factory owners. Overall, the quality of life at this time offered anything but freedom for the lower classes as they went straight from answering to the nobility to answering to capitalists.

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The story I wrote for these photos was written to capture the era. The desperation to return back to a time where one could at least have the comfort of family. Though the flattening of classes, improved technology, health & safety and labor legislation has vastly improved work life balance within Western society over time, it is important that we recognize what it took to get us here.

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I still read A Christmas Carol whenever I return home for the holidays. The words immediately take me back to childhood and the magic of the holiday season. Reading the book helps me return to my own era of simplicity and I can’t help but wonder if perhaps all the players in the Industrial Revolution, whether factory owners or workers also wished that they too could have gone back; if the promises of wealth were really all that important in the grand scheme of things. In reflection of this turning point in history, I’d like to end this posting by quoting Charles Dickens himself:

“Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” – Jacob Marley – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

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