An Edwardian Life

How life was in the beginning of 20th century

Samuel Hynes described the Edwardian Era as a “leisurely time when women wore picture hats and did not vote, when the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously, and the sun really never set on the British flag’”.

Politics

The Conservatives – at the time called “Unionists” – are dominant political party. They have many strengths, appealing to voters supportive of imperialism, tariffs, the Church of England, a powerful Royal Navy, and traditional hierarchical society. There is a powerful leadership base in the landed aristocracy and landed gentry in rural England, plus strong support from the Church of England and military interests.

In the first years of the 20th century, the Conservative government, with Arthur Balfour as Prime Minister, had numerous successes in foreign policy, defence, and education, as well as solutions for the issues of liquor licensing and land ownership for the peasants of Ireland.

The Labour Party was emerging from the rapidly growing union movement after 1890.

Michael Childs argues that the younger generation had reason to prefer Labour over Liberal political styles. Social factors included secularized elementary education (with a lesser role for Dissenting Protestantism); the “New Unionism” after 1890 brought unskilled workers into a movement previously dominated by the skilled workers; and new leisure-time activities, especially the music hall and sports, involved youth while repelling the older generation of Liberal voters.

Economy

The Edwardian era stands out as a time of peace and plenty. There were no severe depressions, and prosperity was widespread. Britain’s growth rate, manufacturing output and GDP (but not GDP per capita) fell behind its rivals, the United States and Germany, but the nation still led the world in trade, finance and shipping, and had strong bases in manufacturing and mining.

The industrial sector was slow to adjust to global changes, and there was a striking preference for leisure over entrepreneurship among the elite. However, major achievements should be underlined. London was the financial centre of the world—far more efficient and wide-ranging than New York, Paris or Berlin.

Britain had built up a vast reserve of overseas credits in its formal Empire, as well as in its informal empire in Latin America and other nations. It had huge financial holdings in the United States, especially in railways.

Rising status of women

For housewives, sewing machines enabled the production of ready made clothing and made it easier for women to sew their own clothes; more generally, argues Barbara Burman, “home dressmaking was sustained as an important aid for women negotiating wider social shifts and tensions in their lives.” Increased literacy in the middle class gave women wider access to information and ideas. Numerous new magazines appealed to her tastes and help define femininity.

The inventions of the typewriter, telephone, and new filing systems offered middle class women increased employment opportunities. So too did the rapid expansion of the school system, and the emergence of the new profession of nursing. Education and status led to demands for female roles in the rapidly expanding world of sports.

Women’s suffrage
As middle class women rose in status they increasingly supported demands for a political voice.

In 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), a suffrage advocacy organization.

Women and birth control
Although abortion was illegal, it was nevertheless the most widespread form of birth control in use. Used predominantly by working-class women, the procedure was used not only as a means of terminating pregnancy, but also to prevent poverty and unemployment. Those who transported contraceptives could be legally punished. Contraceptives became more expensive over time and had a high failure rate. Unlike contraceptives, abortion did not need any prior planning and was less expensive. Newspaper advertisements were used to promote and sell abortifacients indirectly.

Not all of society was accepting of contraceptives or abortion, and the opposition viewed both as part of one and the same sin. Abortion was much more common among the middle classes than among those living in rural areas, where the procedure was not readily available. Women were often tricked into purchasing ineffective pills. In addition to fearing legal reprimands, many physicians did not condone abortion because they viewed it as an immoral procedure potentially endangering a woman’s life. Because abortion was illegal and physicians refused to perform the procedure, local women acted as abortionists, often using crochet hooks or similar instruments.

Feminists of the era focused on educating and finding jobs for women, leaving aside the controversial issues of contraceptives and abortion, which in popular opinion were often related to promiscuity and prostitution. The Church condemned abortion as immoral and a form of rebellion against the child-bearing role women were expected to assume. Many considered abortion to be a selfish act that allowed a woman to avoid personal responsibility, contributing to a decline in moral values. Abortion was often a solution for women who already had children and did not want more. Consequently, the size of families decreased drastically.

Fashion

The upper classes embraced leisure sports, which resulted in rapid developments in fashion, as more mobile and flexible clothing styles were needed. During the Edwardian era, women wore a very tight corset, or bodice, and dressed in long skirts. The Edwardian era was the last time women wore corsets in everyday life. According to Arthur Marwick, the most striking change of all the developments that occurred during the Great War was the modification in women’s dress, “for, however far politicians were to put the clocks back in other steeples in the years after the war, no one ever put the lost inches back on the hems of women’s skirts”.

