Generation 490, 1780-1800. A turning moment in the human story?

In this generation an idea took hold. It contaged people, led to changes in behaviour and modified our world in ways that we still feel now.

The idea had been brewing in the previous generation, when the British Government, short of money after its latest war, imposed taxes on the settlers in North America. They protested, using the powerful slogan ‘No taxation without representation’. During this generation, the United States of America was founded, with a constitution outlining the rights of the citizen. In France in 1789 a similar document was drawn up, ‘La declaration des droits de l’homme’, the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Why did this idea take root at this time? It had been proposed before, as we shall see. For me a powerful component of this idea is what underlies it, the idea that the state is not necessarily personified by its ruler. A great French king a century earlier had declared that ‘L’etat c’est moi’, I am the state. But in Holland, Britain and North America, where the idea was explored and amplified, certain ingredients were already in place which gave people rights and freedoms independent of the whim of the ruler.

The first was a (relatively) independent legal system. An entrepreneur could theoretically protect their new products through the courts.

Second, there was stability of property. The ruler could not confiscate a successful person’s riches without valid legal reason.

Third, there were sources of finance. The banking system developed in the Netherlands was adopted in Britain and North America.

Fourth, the governing elite was so preoccupied with its own concerns that it didn’t interfere in the changes happening out of its line of vision. The mediaeval guilds kept a stranglehold on innovation in established cities like London – but not in the new cities of Birmingham and Manchester. There an apprentice didn’t have to serve seven years before practising a trade. There was no glass ceiling – but no safety net either. If their venture succeeded it brought prosperity to the city, and if it failed that was their problem.

Fifth, there was a free press and exchange of ideas. There were clubs and societies. Educated people were prolific letter-writers, even across continents when a letter took weeks or months to arrive. And because of the first four ingredients, enough of them could experiment with putting these ideas into practice. This period has been described as the ‘Industrious Revolution’, as people took advantage of these opportunities and set up small enterprises on an unprecedented scale.

Other countries had some of these ingredients but not all. France had a free press but did it have an independent judiciary? The first days of the republic with its high aims were followed by the Terror of 1793, during which many were sent to the guillotine, and by the Empire a generation later. In the USA, where all of the ingredients were more or less in place (we’ll come to slavery later) the republic is still based on the constitution drawn up by a group of men in Philadelphia in 1789.

One ripple from this momentous idea was the concept of a nation state. There were movements for independence in South America, in Venezuela and Colombia, inspired by events to the north of them. India was talked of as a single entity for the first time. In southeast Asia, Siam (now Thailand) established itself as a separate country (indeed one of the few in the region subsequently able to resist colonisation by Europeans).

Some things I can’t understand about this period:

– Why were the Europeans so expansionist and aggressive? They were continually at war, either with each other or with people in other continents that they wanted to colonise. They were very good at war, thanks to innovations feeding in from the Industrious Revolution.

– Populations were growing. Thousands of Europeans moved to other continents, and still the population of Europe increased. Was this because of imports of foods from the new world, reducing dependence on local produce?

And of course, not everyone benefited from the wind of freedom that was blowing through this generation.

Some women pamphleteers in Britain and France wrote outlining the case for their gender to be accorded similar rights to the men. But this is one idea that did not catch at the time, and was arguably not seen through to its enactment until our lifetimes, generations 498 and 499. And even now, not everywhere.

Many of the people who emigrated to the new world went as indentured servants, who had to work for several years after arrival to earn their freedom. It was probably still a better bet than what they had left behind: servants were very badly paid back in Europe.

The slave trade reached its zenith in this generation. Mainly British, but also French, Dutch and Portuguese traders bought slaves in the markets of west Africa. They transported them over the Atlantic in sailing ships, then sold them to work on farms and plantations in the southern states of north America, the Caribbean and south America. It brought wealth to the traders and plantation owners, and huge suffering to the victims.


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.

Generation 494, 1860 – 1880. Reviewing the human situation

Most people coming to maturity in this period will have the memory of a brother or sister who died young, and maybe a mother or aunt who died giving birth. If they live in Britain or Ireland, they almost certainly have family members who have moved overseas, to America, Australia, Africa or India. Steamships had cut the journey times of ocean voyages compared to those of the days of sail, and the Suez Canal meant that it took weeks rather than months to get from Europe to India and the rest of Asia.

