The dawn of the 20th century was a time of unrivaled marvels in science, entertainment, art, social reforms, and the imagination. The public could delight in inventions that seemed magical, like talking movies and gadgets that made life easier like electrified trams, steam-powered trains, underground metros, and lightbulbs. Pioneers in science discovered radio waves and radioactivity and radar.
Suddenly people around the world could communicate with one another, thanks to the telegraph and telephone. As more people learned to read, thousands of newspapers enjoyed a heyday. Workers could travel more quickly to their jobs by day, and the wealthy could see the world on luxury ocean-faring steamships. Artists challenged tradition with cubism, futurism, and modernism, while architects stripped buildings of decor and authors dreamed up fanciful science fiction.
Conservatives fought back. The Roman Catholic church battled efforts at modernization, and scientists founded eugenics to dispute the merits of welfare systems and social reforms. Workers with rising wages enjoyed more affordable goods, thanks to new techniques of mass production, and acquired leisure tastes for dancing, sporting competitions, and racing. The average consumer could shop in majestic department stores and watch movies in palatial cinemas.
Ruling powers hung on but barely. Monarchies came under pressure, trade unionism grew, and workers went on strikes. Men voted, and women fought to join in. But prosperity and optimism were far from universal. Children went hungry, and the poor were punished, locked up, and held to blame for their difficult lives.
And across Europe, tensions were rising. The assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 brought the outbreak of World War I. The conflict would be the most devastating the world had ever seen, with unspeakable misery, poison gas, and modernized weaponry that took violence into a new era.
Taking a look back, Stacker found 50 historical photographs in archives and news sources to illustrate changing social and cultural life in Europe before World War I.
The Paris Exposition of 1900 treated almost 50 million visitors to their first look at inventions from the Ferris wheel to the escalator, a moving sidewalk, the first diesel engine run on peanut oil, and the first talking cinema. Staged on 543 acres, the fair featured pavilions from 47 countries and the first Olympic Games held outside of Greece. At a banquet of French mayors, waiters served diners at more than 600 tables by driving automobiles through the aisles, and the Palace of Electricity was lit but more than 5,000 incandescent lamps.
The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 brought crowds to the streets of London and an end to a long and extraordinary age for the world’s biggest empire. During the Victorian Era, cities boomed, the industrial revolution changed the economy and nature of work, inventions like the telegraph and telephone linked lives, and democratic political reforms transformed society.
Members of European royalty have been related to one another in complex and arcane ways for generations, such as cousins Tsar Nicholas II and Britain’s King George V (shown here in 1894). The tsar was forced from the throne in Russia’s 1917 revolution, while King George ruled from 1910 to 1936. Today, England’s Queen Elizabeth is related to royal families in Norway, Greece, Denmark, Spain, and Sweden.
The poor, sick, and orphaned were sent to workhouses such as this one, circa 1903 in St. Marylebone, London, to labor for food and shelter. The filthy, harsh, and bleak conditions were described by Charles Dickens in “Oliver Twist,” and Charlie Chaplin spent time as a child in brutal workhouses in London.
Italy’s Guglielmo Marconi invented the telegraph, sending the first signals across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901 and laying the groundwork for global military and commercial communications. A telegraph on the Titanic let the ship's operators signal for help when it struck an iceberg in 1912, saving the lives of hundreds of passengers and crew.
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The Vienna Secession was a movement of artists, architects, and designers who emerged in Europe to challenge cultural conservatism and pave the way for modernism and the avant-garde. Among the members was Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, shown seated in this 1902 photograph in a painter’s smock.
Scientific and technological discoveries and exploration fueled the imagination for science fiction. H.G. Wells told readers about “The War of the Worlds” and “The Time Machine,” and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The Lumière brothers created science fiction for movie audiences, as did George Méliès with his 1902 ”The Trip to the Moon,” depicting a lunar expedition by a group of astronomers.
Truant schools like this one, shown in 1908 Islington, London, housed boys who failed to attend their regular classes and often detained them for several years until they turned 14. They were taught tailoring, shoe-making, and carpentry, stitched their own uniforms, cooked, cleaned, and were subject to harsh drills and discipline. Silence was often the rule.
The availability of consumer goods soared before the war with mass production techniques like Henry Ford’s assembly line system and the spinning machinery at Jones Cotton Mill in Manchester, England—shown in this 1909 photo. It drove down prices and combined with the growth of efficient transportation to boost commerce. World War I was the first conflict to utilize mass production in the rapidly speeded up manufacture of tanks, airplanes, and weapons.
