THE NINETEENTH CENTURY IN PERSPECTIVE

The nineteenth century brought about the greatest expansion of wealth the world had ever known. Its sources lay in the industrialisation of Europe and the techniques for assuring the continuance of this growth were by no means exhausted or compromised in 1900. There had not only been a vast and accelerating flow of commodities available only in (relatively) tiny quantities a century before, but whole new ranges of goods had come into existence.

Oil and electricity had joined coal, wood, wind and water as sources of energy. A chemical industry existed which could not have been envisaged in 1800. Growing power and wealth had been used to tap seemingly inexhaustible natural resources, both agricultural and mineral.

Railways, electric trams, steamships, motor cars and bicycles gave millions of men a new control over their environment; they accelerated travel from place to place and eased transport for the first time since animals had been harnessed to cans thousands of years before. In terms of consumption, or of the services to which they had access, or in the enjoyment of better health, even the mass of the population in developed countries were much better off in 1900 than their predecessors a hundred years before.

In spite of this cheerful picture, doubts could break in. Even if what might happen in the future were ignored, contemplation of the cost of the new wealth and doubts about the social justice of its distribution were troubling.

Most people were still terribly poor, whether or not they lived in rich countries, where the illogicality of this was particularly more striking than in earlier times. Another change in the way men thought about their condition arose over their power to get a livelihood at all. It was not new that men should be without work.

What was new was that situations could suddenly arise in which the operation of blind forces of boom and slump produced millions of men without work concentrated in great towns. This was ‘unemployment’, the new phenomenon for which a new word had been needed. Nor were the cities themselves yet rid of all the evils which had so struck the first observers of industrial society.

By 1900 the majority of western Europeans were town-dwellers and they lived in more than 140 cities of over 100,000 inhabitants in 1914. In some of them, millions of people were living in cramped, badly-maintained housing, under-provided with schools and fresh air, let alone amusement other than that of the street, and this often in sight of the wealth their society helped to produce. ‘Slums’ was another word invented by the nineteenth century.

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