Belle Époque: The Era of Excess and Inequality

Belle Époque: The Era of Excess and Inequality

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The Belle Époque (“Beautiful Era”) was a period of European history that dates from 1871 to 1914. During this time, Western countries experienced rapid economic growth, made major scientific breakthroughs, and improved political and human rights. For most Europeans, these developments led to a higher quality of life, and so these years are often associated with a general sense of optimism. The Belle Époque ended with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Excess: The World Fair of 1900 in Paris

The Second Industrial Revolution

The Belle Époque began in January 1871, just as the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) was ending. The end of this war ushered in decades of relative peace on the European continent. This stability allowed countries to rapidly industrialize, so the period is also known as the Second Industrial Revolution. 

A key driver of industrialization was an improvement in steelmaking which made steel cheaper. This allowed steel to be used as the framework for buildings, which permitted higher and stronger structures. Steel also replaced iron in railways, because of steel’s durability. Thus, between 1860 and 1900, the total amount of railways tripled in Britain and quadrupled in France.

A German railway in 1895

Rise of the City

This rapid industrialization led to the rise of large cities for two major reasons. First, agriculture became more efficient as new machines and fertilizers were invented. This diminished the need for human labor. Second, wages for urban workers rose, which made a move to the city even more attractive. London’s population, for example, more than doubled during the Belle Époque.

Meanwhile, political and social movements led to improvements in political and human rights. Governments became more democratic as more people were allowed to vote. Unions also began to form, and this combination led to new laws that improved the lives of workers: Workdays and workweeks became shorter, and the first minimum wage laws were passed.

Quality of life improved in other ways as well. For the first time, running water, gas, and electricity were available to the middle class. Food variety increased as agriculture and imports flourished. And new forms of entertainment, such as dance halls and sports, gained popularity.

The Belle Époque in art

The Ugly Side of the Beautiful Era

However, the Belle Époque also saw a rise in inequality, because many improvements primarily benefited the middle and upper classes. Especially the top tier of society was able to live lavishly, but much of the urban population still lived in cramped quarters and worked in terrible conditions. 

Industrial growth also created competition and rivalry amongst European nations, especially between Germany, Britain, and France. But while the Belle Époque wasn’t as beautiful as sometimes portrayed, it seemed that way in hindsight, depending on who you asked…

Did You Know?

  • The can-can dance first emerged in Parisian dance halls during the Belle Époque.
  • During the Belle Époque in Europe, the US experienced a similar period of economic expansion. Mark Twain named these years the “Gilded Age”, meaning that severe social issues were covered by a thin gold coating: the wealth of the upper classes.

Further Learning

  • Learn about how the Belle Époque helped modernize Paris here
  • Check out a book on the blossoming art scene of the Belle Epoque here

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