Before World War I, automobiles like those in this 1903 London showroom of English carmaker Charles Stewart Rolls were largely reserved for the wealthy, while most of the population used horses for transportation. But the war brought about the development of vehicles like planes, tanks, and cars that military officers preferred for travel through the conflict regions.
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The invention in 1884 by Nikola Tesla of the alternating current allowed for electricity to reach over long distances. One significant use was electric trams—like this one, circa 1900—that became a common sight in European cities by the late 1800s, transforming the landscape and workers’ lives.
With industrialization, economic production drew people to urban areas from rural regions in search of jobs, and populations skyrocketed in cities like Budapest, pictured here in the early 1900s. By the 1910s, the population of London had more than doubled to some 7 million people, compared to 50 years earlier, and the population of Berlin had quadrupled to 2 million people by 1914. In Russia, the number of cities with more than 100,000 grew five-fold over roughly the same time period.
Monarchies were under pressure, threatened by more educated populations, parliamentary legislative systems, and men's suffrage. Royals were assassinated like Umberto I of Italy, shot and killed by an anarchist, or forced to flee into exile. (Umberto’s funeral procession in Rome in 1900 is shown here.) By the war’s end, the monarchies of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary were finished.
The aristocracy of dukes, earls, and barons, like those attending this 1907 garden party with Queen Mary and her children, was coming under pressure in the years ahead of World War I. As shown in the popular "Downton Abbey" television series, hereditary landowners were losing agricultural income and rents with the arrival of grain from America and refrigerated meat. Also, inheritance taxes were introduced in the United Kingdom in 1894. The war proved difficult for aristocrats who expected to be traditional military leaders but were undone by the conflict’s modernized military tactics and techniques.
Pope Pius X (shown here in 1910) issued a hugely influential encyclical letter condemning modernist thought by European Catholic intellectuals that he saw threatening the conservative values of the church with ideas of reform and the influence of science. He died just weeks after the war began.
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Before World War I, the rich traveled on luxurious ocean liners made in Britain, Germany, France, and in Northern Ireland, where the Titanic and Olympic were built side by side from 1909 to 1911 by more than 15,000 workers. Eight workers were killed during the construction. The war would slow passenger ocean travel considerably, particularly after the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915.
In 1896 Budapest launched its electrified metro train system, and Glasgow completed its first subway lines the same year. The Paris metro, seen here in 1901, opened in 1900, and London started electrifying its decades-old underground trains in 1905. The growth of underground mass transit forever altered city life, easing congestion and pollution in the streets and allowing workers to travel faster and live further from their jobs.
Victorian-era department stores lured a growing middle class with grandeur and opulence, and construction of department stores boomed across Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1909, Selfridges opened in London with 100 departments, a roof garden, and restaurants. It was an entertainment destination as much as a shopping venue, socially acceptable for fashionable women to lounge in and a job source for shopgirls as well. In this photo, you can see a stunning aerial view of Magazin aux Printemps, one of Paris’ most impressive department stores, which opened in 1865.
Advances led to technology for refrigeration—as seen here in Germany in 1911—and in the late 19th century, the refrigerated railroad car was patented. Food could be transported over long distances and lasted longer, changing agricultural economies as well as people’s diets and tastes.
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Balloons had many uses for transportation, communication, and sports like this 1908 race in Berlin. During World War I, balloons were used by both sides for observation of enemy troop positions and movements. Balloons hovered over London strung with heavy metal cables and nets to foil enemy bombing attempts. Destroying balloons during the war was dangerous, as they tended to be heavily defended, and the hydrogen would erupt in huge fireballs when hit.
Rigid airships were developed in Germany by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin who launched the first commercial airline with his fleet of dirigibles in 1910. Zeppelins like this one, landing in Munich in 1905, were used for luxury air travel before they were overtaken by airplanes that traveled faster. Germany used Zeppelins as bombers during World War I, including in deadly raids over London. The descendants of Zeppelins are the blimps used today, mostly for advertising.
The years before World War I were filled with remarkable advances in aviation. The Wright brothers took their first glider flight in 1900 and their first powered flight three years later, and a French inventor flew the first helicopter, for 20 seconds with one foot off the ground, in 1907. In this 1908 photograph, Henry Farman completed the first circular flight of one kilometer near Paris that demonstrated the successful steering of an airplane. Following World War I, Orville Wright wrote that “the aeroplane has made war so terrible that I do not believe any country will again care to start a war."
Suffrage movements demanding women’s rights started taking off in the years before the war in Britain and in social democratic and socialist parties in Europe. Women began to challenge traditional roles, like this female taxi driver shown in 1905 in Paris. The onset of the war meant many women went working outside the home for the first time.
