Dreaming of a new "Golden Age"

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

The Belle Époque (a.k.a "Beautiful Era" or "Golden Age") was a peaceful and economic prosperity period that started in 1871 and ended with the beginning of the Great War in 1914. It was known as an age of general peace, optimism and economic growth. The non-stop discoveries and technological innovations instilled good vibrations in people of the time so that they would think that sooner or later a solution to all the problems of humanity would have been found. It was the time when the bourgeoisie celebrated its triumph, a new phase of development and welfare that would have last until the outbreak of the Great War.

In 1895 the Lumière brothers presented their first movie "L'arroseur arrosé" in a Parisian café. It was the time of first motion pictures and new theatrical performances trials. It was the era of George Mélies, a true magician and inventor, who presented in theatres his illusionistic performances. The Excelsior dance exploded, along with the myth of progress, and was acclaimed all over Europe. During the same period, the first flight experiments began, when the Wright brothers were able to fly a rudimentary plane with a blast engine. Paid hot-air balloon trips were organised throughout the Old Continent. The Simplon tunnel was completed and the Orient Express was the first train of its category to cross Europe by rail in 1883. First passenger lines like the transatlantic Titanic offered luxury travels. The technological discoveries helped to increase the quality of life: running water and toilets, the use of the electric bulb and the introduction of the electric lift, the spread of gramophone, the first Espresso coffee machines, early sewing machines models, the first diesel cars, the first telephones etc… and World fairs were the showcases that inventors used to present their new discoveries and creations to public. The scientific discoveries helped to increase the duration of life, fighting and eradicating common diseases. It was during this era that biologists and physicians finally came to understand the germ theory of disease, and the field of bacteriology was established. Louis Pasteur developed pasteurisation and a rabies vaccine. Marie Curie worked in France, winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903, and the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911. Physicist Gabriel Lippmann invented integral imaging, still in use today. Art and literature rode the wave of the progress with vanguard movements like Post-mpressionism, Art Nouveau and Futurism later on. It was the time of Colonial Safaris, of the first Olympic games, of new mass media, and the advent of mass production through the assembly line.

At the World Exposition of Paris in 1878, the gardens of the Trocadéro displayed the full-size head of the Statue of Liberty, before the statue was completed and shipped to New York.

The 1900 Paris World's Fair, before the start of the balloon race

In 1895 the Lumière brothers presented their first motion picture in history "L'arroseur arrosé" in a Parisian café.

A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès, 1902

The Transportation building inside the Paris World fair of 1900. During the Belle Epoque, the world fairs were mostly used to present to public new cretions and discoveries for the first time. The Parisian world exposition of 1900 is considered a symbol of the Belle Epoque for the amount of new stuff presented for the first time to public.

The first flight experiments began during the Belle Epoque, when the Wright brothers were able to fly a rudimentary plane with a blast engine in 1903

French engineer Paul Cornu in his first helicopter in 1907. Note that he is sitting between the two rotors, which rotated in opposite directions to cancel torque. This helicopter was the first flying machine to have risen from the ground using rotor blades instead of wings.

Inauguration of the Simplon tunnel, 1906

In 1890, photographer Paul Nadar took the oldest known photograph of the arrival of the Orient Express at its final destination.

Above is a very rare poster advertising of Titanic's first sailing from New York on 20 April 1912. Though the transatlantic never made a return journey, it remains one of the symbols of the Belle Epoque. The scarcity of this poster is due to the fact that after Titanic sank on 15 April 1912, the White Star Line pulled down and destroyed as many of these posters as they could find.

Columbia Gramophone, 1901

One of the early espresso coffee machine, built in 1900 and first showed to the public at the World Exposition in Turin (Italy) in 1902. This piece of craftmenship from the Belle Epoque period is jealously guarded and cared at the historic Caffé Reggio in New York City.

My Singer 27k Sphinx (aka Memphis, Egyptian) model, 1903. No other invention has brought with it such a great relief for our mothers and daughters as these cast iron treadle sewing machines. Before their invention housewives spent much of their time maintaining their family's clothing. Powered by a foot pedal, they stood out for being a true revolution during the time they were invented.

Early telephones. The first call was made from Bell to an assistant sitting 15 feet away on March 10, 1876, when Bell said, “Watson, come here, I want you.”

