Urban Life on the Eve of the Twentieth Century

In the late nineteenth century, European cities grew at an unparalleled rate. This growth was both a result of the Industrial Revolution and a reflection of the impact of that revolution. Western society was suddenly predominantly urban and industrial by 1900 as it had been agrarian and rural in 1800. By 1850, working conditions were improving and real wages were on the increase; however it would be an oversimplification to state that the life of the industrial urban worker had improved. Although wages and working conditions had improved, living conditions and the quality of life had deteriorated to an alarming extent. Life in European cities had become a living nightmare.

European cities had been the centers of government, culture, and commerce since the Middle Ages, and had always been dirty and unsanitary. People had been packed into close quarters with most people traveling from place to place on foot. Only the wealthy had access to other forms of transportation. Infectious diseases spread rapidly because of the close conditions in which people lived; in fact more people died in cities each year than were born there; it was only the influx of new residents that caused city populations to grow. Most city dwellers had a fatalistic attitude about living conditions and death; just as the agrarian population had a fatalistic attitude towards bad weather or crop failure.

Although substandard living conditions did not originate with the Industrial Revolution, they were revealed in all their starkness as a result of the revolution. With the invention of the steam engine, industrialists no longer need build plants near rivers and streams; rather they could build factories in cities where there was an abundance of available labor. Cities had better shipping facilities and as a result better access to coal and raw materials. Having other factories nearby was also an advantage, as other factories could supply the factory’s needs, or buy its products.

Great Britain was the first to experience the explosion of urban population and the accompanying problems. In 1801, 1.5 million people lived in cities of 20,000 or more; by 1851 that number had reached 6.3 million, and by 1891, 15.6 million. By the last year, over 54 per cent of the British population lived in cities. After 1820, the population of British cities increased 40 to 70% each decade. Although an attitude of fatalistic acceptance had previously prevailed, concern about horrendous conditions soon arose, along with the realization that something must be done to improve life there.

The typical city used every inch of available space. Parks and open areas were virtually nonexistent. In 1833, a Parliamentary commission reported that "with a rapidly increasing population, lodged for the most part in narrow courts and confined streets, the means of occasional exercise and recreation in fresh air are every day lessened, as inclosures of vacant areas take place and buildings spread themselves on every side." Buildings were erected in every available place to pack the maximum number of people into a given space. Narrow "row houses" were built wall to wall in long rows with neither front nor back yards, and only a narrow back alley to separate one row from another. Other buildings were built around miniscule courtyards that were completely enclosed on four sides. A physician from Aberdeen, Scotland reported to a government commission in 1842 that "six, eight, and even ten occupying one room is anything but uncommon." People often lived in cellars and attics in conditions that were smaller than a good sized closet.

Living conditions were extremely unsanitary and septic. Open drains and sewers flowed alongside or down the middle of unpaved streets. Since there was no running water, sewers often filled with garbage and human excrement. In Manchester, England, two hundred people were forced to share a single outhouse. Outhouses and privies were seldom emptied, and thus filled up quickly. Sewage often overflowed and seeped into cellars where people lived. The amount of human excrement and garbage which one was forced to walk through (not to mention smell) would defy the imagination, yet it was carefully and abundantly documented. A London construction Engineer reported that the cellars of two large houses on a major road were "full of night soil" (a euphemism for human waste) to the depth of three feet, which had been permitted for years to accumulate from the overflow of the cesspools." Courtyards in some poorer neighborhoods were little more than dung heaps, with human excrement often sold as fertilizer. By the 1840’s, the more fortunate residents of British cities were forced to accept the shocking "realization that, to put it as mildly as possible, millions of English men, women and children were living in shit."

These conditions were the result of tremendous pressure applied by large increases in the population (more and more people living in more and more crowded conditions) and the complete lack of transportation. People found it necessary to live close to their work, as they had to commute on foot, and crammed themselves into living conditions that more closely resembled an overstuffed sardine can. Governments were slow to provide adequate building codes or to provide sanitary conditions. Although one is inclined to accuse the middle class of opposition to any government action and beau regard for the plight of the urban poor; it is more nearly correct to blame the problem on the need to identify the problem and formulate an appropriate response. Britain was not alone in possessing overcrowded unsanitary cities; there were cities on the continent that were claimed equally deplorable situations.

Strange as it may seem, people took filthy conditions for granted. One reason was that those who lived in rural areas were accustomed to dirt and filth from the farms, largely as a result of ignorance about the need for sanitation. One authority wrote that there were "rural slums of a horror not surpassed by the rookeries of London….The evidence shows that the decent cottage was the exception and the hovel the rule." Housing was simply not a priority for those who lived close to the soil, and often carried it inside on their boots. Those in the city continued to consider dirt and filth to be acceptable. One English miner told an investigator, "I do not think it usual for the lasses [in the coal mines] to wash their bodies; my sisters never wash themselves." He described the men as "their legs and bodies are as black as your hat."

