Life in the 20th Century

By Tim Lambert

There were two sides to the 20th century. On the one hand, there were severe recessions in the early 1930s and in the 1980s and 1990s. There were also two terrible world wars. On the other hand, there was a vast improvement in the standard of living of ordinary people. Life expectancy also rose. In 1900 in Britain, it was about 47 for a man and 50 for a woman. By the end of the century, it was about 75 and 80.

Life was also greatly improved by new inventions. Even during the depression of the 1930s things improved for most of the people who had a job. Real incomes rose significantly during the decade. The same was true of the 1980s.

Society in 20th Century Britain

British society changed greatly during the 20th century. In 1914 only about 20% of the population was middle class. By 1939 the figure was about 30%. In the late 20th century the number of ‘blue-collar’ or manual workers declined rapidly but the number of ‘white-collar’ workers in offices and service industries increased rapidly.

In the 1950s large numbers of West Indians arrived in Britain. Also from the 1950s, many Asians came. In the late 20th century Britain became a multi-cultural society.

There was another change in British society. In the late 20th century divorce and single-parent families became much more common. Also, in the 1950s young people had significant disposable income for the first time. A distinct ‘youth culture’ emerged, first with teddy boys, then in the 1960s with mods and rockers, and the late 1970s with punks and also with rock music. A revolution in music was led by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.

Women in the 20th Century

During the 20th century, women gained equal rights with men.

In 1918 in Britain, women over 30 were allowed to vote if they met a property qualification. More occupations were opened to women during the 20th century. The first policewomen in Britain went on duty in 1914. The 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) opened certain professions to women. They were allowed to be solicitors, barristers, vets, and chartered accountants. They were also allowed to be magistrates and members of juries. The first female solicitor in England was Carrie Morrison in 1922. Also in 1922, Irene Barclay became the first female chartered surveyor.

Nevertheless, in the early 20th century, it was unusual for married women to work outside the home (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s, it became common for them to do so – at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century, housework was so time-consuming married women did not have time to work. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew to create more opportunities for women.

In 1970 the law was changed so women had to be paid the same wages as men. In 1973 women were admitted to the stock exchange. From 1975 it was made illegal to sack women for becoming pregnant. Also in 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, education, and training. In 1984 a new law stated that equal pay must be given for work of equal value.

Work and Industry in 20th Century Britain

In the years 1900-1914, the British economy was stable and unemployment was quite low. However, during the 1920s, there was mass unemployment. For most of the decade, it hovered between 10% and 12%. Then, in the early 1930s, the British economy was struck by depression. By the start of 1933 unemployment among insured workers was 22.8%. However, unemployment fell substantially in 1933, 1934, and 1935. By January 1936 it stood at 13.9%. Unemployment continued to fall and by 1938 it was around 10%.

However although a partial recovery took place in the mid and late 1930s there were semi-permanent depression areas in the North of England, Scotland, and South Wales. On the other hand, new industries such as car and aircraft making and electronics prospered in the Midlands and the South of England where unemployment was relatively low.

The problems of depression and high unemployment were only really solved by the Second World War, which started industry booming again. Unemployment remained very low in the late 1940s and the 1950s and 1960s were a long period of prosperity.

However, this ended in the mid-1970s. In 1973 there was still full employment in Britain (it stood at 3%). However, shortly afterward a period of high inflation and high unemployment began. In the late 1970s, unemployment stood at around 5.5%.

However in the years 1980-1982, Britain was gripped by recession, and unemployment grew much worse. It reached a peak in 1986 then it fell to 1990. Unfortunately, another recession began in 1990 and unemployment rose again. However, unemployment began to fall again in 1993 and it continued to fall till the end of the century.

Meanwhile, in the late 20th century, a change was coming in the British economy, sometimes called de-industrialization. Traditional industries such as coal mining, textiles, and shipbuilding declined rapidly. On the other hand service industries such as tourism, education, retail, and finance grew rapidly and this sector became the main source of employment.

In the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s, it became common for them to do so – at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time-consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time, the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew to create more opportunities for women.

