March 23, 2018

A scale model of the Boott Cotton Mill. Credit: NPS

Look around you: at your computer, your phone, your water bottle, or the books on your desk. Chances are, all of these things were made in a factory. Factories fuel the modern world. And they’ve shaped our society - from politics, to work, to leisure. Joshua Freeman, author of Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World, walks us through the history of the factory, and how it still impacts our daily lives.  

Three Takeaways

  • The first building we’d recognize as a factory was an English silk mill, built in 1721. And according to Freeman, the factory system spread quickly. The reason? “There are just enormous efficiencies associated with the factory, with the coordination of production, the scale of production, and the application of external power to production,” Freeman says. 
  • One of the most important people in the history of the factory, Henry Ford, didn’t just bring standardization to his plants. He also attempted to standardize his workers. He would make wage increases contingent on workers adopting “good habits.” These included not drinking, being thrifty, and not “living in sin.” And he created a “Sociological Department” that would go to people’s homes and make sure they were practicing those habits. 
  • We’re not in a post-industrial age. “The largest factories in human history exist right now,” Freeman says. “They’re making things like your sneakers and your cell phone. And some of these factories have 200 or 300 thousand workers in a single factory complex. They’re absolutely mind-boggling.” 

More reading 

Business, Joshua Freeman, factory, manufacturing, factories

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