The earliest factories, at least in the U.S., were located not in great cities but near bodies of water that could be harnessed to power them. At first, the factory, such as Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, was a modern innovation in an otherwise rural backwater but it drew in young women bored with farm life and provided them with jobs and their own money, discipline, and even a form of education with a library, lectures, and an on-site magazine. Restrictive rules and regulations mitigated the sense of freedom the girls enjoyed, but they formed bonds and even spoke up against the increasing pace of work in the face of rising competition.
Over time immigrants hungry for work replaced women in factories and they brought urban values with them and factories became like little cities until cities themselves overtook the factories. Hierarchies in the factory became strident and were reflected in the surrounding towns. Immigrant enclaves provided variety to the towns but also sparked tensions between ethnic groups and different social classes.
Urban blight due to the factories’ output and workers’ living conditions became the norm. Ever-increasing swaths of air, land and water became blighted due to the waste from factories and soot from their stacks. Still, factories provided jobs for women and men, Americans and immigrants, poor and middle-class whites and nonwhites. It brought all together yet still separated them by tasks and levels of authority. White middle-class males fared the best but that has changed over time.