Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Was There an Industrial Revolution? Americans at Work Before the Civil War

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Image Courtesy of American Memory.

Image Courtesy of American Memory.

In the decades before the Civil War—a period sometimes dubbed the First Industrial Revolution—a significant number of inventions and innovations appeared, transforming American life. A telegraph system allowed information to flow from place to place more quickly than the speed of a horse. A transportation system based largely on steam power allowed goods to be shipped great distances at reduced expense. Also of great consequence was the development of the American System of Manufactures; this system, in which individual workers were responsible for only part of a finished product, helped make store-bought goods more affordable. As a result, people began to buy goods from stores rather than making them--the American consumer was born.

Impressive achievements to be sure, but revolution means dramatic, rapid change. Are the changes that took place in manufacturing and distribution during this period best described as a "revolution" or as steady change over time? What research tools can help students judge the nature of change during the First Industrial Revolution? Can answers be found in census data? This lesson provides students with the opportunity to form, revise, and research questions for an investigation of the First Industrial Revolution, using resources available on EDSITEment-reviewed websites and links.

Note: This lesson may be taught as a stand-alone lesson or in combination with the complementary EDSITEment lesson plan Was There an Industrial Revolution? New Workplace, New Technology, New Consumers.

Guiding Questions

  • What changes occurred in the United States during the period of industrialization before the Civil War? Do the changes that occurred in the lives of Americans from about 1790 to 1860 suggest a revolutionary or evolutionary process?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to do the following:

  • Cite examples of change in the lives of Americans during the era of the First Industrial Revolution
  • Discuss positive and negative effects of early industrialization on the lives of Americans
  • Take a stand as to whether the early period of industrialization should be considered a revolution based on evidence from first-hand accounts

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the set of worksheets, Americans at Work, available here as a PDF. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • For background information on the First Industrial Revolution, consult the following EDSITEment resources:
  • This lesson features 23 potential role assignments, first-hand accounts through which students enter the lives of working Americans. Having many assignments allows flexibility—some can be assigned to individuals, others to pairs or small groups. Two assignments (17 and 18) require little reading but do offer the opportunity to gather information and make conclusions. Students must judge whether or not an account indicates dramatic, rapid change. It is not expected or essential that every article be covered. Students should read the introductions to the passages, when present, as they are useful.

    A chart is provided for students to use in compiling notes and coming to conclusions on the cases of six individuals. This handout could also be adapted to suit your own individual classroom goals. Decide how students will be assigned (or choose) cases on which to take notes.

    It should be noted that there is a built-in bias in the readings in that totally contented workers would be less likely to compose some of the kinds of first-hand accounts offered here. Stress to the students the need to look for indicators of change when arriving at conclusions for the central question, "Was the First American Industrial Revolution really a revolution?" Dissatisfaction, while often widespread in times of rapid change, should not by itself be taken to signify evidence of change in the absence of other evidence. The chart does dedicate some space to quality of life issues, which are interesting and can be discussed as desired.
  • For further reading, consult the Recommended Reading List provided here as a PDF.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Reading First-Hand Accounts

In this activity, students will read "First-hand Accounts from the Industrial Revolution" on pages 1–4 of the PDF (see Preparation for download instructions), which detail experiences of individuals during the period of early industrialization in the U.S. Depending on your class, these passages can be assigned to individuals, pairs, or small groups. After the passages have been carefully read, one student will play the role listed while being interviewed by class members.

Activity 2. Role Playing and Class Interviews

For each reading assigned, one student will be interviewed briefly by the class. Answers must come from the article or be reasonable extensions of it. The interview subject can pass on some questions. Interviewees should be introduced according to the role they have been assigned. Questions should focus on that role. As the interviews are conducted, students can fill out the chart "The Lives of Americans During the First Industrial Revolution" on page 5 of the PDF (see Preparing to Teach This Lesson for download instructions).

Activity 3. Drawing Conclusions

What conclusions have the students drawn? Based on the interviews and other knowledge of the period students have gained, were working Americans living in a period of dramatic and rapid economic change? Was the First American Industrial Revolution really a revolution? If desired, let any disagreement among students lead to a class debate.

Extending The Lesson

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-4 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Demographic Changes
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Economic Transformation
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Globalization
  • Cultural analysis
  • Data analysis
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Using secondary sources
  • MMS (AL)