Philanthropy and the Industrial Revolution

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Industrial Revolution
Nonprofit Organization
Philanthropy goes beyond merely relieving need; it attempts to address the causes of that need. Philanthropy addressed many issues that arose with the Industrial Revolution. Factory work was repetitive with insecure jobs that demanded long hours at low pay, usually with very dangerous working conditions. Child labor was common. Urbanization often brought crowded and unhealthy living conditions. The needs of widows and orphans grew as the traditional support network of family and community broke down and was taken advantage of for the sake of gaining profit. "The nonprofit sector brought many far-reaching social changes during the Industrial Revolution using its strength as private, self-governing, voluntary organizations rather than governmental".

Written by Bethany Hansen with some content from an earlier edition by 



Philanthropy, which generally refers to an affection for mankind, is manifested in donations of money, property, or work to needy persons or for socially useful purposes (Random House). In today’s society, we see many instances of philanthropy, with examples including volunteering for a charity, raising money for poor neighbors, or raising awareness for issues we believe to be worthy of notice.

When we think of philanthropic giving, it can be thought of as alleviating short-term need versus long-term need. The term charity is a subset of philanthropy, and often refers to the alleviation of short-term need. However, the entirety of philanthropy focuses on fixing problems with long-term solutions. For example, a family suffering from poverty may not have money to help them purchase food. Through charity, a helpful person may bring them a box of food so that they can eat. Philanthropic thinking would instead focus on helping the family out of poverty, so that the family benefits long-term. During the Industrial Revolution there were examples of charity, where kind people focused on relieving suffering short-term. There were also examples of philanthropists that focused on the causes of suffering and alleviating problems long-term.

The term Industrial Revolution, indicating a time of great changes in manufacturing and technology, originated in France in 1837 and was introduced into general usage by Arnold Toynbee in his Lectures on the Industrial Revolution. Following the first wave of industrialization in Britain between 1760 and 1830, the American Industrial Revolution occurred approximately between 1790 and 1860 (Hindle and Lubar 1986).


Historic Roots

Before the Industrial Revolution, manufacture of goods needed for daily life was largely done in homes or small shops. Hand tools and simple machines in the hands of skilled craftsmen and women produced textiles, clothing, ceramics, glass, tools, and furniture. Masters worked side-by-side with their apprentices, who often lived in the same household. Agriculture was done on a small scale using handmade tools. The result was generally high prices for relatively crude goods.

The Industrial Revolution brought major advances in resources and equipment. The two key factors responsible for a tremendous increase in productivity were improved iron production and the invention of steam power; these allowed for the creation of mechanized textile factories for spinning and weaving. The manufacture of tools was transformed by the invention of grinding machines and drill presses. Methods of agriculture changed as well, with the advent of mechanical seed drills, reapers, and threshers. The result of these innovations was increased production of consumer goods and decreased prices, thus allowing a higher standard of living at all levels of society.

Increasingly, manufacturing occurred in factories with low-skilled employees. At the same time, mechanized agriculture prompted workers to move to towns and cities looking for jobs, providing a pool of cheap labor. The United States also experienced a huge influx of immigrants from Europe during the mid-1800s, most of which settled in urban areas.

Many far-reaching social changes occurred as a result of industrialization. Today industries and companies are required to follow rules and regulations to ensure safety for their employees. During the Industrial Revolution, industries and companies were not accountable for maintaining a safe work environment. Factory conditions were often dangerous and uncomfortable, and on top of that, employees risked safety for little to no money. Also, child labor laws had yet to exist; therefore factories would employ small children in these unsafe environments with even less pay. Because children often worked alongside the parents, the whole family dynamic changed during this time period. Industries would take advantage of family and community networks as a pursuit of wealth. The gap between rich and poor increased as business owners, managers, and high-skilled technicians swelled the ranks of the upper and middle classes, while factory workers often had a difficult time escaping poverty.

Changes in philanthropy also came about because of the Industrial Revolution. Not only were needs greater, but the ability of private citizens to meet those needs also grew. Earlier, in the mid- to late-eighteenth century, colonial society was ill equipped to deal with the growing number of orphans, widows, disabled soldiers, refugees, elderly, and sick. "Private fortunes were few and wealth neither widely enough distributed nor sufficiently fluid to permit large-scale or sustained private giving" (Bremner 1988). The Industrial Revolution not only created wealth for a larger number of people, but also afforded better means of communication and transportation, allowing the distribution of aid and ideas.

