Plymouth University Nineteenth Century Studies: But why the Nineteenth Century?

Plymouth University Nineteenth Century Studies: But why the Nineteenth Century?

In establishing a research group at Plymouth University, organised under the title of the ‘Nineteenth Century’, there was some pause for thought about terminal dates and whether members would happily congregate under the title of ‘nineteenth century’ or require something like the ‘long nineteenth-century’: how far back into the eighteenth-century or forwards into the next century should we go? This posting, by one of the members of the group who is a historian, was stimulated by this quandary.

Windsor Magazine 1908, two Windsor Magazine, 1908




IF we had reason to consider the beginning of the present year as the commencement of a new century, we should introduce it with retrospective remarks on the principal events by which the preceding age was distinguished, and on the benefits or disadvantages which attended the general state of society in that period; and we should also be inclined to hazard some speculations on the probable changes which the ensuing century may exhibit in the affairs of Europe or of the world, in religion and morals, in the institutions of policy, in the mechanical and refined arts, in order and civilisation, and in the grand features of distinction which elevate the human species above the brute creation. Reflexions on such topics may be expected by some of our readers, perhaps by many; for, in the chronological controversy which has been lately agitated, the supporter of the opinion that we are now in the nineteenth century have been numerous and determined.

Critical Review 28, January‒April 1800, pp.573‒574

… from some circumstances which have rendered the close of this century a matter of no common anxiety. And so far I own: that I do not much wonder at the wish of considering ourselves fairly out of it. Still, whatever hurry we may be in so to consider ourselves, the pace or quality of events will not depend, for us, or for the rest of Europe and of Mankind, on such consideration. In whatever century we are, we must look for its true colour, and our expectations, from wisdom, fortitude, and benevolence, and a sincere and rational piety; not from the circumstance of whether the year ends or begins a century.

Capel Lofft, Monthly Mirror, February 1800, p.86


Periodisation is a vexed matter for historians – why should we chop up the past into centuries, or into monarchical reigns, and what terminal dates should we follow or be constrained by in our textbooks, and in our analyses? Journals are founded for researchers specialising in a particular age – scholarly journals for History and English Literature exist with ‘the eighteenth century’ or ‘twentieth century’ prominently figuring in their title. At the same time as we appear in these academic journal titles, to stick rigidly to the framework of a century, new chronologies of continuity and change emerge, to permit the birth of such ideas as the ‘long nineteenth-century’ or the ‘short twentieth century’.

Historians might have the habit of making claims for their preferred period in history as particularly significant. But when did the idea of a ‘nineteenth century’ as something markedly different or special, emerge? When did people commonly start discussing their era as ‘the nineteenth century’? (In England, John Corry published a work entitled A satirical view of London at the commencement of the nineteenth century, by an observer in 1801). This may seem an odd set of questions, but for a research group of academics who specialise in, among other things, themes in the nineteenth-century, it is interesting to interrogate contemporaries’ understanding of their age, and how they used the concept of ‘the nineteenth century’. It has been claimed that the period was, ‘by general agreement … the Age of History. Its culture was a historical culture … [h]istory permeated literature and the arts’.[i] But it was also fixated about its present.


The nineteenth-century discourse of the ‘nineteenth century’

Is it not folly for us to pay even the slightest respect to antiquity. Yes, folly most consummate, but fortunately not very common. They were but helpless babes in science, we are as giants; they had no steamboats, no railroads, no printing press, we have; they before the nineteenth century, we are privileged to live in the age of human rights and intellectual improvement.

‘Modern Enlightenment contrasted with Ancient Barbarism, Literary Garland, 1840, p.409.

Invocation of the nineteenth-century was used ironically, to contrast associations of progress, enlightenment and modernity, with either a society’s own shameful reality, or in polemics against societies or institutions considered backward. When this discursive practice emerged, is something to be studied more closely: certainly British sermonists offered reflections on the opening century right from the start (not that there would be agreement about when it started – see the German dramatist August von Kotzebue writing a one-act satire, The New Century, ‘upon the ridiculous contest that has been carried on no less eagerly upon the continent than in England upon the time when the new century commences’).[ii]

