What is the basic unit of society? Is it the individual, the clan, the family or the nation? The answer depends on who you ask. The answer has also changed throughout time and it will continue to change–much like everything else on this planet.

In recent history, it was the Industrial Revolution that swept through the world changed what was then the basic unit of society: the family.

The Second Industrial Revolution–which is also known as the Technological Revolution–was a phase of rapid scientific discovery, mass production, standardisation and industrialisation. It began in the late 19th century and continued on into the early 20th century, till the Digital Revolution ushered in a new era–an era that we’re all living in today.

One irreversible consequence of the Industrial Revolution was that it fundamentally altered family life. Prior to the Technological Revolution, family was both a social and an economic unit. Married couples and their children often worked together on a farm or in a shop. They generally divided their labour for the family’s overall benefit.

In 18th-century Britain, it was common for men and women to work in their homes doing jobs such as: textile spinning and weaving on a piecework basis for merchants. The rise of factory production and industrial cities led to a separation of the home from the workplace for most male workers.

The desire for higher income often motivated men to leave behind their families for more lucrative jobs in the city. Even if there was no work and home separation, many industrial jobs were so demanding that they left little leisure time for employees to enjoy the close relational bonds we usually associate with family life.

Women also worked outside the home. Many women, including mothers, were employed in textile mills to help their families make ends meet. Despite their importance to output, women were paid considerably less as their jobs were perceived as less skilled than those of their male colleagues.

Small businesses were also at the heart of the social transformation that characterised the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Guilds and market towns dominated the streetscape and satisfied an increasing desire for consumer goods.

Despite their significance, little is known about these firms and the people who ran them. While those engaged in craft-based manufacturing, retail and trades constituted a sizeable proportion of the urban population, they have been generally overlooked by historians.

Instead, our view of the era is dominated by narratives of large firms involved in new modes of production.

Artwork by: Robert Friedrich Stieler

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