The Industrial Revolution did and continues to have a negative impact on the environment. With the influx of people in urban areas, there were little regulations regarding the disposal of waste. This resulted in inefficient sewage systems, germs, diseases, and long-term pollution of nearby bodies of water. Large industries also contributed to this pollution as most saw nearby rivers and ponds as the best places to dispose of industrial waste (Cumbler 50, 54). A later example of extreme water pollution occurred in 1969 when a local factory dumped chemical waste into the Cuyahoga River, located in Ohio. This caused the water to spontaneously catch fire and permanently damaged the surrounding ecosystem ( The increase of industry caused instances such as this and many more due to limited knowledge and accountability for the surrounding environment.

This new age of industry also generated significant air pollution. Large factories and cities burnt huge amounts of coal, thus contributing to air pollution and increasing the likelihood of more germs, diseases, and unhygienic lifestyles for those living in large cities (Cumbler 115). As the demand for production increased, so did the necessity for expansion – factories burned through more and more resources in order to keep up with economic demands. At the turn of the century, Henry Ford began his mass production of motor vehicles, thus contributing to air pollution during factory production and contributing greenhouse gases from the vehicles. The smog emitted from factories such as Henry Ford’s caused irreparable damage to the atmosphere, damage that industries add to today. Extreme air pollution has even caused major disasters, such as the Great Smog of 1952 when the surrounding smog in London was trapped underneath the atmosphere causing a dense, sooty fog for several days and killing thousands (

At the time of the Industrial Revolution, there was little recognition of the environmental disasters at hand. Within the last few decades, the environmentalist movement has gained speed in the U.S. and has attempted to undo some of the damage done by the Industrial Revolution. For example, in 1963, Congress passed the Clean Air Act in an attempt to reduce and control the amount of air pollution emitted into the atmosphere. This raised awareness about damage and illness caused by air pollution and also forced accountability on industries and their waste disposal. Additionally, Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 to allow safe drinking water for everyone and to protect water-based ecosystems ( Though the U.S. has made great strides to protect and preserve its environment, industrialization continues to have negative affects on the environment.

All these changes impacted the need for, attitudes toward, and ability to practice philanthropy. Several key features characterized nineteenth-century philanthropy: associations, morality, advocacy, scientific philanthropy, and charity reform. Late in the century, giving to cultural causes also became more prominent.

Due particularly to urbanization, traditional methods of charity to individuals via church, family, and community were largely replaced by collective aid to large numbers of needy from people who did not personally know the recipients. Philanthropy became a popular and socially acceptable activity, prompting the creations of hundreds of organizations. Giving through associations was a well-established tradition in American philanthropy. By the 1820's, larger cities had almost an overabundance of charitable organizations (Bremner 1988). Consortiums and coalitions began to develop among charities (Olasky 1995). Thanks to better communication, local societies became regional and, later, national in scope.

Philanthropy during and after the Industrial Revolution generally respected the social values of the day. Not only were the poor expected to conform to moral standards before they could receive aid, but accepted standards of morality also dictated the philanthropic actions of the wealthy.

Regarding the poor, popular wisdom demanded the diffusion of "knowledge, self-respect, self-control, morality, and religion through all classes of the population" (Bremner 1988). Many charities gave only to the ''worthy poor" and, then, it was in-kind philanthropy rather than in the form of money. The Boston Provident Association, for example, gave food, clothes, or fuel to those willing to work, but it did not disburse money and refused to help drunkards. Equal treatment was not the goal, rather, the intent was to help those unable to help themselves (Olasky 1995).

Morality was a two-way street, affecting the wealthy as well as the needy. Ostentatious displays of affluence were generally frowned upon, leaving to the wealthy only "the luxury of doing good" (Bremner 1988). Andrew Carnegie, one of the most influential men of the 1800's, believed that the rich were mere stewards of their wealth and that a man who died with wealth intact was a disgrace. Carnegie considered it the duty of the rich to use their wealth and wisdom to benefit the community and the poor (Burlingame 1992).

One major form of philanthropy during the nineteenth century was advocacy for causes; namely, temperance in alcohol consumption; abolition of slavery; improvement of conditions for factory workers, prisoners, and the mentally ill; and minority and women's rights (Bremner 1996). Women, in particular, took on a much larger role in advocacy than they had in the past. After the Industrial Revolution, and especially in urban areas, educated middle- and upper-class women had more time, interest, and resources to volunteer and advocate for community service and social reform (Olasky 1995).

