Europe in photos before World War I
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.
Paris World’s Fair delights millions
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.
Funeral procession of Queen Victoria commences in London
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.
Cousins Tsar Nicholas II and King George V rule major nations
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.
Workhouses hold poor in St. Marylebone, London
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.
Marconi’s telegraph changes communications
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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Artists launch Vienna Secession movement
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 discoveries stoke imaginations
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.
Truants are put to work in London
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.
Mass production arrives for the masses
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.
Charles Stewart Rolls appeals to the elite with flashy cars
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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