Generation 493, 1840-1860. The Industrial Revolution kicks in

I ended my first entry in this blog with the observation that the current generation, generation 500, must appear weird to previous generations. As we go back through the story of our species, I’m beginning to think that the entire human race is weird. Our DNA and that of every other living thing on this planet is composed of the same small group of amino acids. Yet every other species, so far as I know, gets on with finding food and shelter, looking after the next generation … Not us. We impose stresses on ourselves so that the experience of each rising generation is transformed in comparison to that of the preceding one. The changes are relentless – they just keep coming.

Generation 493 is where the Industrial Revolution really kicks in. Iron is mined and refined to make the machines and coal is mined to generate the steam to power them. Railways are laid to transport the production of the cotton mills, steamships bring the raw cotton from India and America to Europe, and sugar from the West Indies. The factories are lit by gas, so the employees are almost worked to death at times. The benefits of the new regime are spread unevenly, and some people start to complain about it. It is seen that factory workers need protection from exploitation. Outside the factories, traditional skilled craft workers, previously respected, articulate artisans, find their work is unwanted, usurped by cheap factory-made alternatives.  Populations are growing, too, as more children survive to adulthood. To pile further pressure in a volatile situation, the 1840’s see a succession of poor harvests. From Ireland to Poland the potato crop fails. For those living in the countryside there is not enough to eat and for city dwellers food is more expensive to buy. And as the factory workers are also the consumers of manufactured products and they have to spend more of their earnings on food, there is less demand for factory output, the factory owners reduce their hours, they earn even less money and so it goes on in a downward spiral of difficulty.

Two other trends are discernible. One is the sense of national identity – British, French, Venezuelan, Chinese … As the railways, steamships and telegraph wires link up the world and popular daily newspapers tell us about it, the old local structures do not match or support the new reality. The state starts to legislate in areas that were previously outside its remit. In the UK the number of hours worked by women and children is restricted by law: an intervention that was not required or expected for previous generations.

Many see a genuine problem here. The fragmentation of their country (Italy and Germany, for example) or the fact that their country is ruled by a foreign empire prevents them from riding on the Industrial Revolution bandwagon. In Hungary and Italy  there is resentment at the Hapsburg officials running their country and the lack of employment opportunities for local people.

The other trend is a growing sense of wider humanity, a demand for justice and decency, even for people you don’t know and may never meet. There are rights to be established and defended, as a matter of principle. Serfdom is abolished in Austria. On a more practical level, some people see it as unfair and unreasonable that their work should be undervalued, supplanted by cheap imported alternatives.  And the government must be seen to be working to ensure the welfare of more of its people than the elite few.

This has been building from previous generations, as we shall see, but the sense of injustice and search for national identity erupt in the revolutions of 1848 – and the newspapers report about it.

The revolutions started with a smoking boycott in Milan (there was a high tax on tobacco imposed by the Austrians, so the locals stopped smoking as a protest. It soon led to violent clashes) and spread to cities in Europe and beyond. Barricades were built in the streets in Paris, Vienna and elsewhere. The military was called out. Peaceful protests were violently suppressed. Negotiations were conducted, concessions were made, but some protesters wanted more. The protesters disagreed among each other. Towards the end of the year the old regimes violently reimposed their authority, but the world had changed. Governments had to take more account of the requirements of their increasingly literate populations. The volatility was not limited to Europe. In 1850 the Taiping rebellion in China could be seen as an attempt to find new values in an evolving world. The ensuing civil war led to more deaths than all of the European rebellions put together.

Two domestic revolutions made their appearance during this generation, each as powerful in its way as the washing machine was for generation 498 in the 20th century.

The sewing machine was produced in the USA, enabling the mass production of clothes. No longer were all clothes sewn by hand. Tailors made suits that were affordable to many more people, and because they could make many of the same outfit in the time it used to take to make one, more of us looked like each other. Middle class men wore long black trousers, a dress coat, white shirt, cravat and a bowler hat. National costumes become a curiosity as the world uniform of respectability takes over.

In the UK, the spread of cholera had been linked to contamination of the water supply by human waste, and the problem of its safe disposal in cities became a priority. Flush toilets became available.  A large public sewer system was installed in London. The first public toilets were introduced at the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.


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