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World History Volume 2, from 1400

10.1 Inventions, Innovations, and Mechanization

World History Volume 2, from 140010.1 Inventions, Innovations, and Mechanization

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the effects on everyday life of the major innovations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
  • Analyze the ways in which technology and mechanization affected the industrial work experience
  • Explain how the working-class family changed because of industrialization

Before the nineteenth century, life changed little from one era to the next. Generations of people worked on farms, rising when the sun did and going to sleep when it set. They had relatively little in the way of material possessions: clothing, furniture, tools. If they did not live on isolated farms, they inhabited small villages and usually did not venture far from the place where they were born. They raised enough food to feed themselves and sold any surplus in market towns, using their earnings to buy only the handcrafted goods they could not make for themselves. They had just a few years of schooling, if that. When they fell ill, they prayed because they knew there was little doctors could do. In the world’s few large cities like London and Paris, scientific discoveries were made, but they had little effect on the majority of the population. Beautiful works of art were sculpted or painted, music composed, and poems written, but before the Industrial Revolution, most ordinary people never saw, heard, or read them. All that changed in the nineteenth century, as new forms of technology and new sources of power transformed the way people in industrialized nations lived.

The Industrial Workplace

Some of the most profound changes brought by industrialization were those that affected the workplace, bringing new challenges while also transforming the nature of labor. During the Second Industrial Revolution, new forms of energy were harnessed, transportation and communication became faster, and industrialized nations mass-produced not only steel and industrial machinery, which had been the focus of prior industrial efforts, but also consumer goods such as clothing, furniture, shoes, and packaged foods.

Perhaps the greatest change was the development of a new source of energy—electricity. Water power had earlier replaced animal power, and steam engines fueled by burning coal had driven the machinery of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. So too did electricity supplant steam by the end of the nineteenth century. Electricity ran machinery on the factory floors, as did internal combustion engines powered by petroleum. Electricity also turned night into day. When first oil lamps and then gas lights had illuminated the workplace, workdays in the winter were often short. Dependent on daylight to see what they were doing, workers were commonly allowed to go home after dark. With electric lights, though, the factory floor could be lit twenty-four hours a day, and workers could labor long into the night in all seasons.

Electricity also powered factories’ moving assembly lines. As conveyor belts brought interchangeable parts from station to station, working-class employees added parts or made other adjustments until the product was finished. The adoption of moving assembly lines made the close supervision of workers necessary. If anyone slowed down or was missing, the entire production process could suffer. It was therefore vital that everyone be present at the time the process began and maintain the same pace of work all day. While in earlier factories a laborer might command a work gang composed of family members, in late nineteenth-century factories, these male heads of family were replaced by paid foremen who were sometimes promoted from among the ranks of the laborers.

Assembly lines and the mechanization of each step of the manufacturing process meant that, for the most part, factory work was unskilled in nature. Laborers lived with the knowledge that should they give their wealthy employer reason to be displeased with their performance, they could be replaced at any moment. Some work, like the repairing of machines, was skilled, and workers who possessed such knowledge received higher wages. Most, though, performed repetitive tasks that anyone could master with a bit of instruction. The assembly line reduced employees’ sense of contribution to the finished process and rendered work boring and repetitive, almost transforming workers into machines themselves.

In addition to feeling alienated from the product of their labor, industrial employees worked long hours and earned low wages. As industrialization spread throughout North America, Europe, and Japan, business owners, driven by their hunger for profit, responded to increased competition by forcing their employees to produce more, tending more machines for lower pay.

Nineteenth-century workers commonly toiled ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week. In 1897 in Russia, reform laws reduced the workday from fourteen hours (and sometimes as many as eighteen) to only eleven and a half. During night shifts and on Saturdays and the days before feast days, workers could stop after ten hours. Luckily for the subjects of the tsar, the majority of Russian factory workers could look forward to nearly one hundred holidays per year. They would have been envied by Japan’s cotton spinners, teenaged women who often worked for seventeen-hour stretches punctuated only by short breaks.

Adult men were the most highly paid workers. Adult women earned about half as much, and children less than adults, often only a quarter of an adult male’s pay. Work was not always steady; workplaces sometimes shut down unexpectedly when raw materials or work orders fell short. This meant that low pay was often accompanied by periodic unemployment, for which workers had no safety net. Most governments did not provide unemployment insurance, and government-subsidized housing for the poor did not exist. When workers lost their jobs, they were forced to turn to religious institutions or private charities for money for food and rent.