Advertising poster of the Paris World Fair in 1889. At the time, World fairs were the location inventors used to present to their new discoveries and creations to public.

Ford assembly line, 1913. Thanks to the introduction of the assembly line by American entrepreneur Henry Ford (who applied Frederick Taylor's theories for the first time) industrial efficiency for mass production was improved.

Tailored women suits by Paquin. Félix, Les Modes June 1909. The Belle Époque was also an era of fashion. Jeanne Paquin was one of several fashion designers of the Belle Époque. She became known for her publicity stunts including sending her models to the races and the opera to get her designs noticed.

Sir Frederick Selous (1851-1917), British explorer and officer, photographed with his rifle during one of his African safaris, 1890s.

“Beautiful Era” is the translation for Belle Epoque that best describes the happy golden age that changed people quality of life, though their cotton wool wrap was shattered by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The years between the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century the bourgeoisie celebrated the achievements of its hegemony with universal expositions, featuring the most striking wonders in the field technology, science, art, design and fashion.

George Griffith (1857-1906), British science fiction writer and noted explorer who wrote during the late Victorian and Edwardian age

Victorian explorers and Officers coming back from Colonial Safaris and expeditions used to conquer hordes of audience with their intriguing tales at public speaches. The investigation of the World by explorers contributed significantly to the development of modern society as we know it today. Explorers were expected to discover new lands, break records and map the world for future travellers. It was a dangerous but exhilarating opportunity for adventurers, whatever their social class, to advance scientific knowledge, acquire new mineral and agricultural resources and to make their own fortunes. Their stories just reinforced the belief of the bourgeoisie on being better, more intelligent and richer than the colonies dwellers. This only helped to instil more positivity in people of the time.

Winston Churchill on top of a makeshift observation tower in Africa, 1908

Living life with this spirit of carefree and positivity towards innovations led society to a more mundane lifestyle. People in big cities discovered the pleasure of going out just for a drink, to meet at cafes, to go to theaters and then to cinemas thanks to Lumière Brothers first motion pictures. The city streets were full of colours: elegant art nouveau style buildings, seducing advertising posters, shop windows decorated with all sorts of goods, elegant and refined department stores, chic cafés etc…

Mass entertainment was transformed by venues like the Moulin Rouge, home of the Can-Can, by new styles of performance in the theater, by shorter forms of music, and by the realism of modern writers. In Paris, restaurants such as Maxim's achieved a new splendor and cachet as places for the rich to parade. Maxim's Paris was arguably the city's most exclusive restaurant. Bohemian lifestyles gained a different glamour, pursued in the cabarets of Montmartre. This mentality and this way of dealing with life had also affected the industrial sector: decorative arts influenced not just interior design and fashion but almost every field involved in the production of goods. Every object was not just conceived to be functional but designed to be also beautiful, decorated with floral motif, curved and arabesque lines.

Elegant Art Nouveau style buildings in Paris

Exposition Universelle de Paris, Paris World Fair, 1900. Many of the buildings we can still admire today were specially built for the 1900 Parisian world exhibit.

Home of Jules Lavirotte. I always fall in love with the façade of this apartment building. It was erected in 1901 in the style of Jules Lavirotte’s Art Nouveau designs. Its extravagant entryway depicts a lush Garden of Eden. The house at 29 Avenue Rapp is considered one of the most richly detailed Art Nouveau structures in Paris. (Courtesy of www.architecturaldigest.com)

Entrances to the Paris Métro. Follow these signs underground to the vast network that is Le Métro in Paris. The system first opened in 1900 with entryways designed by Hector Guimard. Today, Guimard’s decorative wrought-iron apertures are emblematic of Art Nouveau Paris. (Courtesy of www.architecturaldigest.com)

Le Grand Palais. The building was erected for the Universal Exposition of Paris in 1900. It’s all about the ironwork in the Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées’s interior. Though this massive exhibition hall is considered a neoclassical or Beaux Arts structure on the outside, its interior ribs and tendrils bare the unmistakable “whiplash” of Art Nouveau lines. (Courtesy of www.architecturaldigest.com)

Galeries Lafayette. The Galeries Lafayette, a palatial flagship department store that first opened its door to public in 1912, offers both retail and architectural splendor. Peer up from its bowed balconies at a dramatic cupola in a turn-of-the-century palette. (Courtesy of www.architecturaldigest.com)