A Reminder Of The Edwardian Era (And Why It’s Important)

So if you, like me, have watched some of those newfangled “modern” movies and documentaries, have read some of the books that everyone reads, and have done some Internet surfing, you’ve found that the general gist of 20th century American history is always something like this:

Guide to Eras

One thing that really stands out?  The idea that the world was straitlaced and proper in the early 20th century but tossed that all aside at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1920 just in time for the crazy, hedonistic ride that was the 1920s.  (Then, presumably, the world slowly became straitlaced and proper again just in time for the 1950s).  And those first twenty or so years of the 20th century were…well…the Victorian era, right?

Behold its glory.

Hmm, are we missing something?  Nitpickings about Victorian and Twenties generalizations aside, we most certainly are missing something–a whole entire era–the Edwardian era.

People might not realize that the term “Victorian” specifically equals “the reign of Queen Victoria,” which ended in 1901–barely entering the 20th century at all. What followed up until 1910, 1914, 1918, or 1919 is labeled Edwardian (the reign of King Edward VII). As you can see there is some debate over when the era ended; personally, I agree with those that think the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 (officially ending WWI) is a tidy and logical “end” to the era.

“Annnd…done. Time to go drink Manhattans at the jazz club and see if my wife’s skirts are shorter yet.”

You may be thinking: well, that’s interesting, but do we really need to care that much about the Edwardian era? Does it really matter if we call a specific span of years by its correct name?  Isn’t that just some trivia that’s only interesting to history geeks, and less relevant to the general public?

Great, now you’ve just offended the history geeks.

I argue that yes, it is important to understand the Edwardian era.  There are several big reasons for this.  First:

1. Victorian and Edwardian cultures were more distinct than people realize.

The Edwardian era was a massively important transitional period from the Victorian horse-and-carriage way of life to modern times (hey, a Chaplin reference!).  World War I alone changed the course of history.  And on the cultural side art, literature, and theater reached a flowering of experimentation.  It was the age of machines, industrialization, and a faster pace of life.  Women’s suffrage began.  Various labor movements greatly influenced the political landscape.  Moral standards, while they were still important, became looser than they were in Victorian times.

Leading to some positively shocking bathing suits, as Annette Kellerman demonstrates.

An easy example of the difference between Victorians and Edwardians can be found in fashion. The little waist and womanly curves of Victorian “silhouettes” were very different from the “S-curve” corsets, higher waistlines and ankle-revealing hobble skirts that dominated the Edwardian era. Taking a closer look at this transitional period helps us understand why clothing went from floor length dresses to those skirts SHORTER THAN EVER BEFORE!!1

Victorian Edwardian fashion

There was a difference.

“Okay, that’s all well and good,” you say, “but reason #1 is definitely sounds like something that’s interesting only to history geeks.”  Your continued smearing of said geeks aside, let me describe a reason that is incredibly relevant, and has to do with why you’re able to read this article on your computer/laptop/cell phone right here, right now:

2.  Technologies that changed the entire world were developed during the Edwardian era.  

To name a few:

  • Telephones became common, forever changing the speed of communication.
  • Wireless telegraph signals were sent across the Atlantic for the first time, further speeding up communication and becoming the first inkling of what made our Internet possible.
  • The use of electricity became more widespread, and electrical appliances were developed (like the refrigerator).
  • Einstein developed his Theory of Relativity, changing the face of science.
  • Automobiles became common, replacing horse-drawn vehicles.
  • The study of medicine grew more sophisticated, especially the study of surgery and cardiology.

Everything that made our modern, technological way of life possible was either invented or made great strides during this oddly overlooked period.

Although we still haven’t quite mastered the Gun Helmet.

And, most significantly (in the spirit of this blog)…

3.  Film rapidly became one of the most important technological innovations of the 20th century–and the most important new art form over all.

The massive role of film in the 20th century cannot be overestimated. It had its early experimental days at the end of the 19th century, but its rapid evolution and increasing sophistication took place almost entirely in the Edwardian era.  By the beginning of the Twenties the blueprint for skillful filmmaking was set, and the public was officially fascinated by movies–as we are to this day.

Movies have now shaped the public’s perception of…everything.  Yes, everything, from historic events to exotic locations to popular fashion to classic literature to which wire to cut in order to defuse a bomb just before it goes off (I never said all these perceptions were accurate).

And as I like to point out, film has also it possible for us to see history like no one ever has before.  It is a documentary tool like none other.

It’s fascinating to think that while many of our silent actors and directors were born in the Victorian era, most grew to adulthood during the Edwardian era: Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd…all came from Edwardian times. Now that is something to ponder.

Lillian Gish portrait hat looking up

In this light, you could say that Keystone Comedies, Chaplin’s Essanays and Mutuals, and Arbuckle’s Comiques were all Edwardian era comedies. Arbuckle and Chaplin themselves–Edwardian era comedians. The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance–Edwardian era films. The list can go on!

So the next time you’re tempted to hurt the feelings of a sensitive history geek, keep in mind that the Edwardian era was one of the most important time periods in human history.

And above all, for those of us who like telephones and cars and the Internet and the Theory of Relativity and especially movies, it will never stop being relevant.

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13 thoughts on “A Reminder Of The Edwardian Era (And Why It’s Important)

  1. I’m getting into the concept of the gun helmet as a present-day fashion item on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Kidding aside, this piece was so interesting. Not only the subject itself but the way in which the subject matter was presented. Fun to read. Love your writing style, Lea.

    • Why thanks–it’s a fun challenge to try and figure out interesting ways to describe things that textbooks tend to treat pretty dryly. After all, history itself has never been that boring. We’re learning about what life was actually like for our own ancestors.

      • Lea, to me, there is almost nothing more interesting than our history. To realize that we are part of a continuum of past, present, and future is fascinating. How our ancestors lived and what the world was like during their time on the planet is of never-ending interest to me. I also feel it helps one to feel centered and of a place. Whatever! I’m not good with words, but maybe you understand. I become sad when I think that history as a subject taught in schools nowadays doesn’t seem to be as important as it was when I was a kid. I hope I’m wrong. Thank you again for shining a light on the way we once were!

        • I totally understand–it’s way more relevant and useful than people realize! History doesn’t seem like it’s always taught very well, which is strange considering the amount of resources we have nowadays. I have a theory that everyone loves history, they just don’t realize it because they associate the word with “bone-dry textbooks.”

  2. Wonderful post! I especially liked your visual run-down of the way we tend to think of the 20th century and the comparison of Victorian vs. Edwardian women’s fashion. What got you thinking along these lines? These observations are wonderful.

    • Details make history more interesting, and the more I read about the early 20th century the more dissatisfying it is to hear everything “old-timey” lumped under a vague label of “Victorian.” We miss out on a lot of cool info when we don’t take a closer look–and it helps us understand where those old films came from!

  3. Pingback: Fantabulous Ford Sterling | Silent-ology

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