History of popular culture  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

"The 18th century first saw the development of a culture that was available to anyone prepared to buy a ticket. Before this, the aristocracy had kept all that was best in culture for itself. Now culture was there to enrich and fill the time of the newly affluent, and genteel consumers could polish themselves by visiting art galleries or museums, attending concerts or performances of Shakespeare. As pleasure became 'culture', it became increasingly important for the polite classes (many of them nouveaux riches) to distinguish between high and low entertainments. Then, as now, those most insecure about their own refinement were likeliest to be most hostile to all that might be thought 'low' or 'vulgar' (until the mid-19th century the words most commonly used for what we might call 'popular')."--"The Invention of Popular Culture" (2000) by John Mullan

The Smoker (ca. 1654 - 1662) by Joos van Craesbeeck
The Smoker (ca. 1654 - 1662) by Joos van Craesbeeck

Related e



Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Popular culture is the culture of the common people or in other words: mainstream culture or plainly culture. It is a result of the influences of "low" culture (that of working class culture) and "high" culture (of the nobility).

The growth of modern industry in the 19th century led to massive urbanization and the rise of new great cities, first in Europe and then in other regions, as new opportunities brought huge numbers of migrants from rural communities into urban areas. Increased literacy, rapid printing, cheap paper, music halls gave rise to popular culture as we know it today.

The culture of the common people outside of large urban areas and/or in pre-industrial times is referred to as folk culture, rather than popular culture.


Ancient popular culture

Greco-Roman mythology

"panem et circenses", literally "bread and circuses"

Middle Ages

Medieval popular culture


Renaissance erotica, Renaissance culture, Medieval and Renaissance bestsellers

By the time of the Renaissance, the narrative and visual culture (in short popular culture) at hand to the Renaissance everyman encompassed European folklore, fables, biblical history or Christian mythology, classical mythology and the founding myth of Rome.

These tropes were spread via the printing press and master prints.

18th and 19th century popular culture

18th century culture, 19th century culture

The growth of modern industry from the late 18th century onward led to massive urbanization in many Western countries and the rise of new great cities in Europe, America, Australia and other regions, as new opportunities brought huge numbers of migrants from rural communities into urban areas and from poor to rich nations. Increased literacy, improvements in education and public health, new industrial and scientific technology and rapidly increasing urbanisation provided the socio-economic bases of popular culture as we know it today.

Developments in transport also played a vital role in this process, with the advent of the steam locomotive and the steamship enabling both cultural products and their performers, producers and consumers to be distributed further, faster and more widely than ever before. Related advances in building technology saw the construction of the first large-scale public exhibition spaces (e.g. the Crystal Palace) and ground-breaking public events such as the famous Great Exhibition of 1851.

During the late 18th and 19th centuries, entirely new genres of popular culture arose from the many new forms of communication that appeared and proliferated. These include the illustrated newspaper and magazine, the novel, printed sheet music, political pamphlets, the postcard, the greeting card, children's books, commercial catalogues, photography and the phonograph.

Developments in the print industry during the 19th century — notably the advent of the illustrated newspapers and the periodical magazine — led to the appearance of many new genres of text-based popular culture, including the detective story, the serialised novel (e.g. Charles Dickens and the pioneering science fiction of authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells), as well as the mass-market populist book genre nicknamed the "Penny Dreadful", which later evolved into the pulp fiction genre. These innovations also created new categories of work and employment, such as the commercial artist, the journalist and the photographer.

Facilitated by law reform and changes in social attitudes, newspapers and periodicals began to feature new forms of social reportage and commentary, such as the editorial, the gossip column and the first works of investigative journalism. The invention of the telegraph allowed newspapers to gather news and other information more rapidly and widely than ever before, enabling the rise of the daily newspaper and the news agency.

The performing arts likewise underwent radical changes in this period, with the emergence of many new genres including modern grand opera, comic opera and operetta, vaudeville and music hall entertainment. The invention of gaslight revolutionised the theatre and made regular night-time mass entertainment a practical reality.

Music, at all levels of culture, was also drastically reshaped by new technology and techniques: the mass-production of musical instruments such as the guitar, the banjo, the ukelele, the harmonica and the pianoforte (soon followed by the player piano and reproducing piano); the invention of the saxophone; the evolution of the symphony orchestra; the standardisation of concert pitch; and the advent of cheap printed sheet music.

The two most profoundly influential developments in this entire period were without doubt the invention of the collodion 'wet-plate' process of photography in 1851 and the invention of the phonograph ca. 1878. Printing, photography and recorded sound provided the practical basis for a significant part of popular culture in the 20th century.

20th century popular culture

20th century culture

In modern urban mass societies, popular culture has been crucially shaped by the development of industrial mass production, the introduction of new technolgies of sound and image broadcasting and recording, and the growth of mass media industries -- the film, broadcast radio and television, and the book publishing industries, as well as the print and electronic news media.

But popular culture cannot be described as just the aggregate product of those industries; instead, it is the result of a continuing interactions between those industries and those who consume their products. Bennett (1980, p.153-218) distinguishes between 'primary' and 'secondary' popular culture, the first being mass product and the second being local re-production.

Popular culture is constantly changing and is specific to place and time. It forms currents and eddies, in the sense that a small group of people will have a strong interest in an area of which the mainstream popular culture is only partially aware; thus, for example, the electro-pop group Kraftwerk has "impinged on mainstream popular culture to the extent that they have been referenced in The Simpsons and Father Ted."

Items of popular culture most typically appeal to a broad spectrum of the public. Some argue that broad-appeal items dominate popular culture because profit-making companies that produce and sell items of popular culture attempt to maximize their profits by emphasizing broadly appealing items. (see culture industry)

See also

popular culture studies, everyday, body genres, Alltagsgeschichte


Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "History of popular culture" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools