Influential Individuals of the 19th Century

By learning about some of the people who shaped the 19th Century, students can find out about this important time period.

By Daniella Garran

Influential Individuals of the 19th Century

The 19th Century featured the Industrial Revolution, the American Civil War, the invention of psychoanalysis, the Impressionist Movement and a proliferation of a host of other changes and advances. One way to help students learn about these times is by having them learn about the individuals who helped precipitate change. It is critical to helping students develop an understanding of the era and its complex cultural landscape.

You can assign each member of the class a different person to research. Depending on whether you are teaching American or world history, you may choose a group of eclectic personalities who would never actually have had the chance to meet, or you may opt to group individuals together based on nationality, profession or social and political views. Consider assigning the following historic figures (though there are virtually hundreds from which to choose):

Political Figures: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Otto von Bismarck, Franz Joseph I, and Mutsuhito.

    Cultural Icons: Lewis and Clark, Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, Annie Oakley, Florence Nightingale, Matthew Brady, Sigmund Freud, Sitting Bull, Davy Crockett, Baron Haussmann, Levi Strauss, Arthur Schopenhauer, Frederick Douglass, and Charles Darwin.

      Artists, Musicians, Writers, etc . . . : Beethoven, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Richard Wagner, Hans Christian Andersen, The Bronte Sisters, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Scott Joplin, Anton Chekhov, Paul Gaugin, Kate Chopin, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

        Scientists and Inventors: Karl Marx, Marie Curie, Louis Braille, Alexander Graham Bell, Gregor Mendel, and Louis Pasteur.

          Once students are assigned an individual to research, consider having them prepare a monologue to introduce themselves and their accomplishments to the rest of the class. Next, you can pair up the individuals and have them interview one another. You may choose to videotape the interviews for use in a nineteenth century newscast or edition of Barbara Walters’ “Most Fascinating People.” Alternately, you may opt to have students write up the interviews for a nineteenth century newspaper or special issue of "People." This type of project provides an excellent opportunity for collaboration with colleagues in the technology and fine arts departments.

          To help students learn about influential individuals of the nineteenth century, create a Jeopardy-style game in which students identify the individuals based on their accomplishments. 

          Ask students to create a collage for one or more of the individuals you have assigned them to learn about. The collage should be a mixture of words and images which reflect the individuals’ personal and public lives, accomplishments and background. This is an excellent opportunity to work with colleagues in the fine arts department.

          To complete your study of the nineteenth century, host a gala event in which all students attend in character. You can play music from the era or ask student musicians to play a piece by a nineteenth century composer. You can also have readings of prose and poetry by famous authors, ask the artists to paint portraits or scenes from the party during the event and even host a debate among political candidates, philosophers or scientists. What follows are more lesson plans to teach students about the 19th Century.

          19th Century History Activities and Lesson Plans:

          The Industrial World Represented by 19th Century Artists

          Though developed by the Musee d’Orsay as a guide for teachers bringing their class to the Parisian cultural institution, the guide has an excellent chronology of some major nineteenth century events, as well as an interesting take on how artists of that century viewed and artistically rendered the Industrial Revolution. This resource provides good background information for those seeking to teach about the nineteenth century from a cultural and artistic point of view.

          American Frontiers

          This lesson focuses on the nineteenth century American frontier and the individuals who defined the nation at that time. Students will have the opportunity to analyze the social, cultural, political and economic aspects of nineteenth century American daily life and to read primary sources and literature from the period.

          Women Writers of the 19th Century

          Students in either history or English/language arts classes will find this lesson about women writers of the nineteenth century quite enlightening. They can learn not only about the writers themselves, but also about the Cult of Domesticity and the stereotypes of women which prevailed in nineteenth century America.