Demand Before Supply
“Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.”
The Industrial Revolution is a story about transforming the workplace. Without this perspective, it is difficult to envision the enormous changes that occurred in the lives of those who lived during this time. The brief lines in a history book rarely capture the angst of the participants who sustain these changes. Looking back from our more “advanced” age, is seems as if the transition occurred within the normal patterns of progress, based on the demands of a growing population.
Consumption patterns during the Industrial Revolution increased dramatically, based on a generation eager to embrace consumerism as never before. The textile industry’s growth was built on the insatiable appetite for cloth that was inexpensive and readily available. The only possible way to achieve economic success was to create machinery. Which was easier said than done!
Textile production, as a cottage industry, had been in place for centuries. Before the Industrial Revolution, whole families were engaged in what was known as the “domestic system.” Work was completed on a small scale at home, with everyone pitching in to help. It was a laborious task, beginning with cleaning the wool after it had been sheared from the sheep, carding the wool to separate the fibres, and spinning the wool into a ball of yarn. A skilled weaver would use a hand-loom to weave the yarn into a finished product that would be sold to a clothier. Generally the spinning was considered a women’s work,usually unmarried; hence the word “spinster.” Weaving was considered a masculine occupation.
The tipping point came with the importation of cotton. With the surge in demand for cloth made out of cotton over the standard wool or flax, the finely tuned balance of demand and supply was upset. The existing system for producing the cotton thread (yarn) could not turn out enough thread for the looms.
What was once sufficient became outdated, inadequate and unwanted in a world impatient for progress. The only alternative was to restructure work. The cottage industry could not withstand the factory system. There was no turning back.
“Prior to the industrial revolution, a working person would be lucky to have one or two shirts.”
James Meigs, Editor in Chief, Popular Mechanics
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