Scientific philanthropy and charity reform
Two additional, related efforts - scientific philanthropy and charity reform, arose in response to fears of indiscriminate aid and pauperism (i.e., "lackadaisical poverty" or a state of perpetual dependence due to idleness). Early in the century, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in the City of New York tried to educate charitable people by printing a list of causes of pauperism, which included charities that were too generous in giving money away (Ibid.).

There was a growing understanding that truly helping the poor required more than impulsive generosity. Charity reformers used what they called "scientific philanthropy," which meant investigating the causes of need, influencing the morals of the poor by personal involvement, and encouraging gainful employment at a time when jobs were readily available.

The scientific approach to philanthropy became especially popular during and after the Civil War, bringing order to previously sporadic and largely uncoordinated charitable efforts, and reforming both private charity and public welfare. Health services were reorganized, relief operations were better coordinated, and more attention was paid to the needs of particular individuals and the root causes of poverty. Interestingly, social science surged in popularity (Bremner 1988).

Cultural Causes
The latter part of the nineteenth century also saw a growing emphasis placed on giving to cultural causes. A natural outgrowth of scientific philanthropy giving to libraries, universities, medical laboratories, and the like was viewed as a way to address the root of social problems by helping the best and most ambitious of the poor improve their own situations. Andrew Carnegie (1900) in his Gospel of Wealth listed some of what he considered to be the best uses of surplus wealth: universities, libraries, hospitals, laboratories, public parks, and meeting and concert halls.



In the late 1880's, two major movements grew out of these philanthropic ideas - settlement houses and trusts. One had an important impact on the social conscience of the American public, the other on methods of funding philanthropic causes.

Settlement houses were a response to the perceived need for personal involvement with those in poverty, as opposed to large-scale, impersonal assistance. Settlement houses were designed to allow their residents, who were typically educated young men and women, to develop a deeper understanding of the problems of the poor by living among them, getting to know them, and joining them in their efforts to improve their lives (Bremner 1988). Jane Addams' Hull House, founded in Chicago in 1889, was the premiere example of the Settlement House movement.

The idea of settlement houses resonated with the upper and middle class. "[They] became fashionable, and dozens of settlement houses were established by young men and women inspired by Jane Addams' example" (Smith 1984). Although settlement houses had their shortcomings, they did serve to make the upper classes more aware of the true situation of the urban poor.

Another outcome of the Industrial Revolution was the creation of enormous wealth for few individuals, and it had far reaching implications for philanthropy. The creation of substantial charitable trusts was a popular response among the affluent to public need in the last decade of the 1800's and into the early 1900's. Many of those trusts are still in existence today.

Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller were prime examples of those who had accumulated fortunes due to their investments during the Industrial Revolution; their wealth totaled hundreds of millions of dollars. Existing approaches to philanthropy were inadequate for dispensing wealth on this scale.

Modern philanthropy took shape in the years between about 1885 and 1915, "as multimillionaires . . . sought practical, socially useful ways of disposing of surplus wealth. Because of the immensity of their fortunes they had to think in wholesale terms: simple acts of kindness and generosity to widows and orphans or a traveler found wounded on a highway were not sufficient for their means". (Bremner 1996).

A more effective method of organizing what Rockefeller called "this business of benevolence" had to be developed. Rockefeller proposed trusts as the obvious answer. Trusts and foundations, with professional managers, could distribute private wealth "with greater intelligence and vision than the donors themselves could hope to possess" (Bremner 1988). Unlike smaller trusts established earlier, the very large trusts founded at this time were dedicated to advancing knowledge and human welfare. They were not meant to provide relief for individuals, but rather to research the root causes of need.

Both of these philanthropic ideas - settlement houses and trusts - continue to influence American philanthropy today. Increased attention to social action and constructive public social policy are part of the legacy of settlement houses. The number of trusts and foundations also continues to increase as affluent people attempt to support charitable purposes more systematically.


