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Textile industry in 1900s and the length of a working day

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FlyingAxe posted on Thu, Apr 12 2012 10:52 AM

My mother-in-law was telling me another day about the documentary that she had seen about the textile industry around the turn of 20th century. The documentary had to do with the famous factory fire, but that wasn't what caught my attention. She mentioned that people wanted to work 8-hour days and were striking, and it amounted to no effect. Only when the legislation was passed did the people get their 8-hour working days. She claimed that in this aspect, the free markets had failed, and this was an example when the government had to step in.

Morality arguments aside, I was thinking about the economic aspect of her assertion. My question was: why couldn't the factory owners just introduce two shifts, 8 hours each?

One obvious answer with which my wife and I came up independently was that there were people on the market who were willing to work for 16 hours. Since it was easier just to have someone work for 16 hours instead of having to hire two people to work for two shifts, the factory owners prefered to hire the first group. (Now, I know that eventually the factory owners figured out that long hours reduced productivity, but I guess by that time that hadn't happened yet.)

My question is: were there any other factors besides the competition from the people who were willing to work long hours? Were there any government policies or some economic conditions which made introduction of the two-shift system unfeasible?

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The incandescent light-bulb may have had some influence here.  Prior to its commercialisation, it was important to exploit natural light to the fullest extent - i.e long work shifts in summer and short ones in winter.

Gas/paraffin lamps were not safe in a factory environment.  (You alluded to a fire...)

"The history of the world is the history of the triumph of the heartless over the mindless." - Sir Humphrey Appleby
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In States a fresh law is looked upon as a remedy for evil. Instead of themselves altering what is bad, people begin by demanding a law to alter it. ... In short, a law everywhere and for everything!

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Try Chrome.

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