top of page


The Gaslight Era (~1870-1914)

In the latter half of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the world seemed to turn and change at an incredible pace. This era saw an explosion of ever-faster technological advances: railways, telegraph lines, steam boats, safe vaccinations, mass-produced clothing, electricity, motor cars, machine guns, ...

At the centre of this transformation was Great Britain, ruling over a quarter of the world’s population. Here, the changes of the ongoing Industrial Revolution were seen most clearly. Its cities grew and grew, home to both destitute workers toiling away and an upper class enjoying never-before-seen wealth. British society also changed radically. All manner of new and interesting social and political ideas, from Socialism to Social Darwinism, sprang up and were avidly discussed. However, for the most part, the strict social, moral and sexual norms of the Victorians were still in place. Any perceived challenge to these norms - whether by "New Women" demanding equal suffrage, or "effeminate" aesthetes propagating art for art's sake - were commonly seen as subversive or dangerous.

Still, the spirit of progress seemed to be unstoppable. The general belief in the power of science and rationality was prevalent, not just manifesting in technological advances, but also in how people looked at themselves. Psychoanalysis and sociology, but also now discredited ideas like phrenology and eugenics - these were concepts trying to explain every aspect of human experience. All things that appeared strange, exotic and degenerate to a British observer became fascinating subjects of study. However, this belief in the powers of reason had its obvious limits. The Gaslight Era was also the age of spiritualism, of occult orders and faerie photography. The more of the world was illuminated, the darker its shadows appeared.

For the chauvinist Briton at that time, these dark shadows also covered basically everywhere outside of their little island, including those parts of the Americas, Asia and Africa that made up their Empire. Fuelled by the ambition to expand and stabilise their rule, the Empire fought many colonial wars in Africa and Asia during the time, trying to spread their version of civilization and brutally suppressing any indigenous resistance. Commonly, the British colonisers viewed their subjects with ignorance, fear and even hatred of their “primitive” rituals and customs. While the world was growing together, connected by steamliners and telegraph lines, for many in Britain this only seemed to open the doors for terrifying foreign influences.

Indeed, mixed with the glorious pinnacle of imperial power there was a distinct sense of doom. Realising that every empire must fall, a lot of people agreed with Oscar Wilde, who said that the Fin du Siècle really meant the Fin du Monde. The British way of living seemed to be under threat, either by nefarious foreign corruption or by a decadent weakness within.

bottom of page