Key Related Ideas

  • Advocacy 
    • Women of the Industrial Era provides further information about female activists of the industrial era and their importance in history (
  • Associations
    • Carnegie Corporation of New York (1911) - Carnegie’s largest foundation
    • Cleveland Foundation (1914) - the first community foundation
    • General Education Board (1902) - by John D. Rockefeller
    • John F. Slater Fund (1882) - to help educate former slaves 
  • Charity
  • Charity reform 
  • Environmentalism
    • Coal, Steam, and the Industrial Revolution  provides additional information regarding coal, the effects of coal use on the environment, and the importance it played in the Industrial Revolution and even today (Crash Couse video series)
  • Foundations
  • Immigration
  • Industrialization 
  • Pauperism
  • "Scientific philanthropy" 
    • Science Philanthropy Alliance is an organization dedicated to raising awareness and funds for scientific research for the sake of philanthropy (
    • Settlement houses
  • Trusts
  • Urbanization 
    • Growth, Cities, and Immigration focuses on the influx of immigrants and citizens to urban areas in the peak of the Industrial Revolution (Crash Course video series)
  • Worthy poor


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Jane Addams: The first American woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, she founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889, perhaps the most famous settlement house in American philanthropic history (
  • Andrew Carnegie: Immigrant from Scotland, best known for the fortune he made in the steel industry and for the establishment of thousands of free public libraries throughout the United States and the world. Carnegie wrote Wealth, later called The Gospel of Wealth, in 1889. Visit the Fordham University Web site to read excerpts from Carnegie’s 1889 article titled The Gospel of Wealth (at
  • Peter Cooper: Established the Cooper Union in New York City for free instruction in science and art.
  • Stephen Girard: At his death in 1831, Girard left the largest American fortune to date to charitable causes.
  • John D. Rockefeller: Amassed enormous wealth in the oil industry and established the Rockefeller Foundation.
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt: Gave $1 million to found Vanderbilt University in 1873. Vanderbilt was uneducated, but he built the largest fortune in America at the time of his death in 1877.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Carnegie Hall was built with a large donation from Andrew Carnegie in 1891. Its purpose is "to continue to be one of the world's leading institutions in presenting great music, and in promoting music education, music creation, and music enjoyment in a landmark concert hall" (
  • The Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore is one of the oldest free libraries in the United States, established in 1882 with an endowment of $833,333.
  • Henry Street Settlement in New York City was founded in 1893 as a settlement house and now serves those suffering from mental health issues, domestic abuse victims, homeless citizens, and also provides after-school recreational activities for children (
  • The Lick Observatory at the University of California, founded in 1888 by eccentric millionaire James Lick, is a leading research observatory after over 100 years of operation. 
  • Vanderbilt University was built and endowed in 1873 by Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt with a $1 million gift. Today, Vanderbilt's mission is to be "a center for scholarly research, informed and creative teaching, and service to the community and the society at large. The University avows as its essential task the unique fusing of the quest for knowledge through scholarship with the dissemination of knowledge through teaching ( The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, dedicated to preserving and protecting First Amendment rights, is located at Vanderbilt.


Reflection Question: The concept of “scientific philanthropy” was introduced during the Industrial Revolution as a logical way to think about philanthropic problems and their solutions. As science has continued to evolve over the last century, what are some modern examples of scientific philanthropy?


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., s.v. "philanthropy."
  • Bremner, Robert H. American Philanthropy. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN: 0226073254.
  • Bremner, Robert H. Giving: Charity and Philanthropy in History. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1996. ISBN: 1560008849.
  • Burlingame, Dwight F., ed. The Responsibilities of Wealth. Indianapolis, IN: University Press, 1992. ISBN: 0253312795.
  • Carnegie, Andrew. The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays. Edited by Edward C. Kirkland. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1900.
  • Coal, Steam, and the Industrial Revolution. Crash Couse World History #32.,
  • Cumbler, John T. Reasonable Use: The People, the Environment, and the State, New England 1790-1930. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2001. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  • Growth, Cities, and Immigration. Crash Course U.S. History #25.
  • Hindle, Brooke and Steven D. Lubar. Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution 1790-1860. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986. ISBN: 087474539X.
  • Water and Air Pollution.
  • Olasky, Marvin. The Tragedy of American Compassion. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1995. Paperback: ISBN: 0891078630.
  • Random House College Dictionary, 2d ed., s.v. "philanthropy."
  • Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America: A People's History of the Post-Reconstruction Era. Vol.. 6. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1984.


This paper was developed by students taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University in 2017. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.