In early-nineteenth-century British Protestantism, the Papacy might be measured against the nineteenth century as an obscurantist medieval survival.[iii] Or anti-slavery abolitionists would invoke the century as if this itself was a compelling argument against slavery:  ‘It was a foul disgrace to our country that such discussions as this took place in the nineteenth century,’ according to the British Anti-Slavery Reporter in 1832.[iv] Here, no doubt, there was a sense of eighteen centuries of Christianity having elapsed. The adjective ‘vaunted’ could be used to undercut the boasts about material or moral advance: so susceptibility to medical quackery might be contrasted with the claims to intelligence, in medical journalism.[v] The ‘boasted’ nineteenth century could be contrasted with the reality of – apparently –wholesale infanticide in the British newspaper press.[vi]

There are obvious expressions of a sense of an age apart, in journals and book titles in the Anglophonic world such as the short-lived periodical Adventurer of the Nineteenth-Century of 1823; the Philadelphian quarterly miscellany The Nineteenth Century of 1848, with its image of a the Byronic figure bringing or heralding enlightenment (and the dying cry from Goethe, ‘Light, more Light still’), on its cover; or the monthly review The Nineteenth Century (founded in 1877 continued, clumsily as The Nineteenth Century and After in 1901), and various tales or romances ‘of the nineteenth century’ from the early part of the century onwards.[vii]

These uses of ‘nineteenth-century’ in a title had different purposes, of course: from indicating an expertise in current concerns; as an attempt to satirise the ‘follies of the day’ (or, the reverse, offer a ‘fashionable view’); or as a commercial effort to appear up to date. Serious studies of literature and art, or works of contemporary history, incorporated the century in their title – this usage we might identify as the purely ‘factual’ use of the label.

Works of contemporary social theory or ‘sociology’ might invoke it in the title: John Glyde’s Suffolk in the nineteenth century: physical, social, moral, religious, and industrial, for example, which was published in 1856. There were social reformers who used the label, such as the American Margaret Fuller’s Woman of the Nineteenth Century or the Englishman John Minter Morgan’s Hampden in the nineteenth century; or, Colloquies on the errors and improvement of society. Pamphleteers might invoke it, thus the 1859 work, published in Brighton, Why do the servants of the nineteenth century dress as they do? Works of scientific romance and utopias deliberately revisited the present in discourse that highlighted the ‘nineteenth century-ness’ of the present.[viii]

It is possible, if we turn to visual culture, that posters and advertisements invoked the nineteenth-century. It would be interesting to see if ‘problem paintings’ and works of social realism invoked the idea in titles or subtitles, when exhibited to contemporaries. The architect Augustus Pugin’s famous Contrasts: Or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day. Shewing the Present Decay of Taste. Accompanied by Appropriate Text (1836) invoked the nineteenth century in those terms in the text of his polemical work rarely, but the sense of ‘modern’ art and architecture as qualitatively different, was present throughout the century.

Conscious acts of modernisation – literary or technological, might invoke the century. Thus there appeared an updated version of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which was entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress in the Nineteenth Century, published by the American William R. Weeks in 1848:

The Author makes no pretensions to the originality of Bunyan but he hopes by taking his Pilgrims along the same path which Bunyan has marked out and introducing such new incidents as are adapted to the present century to furnish a book of useful reading for both young and old.

Preface, The Pilgrim’s Progress in the Nineteenth Century, New York: Dodd, 1848, p.iv




It might seem easy to say when the century ended – 1899, 1900 or 1901. The British Queen who had commissioned the sculptor Emil Fuchs to commemorate ‘The Entry of the Reign … into the New Century’, conveniently died at the start of a new century for the British Empire, but the nineteenth century did not end with the Queen in Osborne House in 22 January 1901.

Studying the British literature of nostalgia, reflection and assessment brought about by the end of a century, offers scope for analysis of what it was thought to mean, to have lived in the nineteenth century, and how it was contrasted with the promise of a new era. (and I have only done this very cursorily here).

For a radical British newspaper, Reynolds’s Newspaper, the ‘dead century’, although undoubtedly the ‘wonderful century’ of science that the scientist Alfred Russel Wallace had called it, was disappointing: for it was to be characterised by militarism and mammonism: ‘Instead of furnishing new and better conditions for the mass of men, it looks as though the twentieth century would be one of the hardest men have ever known.’ (‘The Dead Century’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 30 December 1900).  For the Penny Illustrated Paper, no critic of imperialism, there was no foreboding, as it made a rapid retrospective of the century. But the ending, as in the beginning, has been debated – we might take it as 1914 (from the perspective of the Great War) or seek a date relating to some starting point for literary, artistic or generalised ‘modernism’.