Those who stayed at home could get news from overseas by letter, and the newspapers carried more up-to-date news received via telegraph. The newspapers also told of the discoveries of explorers who reported back from the blank bits on the map of the world: central Africa, South America and central Asia.

For people living in the cities, sanitary conditions were generally appalling at the start of this period. By the end of it, city councils in the UK had taken responsibility for mains drainage, sewers and street cleaning. The air was dirty and smoky and the only lighting was from a naked flame or gaslight.

Kings Arms about 1870 - Z50-101-14b

Sports were becoming organised in a different way. This period saw football, baseball and lawn tennis organised into national and even international leagues, with agreed standardised rules. There was no recorded music, so all entertainment was live. A musical instrument must have been a treasured possession.

For people living in the countryside, there were changes to their status. The serfs in Russia were emancipated, and slavery was abolished in the USA. One human being could not own another any more. Women had more rights too. In the UK the Married Womens’ Property Act meant that any money a woman earned or held no longer automatically became the property of her husband. The London Medical School for Women accepted its first students.


And here is a photo of a girls’ school in Scotland, taken in 1865.


A new idea was discussed in this period, building on work done in the previous generation by men who looked at the natural world in a new light. The Christian biblical view that the world was created in its final complete form in seven days six thousand years previously was challenged by geologists (itself a new science). Looking at the story in the rocks they realised that the Earth is in a continual process of change and that all the changes they read must have happened over a much longer timescale than the one they saw written in the margins of their bibles. Not only that, other scientists proposed that organic life is itself in a continual process of change. Some species have become extinct, and maybe new ones can come into existence. Even humans may have evolved from previous forms. A new word had to be coined to encompass the extended timescale. The word ‘prehistory’ was invented. To ask such questions at all was breathtaking and pathfinding. ‘Eternity’ took on a completely new meaning, and to think about it was probably both frightening and exhilarating.

As we go back through the generations from now, the biblical version of Creation is the orthodoxy in the Christian world. The whole of world history is encompassed by fewer than two hundred human generations.

Generation 496, 1900 – 1925

It’s a strange experience, working backwards through our story. Things that we take for granted become new and exciting, full of possibilities. In this generation, one of the new things that became more available was mains electricity, allowing electric lighting in some houses. The world must have seemed a lot brighter, after the gas lights and candles that were the previous source of light outside daylight hours. Another innovation for this generation was the gramophone record player. Music could be heard without being in the presence of the person playing it. The record player itself might have been encased in bakelite plastic, another new invention. Cinema became hugely popular in this period.  People took the tram to town to watch the new international silent movie stars enacting their stories to the accompaniment of live or recorded music. They could take the train between cities, and even telephone their destination before setting off.

Several classics of children’s literature date from this period: Wind in the Willows, Kim, the Peter Rabbit stories – and Peter Pan played in the London theatre. Is it a coincidence that the new discipline of psychoanalysis was being explored in Vienna at the same time, with its focus on the significance of childhood experience? The boundaries were being pushed back in the visual arts, too. Paris was a focal point for this. Visitors to the city could take the new underground Metro with its fantastic Art Nouveau entrance ways.

It was also a time of exploration of humanity and human rights. Women organised in many countries, to pressure the government to give them the right to vote in elections as men did. And there was a transformation in what women were able to wear. At the start of the period they wore long dresses with billowing skirts, bloomers, corsets, bonnets; getting dressed each day must have taken a long time.

1907 & 1913 edwardian dresses

By the end of the period women wore clothes that would be recognisable today. The corset finally declined in popularity and loose-fitting dresses which reached above the ankle allowed women more freedom of movement.

1924 flapper dress

Workers in factories were also seen to have rights. This was the time of a rise of the Trades Union movement. There were strikes, especially when employers tried to impose pay cuts.

From now on through the generations, it seems that there is always a background of conflict. The Great War was the most destructive war so far, with huge numbers of young men killed. The British men who died were disproportionately from the wealthier families, as another reality for this generation was the poor health and diet of the urban poor. More people lived in cities and had little access to fresh food, and far more young men from working families were rejected as unfit to join the armed forces on the grounds of health.