In addition to periodic shutdowns, international economic crises sometimes jeopardized the livelihoods of workers across the globe. In 1873, for example, a fall in the value of silver set off a worldwide financial panic, beginning a period known as the Long Depression. Banks failed, and more than one hundred railroads went out of business in the United States in the first year alone. The economies—and the workers—of Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Britain, and Russia suffered as well. In May 1873, the Vienna Stock Exchange collapsed (Figure 10.3). Railroads failed in Germany. Unemployment rates in Britain’s coal, iron, steel, and shipbuilding industries soared. Between 1873 and the end of the century, periodic recessions and depressions alternated with boom periods, rocking economies around the world.

This image shows a large crowd of people. Most of the people are men wearing business suits. Some women and children are also visible. Everyone in the image appears to be arguing with other members of the crowd. Large buildings are visible in the background.
Figure 10.3 Black Friday. On May 9, 1873, dubbed “Black Friday,” the Vienna stock market collapsed, causing widespread panic as illustrated by this wood engraving made that year. (credit: “Black Friday on May 9, 1873” by Die Presse Edition/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Despite such economic swings, industrial production increased overall, and factory owners faced a growing number of competitors. They responded by increasing the pace of work. Employees often tended several machines at a time, which kept them constantly on their feet. In the late nineteenth century, new methods were introduced to speed work even more. The principles of scientific management, introduced by Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 and often referred to as Taylorism, sought to improve productivity by reducing wasteful movements. One scientific management proponent, Harrington Emerson, claimed that U.S. railroads could save $1 million per day (about $13 million today) if they adopted these principles.

Discovering how workers could perform more efficiently often meant timing their movements with stopwatches to make sure they did not attach parts or move levers inefficiently. Even in workplaces that had not been Taylorized, the emphasis was on paying strict attention to work and speeding up the production process. Some factories forbade workers to talk to one another or to sit at their machines, even if they could. Workers greatly resented such controls.

The pace and long hours of mechanized labor took a toll on workers’ health and safety. Injuries were common. Fingers and hands were often lost to moving machine parts. Constant standing resulted in back problems, swollen feet, and miscarriages. In textile factories, inhaled fibers caused breathing problems that left workers permanently disabled. The constant noise of machinery led to hearing loss. Summer temperatures combined with the heat generated by machinery and moving bodies left workers on the brink of heat exhaustion. Laborers in Japan’s silk industry were often scalded while boiling silkworm cocoons. Toxic chemicals used in largely unregulated production processes also played havoc with workers’ health and safety. In some places, workers, especially women, were beaten by their supervisors; young women sent to work in the Japanese cotton industry by their impoverished parents were often caned or whipped.

In Their Own Words

“Phossy Jaw”

In 1943, Dr. Alice Hamilton was reflecting on her earlier career investigating the causes of illness and injury among industrial workers. As Hamilton relates, American physicians had told her repeatedly that the seriously disabling conditions that afflicted many European workers, such as “phossy jaw” (Figure 10.4), a condition caused by accidentally ingesting the phosphorous used to coat the heads of matches, did not exist in the United States.

Photograph a shows a woman staring directly into the camera. A large portion of her lower jaw is missing. Photograph b shows the same woman from the side and provides another view of her abnormally shaped jaw.
Figure 10.4 Phossy Jaw. (a, b) This set of undated photographs depicts a Dutch woman whose lower jaw has been eaten away by phosphorus, a condition commonly known as “phossy jaw.” The use of phosphorus for match production in the Netherlands was banned in 1901. (credit a and b: modification of work “Occupational Disease: Phosphorus Necrosis, front and side views” by Nationaal Archief (Dutch National Archives)/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Hamilton quickly discovered, however, that her colleagues were incorrect:

Living in a working-class quarter, coming in contact with laborers and their wives, I could not fail to hear tales of the dangers that workingmen faced, of cases of carbon-monoxide gassing in the great steel mills, of painters disabled by lead palsy, of pneumonia and rheumatism among the men in the stockyards. Illinois then had no legislation providing compensation for accident or disease caused by occupation. . . . There was a striking occurrence about this time in Chicago which brought vividly before me the unprotected, helpless state of workingmen who were held responsible for their own safety. [. . .]

