Photography: 98for98 The century in photographs: today 1903

This photograph depicts a dancing bear in a London street in 1903. It comes from the Hulton Getty Picture Library, which The Independent has had exclusive access to for this series which celebrates every year from 1900 to 1998 with a photograph that encapsulates the spirit of the age.

The use of performing animals began in Tudor times, when bears were brought over from Europe. Techniques used by the bear masters are evident: the chain attached to a heavy nose ring, which would often give rise to fatal infections, and the nose nuzzle to reduce the risk of retaliation by the animal. In 1925, a law was passed which gave local councils the right to refuse to lease land to any circuses they felt were cruel in their treatment of animals. In 1998, there are still more than 20 circuses which lure customers with wild animal acts.

The spirit of 1903 was governed by wonder and enchantment. It was the year that Guglielmo Marconi's wireless began to transmit news around the world, the first electrical tram started running, and Willem Einthoven described his invention for monitoring the heart. It was also a time when colonial and national boundaries were shifting and people's understanding of the world outside their own was growing. The harsher aspects of relationships between and within countries was also rarely out of the news, such as the atrocities of the Balkan wars and the US Government's reports on the treatment of blacks in Southern states.

The culture of the time reflected a desire to escape from grim reality. In May 1903 the founder of Primitivism, Paul Gauguin, died. His paintings of places such as Tahiti embodied the new Western fascination with the exotic. At the beginning of the year the most exciting theatrical event was the coming of the latest musical, The Wizard of Oz, featuring the Cowardly Lion, not so different in some ways from the cowed wild animal in our photograph.

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