The Edwardians developed new styles in clothing design. The bustle and heavy fabrics of the previous century disappeared. A new concept of tight fitting skirts and dresses made of lightweight fabrics were introduced for a more active lifestyle.

The 2 pieces dress came into vogue. Skirts hung tight at the hips and flared at the hem, creating a trupet of lily-like shape.

  • Tailored jackets, first introduced in 1880, increased in popularity and by 1900, tailored suits became popular.
  • Skirts in 1901 had decorated hems with ruffles of fabric and lace.
  • Some dresses and skirts featured trains.
  • In 1901, the hobble skirt was introduced; a tight fitting skirt that restricted a woman’s stride.
  • Lingerie dresses, or tea gowns made of soft fabrics, festooned with ruffles and lace were worn indoors.
  • By 1904, skirts became fuller and less clingy.

The arts

The Edwardian era corresponds to the French Belle Époque period. Despite its brief pre-eminence, the period is characterised by its own unique architectural style, fashion, and lifestyle. Art Nouveau had a particularly strong influence. Artists were influenced by the development of the automobile and electricity, and a greater awareness of human rights.

French cuisine continued to climb in the esteem of European gourmets during the Belle Époque. The word “ritzy” was invented during this era, referring to the posh atmosphere and clientele of the Hôtel Ritz Paris. The head chef and co-owner of the Ritz, Auguste Escoffier, was the pre-eminent French chef during the Belle Époque. Escoffier modernized French haute cuisine, also doing much work to spread its reputation abroad with business projects in London in addition to Paris. Champagne was perfected during the Belle Époque. The alcoholic spirit absinthe was cited by many Art Nouveau artists as a muse and inspiration and can be seen in much of the artwork of the time.

Cheap coal and cheap labor contributed to the cult of the orchid and made possible the perfection of fruits grown under glass, as the apparatus of state dinners extended to the upper classes. Exotic feathers and furs were more prominently featured in fashion than ever before, as haute couture was invented in Paris, the center of the Belle Époque, where fashion began to move in a yearly cycle. In Paris, restaurants such as Maxim’s Paris achieved a new splendor and cachet as places for the rich to parade. Maxim’s Paris was arguably the city’s most exclusive restaurant. Bohemian lifestyles gained a different glamour, pursued in the cabarets of Montmartre.

Painting and literature

Art Nouveau is the most popularly recognized art movement to emerge from the period. This largely decorative style (Jugendstil in central Europe – in Britain, it was known as the Modern Style, or, because of the arts and crafts movement led by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow, as the “Glasgow” style.), characterized by its curvilinear forms, and nature inspired motifs became prominent from the mid-1890s and dominated progressive design throughout much of Europe. Its use in public art in Paris, such as Hector Guimard’s Paris Métro stations, has made it synonymous with the city.

Art Nouveau is considered a “total” art style, embracing architecture, graphic art, interior design, and most of the decorative arts including jewellery, furniture, textiles, household silver and other utensils, and lighting, as well as the fine arts. According to the philosophy of the style, art should be a way of life. For many well-off Europeans, it was possible to live in an art nouveau-inspired house with art nouveau furniture, silverware, fabrics, ceramics including tableware, jewellery, cigarette cases, etc. Artists desired to combine the fine arts and applied arts, even for utilitarian objects.

Although Impressionism in painting began well before the Belle Époque, it had initially been met with skepticism if not outright scorn by a public accustomed to the realist and representational art approved by the Academy. In 1890, Monet started his series Haystacks.

European literature underwent a major transformation during the Belle Époque. Literary realism and naturalism achieved new heights. Among the most famous French realist or naturalist authors are Guy de Maupassant and Émile Zola. Realism gradually developed into modernism, which emerged in the 1890s and came to dominate European literature during the Belle Époque’s final years and throughout the interwar years.

Among poets, the Symbolists such as Charles Baudelaire remained at the forefront. Although Baudelaire’s poetry collection Les Fleurs du mal had been published in the 1850s, it exerted a strong influence on the next generation of poets and artists. The Decadent movement fascinated Parisians, intrigued by Paul Verlaine and above all Arthur Rimbaud, who became the archetypal enfant terrible of France. Rimbaud’s Illuminations was published in 1886, and subsequently his other works were also published, influencing Surrealists and Modernists during the Belle Époque and after.