Phossy jaw is a very distressing form of industrial disease. It comes from breathing the fumes of white or yellow phosphorus, which gives off fumes at room temperature, or from putting into the mouth food or gum or fingers smeared with phosphorus. Even drinking from a glass which has stood on the workbench is dangerous. The phosphorus penetrates into a defective tooth and down through the roots to the jawbone, killing the tissue cells which then become the prey of suppurative germs from the mouth, and abscesses form. The jaw swells and the pain is intense. . . . Sometimes the abscess forms in the upper jaw and works up into the orbit, causing the loss of an eye. In severe cases one lower jawbone may have to be removed, or an upper jawbone—perhaps both. [. . .]

All this I had learned, but I had been assured by medical men, who claimed to know, that there was no phossy jaw in the United States because American match factories were so scrupulously clean. Then in 1908 John Andrews . . . showed me the report of his investigation of American match factories and his discovery of more than 150 cases of phossy jaw. . . . Some of the cases he discovered were quite as severe as the worst reported in European literature—the loss of jawbones, of an eye, sometimes death from blood poisoning.

—Alice Hamilton, “The Poisonous Occupations in Illinois

  • What conditions within industrial workplaces likely exposed workers to phosphorous? What steps could employers have taken to prevent this problem? Why might employers not have provided safer working conditions for employees?
  • Why might American doctors have been reluctant to admit that industrial poisoning was a problem for American workers?

Despite low pay, long hours, and difficult conditions of factory work, many working-class people preferred it to other types of available labor. Jobs like driving wagons and unloading ships were also low-paying jobs but required working outside in all kinds of weather. Railroad workers were vulnerable to incapacitating injuries from being caught between railcars or falling under their wheels. Miners toiled in dark, cramped environments, where temperatures sometimes rose so high they had to work naked to keep from passing out. Cave-ins were a constant threat. Industrial labor, regardless of the type, was also more highly paid than agricultural labor. For example, in London in the 1860s, a male common laborer who possessed no particular skills could earn about twenty shillings a week. In industries not yet mechanized, skilled crafts workers, all men, earned thirty shillings a week. A male English farmhand at the time would have earned approximately fourteen shillings a week.

Factory work was especially desirable to unmarried women, whose most common alternative was domestic service. Living in their employers’ homes, domestic workers were expected to be available at all times of the day and night, were constantly watched, and made very little money. Factory workers put in fewer hours, and after work their time was their own. Their freedom was sometimes dearly bought, however. On the factory floor, unmarried young women might be sexually harassed by male employers, supervisors, or coworkers.

Because women were paid less than men, unmarried women did not earn enough to live independently. They tended to live at home, where they were expected to give their wages to their parents and accept a small allowance in return. Even if they rented living quarters with other female workers and shared expenses, they might grant sexual favors to young men in exchange for meals or clothes, a form of casual prostitution known as “treating.” Nevertheless, many young female factory workers enjoyed relative independence before marriage, free evenings and Sundays when the factories were closed, and the inexpensive entertainment found in industrial cities.

The Industrial Home

Industrialization brought profound changes to countries like Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. In the latter nineteenth century, western nations like these, already skilled in the production of textiles and iron rails, applied machine technology to the mass-production of consumer goods, the new availability of which changed people’s lives.

The wealthy and the middle class consisted of professionals such as doctors and lawyers as well as factory managers, bank employees, salespeople, engineers, and scientists. They had always been able to afford the handmade products of skilled dressmakers, tailors, shoemakers, jewelers, and cabinetmakers that were beyond the reach of simple laborers. Now, however, factories produced clothing, shoes, cookware, furniture, soap, toys, books, musical instruments, and costume jewelry in such quantities that they could be sold at prices the working class could afford. Working families could buy bedsteads, tables, and chairs that imitated in style those of the middle class. They could decorate their homes with inexpensive prints of famous works of art. Soap, not easily made by city dwellers because the required animal fat was not always available, was now mass-produced and simple to buy. City dwellers could readily keep themselves and their clothes clean, which in turn improved personal health and comfort. By the end of the nineteenth century in industrialized countries, workers’ real wages, wages measured in terms of the amount of goods and services they can purchase, had risen so that most people could buy the consumer goods turned out by European and American factories.

An abundance of food was produced on farms and ranches that employed mass-produced agricultural machinery (Figure 10.5). This food was then transported to cities in refrigerated railcars and processed in urban factories, slaughterhouses, and canneries, giving people access to canned meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables all year round. Sugar obtained from colonial possessions was inexpensive and plentiful, and sweet treats were widely available.