Sanitation and Reform: A number of reformers worked to improve living conditions, even though those who lived in the squalor did not seem to mind. Among them was Edwin Chadwick, a commissioner charged with dispensing relief in 1854 under England’s Poor Laws. Chadwick was a Benthamite, a flower of Jeremy Bentham, the radical philosopher who taught that public problems should be dealt with on a rational, scientific basis and according to the principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number." Chadwick was convinced that disease and death caused poverty because a sick worker was could not work, and orphaned children were poor children. He also believed that disease could be prevented by cleaning up urban areas, a concept he called his "sanitary idea." Chadwick collected reports on the "sanitary conditions of the laboring population," and published a report in 1842 which indicated that disease was caused by filthy conditions and these conditions were caused by lack of drainage, sewer removal, or garbage collection. The excrement which laced the urban setting spread disease as well as a revolting smell.

Chadwick believed (correctly) that sewerage could be carried off by water through sewers at one twentieth the cost of removing it by hand. Since iron pipe and tile drains were cheap, running water and sewer should be available for all areas, not just the wealthy. An epidemic of cholera in 1846 strengthened Chadwick’s argument, and became the basis for the first public health law, which created a national board of health and gave cities the authority to construct modern sewer systems. By the 1860’s and 70’s, European cities were making progress toward adequate water supplies and sewerage systems. The break with the fatalistic attitudes of the past was evident.

There were still problems with communicable diseases and the means by which they were spread. The prevailing attitude was that diseases were spread by tainted air, called miasma. Even prominent physicians believed that people contracted diseases by breathing the odors of decay and putrefying excrement. It was some time before the realization was made that disease was spread by filth itself, not by the odors it generated.

The ultimate breakthrough was the result of the work of Louis Pasteur, a French chemist who had been studying fermentation for a group of brewers. He developed a test that brewers could use to monitor fermentation and avoid spoilage. In his work, Pasteur discovered that tiny organisms caused fermentation, and that these organisms could be destroyed by heating the beer, a process appropriately named "pasteurization." The startling discovery which resulted was that organisms—germs—caused disease, and that these germs could be controlled in people as well as in beer and milk. By the mid-1870’s, a German physician, Robert Koch, developed cultures of harmful bacteria and described their life cycles. Within the next twenty years, a number of effective vaccines against disease were developed.

Pasteur’s work also improved sanitary conditions in hospitals and surgical suites where death from infection was the rule. Pasteur showed that bacteria could live in the air; acting on these findings, an English surgeon, Joseph Lister, (for whom Listerine is named) immediately made the connection between aerial bacteria and wound infection. He determined that a chemical disinfectant, in this case chloroform, would "destroy the life of the floating particles." His principle became known as the "antiseptic principle." Later, the practice of sterilizing wounds as well as instruments, clothing, and the surgeon’s hands, became standard practice, and infection from surgery declined rapidly.

As a result of these advances, the mortality rate in cities declined drastically. Death from diphtheria, typhoid, typhus, cholera and yellow fever practically vanished. By 1910, the death rate of people in urban areas was no greater than that of people in rural areas; at times it was even less.

Public Transportation and Urban Planning: Lack of suitable transportation was also a problem throughout the nineteenth century for large metropolitan areas. The key to improvement seemed to be urban planning. The practice had been in decline until after 1850 when it was revived in France under the leadership of Napoleon III, who tried to reach above class conflict and promote the welfare of all his subjects through government action. He believed that he could provide employment, improve living conditions and glorify his empire by rebuilding the city of Paris. He hired the baron Georges Haussmann to rebuild the city, which was essentially accomplished within twenty years. Previously, Paris had housed more than 300,000 people in an area less than double the size of New York’s Central Park, and slums were everywhere. Paris streets were narrow and dark as a result of overcrowding, and public transportation was practically non-existent. Haussmann and his cohorts razed old buildings and cut broad, straight, tree-lined boulevards designed to prevent easy construction and defense of barricades should another revolution break out. They would also allow traffic to flow freely. Slums were demolished, and better housing was erected, particularly for the middle class. Neighborhood parks and open spaces were created and two large parks for all kinds of holiday activities (one on the west side, the wealthier end of Paris, and one on the poorer east.) New sewers and a series of aqueducts doubled the city’s potable water supply. It was the work of Napoleon III and Haussmann which made Paris one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and helped it earn its nickname as the City of Light.

Other cities soon followed suit. Vienna and Cologne tore down old walled fortifications and replaced them with broad, circular boulevards for public buildings, town halls, opera houses and museums. Boulevards radiated from "ring roads" which surrounded public buildings.

Mass transportation also effected great changes in European cities, although it came late, often not until the 1870’s, when many cities authorized private companies to operate horse drawn street cars along major thoroughfares. In the 1890’s, they adopted the electric street car. Both models had been adapted from models used in the United States. The electric cars were cheaper, faster, more dependable and more comfortable. As a result, millions of people rode them each week to school, work, or simply to shop downtown. On weekends, hordes of people traveled to parks, racetracks and music halls. By 1910, electric streetcars in Austria-Hungary, France, Germany and Great Britain were carrying 6.7 billion passengers.

Mass transit helped create decent housing. The new boulevards and street cars facilitated a movement of the middle class to better housing, away from crowded cities, and gave people of modest means access to better, cheaper housing. Cities could expand and become less congested, the birth of modern day urban sprawl. By 1901, only nine per cent of the English urban population met the official definition of "overcrowded:" more than two people per room. Urban overcrowding was on the way out.