Poverty in 20th Century Britain

At the beginning of the 20th century surveys showed that 25% of the population of Britain was living in poverty. They found that at least 15% were living at the subsistence level. They had just enough money for food, rent, fuel, and clothes. They could not afford ‘luxuries’ such as newspapers or public transport. About 10% were living below subsistence level and could not afford an adequate diet.

The surveys found that the main cause of poverty was low wages. The main cause of extreme poverty was the loss of the main breadwinner. If Dad was dead, ill, or unemployed it was a disaster. Mum might get a job but women were paid much lower wages than men.

Surveys also found that poverty tended to go in a cycle. Workers might live in poverty when they were children but things usually improved when they left work and found a job. However, when they married and had children things would take a turn for the worse. Their wages might be enough to support a single man comfortably but not enough to support a wife and children too. However, when the children grew old enough to work things would improve again. Finally, when he was old a worker might find it hard to find work, except the lowest-paid kind, and be driven into poverty again.

In the 1900s some women made their underwear from bags that grocers kept rice or flour in. Poor children often did not wear underwear. Some poor families made prams from orange boxes.

A Liberal government was elected in 1906 and they made some reforms. From that year poor children were given free school meals. In January 1909 the first old-age pensions were paid. They were hardly generous – only 5 shillings a week, which was a paltry sum even in those days, and they were only paid to people over 70. Nevertheless, it was a start.

Also in 1909, the government formed wages councils. In those days some people worked in the so-called ‘sweated industries’ such as making clothes and they were very poorly paid and had to work extremely long hours just to survive. The wages councils set minimum pay levels for certain industries. In 1910 the first labor exchanges where jobs were advertised were set up.

Then in 1911, the government passed an act establishing sickness benefits for workers. The act also provided unemployment benefits for workers in certain trades such as shipbuilding, where periods of unemployment were common. In 1920 unemployment was extended to most workers although it was not extended to agricultural workers until 1936.

Things greatly improved in Britain after the First World War. A survey in 1924 showed that 4% of the population was living in extreme poverty. (A tremendous improvement from the period before 1914 when it was about 10%). A survey in Liverpool in 1928 found that 14% of the population was living at a bare subsistence level. (That figure may not apply to the whole of Britain as Liverpool was a poor city). In 1929-30 a survey in London found that about 10% of the population were living at subsistence level. A survey in 1936 found that just under 4% were living at a bare survival level. Poverty had by no means disappeared by the 1930s but it was much less than ever before.

Pensions and unemployment benefits were made more generous in 1928 and 1930. In 1931 unemployment benefit was cut by 10% but it was restored in 1934. Furthermore, prices continued to fall during the 1930s. By 1935 a man on the ‘dole’ was about as well off as a skilled worker in 1905, a measure of how much living standards had risen.

By 1950 absolute poverty had almost disappeared from Britain. Absolute poverty can be defined as not having enough money to eat an adequate diet or afford enough clothes.

However, there is also such a thing as relative poverty, when you cannot afford the things most people have. There was still relative poverty in the late 20th century and it increased in the 1980s. That was partly due to mass unemployment. During the 1980s the gap between rich and poor increased as the well-off benefited from tax cuts.

Homes in 20th Century Britain

At the start of the 20th century, working-class homes had two rooms downstairs. The front room and the back room. The front room was kept for the best and children were not allowed to play there. In the front room, the family kept their best furniture and ornaments. The back room was the kitchen and it was where the family spent most of their time. Most families cooked on a coal-fired stove called a range, which also heated the room.

This lifestyle changed in the early 20th century as gas cookers became common. They did not heat the room so people began to spend most of their time in the front room or living room, by the fire. Rising living standards meant it was possible to furnish all rooms properly not just one. During the 20th century, ordinary people’s furniture greatly improved in quality and design.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a new style of furniture and architecture was introduced. It was called Art Deco and it used geometric shapes instead of the flowing lines of the earlier Art Nouveau. The name Art Deco came from an exhibition held in Paris in 1925 called the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs.

