Modern breakthrough 1830-1915


Personal freedom and economic progress

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Jutland saw enemy invasions in 1848 and 1864. The battles that raged on Danish soil claimed many lives. The transformation from absolute monarchy to democracy in 1849 ushered in a new era. And the constitutional struggle at the turn of the century ended with the introduction of parliamentarism in 1901. In 1915, all adults were finally entitled to vote. Before that, men working as servants in other people's households, and all women were excluded from democracy.

Some were more equal than others
Under the absolute monarchy, all Denmark's inhabitants were the King's subjects. But not all were equal. Farmers, craftsmen and other manual labourers were peasants. Most peasants were poor, but even wealthy farmers and master craftsmen were looked down on by those with an education and by large landowners. The gaps between peasants and people of culture and between master and servant were so distinct that the peasants had to stand with their cap in hand as the landowner rode past. This gap took a long time to close. Not until 1903 could youngsters who had attended the village school further their academic education without a lengthy detour.
For many years after democracy was introduced in Denmark, it was still inconceivable that farmers, craftsmen and labourers could become ministers. The agrarian Liberal party, the folk high school movement, the smallholder movement and the labour movement all helped to change this situation. The first farmer to be appointed minister was Ole Hansen in 1901, and it caused such a sensation that newspaper cartoonists revelled in the idea of a farmer attending a ball with the Queen.

Father calls the shots
In family life too, the ingrained limitations on personal freedom took a long time to disperse. Most fathers expected to have a say in their children's choice of marriage partner. Women were considered minors, e.g. not adults in a legal sense. Only widows had the legal right make decisions concerning their own inheritance and income. All other women had to have a male guardian - normally their father or husband. In 1857, unmarried women of over 25 were granted the right to manage their own financial affairs and the right to run their own businesses. In 1880, married women gained the right to manage money they had earned themselves. Married partners became almost equal in the eyes of the law in the 1920s when married women were awarded a share of parental custody of joint children. Until then, fathers could place children outside the home without the mother's consent.

Butter, bacon and railways
In 1801, 80 percent of the population lived off the land. Agriculture was by far the largest sector of the Danish economy and remained a very dynamic driver for economic growth throughout the 19th century. The booming grain sales from the 1830s until the 1870s fuelled the powerful development in urban businesses. Brickworks shot up producing bricks for new buildings, and almost all provincial towns had an iron foundry producing modern ploughs, chaff cutters, threshing machines, ovens, kitchenware and other wares.
From the mid-1800s, the bank and credit system began to blossom. In about 1860, railway construction began spreading at an almost explosive speed. The telegraph network and then the telephone network were established.
From 1865 until 1900 or so, many new industries grew up as offshoots of agriculture. New agricultural produce was processed at sugar factories, dairies and abattoirs. Butter and bacon became major export goods. And as the farmers gave up self-sufficiency production, they and those working in the new industries formed a growing market for everyday necessities. Breweries, the clothing industry, bread factories and shoe manufacturers began producing for a domestic market with increasing purchasing power.

Cold and hungry
Throughout the 19th century, the economic boom had picked up enough momentum to sustain one of the fastest-growing populations in Europe. In 1801, there were 0.9 million people in Denmark, in 1880 almost two million and in 1915 the figure was 2.9 million. But fine-tuning the balance between the growing population and economic growth was neither automatic nor painless. In the 1870s, the pitifully inadequate wages earned by farm workers and unskilled workers were too low to keep cold and hunger at bay – even if all the members of the family were hardworking and sober. It was clearly etched in their physical appearance. On average, sons of farm workers were several centimetres shorter than their peers and many were incapacitated by bad health. A special term “kummerformer” was coined to describe their abnormal physical appearance caused by their wretched existence.
From 1850 to 1900, real wages earned by unskilled workers more than doubled. This finally kept them from starving but unskilled workers still had to spend about 60 percent of their income on food, even though their diet consisted mainly of potatoes, rye bread and margarine. Single mothers with children were even worse off. Female workers were paid only 40-50 percent of what male workers earned.

Strikes push wages up
The economic boom did not automatically improve real wages. Not until the 1870s, when workers began forming unions and striking to force through serious wage rises. The September Agreement marked the end of a major industrial dispute in 1899. This agreement resulted in the institutionalisation of the labour market. Employers recognised their workers' right to belong to unions, and rules were defined for future negotiations and conflicts.

Fewer children, more bicycles
The generation of women born in the 1860s was the first to consciously choose to have fewer children than their mothers and grandmothers. Earlier generations had married late and had children for as long as possible. Now youngsters began marrying earlier and stopping after having three or four children. The mothers were not so worn out, the children were better looked after and educated, and the families enjoyed a higher standard of living. This meant new pleasures were within reach, such as weekly magazines, trips to the cinema, sport and bicycles.

Sex, socialists and fear of the future
At the turn of the century, youth rebellions broke out on several fronts. Young authors were demanding acceptance of sex before marriage for both men and women. Atheists were rejecting God and the church, radicals wanted to dethrone the King and socialists were doing their best to undermine capitalism. Bacteriology was revolutionising medical science, hospital treatment and operations. Doctors and engineers were treated as heroes who could solve all problems by harnessing science and technology. However, hand in hand with faith in progress came fear of the future. Were things moving a little too fast? Could the human nervous system stand the pace of modern urban life? And did all the new material comforts represent a slippery slope into human decadence?