2.20 Cultural Effects

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was responsible for enormous changes in how people lived their everyday lives, not just how they made a living or how the things they used were made. Many of those changes were due to the spread of the transportation and communication technologies noted before. The speed of railway travel made everything “closer” together, and in doing so it started a long, slow process of tying together distant regions. People could travel to the capital cities of their kingdom or, later, their “nations,” and the intense localism of the past started to fade. For the first time, members of the middle classes could travel just for fun – middle-class vacations were an innovation made possible by the railroad, and the first beneficiaries were the English middle class, who “went on holiday” to the seashore whenever they could.

Simultaneously, new, more advanced printing presses and cheaper paper made newspapers and magazines available to a mass reading public. That encouraged the spread of not just information and news, but of shared written languages. People had to be able to read the “default” language of their nation, which encouraged the rise of certain specific vernaculars at the expense of the numerous dialects of the past. For example, “French” was originally simply the language spoken in the area around the city of Paris, just as “Spanish” was just the dialect spoken around Madrid. Rulers had long fought, unsuccessfully, to impose their language as the daily vernacular in the regions over which they ruled, but most people continued to speak regional dialects that often had little in common with the language of their monarch. With the centers of newspaper production often being in or near capital cities, usually written in the official language of state, more and more people at least acquired a decent working knowledge of those languages over time.

Those capital cities grew enormously, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. Industry, finance, government itself, and railroads all converged on capitals. Former suburbs were simply swallowed up as the cities grew, and there was often the sense among cultural elites that the only places that mattered were the capitals: London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg, etc. One peculiar phenomenon arising from the importance of capital cities was that political revolutions often began as revolutions of a single city – if a crowd could take over the streets of Paris, for example, they might well send the king running for the proverbial hills and declare themselves to be a new government (which happened in 1830 and 1848). In some cases, the rest of the nation would read about the revolution in their newspapers or via telegraph after the revolution had already succeeded.

While all of the cultural effects of the Industrial Revolution are too numerous to detail here, one other effect should be noted: the availability of food. With cheap and fast railway and steamship transport, not only could food travel hundreds or even thousands of miles from where it was grown or farmed or caught to where it was consumed, but the daily diet itself underwent profound changes. Tea grown in India became cheap enough for even working people to drink it daily; the same was true of South American coffee on the continent. Fruit appeared in markets half a world from where it was be grown, and the long-term effect was a more varied (although not always more nutritious) diet. Whole countries sometimes became economic appendages of a European empire, producing a single product: for a time, New Zealand (which became a British colony in 1840) was essentially the British Empire’s sheep ranch.

The great symbol of changes in the history of food brought on by the Industrial Revolution is that quintessential English invention: fish and chips. Caught in the Atlantic or Pacific, packed on steamships, and transported to Britain, the more desirable parts of fish were sold at prices the upper and middle classes could afford. The other bits – tails, fins and all – were fried up with chunks of potato, heavily salted, and wrapped in the now-cheap newspaper. The result was the world’s first greasy, cheap, and wildly popular fast food.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book