1906 photograph of Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo.
Speaking of bourgeois exhibitions that display the reach of imperial power, one of the biggest attractions at the Paris World Fair of 1889 — which was meant to highlight “progress from 100 years of freedom” (i.e., the French Revolution)— was the human zoo. The “Negro Village,” as it was called, held about 400 indigenous Africans. They were placed in a village-type setting so that cultural and racial differences between Europeans and non-Europeans could be on display.
A number of these human zoos were founded on the idea of scientific racism, which placed a number of indigenous people—especially Africans—on the evolutionary continuum between the great apes and people of European ancestry.
The transept from the Grand Entrance of the Crystal Palace, Souvenir of the Great Exhibition, William Simpson (lithographer), Ackermann & Co. (publisher), 1851.
With the rise and dominance of the bourgeoisie in the late 19th century, the relationship between imperialism, commerce, and consumerism begin to be celebrated in—what I call— “spectacles of Empire,” in which technological advancements and industrial growth were put on display in great exhibitions meant to communicate the “greatness” of Empire. The idea behind such exhibitions is that anyone—but really middle-class families— could buy tickets and “enjoy” the Empire on the weekend.
One of the most famous exhibitions of the 19th century was the Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in London in 1851, otherwise known as the Crystal Palace exhibition. A monument of modern iron and glass architecture, the exhibition housed and displayed an abundance of goods from British colonies and other nations. Karl Marx himself even commented on the exhibition, saying that it represented the height of some sort of capitalistic fetishism of commodities.
New inventions were also crucial to the success of this exhibition. The Tempest Prognosticator, for example, was an ingenious little device that utilized leeches to predict storms.
Un bar aux Folies Bergère by Édouard Manet (1882, English: A Bar at the Folies-Bergère)
Edouard Manet was born to a bourgeois family that boasted political connections to the Swedish monarchy and the French judiciary. Manet could have had a brilliant career in either the army or law, but instead chose to strike out and become an artist instead, with a particular focus on topics that were of interest to 19th-century bourgeois gents such as himself: domestic pleasures, leisure activities, and events that touched upon French political and foreign interests.
Manet’s work is what prompted his critics to coin the term “impressionism” in the first place. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is a famous painting and tries to mirror, almost quite literally, the traditional still-life painting. Unlike a traditional still-life, however, this painting shows objects of commercial consumption in a setting where leisure itself was consumed.
Many art critics believe that Manet intended this painting to be a social commentary on late 19th century life—especially the disconnection that people felt (which one may see in the expression on the barmaid’s face) to the social encounters of modern life. Shop girls and barmaids such as this one shown above had to supplement their meager incomes through prostitution, and the foreboding image of the bourgeois, well-dressed fellow in the background suggests that the woman herself could have been seen an object of consumption.
Chinese tea gained popularity in Europe in the same period as coffee rose to dominance; the expanding importation of tea to Europe was fostered by the mercantile relationship with China. Over the course of the 18th century, the Chinese had a monopoly on the production of tea and, gradually, tea became from being an occasional drink of the bourgeoisie to a mass commodity consumed in both Europe and North America.
The cultural aspects of the introduction of tea to Europe contrasted with those of chocolate and, especially, coffee. Tea gardens and tea houses became popular in the 18th century and were open to both men and women. The particular popularity of tea in Europe was associated with “civilizing” tendencies, and with the feminine. Tea gardens were associated with domesticity and the family, as opposed to the male, and very public, character of coffee and coffee houses.
The tea ceremony—afternoon tea—became strongly associated with elite femininity in northern Europe, and by the 1740s tea was an important meal in England, the Netherlands, British North America. The tea ceremony began to increasingly reflect the respectability of the bourgeois household.