James Gregory, September 2014

Contemporary comments

THE century which has lately rolled away is replete with memorable events. The condition of the human race has undergone many and considerable alterations within that period particularly among its more refined and civilized members. Perhaps there has never occurred since the Christian era a more eventful or instructive lapse of time. In a state of society, when the globe is frequently circumnavigated by vessels of moderate burthen, upon commercial voyages, when colonies are sent forth and planted at the antipodes, and when the effects of the discovery of America have been experienced both here and in the eastern hemisphere for more than three secular ages, there must be much for the historical observer to record.

Medical Repository (New York), February – April 1804, p.373.

Look around you, and see how Europe, shaken to her ancient foundations, is hastening at the call of genius to reconstruct the social edifice, and to immortalize the nineteenth century by new creations and new claims to future glory.– Behold how the yoke of the tyrant of the seas, of the enemy of the repose of Europe, is breaking on every tide.

‘Address of Kosciusko to the Poles’, in Annual Register … for the Year 1807 (London: 1809), p.665.

Here, if you are told that the great clock of time has gone back three centuries, you will find little to break the illusion; so solemn and sombre is the place, and so shut out from the bustling, active, reforming nineteenth century.

J.J. Smith, The Cambridge Portfolio (London: Parker, 1840), vol.2, p.355.

The age in which we live, after every allowance has been made for the influence of our feelings on our judgment, must still be regarded as one of a very peculiar character, and fraught with momentous consequences. A distinguished historian has remarked that it will probably be denominated by posterity, the constitutional period. In the arts and sciences it is not so much the age of discovery and research, as of the skillful application of the discoveries and researches of former times – less the age of bright creations of genius, than of the refinements of criticism and taste. In religion, did we care to designate it by a single term, we might call it the reviving period, not only as revivals of religion abound in it, but as christians seem to be waking up to the consideration of their duties, in some points not heretofore so well understood, or so correctly appreciated. That there is enough to distinguish this age from those that have gone before, and to entitle it to some general appellation implying its peculiar character, might then be assumed …

‘Moral Characteristics of the Nineteenth Century’, Quarterly Christian Spectator 5, June 1833, pp.193‒206 [p.193].

I hope it will be acknowledged that I have conducted the comparison with the greatest candour and in selecting the Works of the leading men of the day I have placed the architectural productions of the Nineteenth Century in fair contrast with those of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth. That the former Edifices appear to great disadvantage when thus tried by the scale of real excellence will be readily admitted by all who are competent to think on the subject …

A.W. Pugin, Contrasts: Or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries and Similar Buildings of the Present Day. Shewing the Present Decay of Taste. Accompanied by Appropriate Text (1836), p.iii.

Should some industrious antiquary, in the zeal of his researches, take down the present number from the dusty shelves to which we fear even our lucubrations may then be consigned, he will at least find it recorded, that, although duly sensible of the spirit of invention which is abroad in our own age, far from imagining that we had attained the height of perfection, we believe ourselves merely at the threshold of improvements and discoveries greatly surpassing the wonders of the first half of the nineteenth century.

‘The Guttenberg Jubilee in Germany’, Foreign Quarterly Review, 1840, p.457.

The system of decoration is, just now, all of the character of the Middle Ages, and our rooms are crowded with Elizabethan ornaments. We may reasonably expect, therefore, that the next age will adopt for its adornments the style which is prevalent at the present period. What the armed knight of our ancestors is to us, the policeman of tin uniform will be to our posterity. Already the watchman of olden times is almost eligible to the honours of statueship, and the stage-coachman of our boyish days will soon be entitled, on the score of antiquity, to take his place among our effigies.

‘The Middle-Age Mania’, Punch, 27 March 1847, p.126.

During the past hundred years the world has made more material progress than in all the thirty centuries which have elapsed since the days of Homer. The Nineteenth Century has been a new Renaissance. It has given us the railway, the steam-ship, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the perfecting press, the photograph, the sewing-machine, the reaper and mower, the perfected factory system, the armoured war-ship, the high-powered gun, the electric transmission of power, the electric car, the electric light, the gas light, the friction match, anaesthetics, antiseptics, the Röntgen rays, and a hundred and one other things which help to make life worth living.

