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Thoroughly Modern Victorian: How the Victorians Birthed the Modern Age

A dishwasher, a pen, aspirin, a gas pump, and jellybeans. What do these things have in common? They were all inventions and products of the Victorian Era. Our summer 2022 exhibit, Thoroughly Modern Victorian: How the Victorian Era Birthed the Modern Age invites you to look at the modern world from the lens of the past. From mail-order catalogs to online shopping, electricity to solar panels, stereoscopes to instagram, the list goes on. Our exhibit aims to explore these inventions and the progress that shaped the world we live in today.

Industrialization and the Rise of the Middle Class

The Gilded Age proved to be an era of unprecedented industry and innovation. Rising from the smoky coal fueled ashes of the industrial revolution came a glittering age of technological advancement and rapid societal change. The innovations of the Gilded Age ushered in modern America, creating a new middle class, one whose members came from a variety of backgrounds. Merchants’ profits boomed with the newer factory production processes. Clerical positions opened at a rapid rate, as new business saw an increased demand for both male and female educated office workers. Inventors developed new technologies, inspired by the "rags to riches," stories that gave hope and inspiration to many during this time. This new middle class took pride in their hard work, fueled by their determination to "get ahead."

As the income rose for this new middle class, so did their desire for material comforts and leisure activities. Department stores rose at an outstanding rate, offering a larger variety of affordable goods, out competing the dry goods stores of the previous era. Victorians spent this excess income on new inventions like the vacuum cleaner, gas stove, ice crusher, etc., technological advancements that saved hours of a Victorian's day. More Victorians now had time to spend going to theaters, department stores, circuses, and other recreational activities. With the rise and rapid growth of railroads, travel became more accessible than ever. This age saw an increase in travel agencies, organizing elaborate trips abroad and across the United States.

The Gilded age also saw an increase in urban living, with about 40 percent of Americans living in major cities by 1900. Fueled by the industrial revolutions' insatiable need for factory workers, cities saw an influx of both immigrants and farmers, leading to an overall shift from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Electricity Illuminated the homes and businesses of the Victorian city, creating a thriving nightlife for city dwellers and spurring the development of downtown shopping districts with electric street cars.

Overall, during the Gilded Age, the quality of life dramatically increased for those that could afford it. Advances in technology, sanitation, medicine, and the availability of better-quality food and material goods dramatically changed the life of the middle class and laid the foundation for modern life as we know it.

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