History of the World According to the Movies: Part 49 – Life in 19th Century Europe


Here we have a lovely ball scene from Luchino Visconti’s 1963 movie The Leopard starring Burt Lancaster as an aristocrat having to deal with the changes that come with Italian unification as well as other aspects that any noble of the 19th century has to deal with like a rising middle class, a dying aristocracy, and other things. Still, Burt Lancaster’s character faces many of the obstacles that befall many people in his class all over Europe. Still, it’s nice to see him dance with Claudia Cardinale who plays the woman who marries his nephew.

Europe went through a lot in the 19th century and not just in France, Great Britain, or in the German speaking world either. Spain lost its most of its colonial empire and would soon become a constitutional monarchy by the end. Belgium would form in the 1830s as a constitutional monarchy though it would later have a king named Leopold II who would be responsible for atrocities in the Congo Free State which would inspire Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well as the first human rights movement. Much of Eastern Europe would continue to be dominated under Prussia, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, though the Greeks did manage to gain their independence with Lord Byron fighting for them. Finally, Italy would unify in the 1860s thanks to the efforts of Giuseppe Garibaldi and his army of Redshirts known for their fighting prowess as well as utter ability to be utterly disposable (couldn’t resist with the Star Trek reference). Still, there were plenty of others fighting alongside him as well as plenty of opera composers, too. And of course, Russia tried to modernize by getting rid of the serfs and slaves but doesn’t do much else except produce a string of composers and writers. Nevertheless, Europe at the end of the 19th century would be a very different place than at its beginning just in time for another big trans formative century. Still, there are a lot of movies made in this time period which get a lot of things wrong about this time, and I shall list these errors.


Queen Maria Louisa hated her unflattering portrait Francisco Goya painted for her. (She actually liked it so much that she made Goya the first court painter in Spain.)

Francisco Goya’s artwork brought him to the unwanted attention of the Spanish Inquisition. (There’s no record it did.)

Queen Isabella II was running Spain while she was ten. (Her mother was actually ruling as regent but John Quincy Adams would’ve just wanted to say that in Amistad.)


The Irish were a bunch of culturally backward country bumpkins who drank heavily and encouraged spousal abuse. (This is not only false but very offensive.)

Sein Finn was formed during Queen Victoria’s reign. (It was founded in 1905, four years after Victoria died.)


King Leopold I of Belgium was a pushy manipulator who tried to use his nephew Albert to control Queen Victoria. (He was actually Victoria’s favorite uncle who gave her a lot of good advice. However, his son was a real evil bastard, to put it mildly.)

King Leopold I didn’t visit Great Britain with his family. (He did but since his kids were Leopold II and the Mad Carlotta, it’s kind of justifiable you don’t see them in The Young Victoria.)

King Leopold was the youngest son of a penniless duke. (For one, he had a younger brother who died shortly after birth which was two years after his. Second, his old man Francis of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld was far from penniless.)

Vincent van Gogh took up with a prostitute named Sien when she had a small baby. (She was pregnant by that time and had a five-year-old girl. However she was an alcoholic prostitute who hated him when she shacked up with Vince.)


Norway’s capital was Oslo at this time. (Yes, but the city’s name was Christiana. Sort of like how Tokyo was the capital of Japan in the Tokugawa Era when it was named Edo.)


The Duchy of Savoy existed in the early 19th century. (It had ceased to exist by 1713 when the duchy acquired the kingdom of Sardinia. At that time the Duke of Savoy was simply called, “the king of Sardinia.”)

Everyone in the nineteenth century aged faster than they do today. (They aged at around the same speed as we do today once you subtract the hard work and malnutrition.)

Young revolutionaries in Europe were sympathetic to the peasants and their plights. (Actually they revolted more for themselves since they were mostly middle class born and when they got what they wanted, rejoined the human race and went on with their lives.)

19th century scientists ranged from loveable eccentrics whose experiments tended to go out of control to total nutcases and/or possibly sociopaths who performed scientific experiments with little regard to ethics or concern for the community and usually in their secret laboratory.

Photography was available in the 1820s and 1830s. (It wasn’t available until the 1840s.)

The Prayer of St. Michael existed in 1846. (It was written by Pope Leo XIII in 1888.)

19th century 12 pound guns could fire at a distance of 1,500 yards. (This would be well beyond accurate range for any gun like this.)

The Peterson System pipe was around during the mid-1800s. (It wasn’t patented until 1894 and made in Dublin.)

Metal cartridges were widely used from the mid-19th century. (They wouldn’t be widely used until the late 1860s.)

4 wheeled train cars were common place throughout the 19th century. (Not in the US after 1850.)

It wasn’t unusual for a woman in the 19th century to be wearing a bra. (19th century women didn’t wear bras, which were invented in 1913.)

Dynamite was around since the mid-1800s. (It was invented in 1866.)

19th century Gatling guns were reliable weapons. (Let’s just say these machine guns didn’t have a fast firing speed like they do in many Civil War movies.)

All 19th century trains had air brakes. (They weren’t invented until 1869 yet trains in movies before that somehow had them.)

Dresses had in seam pockets throughout the 19th century. (Flat surface pockets weren’t invented until after the American Civil war. Before that, wealthy women used Chatelaines that held purses and other items while poorer women used cloth pockets suspended from a strap pinned to a waistband.)

Kissing and holding hands in public was acceptable behavior in the upper classes. (Not until the turn of the 20th century.)

Vaccines were around at this time. (They were developed in 1885 by Louis Pasteur but Edward Jenner did have one for smallpox in the 18th century.)

