Historical Eras: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 What Is a Historical Era?
  • 1:25 Common Historical Eras
  • 3:53 How Are Historical…
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

You've probably heard about various historical eras, but what, exactly, defines them? Who decides where one historical era ends and another begins? In this lesson, we'll learn a bit about some prominent historical eras and how they are categorized.

What Is a Historical Era?

Let's say you're sitting in class one day, and your history teacher begins talking about the Great Depression. If you've been paying attention in class, you ought to have a clear idea in your mind of when the Great Depression took place and what characterized it. The same should be true with the Roaring Twenties or the Progressive Era. These are examples of historical eras, also called historical periods. A historical era is a specific time frame historians have classified due to commonalities within that time frame.

The Great Depression is among the easiest eras to identify because of its extreme characteristics. We know it took place throughout the entire decade of the 1930s and was characterized by economic depression, unemployment, poverty, and general hopelessness among the American people. The Roaring Twenties is another easy one to identify, because, well, the term clearly identifies the era as taking place during the 1920s. Yes, this one is kind of a no-brainer. We know the 1920s was a lively decade characterized by prosperity, modernity, technological advances, entertainment, and a rebellion against traditional values. But not all eras are so easily categorized. In fact, the time frame of some eras is the subject of much debate among historians. But we will discuss this in more detail shortly.

Common Historical Eras

While we look at some key historical eras, keep in mind that they can be long or very short. For example, the Great Depression lasted little more than a decade, while the Industrial Revolution lasted many decades.

One of the ways history is commonly divided is into three separate eras or periods: the Ancient Period (3600 BC - 500 AD), the Middle Ages (500 -1500), and the Modern Era (1500-present). According to this classification, the eras last hundreds of years, even thousands of years in the case of the Ancient Period.

Now, within the Modern Era we have all kinds of smaller eras, like the Age of Discovery (spanning the 15th-17th century) and the Enlightenment (in the 18th century). The Age of Discovery was characterized by global exploration, particularly in the New World. The Enlightenment was characterized by an emphasis on reason, individualism, humanism, tolerance, and a skepticism of religious tradition.

Other common historical eras include:

  • The Industrial Revolution (spanning the 18th/19th centuries - characterized by industrial and technological advances)
  • The American Civil War Era (1861-1865 - the war between the Northern and Southern United States)
  • The Victorian Era (was in the 19th century - a British era coinciding with the reign of Queen Victoria)
  • The Progressive Era (which took place in the late 19th/early 20th century - an American movement marked by social reform)
  • World War I (took place from 1914-1918 - a modern global war)
  • The Inter-war Period (spanned from 1919-1939 - the period between World War I and World War II)
  • World War II (took place between 1939-1945 - a second modern global war)
  • The Cold War Era (spanned 1945-early 1990s - a period of intense tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union)

Sometimes these eras overlap. For example, the 'Roaring Twenties' and the 'Inter-war' Period took place at the same time, but the term 'Roaring Twenties' is usually applied in the context of American history, whereas 'Inter-war Period' is generally used in the context of European history.

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