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Twentieth Century Revolutions Previous
Digital History ID 3176

 

The 20th century was a century of revolutions. We usually think of revolutions in terms of banners and barricades, and the 20th century certainly witnessed social and political upheavals, including the Russian and Chinese Revolutions. But many of the century's most lasting revolutions took place without violence. There was the sexual revolution, the women's liberation movement, and the rise of the giant corporation, big labor, and big government. Revolutions in technology, science, and medicine utterly transformed the way people lived.

The scientific revolution is perhaps the most obvious development. During the 1890s, physics and medicine radically changed our view of the world. The discovery of X-rays, radioactivity, sub-atomic particles, relativity, and quantum theory produced a revolution in how scientists viewed matter and energy. Meanwhile, physicians identified the first virus. Laboratory-based science reshaped the practice of medicine. Research in scientific medicine first led to a cure for yellow fever. Then, it eliminated polio and smallpox.

Humankind developed air transport, discovered antibiotics, and invented computing. They also split the atom and broke the genetic code. Communication technology was revolutionized with the telephone, the radio, and the Internet. Medicine, too, underwent a radical transformation. Contraceptives separated sex from procreation. The rapid spread of the automobile also modernized transportation technology.

The 20th century also witnessed a revolution in economic productivity. Between 1900 and 2000, the world's population roughly quadrupled--from almost 1.6 billion to 6 billion people. But global production of goods and services rose 14 or 15-fold. In 1900, the Standard & Poor's 500 index stood at 6.2. In 1998, the index was 1085.

Technological improvements shrunk the average work week by a day and a half. Technology also opened the workplace to increasing numbers of women, especially married and older women.

Equally important was the rise of mass communication and mass entertainment. In 1900, each person made an average of 38 telephone calls. By 1997, the figure had grown to 2,325 phone calls. In 1890, there were no billboards, no trademarks, no advertising slogans. There were no movies, no radio, no television, and few spectator sports. No magazine had a million readers. The 1890s saw the advent of the mass circulation newspaper, the national magazine, the best-selling novel, many modern spectator and team sports, and the first million dollar nationwide advertising campaign. In 1900, some 6,000 new books were published. By the end of the century, the number had increased more than 10-fold.

The 20th century also brought about a revolution in health and living standards. The latter part of the 19th century was an era of tuberculosis, typhoid, sanitariums, child labor, 12-hour work days, tenements, and outhouses. In 1900, more Americans died from tuberculosis than from cancer. Each day millions of horses deposited some 25 pounds of manure and urine on city streets. Life expectancy increased by 30 years. Child mortality fell 10-fold. In 1900, families spent an average of 43 percent of their income on food; now they spend 15 percent.

The expansion of government was one of the 20th century’s most striking developments. In 1900, the U.S. government took in just $567 million in taxes. In 1999, the total was $1.7 trillion. Government spending as a share of Gross Domestic Product (the measure of wealth created) in 1913 ranged from 1.8 percent in the U.S. to 17 percent in France. At the end of the century, it ranged from 34 percent in the United States to 65 percent in Sweden.

Less pleasantly, the 20th century also saw a visible increase in the human capacity for violence. In 1900, British commander Horatio Kitchener came up with a new strategy in the Boer War in South Africa. He rounded up 75,000 people, mostly women and children, and confined them to prison camps where most quickly died. They were the first victims of one of the 20th century's most destructive inventions: the concentration camp.

The turn of the century also introduced genocide--the deliberate attempt to exterminate an entire people. In 1904, in the German colony of South-West Africa, now Namibia, the Kaiser's troops systematically exterminated as many as 80,000 Herero. This slaughter produced forced labor camps, sex slaves, and the first academic studies of supposed Aryan superiority. After poisoning the water holes, the Herero were driven into the desert and were bayoneted, shot, or starved. Those not killed--20,000 Herero--were condemned to slavery on German farms and ranches.

The human capacity for mass killing increased exponentially as a result of improved weaponry and the increased power of the state. The 20th century was scarred by gulags, concentration camps, secret police, terrorism, genocide, and war.

Technology helped make the 20th century the bloodiest in history. World War I, which introduced the machine gun, the tank, and poison gas, killed 10 million (almost all were soldiers). World War II, with its firebombs and nuclear weapons, produced 35 million war deaths. The Cold War added another 17 million deaths to the total.

Technology made mass killing efficient; ideologies and ethnicity justified it. Underdeveloped countries driven to modernize quickly were often scenes of repression and sickening mass killing, whether they were communist or non-communist.

A Century of the Young

Among the new words that entered the English language during the 20th century were "adolescence," "dating," and "teenager." For the first time there was a gap between puberty and incorporation into adult life.

In 1900, children and teenagers under the age of 16 accounted for 44 percent of the population. Today, the young make up 29 percent. In 1900, less than 2 percent of young people graduated from high school.

A Century of Women

In 1900, American women could vote in only four Western states. Just 700,000 married women (6 percent) were in the paid labor force. Today, the figure is 34 million (64 percent).

