Population Growth in Nineteenth-Century Europe
Because of industrialization, but also because of a vast increase in agricultural output without which industrialization would have been impossible, Western Europeans by the latter half of the nineteenth century enjoyed higher standards of living and longer, healthier lives than most of the world’s peoples. In Europe as a whole, the population rose from 188 million in 1800 to 400 million in 1900. By 1900, virtually every area of Europe had contributed to the tremendous surge of population, but each major region was at a different stage of demographic change.
Improvements in the food supply continued trends that had started in the late seventeenth century. New lands were put under cultivation, while the use of crops of American origin, particularly the potato, continued to expand. Setbacks did occur. Regional agricultural failures were the most common cause of economic recessions until 1850, and they could lead to localized famine as well. A major potato blight (disease) in 1846-1847 led to the deaths of at least one million persons in Ireland and the emigration of another million, and Ireland never recovered the population levels the potato had sustained to that point. Bad grain harvests at the same time led to increased hardship throughout much of Europe.
After 1850, however, the expansion of foods more regularly kept pace with population growth, though the poorer classes remained malnourished. Two developments were crucial. First, the application of science and new technology to agriculture increased. Led by German universities, increasing research was devoted to improving seeds, developing chemical fertilizers, and advancing livestock. After 1861, with the development of land-grant universities in the United States that had huge agricultural programs, American crop-production research added to this mix. Mechanization included the use of horse-drawn harvesters and seed drills, many developed initially in the United States. It also included mechanical cream separators and other food-processing devices that improved supply.
The second development involved industrially based transportation. With trains and steam shipping, it became possible to move foods to needy regions within Western Europe quickly. Famine (as opposed to malnutrition) became a thing of the past. Many Western European countries, headed by Britain, began also to import increasing amounts of food, not only from Eastern Europe, a traditional source, but also from the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand. Steam shipping, which improved speed and capacity, as well as new procedures for canning and refrigerating foods (particularly after 1870), was fundamental to these developments.
Europe's population growth included one additional innovation by the nineteenth century: it combined with rapid urbanization. More and more Western Europeans moved from countryside to city, and big cities grew most rapidly of all. By 1850, over half of all the people in England lived in cities, a first in human history. In one sense, this pattern seems inevitable growing numbers of people pressed available resources on the land, even when farmwork was combined with a bit of manufacturing, so people crowded into cities seeking work or other resources. Traditionally, however, death rates in cities surpassed those in the countryside by a large margin; cities had maintained population only through steady in-migration. Thus rapid urbanization should have reduced overall population growth, but by the middle of the nineteenth century this was no longer the case. Urban death rates remained high, particularly in the lower-class slums, but they began to decline rapidly.
The greater reliability of food supplies was a factor in the decline of urban death rates. Even more important were the gains in urban sanitation, as well as measures such as inspection of housing. Reformers, including enlightened doctors, began to study the causes of high death rates and to urge remediation. Even before the discovery of germs, beliefs that disease spread by "miasmas" (noxious forms of bad air) prompted attention to sewers and open garbage; Edwin Chadwick led an exemplary urban crusade for underground sewers in England in the 1830s. Gradually, public health provisions began to cut into customary urban mortality rates. By 1900, in some parts of Western Europe life expectancy in the cities began to surpass that of the rural areas. Industrial societies had figured out ways to combine large and growing cities with population growth, a development that would soon spread to other parts of the world.