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Factory System

Factory System

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The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed the way people lived and worked throughout the world. Unlike previous revolutions, this one didn’t come about due to war or disease, it grew out of technological innovation and consumer demand. In Great Britain, the demand for more textiles fueled innovations in transportation, machinery, and the way people worked. This new way of working was the factory system.

The Factory System Definition

The factory system was a new way of working and manufacturing in which goods were made at the factory instead of at the home. It emphasized the use of machinery and a new division of labor to increase efficiency and meet demands.

The Factory System and the Industrial Revolution

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, newer, more innovative and mechanized, textile mills were popping up all over Britain, thanks to the inventions of Richard Arkwright. These mechanized mills required a form of work that was different from the previous “cottage industries” that had been creating textiles for centuries.

cottage industries

a decentralized system of manufacturing goods in which everything — from raw materials to the end product — is manufactured in someone’s home

The Factory System and the Industrial Revolution: Sir Richard Arkwright

Sir Richard Arkwright was a British inventor and entrepreneur who rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution. His invention of the spinning machine streamlined textile production by breaking it up piecemeal and having multiple laborers working on the production line.

Did you know? Sir Richard Arkwright was the son of a tailor and a successful barber and wig maker in Bolton. Before he became interested in textiles, he had already invented a waterproof dye to be used on wigs!

Factory System Spinning Machine Depiction StudySmarterFig. 1 - depiction of Arkwright's spinning machine

The machines could be run all day and night long and didn’t require skilled labor to operate. All the workers needed to do was feed the machine cotton and replace full bobbins with empty ones. This meant the mill could operate for 24 hours; employing multiple shifts of cheap, unskilled laborers, and producing mass quantities of cotton fabric.

A single craftsperson would work up to a week to spin and weave the same amount of cotton.

The Creation of the Spinning Machine

In 1768, Sir Richard Arkwright invented a spinning machine in collaboration with a clockmaker named John Kay. Spinning cotton and wool into yarn had always been done at home by a manual spinning wheel, but this process was slow and couldn’t meet the demands of the growing textile industry.

The spinning machine was initially developed to be run by horsepower, but Arkwright realized that waterpower would be the more efficient way to run his machines. Arkwright and his business partners built a huge mill in Cromford, Derbyshire, near the river Derwent. They installed his spinning machines and looms in the multi-story factory, and soon were able to produce mass quantities of cotton cloth.

Factory System Arwrights First Mill StudySmarterFig. 2 - photograph of Arwright's first mill taken in 2006

The Domestic System vs. The Factory System

The domestic system, defined by cottage industries, was the main method of manufacturing goods prior to adoption of the factory system. Below is a chart contrasting the main differences between the two systems of manufacturing.

Domestic SystemFactory System
- Based in the home. - Based in factories
- Owned and operated by the craftsperson/artisan- Used small tools as means of production.- Owned by an industrialist; operated by unskilled workers- Used large machinery as means of production
- Small-scale manufacturing- Demand-driven production- Sold locally- Large-scale manufacturing- Production drives demand- Sold (inter)nationally
- Single artisan manufactured the whole product- Multiple unskilled workers manufactured product piece-meal
- Worked when able, according to demand.- Worked set hours or shifts.- Shifts could be during the day or night so production could be 24 hours.
- Multiple sources of income and sustenance (ex: personal farm or garden)- Workers relied solely on industrialists (factory owners) for income.
- Catered to rural living- Catered to urban living.

Impact and Significance of the Factory System

The factory system changed not only the way people worked, but also where they worked and lived. Unskilled laborers moved from rural towns to urban centers in order to work at mills and factories. Goods that were once handcrafted by artisans were now being mass-produced.

Impact and Significance of the Factory System: Urbanization

The factory system consisted of multiple workers assembling a product piece-meal, meaning it was not a system that would function efficiently in rural areas. Industrialists needed a large number of workers, and so they built their factories in city centers. In turn, the factory system encouraged people to move en masse to cities where they could work. Most workers lived in crowded housing close to where they were employed. Due to the rapid expansion of cities, these areas were often developed hastily, resulting in a poor quality of life.

Impact and Significance of the Factory System: The Exploitation of Workers

Since most of the “work” was being done by machines, industrialists who built and owned factories didn’t need skilled workers to create goods. Instead, they required hands to operate the machines, which at the time required no skill or education to do. This meant men, women, and children were all equally capable in the eyes of factory owners.

