What some historians now call the “bourgeois century” was the ninety-nine years between the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the First World War. From 1815 to 1914, there was no major war in Europe and the standard of living increased far beyond anything ever witnessed before as industrialization, mechanization, and the resulting increases in worker productivity spread throughout the continent.
During the middle of the century, free trade became more widespread than ever, with labor markets and capital investments enjoying the never-before-seen freedom to move across national borders. Throughout much of Western Europe, no passport was necessary to move between nation states. Indeed, passports and border checkpoints became associated with despotic and backward countries like Russia.
It was during this period that we saw the rise of the Manchester liberals in Britain who slowly rolled back the mercantilist rule of the landed nobility who opposed free trade. The economic and political rise of the middle-class was buttressed by mass movements of classical liberalism across the whole of Europe that demanded greater economic freedoms for themselves and fewer tax-funded privileges for the ruling classes. As free trade spread, and lessened the advantages of controlling foreign colonies, imperialism receded as well, and an international peace movement arose with John Cobden, dubbed “the international man” as one of its celebrities.
At the same time, many luxuries became available to the middle-class. This was a time when much of what we now take for granted was quite novel. It was during the bourgeois century that something that might be recognized as the “weekend” became known. It was the first time in human history that average people had the ability to not only stop work for a few hours but to actually spend some money on recreation such as a short trip to the seaside, shopping, organized sports, a trip to a museum, play, or other cultural event.
The new economic realities led to major changes in families as well. For the first time, a large number of parents could afford to formally educate their children in schools or with books. More leisure and income also meant that parents could give children individual attention, play games in the home, and read books as a family. Fewer and fewer children needed to work to help the family maintain a subsistence living which allowed them to pursue education in a way that wasn’t possible before.
With the economic liberation of children also came much better conditions for women who had increasing access to education and became valued for their ability to manage complex tasks such as the education of children, household hygiene (no small matter in a 19th-century city), twice-a-day food shopping and the like. Moreover, men and women began to engage in the odd practice of marrying for reasons of “sentiment and physical attraction” as marrying for financial reasons became less a matter of life and death. Just as leisure on Sundays allowed for more public recreation, leisure time within the family allowed for more “private” recreation as well, which was complimented by marriage manuals, such as those found in France, that reminded men to tend to women’s sexual needs.
Sadly, all of this came to a crashing halt in late July of 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. While the revolutionary nature of the “war to end all wars” is little disputed today, it may do us all well to not just focus on the war itself or its aftermath, but also to consider all that the war relegated to the dustbin of history.
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