Demands for women’s suffrage gathered steam in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Among the most active and radical was the suffragette movement in Britain—pictured here in 1907. But it was women’s participation in the international war effort that helped push through a wave of global suffrage following the Armistice in 1918.
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The labor movement was growing at the turn of the century. Some challenged working conditions and hours, while others like these pictured in London demanded work. The Second International Working Men’s Association was comprised of trade unionists, socialists, Marxists, and others—largely from Austria, Germany, Russia, Belgium, France, and Italy—and formed in Paris in 1889, attracting workers across Europe and supporting general strikes. Most unions joined the effort when the war began in 1914.
Poverty was miserable in Europe around the turn of the century when there were no benefits, health insurance, or government-funded welfare programs. Children like these survived on food handouts during the London dock strike of 1889. But Britain in 1899, at the start of the Second Boer War in southern Africa, found that many volunteers were unfit for military duty and, out of a concern for national security, improved diets and medical care for the working class.
Before World War I, roughly 1 million immigrants a year headed from Europe to the United States which at the time had an “open door” policy. Along with pursuing the promise of a better life in the new world, many immigrants (like the ones depicted in this photograph, circa 1900) were fleeing war, poverty, and rising anti-Semitism. But when war broke out, transatlantic ships were put to military use, and the stream of immigrants dwindled.
In response to grueling industrial working conditions, trade unions and labor and social democratic political parties advocated for the right to organize, decent hours, living wages, weekends, and safe workplaces. Strikes became increasingly frequent as workers leveraged the impact of collective action like these Transport Workers Union in Dublin in 1913. During the war years, government restrictions were placed on striking in many countries, but labor strengthened due largely to its importance to the war effort.
In Russia in 1905, workers demanding rights were mowed down by troops at the palace of Tsar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg in what became known as Bloody Sunday, seen here. The massacre marked a turning point that weakened support for the Russian monarchy, which was overthrown in 1917.
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Before the war, newspapers were hugely popular in cities like London, pictured here around 1908. Literacy was on the rise, the spread of technology like the telegraph helped news travel, and nations in Europe—Great Britain in particular—passed laws ending taxes on paper and advertising and guaranteeing press freedoms. In France, the Le Petite Parisien newspaper had a daily circulation of one million, while in Ireland, readers could select from 180 daily newspapers. With the onset of the war, governments imposed strict censorship on newspapers, dealing a heavy blow to the freedom of the press.
In the years before World War I, Vienna, photographed here around 1908, was a global center of art, music, architecture, science, and political thought. The city was not a scene of fighting during the war, but food shortages, disease, and hardship helped bring its glorious cultural age to an end.
In Berlin, Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity in 1915. His views of space, time, mass, and energy—which he worked on for several years leading up to World War I—profoundly affected physics, astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, and the way scientists now understand the universe. Einstein was a pacifist and during World War I, he signed a “Manifesto to the Europeans” criticizing Germany’s militarism and calling for peace. In 1919, Paul Ehrenfest sent Einstein a letter inviting him to teach at Leiden University in the Netherlands. The invitation allowed Einstein to spend several weeks a year there; in this photo, he is pictured in Ehrenfest’s home along with physicists Paul Langevin and Kamerlingh Onnes and Pierre Weiss.
British scientist Francis Galton and statistician Karl Pearson, pictured here around 1905, promoted the field of eugenics, theorizing that negative traits could be bred out of the human race and those with the most desirable traits should be encouraged to reproduce. While some believers in eugenics thought it could eliminate physical and mental disabilities or epilepsy, the theory was put into practice with forced sterilization, institutionalization, and racial and ethnically discriminatory policies. The theory would be widely discredited in most of the world, but found support in Nazi Germany.
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The inventor of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud believed in the importance of the unconscious, the meaning of dreams, and psychosexual development. His work profoundly reshaped therapeutic technique, the study of psychology, and approaches to understanding the workings of the mind. In the years preceding World War I, the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society was founded, and the first international meeting of psychoanalysts was held in Salzburg.
The patenting of the first incandescent lightbulb in 1879 by Thomas Edison ushered in a new era—as seen here in early 20th century New York City. Bulbs were, however, expensive and did not last long, so gas lighting, candles and oil lamps still provided most of the illumination in homes. After the war, electric lights became far more common.
The phonograph, invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison, changed the world’s taste in and desire for music forever. One popular recording was that of European tenor Enrico Caruso, introducing opera to fresh ears. Early phonographs, like this one pictured around 1901, could only hold a couple minutes of sound and their scratchy audio could not convey highs and lows, so the length of songs and the use of instruments were altered to fit. During the war, recordings played on phonographs were used in Great Britain for military recruitment and to issue commands at military drills. In the field, soldiers were sent phonographs to help keep their spirits up.