In fact, women and children could be paid less, creating a larger profit margin for the capitalist investors. This drove factory wages down to levels that made life barely sustainable for the factory workers. And this was in addition to the horrific work environment. Conditions were cramped, poorly lit, and unsanitary, leading to accidents and the spread of disease among the workforces. There was also no security with the job, so people could be fired at the will of the supervisor or factory owner.

These harsh conditions led to worker’s revolts, and, in the late 19th century, workers started to organize into trade unions in order to campaign for better wages and working conditions for themselves.

Child Labor

Prior to the Factory System there wasn’t much work that was suitable for a child. Artisanal work required skilled labor, and children were too small and weak effectively work on farms. However, the new machines in factories sometimes needed the small bodies to fix mechanical troubles, like jams and clogs in the spinning machines. These factories were dangerous places for children and often resulted in accidents and abuse of the young workers.

By the early 1800s, doctors and advocates for the child laborers were starting to speak out against the capitalist factory owners and their use of child labor. The British parliament passed a series of “Factory Acts” that placed regulations on workplaces for the benefit of child laborers. In 1833, they made it illegal for children under 9 years of age to work; and those aged 9-13 were only allowed to work up to 9 hours per day.

Factory System Example: Henry Ford and the Assembly Line

The factory system split manufacturing into a puzzle. No longer was a single artisan focused on putting the big picture together by themselves, now a team of laborers each worked on one small piece, carting around the end product from station to station. For years, this process went along unchanged, until Henry Ford found a way to streamline it further.

Factory System Henry Ford with Model T StudySmarterFig. 3 - Henry Ford with his Model T Car

In 1913, Henry Ford introduced the automated assembly line to his plan for manufacturing his Model T cars. Assembly lines were already in use at this point in time, however Ford changed it to an automated conveyor belt. This reduced the time spent between “stations”, as the worker could now focus on one task before getting started on the same task on a new vehicle. As a result of these efficiencies, the total time it took to complete a Ford Model T went from twelve hours, to about an hour and a half.

In order to increase productivity and morale, Ford also decreased the average workday to 8 hours

Factory System - Key takeaways

  • The factory system was a new form of working and manufacturing that developed during the Industrial Revolution. In this system, the production of goods takes place in the factory and is completed in piecemeal by unskilled workers operating machines.
  • The factory system overtook the domestic system, which was based on a single artisan who manufactured an entire good from start to finish.
  • The factory system led to increased urbanization, but the housing available for workers was often inadequate.
  • Factory owners used cheap labor, including child labor, in order to keep their factories running 24 hours per day. These poor conditions eventually led workers to create trade unions and campaign for better working conditions.
  • In the United States, Henry Ford made the factory system more efficient with the invention of the automated assembly line.


  1. Fig. 2 - Arwright's First Mill (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arkwright_Masson_Mills.jpg) by Justinc (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Justinc) licensed by CC BY SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Factory System

The factory system is the method of manufacturing used from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution onwards, in which goods were made in factories rather than at home.

The factory system encouraged urbanization because industrialists built factories in cities where there would be a large labor force. 

As a result of the factory system, products that were once manufactured by artisans became mass-produced.

The factory system became a critical component of industry in the U.S. economy and contributed to consumerism.

One example of the factory system at work was Henry Ford's automated assembly line for the Model T cars. 

Final Factory System Quiz

Factory System Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


The factory system began with the _________ industry.

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________ invented the spinning machine, spurring the construction of innovative textile mills across Great Britain. 

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Sir Richard Arkwright.

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The domestic system was made up of "________ industries."

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Skilled labor was needed to operate machines. 

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Factory owners often refused to hire women. 

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How did the division of labor change with the advent of the factory system?

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In the factory system, different workers worked on different steps/parts of the product and then put them together, rather than having one worker create a single product from start to finish. 

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Henry Ford's invention of the _______________ made the factory system more efficient.

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automated assembly line. 

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How did the factory system contribute to urbanization?

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Industrialists built factories in cities where they could reach a larger labor force. In turn, many moved to the cities for work.

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Which is not true about the factory system?

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run by artisans.

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When did workers start to organize into trade unions and campaign for better wages and working conditions?

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late 19th century.

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