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5.3: Mass Culture

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  • The Victorian era saw the emergence of the first modern, industrialized, "mass" societies. One of the characteristics of industrial societies, above and beyond industrial technology and the use of fossil fuels themselves, is the fact that culture itself becomes mass produced. Written material went from the form of books, which had been expensive and treated with great care in the early centuries of printing, to mass-market periodicals, newspapers, and cheap print. People went from inhabitants of villages and regions that were fiercely proud of their identities to inhabitants of larger and larger, and hence more anonymous and alienating, cities. Material goods, mass-produced, became much cheaper over the course of the nineteenth century thanks to industrialization, and in the process they could be used up and thrown away with a much more casual attitude by more and more people. Two examples of this phenomenon were the spread of literacy and the rise of consumerism.

    The nineteenth century was the century of mass literacy. In France, male literacy was just below 50% as of the French Revolution, but it was almost 80% in 1870 and almost 100% just thirty years later. Female literacy was close behind. This had everything to do with the spread of printing in vernacular languages, as well as mass education. In France, mass secular free education happened in 1882 under the prime minister of the Third Republic, Jules Ferry. Free, public primary school did more to bind together the French in a shared national culture than anything before or since, as every child in France was taught in standard French and studied the same subjects.

    Paper became vastly cheaper as well. Paper had long been made from rags, which were shredded, compressed together, and reconstituted. The resulting paper was durable but expensive. In the late nineteenth century printers began to make paper out of wood pulp, which dropped it to about a quarter of the former price. As of 1880, the linotype machine was invented, which also made printing much cheaper and more simple than it had been. Thus, it became vastly cheaper and easier to publish newspapers by the late nineteenth century.

    There was also a positive change in the buying power of the average person. From 1850 to 1900, the average French person saw their real purchasing power increase by 165%. Comparable increases occurred in the other dynamic, commercial, and industrial economies of western Europe (and, eventually, the United States). This increase in the ability of average people to afford commodities above and beyond those they needed to survive was ultimately based on the energy unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Even with the struggles over the quality of life of working people, by the late nineteenth century goods were simply so cheap to produce that the average person actually did enjoy a better quality of life and could buy things like consumables and periodicals.

    One result of the cheapening of print and the rise in buying power was “yellow” journalism, sensationalized accounts of political events that stretched the truth to sell copies. In France, the first major paper of this type was called Le Petit Journal, an extremely inexpensive and sensationalistic paper which avoided political commentary in favor of banal, mainstream expressions of popular opinion. Rival papers soon sprang up, but what they had in common was that they did not try to change or influence opinion so much as they reinforced it - each political persuasion was now served by at least one newspaper that “preached to the choir,” reinforcing pre-existing ideological outlooks rather than confronting them with inconvenient facts.

    Overall, the kind of journalism that exploded in the late nineteenth century lent itself to the cultivation of scandals. Important events and trends were tied to the sensationalizing journalism of the day. For instance, a naval arms race between Britain and Germany that was one of the causes of World War I had much to do with the press of both countries playing up the threat of being outpaced by their national rival. The Dreyfus Affair, in which a French Jewish army officer was falsely accused of treason, spun to the point that some people were predicting civil war thanks largely to the massive amount of press on both sides of the scandal (the Dreyfus Affair is considered in detail below). Likewise, imperialism, the practice of invading other parts of the world to establish and expand global empires, received much of its popular support from articles praising the civilizing mission involved in occupying a couple of thousand square miles in Africa that the reader had never heard of before.

    In short, the politics of the latter part of the nineteenth century were embedded in journalism. As almost all of the states of Europe moved toward male suffrage, leaders were often shocked by the fact that they had to cultivate public opinion in order to pass the laws they supported. Journals became the mouthpieces of political positions, which both broadened the public sphere to an unprecedented extent and, in a way, sometimes cheapened political opinions to the level of banal slogans.

    Another seismic shift occurred in the sphere of acquisition. In the early modern era, luxury goods were basically reserved for the nobility and the upper bourgeoisie. There simply was not enough social wealth for the vast majority of Europeans to buy many things they did not need. The average peasant or shopkeeper, even fairly prosperous ones, owned only a few sets of clothes, which were repaired rather than replaced over time. More to the point, most people did not think of money as something to “save” – in good years in which the average person somehow had “extra” money, he or she would simply spend it on more food or, especially for men, alcohol, because it was impossible to anticipate having a surplus again in the future.

    Perhaps the iconic example of a shift in patterns of acquisition and consumerism was the advent of department stores. Department stores represented the shift into recognizably modern patterns of buying, in which people shopped not just for necessities, but for small luxuries. The former patterns of consumption had been of small, family-run shops and traveling peddlers, a system in which bargaining was common and there was next to no advertising to speak of. With department stores, prices were fixed and a wide variety of goods of different genres were on display together. Advertising became ubiquitous and branded products could be found across the length and breadth of a given country - just as print and primary education inculcated national identity, so did the fact that consumer goods were increasingly standardized.

    The first area to be affected by these shifts was textiles, both in terms of clothing and housewares like sheets and curtains. Manufacturing and semi-skilled labor dramatically decreased the price of textiles, and department stores carried large selections that many people could afford. People below the level of the rich came not only to own many different items of clothing, but they voluntarily replaced clothing due to shifts in fashion, not just because it was worn out.

    The first real department store was the Bon Marché in Paris. It was built in the 1840s but underwent a series of expansions until it occupied an entire city block. By 1906 it had 4,500 employees. During the 1880s it had 10,000 clients a day, up to 70,000 a day during its February “white sales” in which it sold linens for reduced prices. The 1860s were the birth of the seaside holiday, which the Bon Marché helped invent by selling a whole range of holiday goods. By the 1870s there were mail-order catalogs and tourists considered a visit to the Bon Marché to be on the same level as one to the Arc de Triomphe built by Napoleon to commemorate his victories.

    The Bon Marché, a huge department store covering multiple city blocks in Paris.
    Figure 5.3.1: The Bon Marché - the “temple of consumerism.”

    Ultimately, the Victorian Era saw the birth of modern consumerism, in which economies became dependent on the consumption of non-essential goods by ordinary people. The “mass society” inaugurated by the industrial revolution came of age in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a century after it had begun in the coal mines and textile mills of Northern England. That society, with its bourgeois standards, its triumphant self-confidence, and its deep-seated “scientific” social and racial attitudes, was in the process of taking over much of the world at precisely the same time.

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