The images that shaped Europe

Advertise the Belle Epoque

Leisure and consumption for everyone !

Nowadays, our visual environment and our daily life are saturated with all kinds of advertising. But, is this a new phenomenon? It’s likely that you’re familiar with the type of old advertising poster from around 1900, when it seems the image’s commercial vocation was almost forgotten in favour of its decorative qualities. Advertising appeared long before the 19th century, but it really boomed at that time thanks to the industrial production of prints and images.

Produced as series of images, advertisements and their mass distribution acted to both reflect consumption and leisure practices, and direct them. Whether they were displayed in the streets or in the press, these advertising images and the products they promoted have contributed to the diffusion of a common culture and lifestyle throughout Europe.

The advertisements from our corpus are mostly representative of the period from 1880 to 1930, and more specifically 1900-1914. They allow us to interrogate an important moment in European history, namely the birth of consumerism following the Second Industrial Revolution - or what later became known as ‘La Belle Époque’.

It was a time when the wonders of progress, science and technology seemed to benefit everyone. Despite deep and persistent inequalities, this era saw a relative rise in the standards of living and an increase in the budget and time devoted to consumption and leisure.

Manufacturers used intense advertising to convince new consumers to buy and to ensure that they sold as many products as they were now able to produce. At the same time, advertising helped make the press accessible to everyone, becoming the core of its economic model.

Full page of ads from "Supplément illustré du Petit comtois", July 1904.

On these advertising pages, one could find all kinds of industrially and mass-produced goods: cameras, bicycles, musical instruments and pocket watches as well as cosmetics, remedies and processed food. The proliferation of these products is evidence of significant competition between manufacturers as well as the spread of a more comfortable lifestyle seeking to emulate the upper classes.

Cheers !

Alcohol advertising is now frowned upon, but at the time it was one of the main sources of income for the press and as such these images are among the most abundant in our corpus. All types of alcohol were represented as there were so many producers all around Europe. Alcohol was presented as a virtuous product, often essential to social life, and sometimes even associated with medicinal virtues.

Alcohol consumption was valued among the upper classes, and was closely linked to the world of entertainment. On the contrary, it was viewed with concern and suspicion when it comes to the working classes, with the authorities and elites concerned about its effect on the public’s morals and health.

The First World War led to a decline in periodicals and with it advertising as a whole, but advertisements for alcoholic beverages nonetheless remained prominent during this dark time for Europe.

Just press the button

In the 19th century, following the birth of photography, there was a surge of improvements in photographic processes which levelled out with the advent of silver gelatin dry plates and their industrial production around 1880. This progress allowed a gradual miniaturisation and simplification of cameras, the symbol of which was the Kodak produced by the American, George Eastman (1888).

These technical and industrial advances in the medium, intertwined with the vogue of tourism within the "leisure class", led to a significant expansion of amateur photography throughout the period. However, advertising also played a central role in this wider diffusion of photography. Women, children and tourists were featured in advertisements to emphasise the so-called simplicity of use of cameras and photographic equipment, allowing marketers to enlarge the pool of potential consumers.

On the road to freedom

Sports and bicycles in particular were the symbols of new-found freedom. The bicycle was perfected mainly after 1870. Although it came at a cost, it was accessible to a large public and became one of the most purchased manufactured products of the period, gradually replacing the horse as a means of transportation. Its diffusion also had the unexpected effect of contributing to women’s emancipation. Indeed, in addition to broadening women's geographical horizon and their field of action, cycling has also revolutionised women's fashion. A new kind of garment was adopted for this practice - a kind of trouser called bloomers. A new freedom of movement and this garment evoking the male wardrobe did not fail to raise some concern!

A machine that can sing

Music was at the centre of the cultural life of the time, especially in the world of entertainment. The large amount of advertisements in the press for musical instruments suggests a greater diffusion within domestic households thanks to their industrial production.

However, the greatest revolution was the development of recording, especially since the end of the 1880s, first with phonographs (cylinders), then with gramophones (flat discs). The sale of these devices was stimulated by intense advertising. Sound and voice were no longer ephemeral. Popular songs, operas and plays could now be enjoyed from home and at will. Around 1900, a strong cultural industry around the disc was set up in Europe and in the United States.

The price to pay

More and more people had access to leisure and consumption because of the development of credit purchases, strongly encouraged by advertising. Some stores, like the one advertised below, even specialised in this type of partial payment to target the middle and working classes.

Along with the excitement of owning something new, the possibility of buying objects on credit was particularly emphasized in the advertisements. The aim was to arouse desire, create a need and provoke the act of purchase. So, behind this democratisation of leisure and luxury actually lay the concept of debt, which advertising fed by encouraging people to spend money they did not have.