Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Road to Modern Consumer Society. Changes in Everyday Life in the Rural Basque Country in the Early Twentieth Century

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The Road to Modern Consumer Society. Changes in Everyday Life in the Rural Basque Country in the Early Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

One of the current debates surrounding Spain's transition to modernity at the turn of the twentieth century concerns whether the country should he regarded as 'backward' or relatively 'normal' as compared with other Western nations, especially her European neighbours. Divergent positions have been adopted as regards questions of economic development and the articulation of shared national experiences. Even so, all contributors to discussion have more or less agreed about the conditions of everyday life in Spain. They see the level of adoption of modern characteristics as directly related to the extent of urbanization and industrialization in a given geographical location. The greatest advances towards 'mass society' are identified with the major urban centres (Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao ...). On a second level would be found the capitals of less developed provinces with smaller populations--the inward-looking 'frock-coated cities' identified by Antonio Rivera in which powerful traditional forces coexisted uneasily with innovations. (1) At the lowest level we encounter the whole of rural Spain, including the smallest towns, firmly anchored in the past and remote from any signs of change or development. Taking into account the importance of agriculture in Spanish society at this point--on one calculation two-thirds of Spanish workers were engaged in agricultural labour in 1900--we might assume from this that the extent of changes in the daily routine would be very restricted and limited for most Spanish people.

This article has two aims. In the first place, we focus on the study of daily life in early twentieth-century Spain. Our definition of this theme is based on the work of A. Ludtke, as mediated through the pioneering studies of Luis Castells, one of the first historians to study these issues in the Basque Country. According to Castells "the basic target of our research is the study of people's daily or habitual routine, the everyday behaviour of human beings and their life experiences." (2) Although the relevance and importance of such studies are generally recognized, actual research in the Spanish setting is still very limited. Secondly, we bring a regional dimension to this theme, offering new evidence and commentary on everyday life during the first third of the twentieth century in what is usually referred to as the 'rural' area of the Basque Country or as 'traditional Basque society', the area beyond the direct influence of the capitals of the three provinces (Bilbao, San Sebastian and Vitoria). We shall focus particularly on the rural areas of Biscay province, beyond the immediate influence of Bilbao and its industrial surroundings. Adopting the approach indicated above (which is admittedly over-simplified) we would expect this area to occupy the lowest and most 'backward' level of development. Bur a detailed examination reveals a different situation, which may give rise to critical reflections about the supposed backwardness of daily life in rural Spain more generally.

On the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Basque Country of northern Spain was best known through its provincial capitals, especially Bilbao and San Sebastian. In the former case, iron ore mining and the iron and steel industry placed Bilbao among the most dynamic industrial centres of Europe. A numerous working class, with a high level of immigration from beyond the city and the Basque Country together with new middle classes and a prosperous group of wealthy industrialists, brought rapid population growth to Bilbao and the estuary of the Nervion. Among the many changes associated with these developments was the transformation of Bilbao itself, from a provincial commercial centre for many local trades into a densely-populated modern city sharing many characteristics with its peers across Europe. Meanwhile, San Sebastian's growing fame as a tourist centre for the whole of the Spanish ruling class extended far beyond Spain's own frontiers; and Vitoria was the least populated, developed and externally recognized of the three Basque provincial capitals. …

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