In 1900, women accounted for 1 percent of lawyers and 6 percent of doctors. At the end of the century, those percentages had risen to 29 percent and 26 percent, respectively. The number of women with bachelor's degrees increased by half, with women now earning almost 60 percent of such degrees. Today, women with comparable work and work histories as men earn 98 cents for every dollar that men do.

A Century of Prosperity

Despite an economic depression of unprecedented depth, the 20th century was a century of an extraordinary improvements in health and increases in prosperity. The average lifespan increased by 30 years, from 47 years to 77 years. Infant mortality decreased by 93 percent, and heart disease deaths were cut by half.

The per person Gross Domestic Product was almost seven times higher in 1999 than in 1900. Manufacturing wages, in today's dollars, climbed from $3.43 per hour in 1900 to $12.47 in 1999. This did not include the growth in fringe benefits such as vacation, medical insurance, and retirement benefits. Household assets--everything from the value of our homes to our personal possessions--were seven times greater. Meanwhile, home ownership increased by 43 percent. In 1900, only 1 percent of Americans invested in public companies or mutual funds. By the end of the century, the proportion of shareholders exceeded 50 percent.

At the beginning of the century, 40 to 50 percent of all Americans had income levels that classified them as poor. At the end of the century, that was cut to between 10 and 15 percent. Until the 20th century, large numbers of working class men and women faced “the poor house” at the conclusion of their working lives. Today, thanks to social security and retirement plans, most Americans can expect to enjoy a period of more than a decade when they no longer have to work.

During the 20th century, household incomes of African Americans increased 10-fold. Although African Americans still earn less than whites, the gap has decreased. In 1900, blacks earned about 40 percent of what whites earn. Today, they earn about 80 percent of what whites earn.

The average length of the work week decreased by 30 percent, falling from 66 hours to 35 hours. With the introduction of more holidays and a shorter work week, the average number of hours worked in a year is half of what it was in the latter part of the 19th century. Meanwhile, the percent of workers on the farm fell by 93 percent.

The percentage of households with electricity went from 10 percent to near universal. At the same time, the average American in 1900 had to work six times as many hours to pay his electric bill than did an American a century later.

The number of telephone calls per capita increased 5,600 percent. The number of households with cars increased 90-fold. The percentage of people completing college was four times higher. Today, more people (28 percent) have bachelor's degrees than the number of Americans who held high school degrees in 1900 (22 percent).

The Expansion of Freedom

Perhaps the greatest of all 20th century revolutions was an expansion in human freedom and its extension to new groups of people. Vast strides were made in civil rights, women's rights, and civil liberties.

European imperialism and colonial empires came to an end. In 1900, the British Empire contained roughly 400 million people, about a quarter of the world's population. Lesser empires, including the Austro-Hungarian, the Ottoman, and the French, ruled large parts of the globe. In the span of less than 20 years, Europe had partitioned nine-tenths of Africa. France ruled Southeast Asia. The Netherlands established rule in Indonesia and part of New Guinea. Japan established a colonial empire in Korea, Manchuria, Taiwan, and many Pacific Islands. Not to be left out, the United States acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico as a result of war with Spain, and also annexed Hawaii.

At the start of the 21st century, 88 of the world's 191 countries were free. These countries are home to 2.4 billion people--about 40 percent of the total world population. These nations enjoy free elections and the rights of speech, religion and assembly.

The very meaning of freedom expanded in the 20th century. In the 19th century, freedom's meaning was surprisingly limited. It referred simply to equality before the law, freedom of worship, free elections, and economic opportunity. Subsequently, early 20th century reformers argued that individual freedom could only be realized through the efforts of an activist, socially-conscious state. Freedom increasingly was seen to depend on government regulation, consumer protection, minimum wage, and old-age pensions.

Free speech became a major issue during World War I, largely because of socialists toiling to speak out against the war, labor radicals struggling for the right to strike, and feminists seeking to end broad regulation of contraception.

World War II brought the most basic contradiction in American life to a head. It underscored the jarring discrepancy between American ideals of equality and the realities of discrimination, racial exclusion, and inequality. In a series of decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the white-only primary, restrictive covenants that barred blacks and Jews from segregated neighborhoods, and most significant of all, separate schools for African American students.

The conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, the Belgian Congo, and the clashes during the Cold War cost millions of lives. But these struggles had an ironic consequence: they doomed Europe's empires, and they ultimately reinvigorated the idea of freedom.

During the 1960s, notions of rights extended still further. The discourse of rights expanded to include gay rights, abortion rights, the right to privacy, and the rights of criminal defendants.

At the end of the century, a process of democratization took place on a global scale. "People power" led to the overthrow of the corrupt Marco’s regime in the Philippines and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The 1990s witnessed the end of apartheid in South Africa; the weakening of clerical tyranny in Iran; the overthrow of dictatorship in Indonesia; and the liberation of East Timor.

Immense attitudinal changes took place during the 20th century. Ecological consciousness grew, thus, leading people around the world to recognize that the world's resources are not limitless. New standards of human rights spread, transcending race, ethnicity, nationality, and gender.

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