This image shows a farmer harvesting grain with a mechanical reaper which is pulled by two horses. A second man watches while leaning on a fence nearby.
Figure 10.5 Mechanical Reaper. An advertisement from 1875 promotes the use of the mechanical reaper to harvest grain. (credit: “Champion Trade Card, 1875” by Wisconsin Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

This food was sometimes a mixed blessing. The slaughterhouses in which meat was processed were often filthy, and canned meat was sometimes found to contain maggots. To keep vegetables bright and colorful in the can, dyes were added; green dye was made with arsenic and was notoriously poisonous. Mass-produced bread from an urban bakery might contain chalk dust or alum for bulk. Undoubtedly, fresh and unadulterated food would have been healthier and tastier, but packaged and processed foods at least provided the calories necessary for survival, and many workers did not have to settle for the bare necessities. A study of American laborers in 1874 revealed that they ate fresh meat every day. Just before the start of World War I in 1914, members of the German working class protested the increase of food prices in Berlin because it threatened their regular consumption of meat and wheat bread, which was considered superior to bread made with other grains.

Advances in science and technology contributed to survival. New medical instruments and processes, such as the ophthalmoscope and the x-ray, improved the diagnosis of injury and disease. Pharmaceuticals and anesthetics arrived, such as aspirin to relieve pain and fever and mass-produced quinine to treat malaria. The discovery by Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur of the first disease-causing pathogens, or “germs,” led to new vaccines that protected animals against anthrax and rabies, and humans against cholera and diphtheria. Pasteur’s discoveries also led to the pasteurization of milk beginning in the 1860s, making it safer to drink by heating it to destroy pathogens. The development of the antiseptic method by Joseph Lister in the 1860s and the identification of human blood types in 1901, which made safe blood transfusions possible, transformed the practice of surgery.

Changes in sanitation also improved the cleanliness, comfort, and health of people of all classes. Water pipes brought fresh water to cities from the surrounding countryside and into the homes of the wealthy and middle class. This access to clean water dramatically reduced the incidence of diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever. Mass-produced bathroom fixtures made it easier for the wealthy and the middle class to stay clean, and the development of flush toilets and the laying of sewer pipe made homes, streets, and cities more sanitary.

The Second Industrial Revolution introduced new methods of illumination. At the beginning of the century, candles and kerosene lamps lit homes and workplaces, and gas lighting was still new. London installed its first gas streetlights in 1807, and by midcentury, more cities had adopted them; in 1860 Berlin had 250. Many wealthy and middle-class homes, as well as some working-class homes, had indoor gas fixtures as well. By the 1880s, most British families could rely on gas both to illuminate and heat their homes and to cook their food.

Gas had a number of drawbacks, however. It produced a relatively dim light, and it smelled. Gas lines had a dangerous tendency to explode, and if people blew out the flames of gas lights without remembering to also stop the flow of gas from the line, entire households could be suffocated as they slept.

Electricity transformed everything (Figure 10.6). Electric light was clear, bright, and relatively safe. People could stay up in the evenings to read or study. Night life became possible. Paris installed electric streetlights in 1875, Berlin in 1882, and Mexico City in 1897. Brightly lit amusement parks and urban pleasure gardens were magical places for city dwellers to enjoy.

This photograph shows a large factory where women and girls are building lamps.
Figure 10.6 Lamp Factory. This photograph shows women in a Swedish factory making parts for lamps at the beginning of the twentieth century. As electricity became more common, electric fixtures and electrical appliances were in greater demand. (credit: “Stockholms glödlampfabrik” by Tekniska museet/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

The combination of readily available mass-produced goods, running water, and gas and electricity improved the standard of living for many people. A new cult of cleanliness developed among the middle class because indoor plumbing and improved heating made bathing easier. By the beginning of the twentieth century, more middle-class homes had rooms set aside for bathing.

