Downton Abbey, Season Two is just around the corner in the US folks! Yay! I absolutely adore this series. And to celebrate the second season, for the next two months I will be doing a series of blog posts about the history behind season two.
It’s all about the First World War. In fact, I read an interview with Julian Fellowes where he talks specifically about how the whole Downton Abbey franchise, all three seasons, is about the First World War. Season one was about the world as it existed before the war, season two is about the impact of the war itself, and season three will be about the fallout and consequences of the war and how it changed society forever.
That said, today I want to tell you a little bit about what life was like before the war. I want to tell you what life was like 100 years ago.
Downton Abbey had it right when they began season one with the sinking of the Titanic. The Titanic is a fantastic reference point for talking about life 100 years ago. It was a world that had grown suddenly smaller within the last several decades with improvements in communication and transportation. We had massive steam ships that could take people across vast oceans. A journey that once took months and which most people only took once to start a new life was now just another means of traveling. Anyone with enough money to buy a ticket could visit the other side of the world and then come home and resume life. Pretty amazing if you think about it. Advances in transportation involved more than just ships. Trains had long been a means of traveling long distances, but the newly invented automobile was becoming more common. So was the airplane. The first parachute jump from an airplane took place in 1912.
The Titanic was outfitted with top-of the line technology, including electricity, elevators, internal telephones, and Marconi radios. These new technologies were quickly becoming a part of everyday life in the world of 1912 although they hadn’t taken over yet. The Savoy Theater in London was the first building to be completely “electrified” in 1880, but it wouldn’t be until the early 1920s that electricity could be found in every building. By 1912 industry was coming to rely on electricity to run machinery and it was increasingly common in homes and buildings in cities. Those who could afford it were installing electric lights and appliances in their homes outside of cities as well. Telephones could be found in more and more homes and businesses as well. Radios were mostly used in shipping though. It wasn’t until the technology improved in the 1920s that radios began to be found in everyone’s home.
Medicine was advancing as well. The 19th century had seen the advancement of germ theory, pasteurization, antiseptics, and an effort to apply the scientific method to researching medicines and practices. Surgery was common and becoming safer all the time. Even radical surgeries, like mastectomies, were being performed with a decent survival rate. The causes of diseases were better understood due to the advancement of tools like the microscope. Treatments and even cures for some of the worst diseases to plague mankind, like tuberculosis and syphilis, were being discovered. 1912 was a world filled with possibility, where mankind was beginning to see how it could conquer the worst parts of nature.
It was also a world rife with unfairness and inequality. Think back to the Titanic again. As luxurious as the whole ship was, there was an incredible gap between the rich and the poor. The same thing can be seen in Downton Abbey. The rich were very rich indeed. In 1912 they still held to the long-standing traditions of class and superiority that went back to the Middle Ages. What family you came from was important and owning a massive estate was the ultimate status symbol. “New Money” was frowned on. At the other end of the social scale, child labor was still prevalent in factories and mines. For children and adults workdays were long and pay was low without any sort of guaranteed medical benefits or insurance. It was a precarious existence. Those who were in service in 1912, like the “downstairs” characters in Downton Abbey, actually had it pretty good. Sure, they worked long hours and were separated from their employers by a huge class divide, but they had a roof over their head, food on their plates, and job security as long as they did their job well and kept their nose clean.
It wasn’t until the 1920s that women won the vote across most of the western world though. Prior to the First World War many people thought it was redundant for women to vote because their husbands could vote. That was changing, thanks to the Suffragette movements. The causes of Socialism and the rights and equality of workers were also on the rise by 1912 and would burst into revolution across the world before the decade was out. So even though old school ways still ruled in 1912, things were rumbling under the surface.
This is just a thumbnail of the world before The Great War. All in all it wasn’t such a bad place to live. Technology had advanced enough that life was easier than it ever had been, but hadn’t advanced so far that we were doing ourselves more harm than good. This was an era before fast food, before sitting in front of the tv all day and driving everywhere. I once had a doctor tell me that in terms of everyday general health, people in the late 19th and early 20th century were healthier than we are in the modern world. They were out of luck if they were stuck by an acute disease or condition, but people exercised more, ate better, and depending on where they lived and who they were enjoyed a healthier lifestyle.
This world, the world of 1912, this exciting, advancing, more conservative, more innocent world was perched on the edge of the sixth most destructive war in the history of the world. It was about to lose a huge percentage of its young men, and its sense of the old order with it. There’s no getting around it, the First World War was one of the most world-changing events in history.
And that’s what Downton Abbey is all about.