World History 2 152 - 10.2.1 The Benefits of Life in the Industrial City

In the nineteenth century, people came to industrial cities largely to find work. Some were also attracted by the excitement of city life. There were many drawbacks to living in nineteenth-century cities, but there were benefits too.

One of the advantages was the wealth of opportunities for leisure and recreation, some of which could be found only in cities. For instance, for the wealthy elite and the growing middle class—the sales representatives, engineers, accountants, and managers on whom industrialization was so dependent—there were libraries and bookstores. Many libraries were subscription libraries that loaned books only to dues-paying members, but free libraries also existed in communities ranging from large cities such as Boston, New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Tokyo, and Kyoto to small towns like Peterborough, New Hampshire. Newspapers abounded; every city published at least one, and some had many more. Theaters staged concerts, plays, ballets, and operas for the wealthy and middle class, but often the working class could observe the action and listen to the music. Even the city of Manaus in the depths of the Brazilian rain forest featured an opera house, built between 1885 and 1892, where rubber barons and the wealthy bankers and merchants who served them could attend operas, plays, and concerts.

Members of the working class had other options for entertainment. Music halls in Britain, burlesque theaters in the United States, and cabarets in Paris featured young women singing and dancing. More often than not, skirts were kicked in the air, an exciting prospect at a time when women’s dresses covered the tops of their shoes. Dance halls attracted men and women every night. Even after long days in factories and offices, young city dwellers found the energy to dance, and many dances, like the tango, which emerged in the 1880s in the dance halls of Buenos Aires, were developed and popularized by working-class men and women.

By the end of the nineteenth century, cities offered yet more forms of entertainment that even the working class could afford. Arcades contained machines that enabled people to watch short films for a small sum. Early movie theaters appeared in cities at the end of the century, featuring silent films with simple story lines.

Amusement parks, lavishly decorated with electric lights and steam-powered rides, appeared at the end of streetcar and rail lines. Attractions such as roller coasters, Ferris wheels, and target shooting commonly offered visceral thrills like flying through the air or served as outlets for aggression. For men and women used to boring, repetitive labor and forced to suppress their resentment while on the job, the attraction was obvious. Some parks, like Copenhagen’s Tivoli (Denmark) and Coney Island’s Dreamland (New York), appealed more strongly to families because they were considered more sedate and refined. Dreamland sought to provide a supposedly educational experience by reproducing Swiss landscapes and Venetian canals for visitors (Figure 10.8). It also featured shows with biblical themes that warned of the punishment for sin.

This photograph shows a crowd of people visiting the Dreamland amusement park. All the men are wearing suits and hats. The women are wearing long blouses, skirts, and hats. The children are dressed like adults. Signs list attractions and prices. Several people are riding a miniature train.
Figure 10.8 Dreamland was one of three amusement parks on Brooklyn’s Coney Island (New York) in the second half of the nineteenth century. This photograph from 1905 shows the grandiose architecture the park’s builder favored. From one vantage spot, visitors could see architectural styles typical of various European countries. (credit: modification of work “Dreamland Park, Coney Island, N.Y.” by Detroit Publishing, Co./Library of Congress)

Among the delights of city life was shopping. Public transportation and the mass production of consumer goods aided in the creation of the modern department store, with enticing window displays, a wide variety of goods, and electrical illumination. All the world’s major industrialized cities possessed at least one such grand store. Philadelphia had Wanamaker’s, London boasted Selfridge’s, New York had Stewart’s and Macy’s, and in Paris it was Le Bon Marché (Figure 10.9). Mitsukoshi and Matsuzakaya in Tokyo introduced another innovation to Japanese society, which normally required people to go unshod indoors: Customers could wear their shoes inside the stores.

Illustration (a) shows a large crowd of people inside the Bon Marche department store. Illustration (b) shows people on foot and in horse drawn wagons near the Wanamaker department store.
Figure 10.9 The Bon Marché department store (a) was a favorite place for Parisians to shop. Management went to great lengths to make customers happy, even maintaining a fleet of horse-drawn conveyances to drive them home. Opening to crowds during the Centennial Exhibition in 1876, Wanamaker’s (b) in Philadelphia was modeled on the European open-air market, like Les Halles in Paris. In 1878, Wanamaker’s become the first department store with electric lighting. (credit a: modification of work “Le Bon Marché” by L’illustration/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “John Wanamaker’s Clothing House” by The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exposition/The Cooper Collections of US History”Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Along with housework and childcare, consumption was an important part of the lives of middle-class women during the Second Industrial Revolution. Stores enticed them with tearooms and ladies’ lounges, where they could rest should shopping tire them. Department stores also gave young working-class women opportunities for employment in clean, safe settings. Even those who could not afford to purchase the goods could still delight in looking at them; thus, window shopping was born. The inherent pleasure of the pastime is captured in the French term lecher les vitrines, literally, “licking the window glass.” By acquainting visitors with the latest styles, department stores helped to shape a developing consumer culture.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax