Factory Production in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By Elaine Freedgood | Go to book overview
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The primary texts on factory production collected in this volume are intended for use by undergraduate and graduate students studying the literature and history of Victorian Britain. The first factories are the subject of these works, and for this reason the works may also be valuable to students of industrial development, of the history of economics, of urbanization, of women's work, and of the history of childhood, to name just a few of the topics and issues that intersect with industrialization and the factory in its most obvious material effect. The factory system is central to any conception of modernity; the documents collected here suggest how unsystematic that system was in its origins and early development.

Factory Production in Nineteenth-Century Britain brings together a small number of texts that might be easily found in any library with many others that have become obscure, having fallen outside the purview of academic disciplines as they now exist. These texts suggest that industrial development in Britain generated new genres along with new modes of production and that each of these new genres reflects a mode of understanding, and often of critiquing, the nascent system it confronts. These works also helped to write into existence a reality that was taking shape unevenly and unpredictably. Written descriptions of the “factory system” follow so closely on the heels of its establishment that we need to consider the extent to which such accounts explained and indeed invented a system before it was completely up and running, let alone intelligible to its observers.

Anthologizing any writing is inherently destructive and reconstructive, as the recent work of Leah Price has so cogently argued: The anthologist necessarily prescribes or proscribes the reading of others.1 So let me acknowledge this problem straight out, not to dispose of it but rather to explore the possibilities it creates. I have chosen texts that I think are central to the discursive

1. Leah Price, The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press,
2000), 12.

construction of the factory system, and I have also included texts that I think are quirky and interesting, texts that won't easily be found by the average curious student without some help. These texts were crucial to the discursive construction of the factory system; our neglect of them has served to homogenize our sense of the changes in production that led to this new way of making things. These texts make it impossible to divide Victorians into discrete groups of supporters and critics of industrialization. They also make it impossible to put together a coherent narrative of industrial change. Rather, they suggest that the instantiation of the factory system was a messy business, going forward in one industry toward greater automation while looping backward in another to hand and home production. Written responses to this very bumpy series of developments and regressions reflect the confusion, ambivalence, hope, excitement, and fear that such unpredictable change wrought.

I hope that the well-known, little-known and unknown works collected here will illuminate one another in interesting ways and enhance our sense of the complexity of the Victorian reaction to the advent of the factory system. Together with the suggestions for further reading that appear at the end of the book, they will complicate and enlarge the ways we continue to think about the development of mass production and the social relations that attend it, including the social relations that lead to the production of what we think of as knowledge. The Victorian intellectuals who addressed both the history of painting and the politics of the economy, the wealth of nations and the wallpaper of rooms seem very far away from us now. We might imagine, as we read their work, what it would be like to undivide some labors and reunite what now seem like hopelessly disparate realms of thought and of action.


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