Last month, I posted on some of the intellectual contributions of economic and business historian Robert Hessen, who died on  April 15. At the time, I didn’t have access to his contribution to Ayn Rand’s book Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. But I got a copy from the library and found his essay. It’s titled, “The Effects of the Industrial Revolution on Women and Children.”

My view now is that it’s quite good. My view when I first read it, at age 17, was that it was incredibly good. Why the change in my views? Because I now know more of the literature and so his reasoning and conclusions, which I still think are sound, don’t come as a surprise to me. But back then, they did. I was not particularly a reader, except in spurts, and much of my reading was fiction. So if you had asked me whether the industrial revolution was good or bad for women and children, I would have answered what people around me were saying: it was bad.

Bob Hessen’s calm reasoning came at me like a thunderclap. He patiently worked through the effects of the industrial revolution on child mortality (it dropped), on women’s opportunities and income (they increased), and on women’s independence (it increased.) He also answered the major critics of the Industrial Revolution. Everything he said made sense: it’s just that I had never thought about these issues.

Here’s an excerpt from near the start of his essay.

One cannot evaluate the phenomenon of child labor in England during the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century unless one realizes that the introduction of the factory system offered a livelihood, a means of survival, to tens of thousands of children who would not have lived to be youths in the pre-capitalist eras.

The factory system led to a rise in the general standard of living, to rapidly falling urban death rates and decreasing infant mortality–and produced an unprecedented population explosion.

In 1750, England’s population was six million; it was nine million in 1800 and twelve million in 1820, a rate of increase without precedent in any era. The age distribution of the population shifted enormously; the proportion of children and youths increased sharply. “The proportion of those born in London dying before five years of age” fell from 74.5 percent in 1730-49 to 31.8 percent in 1810-29. [His quote is from Mabel C. Buer, Health, Wealth, and Population in the Early Days of the Industrial Revolution, 1760-1815.]

P.S. Here’s Clark Nardinelli’s take, in David R. Henderson, ed., The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, on how quickly wages grew during the Industrial Revolution.

P.P.S. In March 2020, I posted on Robert Hessen’s work uncovering Charles Lindbergh’s heroic role in reporting on the German war effort in airplane manufacture before World War II.