At the beginning of the 20th century, only rich people could afford electric light. Other people used gas. Ordinary people did not have electric light until the 1920s and 1930s. In the early 20th century vacuum cleaners and washing machines were available but only rich people could afford them. They became more common in the 1930s, though they were still expensive. By 1959 about two-thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. However, fridges and washing machines did not become common till the 1960s.

Labour-saving devices and new cleaning materials meant that housework was usually a part-time job rather than a full-time one. That made it much easier for women to work outside the home.

The first practical electric fire was made in 1912 but it did not become common until the 1930s. Central heating became common in the 1960s and 1970s. Double glazing became common in the 1980s. Plastic or PVC was first used in the 1940s. By the 1960s all kinds of household goods from drain pipes to combs were made of plastic.

In 1900 about 90% of the population of Britain rented their home. However, homeownership became more common during the 20th century. By 1939 about 27% of the population owned their own house.

Meanwhile, the first council houses were built before the First World War. More were built in the 1920s and 1930s and some slum clearance took place. However, council houses remained rare until after World War II. After 1945 many more were built and they became common.

In the early 1950s, many homes still did not have bathrooms and only had outside lavatories. The situation greatly improved in the late 1950s and 1960s. In the 1950s and 1960s, large-scale slum clearance took place when whole swathes of old terraced houses were demolished. High-rise flats replaced some of them.

However, flats proved to be unpopular with many people. Some people who lived in the new flats felt isolated. The old terraced houses may have been grim but at least they often had a strong sense of community, which was usually not true of the flats that replaced them.

Furthermore, in 1968 a gas explosion wrecked a block of flats at Ronan Point in London and public opinion turned against them. In the 1970s the emphasis turned to renovating old houses rather than replacing them. Then, in 1979 the government adopted a policy of selling council houses.

Food in the 20th Century

The diet of ordinary people in Britain greatly improved during the 20th century. In 1900 some families sat down to tea of potatoes and malnutrition was common among poor children. Food was also expensive. In 1914 a working-class family spent about 60% of their income on food. By 1937 the food was cheaper and they only spent about 35% of their income on food.

Sweets were a luxury in 1914. They became much more common in the 1920s and 1930s. Food was rationed during World War II. In January 1940 butter, sugar, bacon, and ham were rationed. Tea was also rationed from 1940. Rationing became more severe in 1942. From July 1942 sweets were rationed. Instead of real eggs, many people had to make do with ‘dried eggs’ imported from the USA.

Rationing lasted for several years after the war. Tea rationing lasted until 1952. Sweet rationing ended in 1953. Meat rationing remained until 1954. In the late 20th century convenience foods became far more common. That was partly because fridges, freezers, and later microwave ovens became common. (Microwave ovens first became common in the 1980s).

The British diet also became more varied. Chinese and Indian takeaways and restaurants became common. So, in the 1980s, did hamburger and pizza chains.

Several new foods were invented in the 20th century. Choc-ices went on sale in the USA in 1921. The ice lolly was patented in 1923. Sliced bread was first sold in the USA in 1928. Spam was invented in 1936.

Fish fingers went on sale in 1955. Meanwhile, in 1954, Marc Gregoire developed the non-stick frying pan.

Many new kinds of sweets were introduced in the 20th century. They included Milky Way (1923), Crunchie (1929), Snickers (1930), Mars Bar (1932), Aero and Kit Kat (1935), Maltesers, and Blue Riband (1936), and Smarties and Rolos (1937). Later came Polo Mints (1948), Bounty (1951), Twix (1967) Yorkie, and Lion Bar (1976). Also in the 20th century, new biscuits were introduced including the custard cream (1908) bourbon (1910), and HobNobs (1986).

Rice Krispies were introduced in 1928. Frosties went on sale in the USA in 1952 (1954 in Britain). Sugar Puffs went on sale in Britain in 1954.

At the end of the 20th century, the first genetically modified foods were introduced.

Clothes in the 20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th century, fashionable men wore trousers, waistcoats,s and coats. They wore top hats or homburgs.

In 1900 women wore long dresses. It was not acceptable for women to show their legs. From 1910 women wore hobble skirts. They were so narrow women could only ‘hobble’ along while wearing them. However, during World War I women’s clothes became more practical.

