In this lesson you will learn what the market revolution was and why it happened. You will explore how it affected the lives of farmers and industrial workers and you will test your knowledge with a short quiz.
Imagine if, instead of paying for products you wanted with money, you traded or bartered for them. Also imagine if you lived on a farm and produced most of what you needed to live yourself. If the market revolution never took place, most of us might still be living on farms and trading with acquaintances for a few products we could not produce ourselves.
The market revolution changed all this.Happening roughly between 1800 and the 1840s, the market revolution was a series of gradual transformations that began the process where the majority of Americans no longer lived in the countryside and worked as small yeoman farmers or skilled artisan workers, but instead lived in cities and worked in factories. No one person was responsible for this change. Instead, the market revolution occurred as a result of sweeping economic, cultural, and political changes that took place between the American Revolution and the Civil War and affects how we live today. In this lesson, you will explore why the market revolution took place and two examples of how it changed the lives of Americans.
You’re probably asking yourself, ‘Why did the market revolution take place?’ Great question! In 1815, 8.4 million people lived in the United States, a 58% increase from 1800.
This dramatic population growth, coupled with the country’s expanding territory, led the Republican Party to believe the federal government needed to play a larger role in regulating the nation’s trade, money and expansion of infrastructure. The focus on infrastructure – or internal improvements in the language of the time – led to two other important revolutions that accompanied and made the market revolution possible: the transportation and technological revolutions.Why are these two other revolutions important and how did they serve as a catalyst for the market revolution? First, the increase in roads, canals, and railroads allowed Americans to move goods and people much faster and farther than ever before. Farmers in the western states could now sell their goods to people in eastern cities. Second, new technologies gave farmers and industrial workers the tools to produce much more than before. Lastly, with advances in transportation and technology, work in America became increasingly mechanized, regimented, and subject to the clock.
These changes transformed the economy from one of local exchanges to one governed by capital and capitalists. Let’s take a look at two examples.
The Market Revolution and Farmers
Before the market revolution, most people worked on their family farms. They worked hard and produced what their family needed for subsistence and they sold anything leftover locally. Farmers often lived in tight-knit communities where they knew and helped their neighbors and usually knew who they sold and bought goods from.
However, the transportation, technological, and market revolutions changed this traditional way of life. For example, in the mid-1830s John Deere created a new, more efficient steel that replaced the old wrought-iron plows. Wrought-iron plows allowed farmers to plow about 8 acres each season, but with the steel plow farmers could now plow up to 80 acres in the same amount of time.Not only could farmers now produce more – much more than just their families needed – but thanks to railroads and canals, they could now transport their produce much more quickly. The market economy was beginning to replace the moral economy, which was characterized by doing business in person with familiar people. While many Americans welcomed these changes, many also feared and resisted the growing and unfamiliar market.
Many farmers distrusted people they did not know and worried about financial dealings with strangers. Let’s check out one more example.
The Market Revolution and Industrial Workers
The market revolution changed the lives of industrial workers as well. America’s most famous mills in the 19th century were the Lowell Mills in Lowell Massachusetts, named for Francis Cabot Lowell from the Boston Manufacturing Company. Prior to the market revolution, benevolent paternalism guided relationships between employers and their workers. Paternalism meant that employers took care of their workers in a similar way to how they would care for their own family members. In lean times, employers would keep their workers working instead of firing them, they would overlook transgressions such as tardiness, and they would take care of workers in their old age.
As the Lowell Mills exemplified, the demands of the market, however, fundamentally changed this relationship.Between 1822 and 1839, Lowell’s population grew from 200 to 18,000 people and the mills rivaled the world’s major textile centers. Lowell was unique for its size, but also because it employed mostly young, single women rather than men, like the vast majority of other mills and factories. Lowell chose women because they received less wages since they were perceived as not having a family to feed. They were also seen as more obedient and less rebellious, and their smaller hands were believed to be more dexterous and suitable for detailed textile work. Lured by the potential of the market, the Lowell Mills departed from the traditional paternalism and instead sought to maximize profits.
As the women’s wages decreased, the pace of work and the regimentation of the work place increased. Moreover, workers became deskilled because they only made one part of the final product instead of the product in its entirety.
So why was the market revolution significant? It represented a fundamental transformation of the American economy. Before the market revolution, economic transactions for farmers took place within the moral economy, which was characterized by local business dealings and based on face-to-face interactions with familiar people. With the market revolution, however, farmers and local exchanges were no longer the basis of the economy.
When farmers produced for the market economy and not just for their families, capitalists living in cities benefited from the profits they made off the farmer’s produce.In addition to replacing the moral economy, the market revolution replaced benevolent paternalism as well. Before, paternalism meant that employers took family-like care of their workers, but because of the market revolution, employers privileged profits over worker well-being. As a result, employers paid workers less and deskilled workers by having them complete only one part of the end product rather than the entire product line. Workers also experienced increased regimentation, which meant the workday was increasingly governed by the clock.
Many yeoman farmers and artisans resisted these changes, but ultimately the market forces prevailed. By the late 1840s, the market revolution was complete and had dramatically altered the economy and Americans’ lives.