Project 2: The Dissemination of European Mass Culture

Veldslag na optreden Rolling StonesProject 2: The Dissemination of European Mass Culture: References to European mass culture in public debates.


Maarten van den Bos

Utrecht University


Few developments have changed European life more than the rise of modern mass culture. The development of a commercial amusement industry changed not only the way in which Europeans spent their rising incomes and leisure time, but also the way in which they established their identity and reflected on their position in society.

On the one hand, emerging mass culture is about “cultural hardware.” The development of mass culture is to be located both in the sphere of consumption and production. Standardization of production of consumer goods, growth in general income, and free time and the replacement of local markets by (inter)national markets all seem to be necessary preconditions for the emergence of modern mass culture. On the other hand, there are cultural or discursive aspects to mass culture. Both the value of free time over work, where a sphere of leisure has emerged that seems to have replaced that of work as the sphere of personal development and identity formation, and the evaluation of mass culture as mind-numbing and potentially dangerous for society are of interest here.

Two questions are central in this project. First, the emergence of modern mass culture has to be mapped from the hardware point of view. Large repositories of digitised newspapers are excellent sources to trace new shapes of emerging mass culture: reading cheap books and magazines, spectator sports, film and music, to follow their dissemination over Europe and the way in which they were perceived in public media: as foreign threat or home-made advancements, as symbols of modernity or dangers to public health and safety.

Closely linked with the mapping of the dissemination of modern mass culture the sentiment it evoked will be studied. Especially in the first half of the twentieth century, mass culture seems to have been perceived as potentially dangerous, especially for children and adolescents. In the forceful campaign against “filth and trash” that was unleashed in Germany after the turn of the nineteenth century to protect minors from the devastating effects of mass art commodities as penny magazines, movies and popular folk songs, in the fear for modern jazz music and vulgar dancing moves in the interwar period and in the media uproar after a concert of the Rolling Stones turned an upstanding The Hague theatre into a battle ground, starting point was the idea that modern mass culture was especially dangerous for the nation’s youth and therefore threatened its future.

In this project, the emergence of modern mass culture will therefore be interpreted as a continuing struggle about antagonistic definitions and rules of free time. Not only children and adolescents, but also women, working class men and students used mass cultural products to symbolically reject generational and societal conventions. Their antagonists were not only political and societal elites, but also educators such as teachers, clergyman and social workers).

Mass culture -- tv -- radio -- bioscoop -- theater           In combining traditional historical research with digital methods, and in the mapping of emerging mass culture with a thorough analysis of specific cases, this project tries to deepen our knowledge of modern European mass culture.