Rimbaud’s poems were the first works of free verse seen by the French public. Free verse and typographic experimentation also emerged in Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard by Stéphane Mallarmé, anticipating Dada and concrete poetry. Guillaume Apollinaire’s poetry introduced themes and imagery from modern life to readers. Cosmopolis: A Literary Review had a far-reaching impact on European writers, and ran editions in London, Paris, Saint Petersburg, and Berlin.

Music

The available recordings of music, such as wax cylinders played on phonographs, were poor in quality by modern standards. Live performances, both amateur and professional, were popular. Henry Wood, Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Arnold Bax, George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Thomas Beecham were all active. Military and brass bands often played outside in parks during the summer.

Musically, the Belle Époque was characterized by salon music. This was not considered serious music but, rather, short pieces considered accessible to a general audience. In addition to works for piano solo or violin and piano, the Belle Époque was famous for its large repertory of songs (mélodies, romanze, etc.). The Italians were the greatest proponents of this type of song, its greatest champion being Francesco Paolo Tosti. Though Tosti’s songs never completely left the repertoire, salon music generally fell into a period of obscurity. Even as encores, singers were afraid to sing them at serious recitals.

In that period, waltzes also flourished. Operettas were also at the peak of their popularity, with composers such as Johann Strauss III, Emmerich Kálmán, and Franz Lehár. Many Belle Époque composers working in Paris are still popular today: Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Lili Boulanger, Jules Massenet, César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns, Gabriel Fauré and his pupil, Maurice Ravel.

Performing arts

Cinema was primitive and audiences preferred live performances to picture shows. Music hall was very popular and widespread; influential performers included male impersonator Vesta Tilley and comic Little Tich.

Modern dance began to emerge as a powerful artistic development in theatre.

Architecture

Notable architects included Edwin Lutyens, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Giles Gilbert Scott. In spite of the popularity of Art Nouveau in Europe, the Edwardian Baroque style of architecture was widely favoured for public structures and was a revival of Christopher Wren–inspired designs of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The change or reversal in taste from the Victorian eclectic styles corresponded with the historical revivals of the period, most prominently earlier Georgian and Neoclassical styles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Film

Filmmakers Mitchell and Kenyon documented many scenes from Britain and Ireland from 1900–1907, sports, parades, factory exits, parks, city streets, boating and the like.

France was a leader of early cinema technology. The cinématographe was invented in France by Léon Bouly and put to use by Auguste and Louis Lumière, brothers who held the first film screenings in the world. The Lumière brothers made many other innovations in cinematography.

Science

The Belle Époque was an era of great scientific and technological advancement in Europe and the world in general. Inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution that became generally common in this era include the perfection of lightly sprung, noiseless carriages in a multitude of new fashionable forms, which were superseded towards the end of the era by the automobile, which was for its first decade a luxurious experiment for the well-heeled. French automobile manufacturers such as Peugeot were already pioneers in automobile manufacturing. Edouard Michelin invented removable pneumatic tires for bicycles and automobiles in the 1890s. The scooter and moped are also Belle Époque inventions.

A number of French inventors patented products with a lasting impact on modern society. After the telephone joined the telegraph as a vehicle for rapid communication, French inventor Édouard Belin developed the Belinograph, or Wirephoto, to transmit photos by telephone. The electric light began to supersede gas lighting, and neon lights were invented in France.

The first transatlantic wireless signals were sent by Guglielmo Marconi.

Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity in 1896 while working with phosphorescent materials. His work confirmed and explained earlier observations regarding uranium salts by Abel Niépce de Saint-Victor in 1857.

It was during this era that biologists and physicians finally came to understand the germ theory of disease, and the field of bacteriology was established. Louis Pasteur was perhaps the most famous scientist in France during this time. Pasteur developed pasteurisation and a rabies vaccine. Mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré made important contributions to pure and applied mathematics, and also published books for the general public on mathematical and scientific subjects. Marie Skłodowska-Curie worked in France, winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911. Physicist Gabriel Lippmann invented integral imaging, still in use today.

Quantum mechanics gradually arose from Max Planck’s solution in 1900 to the black-body radiation problem (reported 1859) and Albert Einstein’s 1905 paper which offered a quantum-based theory to explain the photoelectric effect (reported 1887).

Read more:
Edwardian era
Belle Époque
Art Nouveau

An Edwardian Life

Rippers Resurrected: Collateral Evil Havu Petri