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What Life Was Like For Poor People During The “Golden Ages” Of History

A Golden Age is defined as being a period of “peace, prosperity, and happiness.” Early Greek and Roman poets used the phrase to describe how people lived in an almost idealized time and place. It is a point in time where art, science, and philosophy thrive, and where economic growth is unparalleled.

There have been many Golden Ages throughout. And while many (particularly the wealthy) thrived in these environments, the lower classes were still dramatically poorer, working hard for very little in return. Poverty was common during the Gilded Age and the Renaissance, and peasants were heavily taxed during the Enlightenment. And while many Americans were driving cars during the Roaring ’20s, others struggled just to make a living.

Photo: Andrea Mantegna/Wikimedia Commons

The Renaissance: A Rebirth Following The Black Death

Many scholars believe that Florence, Italy, was the birthplace of the Renaissance. Following the Middle Ages and the nearly 200 million lives lost to the Black Death, the period known as the Renaissance emerged. The Renaissance, literally meaning “rebirth,” took place between 1400 and 1600 in Europe as the feudal system began to crumble and explorers discovered new continents, resulting in the growth of the economy and development of technology such as printing and gunpowder. Ideas flourished and artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo created masterpieces.

Photo: Giacomo Ceruti/Wikimedia Commons

Peasants In The Renaissance Survived On Food Scraps

During the Renaissance, a person’s class was determined by their income, job, and level of government power. That classification also determined what sort of food they ate and the clothes they wore. Additionally, peasants and unskilled workers did not have any job security – if they didn’t satisfy their employers, their pay would be cut or they would simply be fired.

Many peasants lived on farms, wore simple clothes, and ate basic food such as bread or soup made from scraps. Their homes were usually very small, sometimes only having one room.

Photo: Public Domain

The Gilded Age: Technological Innovation Soared

The Gilded Age generally refers to the period between 1878-1889 where great technological innovation led to the increased production of iron and steel along with a higher demand for lumber, gold, and silver. This in turn led to the increased need for railroad development, creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs and cheaper goods for consumers.

People such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie became very wealthy thanks to the rapid economic grown and new technology benefiting the middle class. But Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner dubbed the time period following the Civil War as the “Gilded Age” for a reason: political corruption and social problems ran rampant underneath all the dazzling innovations.

Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons

Farmers And Laborers Struggled To Make A Living During The Gilded Age

During the Gilded Age, farmers were hardly able to pay their bills and feed their families. They faced challenges such as droughts, plagues of insects, falling market prices, and high interest rates. They often blamed the proliferation of railroads, land monopolists, mortgage companies, manufacturers of farm equipment, and others for their increasing plights. Industrial workers also struggled to make end’s meet and worked long days in dangerous conditions for little money. Small farmers lived in poor conditions and barely got by while industrialists and financiers built decadent homes for their families.

Photo: Henri Matisse/Wikimedia Commons

The Arts Thrived During The Belle Époque

The Belle Époque in France lasted from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the start of World War I in 1914. During this period of time, there was optimism and peace, economic expansion, and many technological, scientific, and cultural improvements.

In the middle of this period, the Eiffel Tower was built for the 1900 World’s Fair, the Moulin Rouge cabaret entertained audiences, haute couture was developed, and all became emblematic of the period. Additionally, the Art Noveau movement took hold, featuring artists such as Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso.

Photo: By Nationaal Archief/Wikimedia Commons

Lower Classes In The Belle Époque Worked In Terrible Conditions

Not every French citizen benefited from the economic growth of the Belle Époque. The urban slums were rife with poverty, and rural peasants continued to suffer for decades following the time period. According to a study conducted in 1882, 27 percent of Parisians were upper or middle class, while 73 percent were considered poor. Much of the lower classes lived in small quarters, were paid very little, had to endure awful working conditions, and were not very healthy.

Photo: John Trumbull/Wikimedia Commons

Philosophy And Scientific Discovery In The Enlightenment

Also referred to as The Age of Reason, the Enlightenment took place from 1685 to 1815. There were many scientific discoveries and inventions during this period, as well as wars and uprisings such as the American and French Revolutions. This era included writings by French philosophers like Voltaireas well as Thomas Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Scholars sought to spread knowledge and reason as well as universal education.