Meanwhile, in 1913 Mary Phelps Jacob invented the modern bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by a ribbon. In 1915 lipstick was sold in tubes for the first time. In the early 1920s, women still wore knickers that ended below the knee. However, during the 1920s knickers became shorter. They ended above the knee. During the 1940s and 1950s, younger women wore briefs.

A revolution in women’s clothes occurred in 1925. At that time women began wearing knee-length skirts. In the mid and late 1920s, it was fashionable for women to look boyish. However, in the 1930s women’s dress became more conservative.

During World War II it was necessary to save material so skirts were shorter. Clothes were rationed until 1949. Meanwhile, the bikini was invented in 1946. In 1947 Christian Dior introduced the New Look, with long skirts and narrow waists giving an ‘hourglass’ figure. During the 1950s women’s clothes were full and feminine. However in 1965, Mary Quant invented the mini skirt and clothes became even more informal.

After the First World War men’s clothes became less informal and more casual. In the 1920s wide trousers called ‘Oxford bags’ were fashionable. Men also often wore pullovers instead of waistcoats.

In the 19th century, men’s underwear covered almost the whole body, stretching from the ankles to the neck and the wrists. However, in the 1920s, they began to wear shorts that ended above the knee and sleeveless vests. The first Y-fronts went on sale in the mid-1930s.

In the second half of the 20th century, fashions for both sexes became so varied and changed so rapidly that it would take too long to list them all. One of the biggest changes was the availability of artificial fibers. Nylon was first made in 1935 by Wallace Carothers and polyester was invented in 1941. It became common in the 1950s. Vinyl (a substitute for leather) was invented in 1924. Trainers were designed in 1949 by Adolf Dassler.

Communications in the 20th Century

The first cars appeared at the end of the 19th century. After the First World War, they became cheaper and more common. However, in 1940 only about one in 10 families in Britain owned a car. They increased in number after World War II. By 1959 32% of households owned a car. Yet cars only became common in the 1960s. By the 1970s the majority of families owned one.

In 1903 a speed limit of 20 MPH was introduced. It was abolished in 1930. However, in 1934 a speed limit of 30 MPH in built-up areas was introduced. Meanwhile, in 1925 the first electric traffic lights were installed in London. A driving test was introduced in 1934. Also in 1934, Percy Shaw invented the cat’s eye. The parking meter was invented by Carlton Magee. The first one was installed in the USA in 1935. In 1983 wearing a seat belt was made compulsory.

Meanwhile, in 1936 Belisha Beacons were introduced to make road crossing safer. The first zebra crossing was introduced in 1949. In 1931 an American called Rolla N. Harger invented the first breathalyzer. It was first used in Indianapolis USA in 1939. A Swede named Nils Bohlin developed the three-point seat belt in 1959.

Meanwhile, in the late 19th century, horse-drawn trams ran in many towns. At the beginning of the 20th century, they were electrified. However, in most towns, trams were phased out in the 1930s. They gave way to buses, either motor buses or trolleybuses, which ran on overhead wires. The trolleybuses, in turn, were phased out in the 1950s. Ironically at the end of the 20th century, some cities re-introduced light railways.

In the mid-20th century, there was a large network of branch railways. However, in 1963 a minister called Dr. Beeching closed many of them.

In the early 20th century only a small minority of people had a telephone. They did not become common until the 1960s. Even so, in 1979 31% of households did not have a phone. Martin Cooper invented the first handheld cell phone in 1973. In Britain, mobile phones became common in the 1990s. Emails also became common at that time.

In 1919 planes began carrying passengers between London and Paris. Jet passenger aircraft were introduced in 1949. However, in the early 20th century flight was a luxury few people could afford. Furthermore, only a small minority could afford foreign travel. Foreign holidays only became common in the 1960s. The Boeing 747, the first ‘Jumbo jet’ was introduced in 1970 and the Channel Tunnel opened in 1994.