New and improved appliances also changed life at home. Cookstoves with ovens and surfaces that could be heated to different temperatures made it possible to prepare multiple dishes at the same time. Built-in reservoirs in stoves kept water hot, and improved washing machines (e.g., mangles that used rollers to squeeze out water) made it easier to launder clothes. In the early twentieth century, motor-powered vacuum cleaners made it easier to clean floors. These developments undoubtedly contributed to the comfort of the middle class, but they also raised expectations for middle-class women, whose chief job was to care for the home. Now that elaborate meals could be prepared every day, they became the expectation. Now that it was easier to clean the family’s clothes and home, it was unacceptable for them to be dirty.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the stresses caused by infectious disease and poor diets—the results of low wages and unsanitary living conditions—reduced life expectancy and increased infant mortality rates. However, in the second half of the nineteenth century, life expectancies increased, and infant mortality decreased. For example, in Germany, which began to industrialize in the middle of the nineteenth century, infant mortality rates first increased as the country began to industrialize but then started to decline in the 1870s. Other changes also revealed the benefits that industrialization could bring. Between 1876 and 1901, life expectancy for a German man rose from thirty-four to forty-five years. A German woman born in 1876 could expect to live until she was thirty-seven years old; the average German woman born in 1901 lived to be forty-eight years old.

Taken together, improved sanitation, reliable access to food, and better medical care reduced death rates and made life more comfortable in industrialized nations. Although the wealthy and the middle class were best situated to take advantage, the working class benefited as well. Workers could afford inexpensive food and clothing, and in many places free clinics provided the poor with health care. While workers might not all have running water and flush toilets in their homes, by the end of the nineteenth century, water taps in the street or in the basements of apartment houses, shared hallway sinks, and communal toilets allowed the working class to benefit from clean water and more sanitary streets. Although usually only the wealthy and the middle class could afford electric lighting in their homes, electricity illuminated city streets and protected the working class as they peddled wares at night or returned home from work at late hours.

The Family in the Industrial Age

As people moved from small farms and country villages to cities and factory towns, their lives changed in ways both small and profound. On farms and in artisans’ workshops, women and children had labored alongside husbands and fathers and contributed to the family’s income. They did not always have similar opportunities in the industrial city.

Early in the Industrial Revolution, women and children worked in factories, but by the end of the nineteenth century, this situation had changed. Although increasing mechanization meant that workers needed less physical strength, the presence of women and children in the workplace declined. Because wages were low, adult men still often needed the assistance of wives and children to pay the rent and purchase necessities, but less of this work now took place in factories. It became a point of pride for working-class men to keep their wives at home as the middle class did, even if the women were working. Married women also preferred to stay home when possible; tending to home and children was difficult while also working long hours in factories.

Indeed, many male laborers blamed women’s willingness to accept low wages for keeping their own pay low, and they sought to push women out of the workplace. In the United States and western Europe, children also had largely ceased working in most factories by the beginning of the twentieth century. Greater mechanization of the workplace eliminated the jobs that children had once been employed to do. Increasingly, too, governments passed laws that attempted to ban child labor. In some cases, this effort was motivated by the desire of upper-middle-class politicians to protect children while failing to understand the extent to which a working-class family might rely on their wages. At other times, politicians worried that children whose days were spent in factories would become physically inadequate soldiers or illiterate and uneducated citizens.

Britain, the first nation to industrialize, led the way in eliminating child labor. The Factory Act of 1819 limited children’s work to twelve hours a day. The Factory Act of 1833 prohibited children younger than nine from working in textile factories, the most common type of factory in Britain at that time. Children under fourteen were restricted to working eight hours a day and were required to receive two hours of schooling each day. Those fourteen and older could work only twelve hours a day. All children were given an hour for lunch.

In 1839, Prussia’s Child Labor Act banned factory employment for children under nine and limited shifts for factory workers under sixteen to ten hours. Children were also banned from working in factories at night. Such laws were widely evaded, however, by working-class families who needed children’s income and by employers who sought inexpensive labor. Many politicians also opposed such legislation, not only because it interfered with business but also because it deprived men of the right to govern their families.

In the face of such opposition to limits on it, child labor continued until laws requiring compulsory education helped to move children from factories to schoolrooms. By the end of the nineteenth century, new laws in the United States and western and central Europe mandated schooling, largely eliminating formal wage work by children under the age of fourteen. In places like Russia and Japan, where industrialization had begun later, married women and young children continued to work outside the home. In Japan, for example, more than 70 percent of married women from the lowest level of the working class (the hinmin) worked outside the home in 1911, but just ten years later, only 44 percent did.