Gas lighting was clean with no ill effects as well as gave warm glow. (By this I mean, literal gas lighting not the type of emotional abuse inspired by the Ingrid Bergman movie. Gas lights left a sooty residue everywhere, blackened ceilings, corroded metal, and even wilted and yellowed indoor plants. Rich people didn’t use gas lighting for the damage it did to paintings and precious fabrics. They also had a nasty tendency to explode and were a great fire hazard. Still, this should make you wonder why Ingrid Bergman’s ceilings were so clean in Gaslight.)

Household servants were treated well by the estate owners. (Depends on the location. If you were a servant in early 19th century Russia or Pre-Civil War America, you probably didn’t earn anything at all. Still, while people in the 19th century viewed servants like people nowadays view their appliances, doesn’t mean they were treated that well. A live-in maid usually earned less than $35 a year while general servants could make as much as $90 annually. A better paid butler could expect to earn an annual salary of $230 a year. They also faced a constant risk of being let go and were subject to an honesty test by their employers hiding a coin or something valuable in plain sight to see if they would pocket it. Sometimes they weren’t even called by their own names.)

Photographs were always black and white or sepia toned.

Small boys wore pants and short hair. (They actually wore dresses because they weren’t potty trained and fasteners like snaps, zippers, and Velcro weren’t available for the time period. Also, clothes for very young children were hard to make and the fact that babies and toddlers grew quickly. Having them wear dresses was a matter of practicality because it made diaper changing easier and could be worn for a few years. Thus, men like Ernest Hemingway, Douglas MacArthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and others. As for hair, it wasn’t unusual for some to have long hair and curls {though this wasn’t standard for the time period}.)

Chimney sweeps were pre-teen boys who went in fully clothed. (Except in the German states {where chimney sweeps had their own guilds and were primarily adults}, chimney sweeps elsewhere in the western world started out as young as 4-5 years old {in the US they were primarily black in the 19th century and from the South and hired from their owners} and were usually at the end of their careers by 11 or 12. Known as “climbing boys” they would climb up the chimneys naked {or in pants and a cotton shirt} propelling themselves with their knees and elbows which would be scraped raw. Oh, and they rarely bathed. There were also methods to enforce the boys to work harder. One was to light a pile of straw in the grate to send a blast of heat up the chimney after them. Another was to send another sweep to prick pins on the soles of his feet or butt. Of course, the child chimney sweep is a fixture in the 19th century though the practice of child chimney sweeps began to fade in the 1870s mostly due to laws banning the practice.)

Child chimney sweeps rarely got stuck in the chimneys they were cleaning. (Many boys did get stuck in chimneys, which could be for hours before they were either pushed from below, pulled out with a rope, or taking out by removing bricks from the chimney. They harder they struggled, the tighter they were wedged could possibly cause a fall of soot which could lead to their suffocation. Child chimney sweeps suffered from hazards like general neglect, stunted growth and deformities of spine, legs, and arms, blindness, asthma and respiratory problems, chest inflammation, burns, accidents, and bruises. Yet, perhaps the most famous health hazard for a child chimney sweep was Chimney Sweeps’ Cancer which was a cancer of the scrotum and didn’t occur until the sweep was in his late teens or early 20s. It was the first reported occupational cancer.)

Women’s dresses weren’t fire hazards in the mid-19th century. (Women who wore crinolines of tulle and gauze as well as wide sleeves were walking torches in the era of candles and open flames. In the 1850s, there was a prima ballerina who died when her petticoat puffed tutu was ignited by a gas lamp.)

Women in the mid-19th century never experienced embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions. (If a fashionable woman fell, the crinoline would splay all about her like a 3D fan exposing whatever was beneath. Also, this was a time when such clothing wouldn’t make it easy for women to go to the bathroom so they probably wore split crotch knickers which explained why the can-can was considered obscene. Yes, any women experiencing a wardrobe malfunction in this era would make Janet Jackson’s little incident at the 2004 Super Bowl seem tame.)

Workhouses were primarily for orphan children. (They were actually for those who were too poor, old, or ill to support themselves. This could be due to periods of high unemployment, someone having no family willing or able to provide care for them when they were elderly or sick. However, contrary to most adaptations of Oliver Twist, orphan children weren’t the only people living at workhouses which included unmarried pregnant women disowned by their families, mentally ill and mentally handicapped poor, and others who had no other means of support or economic opportunity. Workhouses in 19th century were in Britain during both the Georgian and Victorian Eras. Nevertheless, Oliver Twist wouldn’t be just working alongside orphans like himself though inmates were segregated into certain classes depending on gender, age, and health. )

Workhouse admission was akin to a form of prison. (In the 19th century, this was seen as a poor relief measure and entry was usually voluntary {except maybe in Oliver Twist’s case since he practically lived in one all his life}, though it was a painful decision since it carried a change of legal status such as the loss of political rights. Still, they life there was kind of like prison, except that inmates would have their possessions seized and stored until they left.)

Women had no rights during this time. (This depended on the country or what time in the 19th century you lived in. Still, this was a century when women made gains in property ownership, divorce, work, and education. Still, by the end of the 19th century, only women in New Zealand had the right to vote but the Women’s Suffrage movement was in full swing by this time.)

The 1890s were a great time in history. (In old movies, this was a very nostalgic decade for a time. However, in this decade, there was rampant child labor, rampant discrimination in the United States, European Anti-Semitism, lots of abject poverty, wars and human rights abuses in Africa, and other things.)