Leisure in the 20th Century

During the 20th century, people had more and more leisure time. In 1900 the average working week in Britain was 54 hours. By the 1980s it was 39 hours. Furthermore, in 1900 most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays. In 1939 a new law said that everyone must have one week’s annual paid holiday. By the 1950s two weeks were common and by the 1980s most people had at least 4 weeks of annual holiday.

In 1900 Frank Hornby invented a toy called Meccano. In 1907 Robert Baden-Powell formed the Boy Scouts. In 1910 the girl guides were formed.

The first crossword was devised in 1913 by Arthur Wynne.

In the early 20th century films were often shown in theaters but an increasing number of purpose-built cinemas appeared. The great age of cinema-going was the 1930s when most people went at least once and sometimes twice a week. Early films were black and white but in the 1930s the first color films were made. (Although it was decades before all films were made in color).

Radio broadcasting began in 1922 when the BBC was formed. By 1933 half the households in Britain had a radio. Television began in Britain in 1936 when the BBC began broadcasting. TV was suspended during World War II but it began again in 1946. TV first became common in the 1950s. A lot of people bought a TV set to watch the coronation of Elizabeth II and a survey at the end of that year showed that about one-quarter of households had one. By 1959 about two-thirds of homes had a TV. By 1964 the figure had reached 90% and TV had become the main form of entertainment – at the expense of cinema, which declined in popularity.

At first, there was only one TV channel but between 1955 and 1957 the ITV companies began broadcasting. BBC2 began in 1964 and Channel 4 began in 1982. In Britain BBC 2 began broadcasting in color in 1967, BBC 1 and ITV followed in 1969.

Video recorders became common in the early 1980s. Many video hire shops opened at that time. At the end of the century, videos were replaced by DVDs. Portable TVs became common in the 1980s and satellite broadcasting began in 1989. Satellite or cable TV became common in the 1990s. Personal computers became common in the 1980s. The internet became common in the 1990s. Furthermore, in the late 20th century gardening became a very popular pastime. So did DIY.

Education in the 20th Century

In 1900 children in Britain sometimes left school when they were only 12 years old. However, in 1918 the minimum school leaving age was raised to 14. Between the wars, working-class children went to elementary schools. Middle-class children went to grammar schools and upper-class children went to public schools.

In 1948 the school leaving age was raised to 15 and in 1973 it was raised to 16. Following the 1944 Education Act, all children had to sit an exam called the 11 Plus. Those who passed went to grammar schools while those who failed went to secondary modern schools. However, in the late 1950s public opinion began to turn against the system, and in the 1960s and early 1970s, most schools became comprehensives.

Until the late 20th century teachers were allowed to hit children. Corporal punishment was phased out in most primary schools in the 1970s. The cane was abolished in state secondary schools in 1987. It was finally abolished in private schools in 1999.

There was a huge expansion of higher education in Britain in the 1960s and many new universities were founded. In 1992 polytechnics were changed to universities. Meanwhile, the Open University began in 1969. In the late 20th century people had far more opportunities for education and training than ever before.

Medicine in the 20th Century

Vitamins were discovered in 1912. Insulin was first used to treat a patient in 1922. The iron lung was invented in 1928. In 1943 Willem Kolff built the first artificial kidney machine. In the years 1935-1940, a group of drugs called sulphonamides was discovered. They were used to treat bacterial infections such as gonorrhea.

Antibiotics were discovered too. Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming but it was not widely used till after 1940. Another antibiotic, streptomycin was isolated in 1944. It was used to treat tuberculosis. They were followed by many others. A vaccine for measles was discovered in 1963. In Britain, the health of ordinary people greatly improved when the National Health Service was founded in 1948.

In 1953 Dr Jonas Salk invented a vaccine for poliomyelitis.

The first blood bank was created in a Russian hospital in 1932. The first blood bank in the USA was created by Bernard Fantus in 1937.

Surgery made great advances during the 20th century. The most difficult surgery was on the brain and the heart. Both of these developed rapidly in the 20th century. A Swede named Rune Elmqvist invented the first implantable pacemaker in 1958. The first heart transplant was performed in 1967.

The first test-tube baby was born in 1978. In 1980 the World Health Organisation announced that smallpox had been eradicated.

Last Revised 2024