Footage of Cities Around the World in the 1890s: London, Tokyo, New York, Venice, Moscow & More

It is called the Belle Époque, a phrase which brings to mind styl­ish graph­ic adver­tis­ing posters, the baroque Art Nou­veau style of Alphonse Mucha, the Beaux Arts archi­tec­tur­al mon­u­ments of Paris, Chica­go, and New­port. These images seem sta­t­ic, back­ward-look­ing. Despite their pop­u­lar­i­ty on the poster mar­ket, they can­not cap­ture (how could they?) the full expres­sion of what cul­tur­al his­to­ri­ans also call the fin de siè­cle. The term is French for “end of the cen­tu­ry,” but it describes a peri­od of rad­i­cal change in glob­al cul­ture in ways that will be with us for anoth­er hun­dred years or more..

In oth­er words, there was a lot hap­pen­ing in the 1890s. As one descrip­tion of the peri­od puts it, “change became the nature of things, and peo­ple believed that fur­ther improve­ment was not only pos­si­ble but inevitable.” So much of this change man­i­fest­ed in the arts. In France, for exam­ple, Impres­sion­ism began receiv­ing its due in art world cir­cles, lead­ing to two Impres­sion­ist works on dis­play at the 1900 World’s Fair, which also saw the open­ing of the Eif­fel Tow­er. In 1895, Paul Ver­laine pub­lished Arthur Rim­baud’s com­plete works, posthu­mous­ly, and Sym­bol­ist poet­ry broke Vic­to­ri­an lit­er­ary tra­di­tions irrev­o­ca­bly.

In Eng­lish, pop­u­lar genre fic­tion explod­ed, as the Goth­ic nov­el reached its apoth­e­o­sis in Bram Stoker’s Drac­u­la and the rise of detec­tive fic­tion began with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries. These works par­al­leled a ris­ing inter­est in the occult and the ear­ly stir­rings of New Age spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Mean­while, Russ­ian Mod­ernism took shape in the rad­i­cal work of Vladimir Mayakovsky; the Argen­tine Tan­go began to express its “world­view of con­flict­ing nation­al dis­lo­ca­tions”; Mei­ji era Japan began rapid­ly indus­tri­al­iz­ing and import­ing “jazz, cin­e­ma… auto­mo­biles, air­planes, and avant-gardes, from futur­ism to sur­re­al­ism,” writes Christo­pher Bush, even as the West devoured all things Japan­ese; African art began to trans­form the work of painters like Picas­so.…

The rev­o­lu­tions of fin de siè­cle Vien­na were so world-chang­ing as to war­rant a major study of the peri­od titled Fin-De-Siè­cle Vien­na. Even in the still quite-provin­cial U.S., where rob­ber barons built Beaux Arts palaces, mod­ernist rev­o­lu­tions ges­tat­ed in the Arts & Crafts move­ment. The world was chang­ing too quick­ly for some, not quick­ly enough for oth­ers. For mil­lions more, life went on more or less as it had a half-cen­tu­ry ear­li­er. It would be decades before many peo­ple around the world expe­ri­enced either the mate­r­i­al improve­ments or the rad­i­cal cul­tur­al dis­lo­ca­tions of the era.

You can see the faces, smil­ing, scowl­ing, going about their busi­ness, of a few thou­sand city-dwellers around the world from the peri­od in a mon­tage of film footage above. Most of the passers­by cap­tured on film could not have known they lived in a time of unprece­dent­ed change — the all-impor­tant fin de siè­cle of cul­tur­al his­to­ry. How could they? But they did live in a time of unprece­dent­ed anx­i­ety about change, a time in which many keen­ly felt “the dis­crep­an­cy between mate­r­i­al advance and spir­i­tu­al dejec­tion,” notes Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press. “For most peo­ple the peri­od was far from ele­gant.”

Only time will tell what crit­i­cal his­to­ri­ans of the future make of our era. But even as we expe­ri­ence incred­i­ble lev­els of anx­i­ety about change, per­haps few of us are tru­ly aware of just how rad­i­cal the changes of our time will turn out to be a cen­tu­ry or so from now.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Down­load 200+ Belle Époque Art Posters: An Archive of Mas­ter­pieces from the “Gold­en Age of the Poster” (1880–1918)

Watch Scenes from Belle Époque Paris Vivid­ly Restored with Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence (Cir­ca 1890)

Pris­tine Footage Lets You Revis­it Life in Paris in the 1890s: Watch Footage Shot by the Lumière Broth­ers

The Old­est Known Footage of Lon­don (1890–1920) Fea­tures the City’s Great Land­marks

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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