‘The Old century and the New’, Penny Illustrated Paper, 5 January 1901, p.6.

The nineteenth century was primarily an era of scientific, industrial and commercial development, and people generally were busily engaged therewith. Art and architecture were regarded as subjects of only secondary importance.

H.F. Ballantyne, ‘Evolution in the Art of Building’, Applied Science incorporated with Transactions of the University of Toronto Engineering Society, n.s., 8:9, January 1914, p.201.



[i]      M. Wintle, in H. Dunthorne and M. Wintle, eds, The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the Low Countries (2012), p.8. On nineteenth-century ideas about periodization, and the relationship to the past, see C. Shaw and M. Chase, eds., The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia. On the use of the Victorian age, see, for instance, S. Joyce, The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror (2007).

[ii]      See, for example, Thomas Howe, The millennium: or, Chearful prospects of the reign of truth, peace, and righteousness; and Serious reflections on the commencement of the new century, 2 discourses: Preached the first on November 5, 1800, and the second on January 4, 1801 in the New Chapel, Bridport, with notes (1801). For the start of the new century, see, for example, ‘On the Question of the Century’, The Monthly Mirror, p.83; Sketch of the Life and Literary Career: Of Augustus Von Kotzebue; with the Journal of His Tour to Paris, … Written by Himself. Translated from the German by Anne Plumptre. To which is Subjoined, an Appendix, p.378.

[iii]     Church of England Quarterly Review (1839), p.169 ‘in all the vaunted illumination of the nineteenth century, Rome is sending back among us the morals, the discipline, and the darkness of the thirteenth.’ See also T. Greenwood, Introductory Lectures on the Study of History (1835), p.153, ‘for we believe that the vaunted civilization of this our nineteenth century is as little proof against the practices of the simplest priestcraft as any other period of human history’.

[iv]     Anti-Slavery Reporter 4, 1832, p.273

[v]     Transactions of the Provincial Medical and Surgical Association (1837).

[vi]     ‘Wholesale Infanticide’, John Bull, 5 August 1865, p.501.

[vii]    See, for example H.F. Glysticus, The Tears of Camphor; or, Love and Nature triumphant. A satirical tale of the nineteenth century (1804); The cottager’s daughter. A tale of the nineteenth century (London: B. Crosby, 1806); [Lady Charlotte Campbell] Self-Indulgence: a tale of the nineteenth century (Edinburgh, 1812); Mrs Ross, Paired, Not Matched, Or, Matrimony in the Nineteenth Century (London: Minerva Press, 1815); M. Johnston, The Lairds of Glenfern, or Highlanders of the Nineteenth Century. A tale, etc (London, 1816); J. Holme, Vulpina; or, The crafty sister. A tale of the nineteenth century, in verse … With other poems, etc. (London: printed for the author, [c.1820].); Vittoria Colonna. A tale of Rome in the nineteenth century (Edinburgh; T. Cadell London: Blackwood, 1827), A.M. Porter, Coming Out; a tale of the nineteenth century (1828); P.E. Butler, Raymond. A tale of the nineteenth century, and other poems (Dublin: Tims, 1830).

[viii]    Of course, it might be located in a later period, thus Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century: being original Letters of State under George the Sixth relating to the most important events in Great Britain and Europe, as to the Church and State, Arts and Sciences, Trade, Taxes, and Treaties, Peace, and War; and the character of the greatest persons of those times from the middle of the Eighteenth, to the end of the Twentieth Century, and of the World. Received and Revealed in the Year 1728; and now published, for the instruction of all eminent Statesmen, Churchmen, Patriots, Politicians, Projectors, Papists, and Protestants In Six Volumes (London: 1733). It would be interesting to see how often the twentieth century was invoked in prediction and caution, in the nineteenth: an early example is the letter ‘Improvements in Machinery in the Twentieth Century’, The Tradesman, or Commercial Magazine, 1 October 1809, p.339. Satirical use of letters from the future, include ‘A Page from Posterity’, The Age, 23 October 1831, critical of contemporary Whig politics.


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