When Britain abandoned any pretense of raising all the basic foods its people needed, its population was growing so rapidly that self-sufficiency was no longer possible. The number of inhabitants in England and Wales more than tripled during the nineteenth century, from about 9 million in 1800 to 32.5 million in 1900.
Some demographers have attributed this population explosion not to a higher birth rate but to the lowered death rate resulting from the improved food and sanitation—especially cheap, washable cotton materials—brought by industrialism. Others claim that the population increase in the first half of the century may be attributed to the rural areas and not to the cities, which had a much higher death rate.
A similar controversy is focused on the extent to which the industrial revolution improved the standard of living not just of the new capitalist and managerial classes but of the workers themselves. After about 1820 the purchasing power of the workers seems to have grown very gradually, as more and cheaper goods became available.
Opportunities for steady, regular employment also grew, as did chances for laborers to climb up the economic ladder by mastering a skill and getting a better-paying job. But all these factors varied in their effect from industry to industry and from one locality to another; they also fluctuated with the ups and downs of the economic cycle. Many people, consequently, appear to have found that their standard of living was declining.
There is little debate about the truly revolutionary changes industrialism caused in the structure and distribution of the population. Wherever mines and factories were opened, towns and cities appeared. The growth of an urban population increased the numbers and influence of business people and workers. Industrialists, bankers, investors, managers, and promoters of every sort joined the already established capitalists to form the modern middle class, or bourgeoisie. Mill hands, railway workers, miners, some artisans, clerks, and a host of other recruits swelled the ranks of wage-earning workers.
The impact of capital and labor upon the life of industrial nations was becoming increasingly evident by the middle of the nineteenth century. Some of the signs pointed to steady material progress—better food and the conquest of distance by the railroad, the steamship, and the telegraph. Other signs, however, foretold serious dislocation and violent change. The repeal of the Corn Laws buried an old agrarian way of life in Britain, and the collapse of the French railroad boom in the late 1840s suggested that economic slumps in an industrial society might have alarming consequences, for the hundreds of thousands thrown out of work aggravated the political unrest that culminated in the June Days of 1848 in Paris.
The remarkable rise of population tested the earth’s resources and environment even before people thought in these terms. Perhaps ten thousand years ago the total population of the globe was under 10 million. By 1750, when the modern rise was beginning, the figure was 750 million. By 1930 it was 2 billion, and only forty-five years later, in 1975, it was double that. Thus, human population expanded to reach its first thousand million over hundreds of thousands of years; the second thousand million was added in a single century; the third in only thirty years, and the fourth in only fifteen.
This uncontrollable explosion in population, with its untold impact on the planet’s resources, was made evident in the nineteenth century as people flocked to the cities, which grew far more rapidly than sanitation, police, or education could provide for, creating teeming slums that bred disease, crime, and discontent. Population growth in England and Wales was even more striking than the above figures indicate, as England, and later Belgium, became the most crowded nations in the West; indeed, as early as 1600 England had reached a population density that the United States would not reach until 1961. In the midst of the industrial revolution, however, fewer people worried about overpopulation than rejoiced in the growth of the labor force and the increase in potential consumers.
While population increased in many societies, the growing acceptance of contraceptive methods in postrevolutionary France and a rise in abortions, despite church opposition to both practices, contributed to a decline in the French birth rate. The death rate had declined in France from about 1800; after 1870 both the death and birth rates declined in England and Wales. Birth rates were related in part to marriage rates, which were related to economic circumstances; as real wages increased, so did marriage rates.
In Ireland postponement of marriage was increasingly common, reducing the total number of children a woman might bear in her lifetime. By modern standards the mortality rate remained very high in the first half of the century, largely owing to infectious disease. While families grew larger in Victorian times because the comfortable middle class could afford to clothe, house, and educate larger families, mortality also increased with increasing family size. Many wives died in childbirth, and men frequently had a succession of children by two or three wives.
Overall mortality rates declined throughout Europe, especially after 1850. This was due in good measure to a decline in certain communicable diseases, as scientific research found both causes and cures. Murder, infanticide, and death in war remained commonplace, but starvation was slowly reduced as a cause of death, as greater agricultural productivity, better nutrition, and more rapid movement of foodstuffs from area of production to area of need reduced it to a local phenomenon in the West.
Certain airborne diseases increased—bronchitis, pneumonia, influenza—as people lived and worked closer together, and by 1901 the death rate was higher than in 1854. Some diseases were reduced marginally, despite crowded conditions, as medicine developed means of combating them; measles, whooping cough, and scarlet fever remained common occurrences in childhood but did not normally lead to death, as they once had done.
The death rate from tuberculosis, diphtheria, and small pox was cut drastically. Thus an English death rate in 1700 of thirty persons per thousand was reduced most dramatically by bringing infectious diseases under control. Deaths from industrial accidents, war, localized famine, and physical attack remained relatively high, however.
The expectation of the enjoyment of good health, also increased in the industrial society. Purification of water and efficient disposal of sewage (both requiring public measures, usually by municipalities) helped reduce the incidence of typhus. So did better hygiene—for example, in the introduction of the water closet, or flush toilet; more frequent bathing as water became more readily available; and cleaner bedding.
The condition of food improved, though milk—important to childhood diets— remained unpasteurized until after 1900. Because surgery was increasingly performed in well-equipped hospitals with antiseptics and effective anesthesia, especially after the introduction of ether in 1846, certain medical problems no longer led to death—except on the battlefield, where far more soldiers died of disease and infection after surgery than from their wounds.
From the time of Hippocrates to the nineteenth century, few significant new drugs had been developed, and often treatment for a specific disease was totally wrong according to present-day medical knowledge. For example, sufferers from malaria were subjected to leeching (the drawing of blood from the body by bloodsucking leeches), which caused dehydration at a time when their bodies needed all their strength and an increase in liquids.
But the kind of research on a mass basis that it is possible to conduct only on the battlefield or in a hospital led first to the isolation of infectious patients in separate hospital wards after 1875, and then to specific studies of specific diseases. While some diseases increased, notably cancer, the chances of surviving to die of old age were materially greater at the end of the century than at the beginning. However, since access to such improvements in health often depended upon the ability to pay, death rates varied substantially according to class.