Photo: William Hogarth/Wikimedia Commons

The 18th Century Attitude About Poverty: “The Lower Classes Must Be Kept Poor”

While most in the modern era believe that poverty should be eradicated, many thought it was necessary for the poor to stay as they were. In fact, in 1820 economists believed that approximately 84 percent of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty. English writer and traveler Arthur Young wrote in 1771: “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.”

Eighteenth century economist Bernard de Mandeville wrote: “To make the Society happy and People easy under the meanest Circumstances, it is requisite that great Numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor.” Attitudes started to change with the French Revolution’s call for “liberty, equality, fraternity.”

Photo: Eugène Delacroix/Wikimedia Commons

Peasants Were Heavily Burdened By Taxes During The Enlightenment

The French Revolution was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment and the desire for popular sovereignty and inalienable rights. Peasants often rebelled against the feudal system, as they were forced to pay hefty taxes to the government, church, and landowners and barely made enough money to support their families. During the 1780s, they had to deal with droughts, harsh winters, and bad harvests, and most peasants lived in poverty.

Photo: Public Domain

Imperial Expansion And A Time Of Peace In The Victorian Era

During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), there was peace in Britain. The country was not involved in any wars with other countries, and there were substantial advancements in technology, art, literature, and science. The British Empire was trading goods and making money, and railroads contributed greatly to economic prosperity. It was a period of global imperial expansion, and the country established colonies all over the world, particularly in Asia and Africa.

Photo: Lewis Hine/Wikimedia Commons

The Victorian Era: Child Laborers And A Rise In Criminal Activities

The population of the United Kingdom grew tremendously during the Victoria era as more children were surviving infancy and an influx of Irish citizens arrived, fleeing the Great Potato Famine. The Industrial Revolution and new inventions meant fewer skilled laborers were needed, and unemployment rose drastically, so parents were forced to send their children to work for little pay. Often two families would have to share one home and as a result contagious diseases were easily spread. Many even resorted to criminal activities such as pick-pocketing, mugging, and burglarizing homes to feed themselves.

Photo: Charles Reginald/Wikimedia Commons

The Porfiriato Period Brought Political Stability And Economic Growth To Mexico

Porfirio Díaz became the president of Mexico in 1876 and served until 1880. He was re-elected in 1884 and held the job until 1911. The Porfiriato Period took place from 1876 until 1911 and refers most specifically to the different administrations what were in charge from 1884 to 1911. The period was marked with strong political order and stability as well as economic growth. Under Diaz’s presidency, 10,000 miles of railroad tracks were set, which helped move goods and allowed citizens to leave farms and find jobs in the city. Industry was modernized, and the banking system boomed, allowing the country to repay its debts and rebuild its infrastructure.

Photo: Public Domain

Social Injustice And Inequality During Porfiriato

While the wealthy benefited from economic growth during the Porfiriato Period, most citizens were forced to work in order to stay alive and were subjected to social inequality and injustice. The introduction of international corporations and haciendas (large estates, mines, factories, and plantations) turned some indigenous people into indentured servants while mestizo farmers and miners became laborers. There was so much unrest in Mexico that Diaz’s government created a rural police force and used federal troops to maintain order.

Photo: Pixabay

Jazz, Art Deco, And Economic Prosperity Defined The Roaring ’20s

Between 1920 and 1929, the wealth of the United States more than doubled, and the economic prosperity of the decade ushered Americans into a new age of consumerism. As a result of national advertising and chain stores, folks from the West Coast to the East Coast bought the same products, played the same music, and performed the same dances (such as the Charleston). Low prices made cars more affordable, and people started earning more money allowing them to spend more on tourism and real estate. The ’20s was a time defined by Jazz, Art Deco, and writers such as Ernest Hemingway.

Photo: Arthur Rothstein, for the Farm Security Administration/Wikimedia Commons

New Machines And Technology Ruined Farms In The Roaring ’20s

Farmers during the ’20s were adversely affected by the robust economy. Most of their farms were small, and the new technology and machinery of the 1920s meant fewer laborers were needed. With increased productivity, food demand remained steady and prices (and profits) dropped, meaning small farmers couldn’t afford their costly machinery and had to leave for the city to find jobs. As a result, these smaller farms couldn’t survive and were forced to merge with other farms. Then on October 24, 1929, the stock market crashed, ushering in a decade of severe global economic depression.

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