The growth of cities, rising wages, and improved transportation helped give rise to the popularity of movie theaters like the majestic Gaumont Palace pictured here in 1912. Theaters typically would show several short movies such as newsreels, cartoons, and travelogues. During the war, European moviemaking slowed dramatically, while in America, Hollywood took off.
Ahead of World War I, with electricity connected in major cities, the world could communicate like never before by telephone. This picture shows telephone wires being repaired in London around 1907. During the war, for the first time, the telephone and telegraph allowed for improved communications to the military fronts, succeeding traditional systems from flags and signal lamps to carrier pigeons.
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At the turn of the century, the working classes in Britain headed to Victorian seaside resorts for swimming, boating, music, dining, and dancing. Some had zoos, gardens, and aquariums. One of most popular was the Tower at New Brighton, which proved to be a financial disaster and was torn down following World War I. Blackpool Tower resort, pictured here, is still open today.
The famed Moulin Rouge cabaret, pictured here in 1900, opened in 1889 for visitors to dance, drink, and revel in its dazzling excess. Its glory was immortalized in the painting “At the Moulin Rouge” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The original venue, which was the first building in Paris to have electricity, burned down in 1915.
The groundbreaking 1913 Armory Show that traveled to New York, Chicago (seen here), and Boston opened a startled public’s eyes to the forces of cubism, futurism, and other abstract modernism, with works by European artists Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso. Among the most controversial was Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” which former President Theodore Roosevelt compared to the pattern in his bathroom rug. One magazine held a contest offering a prize of $10 to whoever could define the meaning. Later, while some artists greeted the war with national pride or democratic hopes, the trauma of the conflict soon began to be reflected in mournful and angry art produced during the years of fighting.
Early modernist architects began to challenge traditional ornate forms like Beaux Art in the years before World War I. Advocating simplicity, architect Adolf Loos delivered an influential lecture in 1910 entitled “Ornament and Crime,” and the AEG Montage Plant designed in Berlin in 1911 by Peter Behrens was notable for its lack of decoration. In 1911, architects Walter Gropius—who would go on to found the Bauhaus school of design—and Adolf Meyer designed the Fagus Factory, a cube of glass and steel with glass curtain walls. Following the war, architects everywhere took on the task of designing new styles to reflect a new world order.
The death of Edward VII in 1910 brought monarchs from around Europe to his funeral ceremonies. His reign reinvigorated the monarchy after the passing of his mother Queen Victoria, who had been in mourning for decades over the death of Prince Albert. Interested in foreign and military affairs, he was the first heir to the throne to travel across the Atlantic, was the first member of the British monarchy to visit Russia, frequently traveled abroad, and, in part because he was related to nearly every European monarch, was nicknamed the “Uncle of Europe.” He is credited with supporting reforms and the modernization of battleships in Britain’s Home Fleet.
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The London Olympics in 1908 reached unprecedented global proportions, with athletes competing from 22 nations. It was the first Games that included women as competitors and the first to build a stadium specifically for the event. Elsewhere in Europe, nations began fielding international teams, particularly in soccer. During the war, sports were used to train and condition soldiers and to help entertain them in the field.
Soccer was hugely popular, as in this picture from Germany in 1903. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association, (FIFA) , the governing body of international soccer, was founded in 1904. FIFA’s first World Cup was not held until 1930 in Uruguay.
The first Tour de France was sponsored in 1903 by a sports newspaper competing for circulation. The race course was largely flat, compared with today’s mountainous trek, but was more than twice as long. The winner was France’s Maurice Garin, who would win the following year as well, but was disqualified with eight other riders for riding in cars and trains for parts of the race. The race was suspended during the war, in which some 45 men who had competed in the Tours were killed.
City-to-city and circuit automobile racing with international competitors took off at the turn of the century, as cars got faster and promoters more inventive. One of the first races was the brainchild of two Parisian automobile dealers who came up with a contest to promote sales. Early circuit races like the French Grand Prix, pictured here in 1913 with winner Georges Boillot, were held on public roads. Racing largely came to a halt in Europe during the war.
The Titanic, pictured here in 1912 shortly after its construction, was the world’s largest and most sophisticated ship. Its sinking later that year had a major impact on the safety of sea travel. The movements of icebergs are closely monitored, ships are required to carry enough lifeboats for all their passengers — the Titanic had half as many rafts as were needed — and ships maintain constant communication with others.
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