The result of these changes was that by the beginning of the twentieth century in the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany, working-class wives tended to supplement the family’s income by working at home, not outside it. Unmarried women and those whose husbands were disabled or absent still sought factory work, but married women more commonly earned money in ways that did not require them to leave the home. Some cared for the children of working neighbors and took in laundry. If the family’s living space were large enough, they might take in boarders, who often slept with the children, and the woman of the house would cook and clean for them as well as for her own family. Many women did piecework at home, compensated based on the number of items produced. They collected materials from local businesses and assembled small items like toys, costume jewelry, or artificial flowers. Some stitched together items of clothing. They were often joined by their children, who might also hawk newspapers and peddle wares on the street (Figure 10.7).

Photograph (a) shows a family working in their apartment. The mother works at a sewing machine. The three children are working with their hands. Painting (b) shows a girl standing with the help of a crutch. She has a basket filled with books of matches. She appears to be selling the matchbooks.
Figure 10.7 Child Labor. Children contributed to the income of working-class families in many ways. (a) In this photograph, a mother and her children are doing piecework in their nineteenth-century New York City apartment. Perhaps the older boy, sitting at the table with his mother, has just returned from school. (b) In the painting Matchstick Girl from about 1900 by Dutch painter Floris Arntzenius, a girl with a disability sells matches near the entrance to a shopping arcade in The Hague. (credit a: modification of work “Sewing work at home” by The New York Public Library/The New York Public Library Digital Collections, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Matchstick girl” by Haags Historisch Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Family size was also affected by these changes in the nature of work. In the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany, by the beginning of the nineteenth century middle-class families had reduced the number of children they had. On the farm, in craft shops, and in early factories, children’s labor was still valuable, so the working classes continued to have large families. By the second half of the century, however, children could no longer earn their keep alongside their parents in the factory and instead had to be fed and clothed during their school years from a smaller pool of money. They then became an expense many working-class families could not afford. The inadequate and overcrowded urban housing available to the industrial working class also made large families undesirable.

Innovations in birth control at this time enabled working-class parents to limit the number of children they had, just as the middle-class did. Vulcanized rubber made for more comfortable and reliable condoms, as well as cervical caps and early forms of diaphragms called “womb veils.” New printing techniques allowed the mass-production of pamphlets instructing women in how to limit family size. In 1877, the Malthusian League, which advocated the use of contraception, was founded in Great Britain. It was named for Thomas Malthus, who had advocated limiting births in the late eighteenth century in order to prevent the human population from growing beyond the capacity of the land to support it. Although Malthus himself had opposed the use of contraceptive devices, Britons like Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant in the 1870s, and Marie Stopes in the early twentieth century, advocated for their use. In the United States, Margaret Sanger, a visiting nurse who cared for working-class women in New York and witnessed the detrimental effects on their health of repeated pregnancies, championed birth control, a term she popularized, as Stopes was doing the same in Britain.

In those parts of Europe where the Catholic Church was powerful and the use of contraceptive devices was frowned upon, women married later in order to avoid early childbearing. Beginning in the 1870s, working-class families began to shrink in size, and by the start of the twentieth century, the average family size for laborers had dropped from four to six children to two to four, only slightly larger than among the middle class. This reduction in family size caused by falling birth rates in industrialized nations is called the demographic transition.

The main job of nearly all city children at this time was education. The industrialized world called for skills that could be learned only in school. Achieving middle-class status depended on obtaining a job for which at least a secondary school education was needed, and providing one for their children was an important goal for middle-class parents seeking to maintain their position in the world. By the end of the nineteenth century, some members of the middle class, especially young men, attended college, but education beyond secondary school was reserved largely for the sons of the wealthy.

Aspirational members of the working class sought to keep their children in school until they had completed the elementary grades, where they acquired basic literacy and learned arithmetic. Some children also attended a few years of secondary school, where they were introduced to mathematics, history, and perhaps a modern or classical language like Latin. A job that required little beyond a basic education, such as store clerk, cashier, or bookkeeper, could raise a child into the higher levels of the working class. If a daughter were to complete secondary school and become a teacher, she crossed the threshold into the lower ranks of the middle class.

By the end of the nineteenth century, industrialized societies had created systems of public education that were able to instill basic literacy in a majority of their populations. In Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, nearly all people were literate by 1910. Ninety percent of adult Japanese men could read. More than 80 percent of the French and Belgian populations could as well. Even in countries that were slower to industrialize, like Italy, by the beginning of the twentieth century, more than half the population could read.

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