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Industrialization, Family Life, and Class Relations
By Elinor A. Accampo
University of California PressCopyright © 1989 Elinor A. Accampo
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Chapter OneLabor and Family among Artisan Workers, 1815-1840
In 1807, Jean-François Richard-Chambovet, a prominent ribbon merchant in Saint Chamond, traveled to Paris, a journey few Saint-Chamonais of the nineteenth century ever made. He certainly had the leisure to travel during this year, for revolution and war had nearly decimated his business. While wandering about Paris trying to distract himself from commercial troubles, Richard-Chambovet came upon a shop of antiques and used goods. There a curiosity caught his eye: a loom with thirteen spindles. How strange this mechanism appeared to him, for it was completely unlike the ribbon looms with which he had great familiarity. The shop had three of these looms; Richard-Chambovet purchased them all, for the hefty sum of 390 francs apiece, and brought them back to Saint Chamond.
Little did this ribbon merchant know that his simple purchase would eventually reshape the economy of his native town and, indeed, change the direction of its history. These looms braided threads rather than weaving them. Their arrival coincided with the introduction of steam power. Much less delicate than ribbon looms, braid mechanisms adapted well to steam. By 1820, Richard-Chambovet had a factory with 298 braid looms. A decade later, steam powered 4,000 spindles in Saint Chamond, and by 1860 this number had multiplied by no less than one hundred. Mechanically produced braids did not replace the shinier and more delicate woven ribbons. Indeed, the Restoration brought a return to fancier tastes, and the ribbon industry experienced a golden age between 1815 and 1825. But by the 1840s factory-produced braids replaced ribbons as the primary textile industry of Saint Chamond.
The Saint Chamond economy simultaneously expanded in the metallurgical sector. The extensive coal deposits of the Stéphanois region attracted entrepreneurs who introduced blast furnaces and rolling mills in the 1820s and 1830s. They built English forges in Saint Chamond and the surrounding communes of Terrenoire, Lorette, Izieux, Saint-Julien-en-Jarrez, and Saint-Paul-en-Jarrez. By 1831, large-scale industry in two sectors vital to the French economy, textiles and metal, had been installed in Saint Chamond. Meanwhile, the two traditional craft industries that had established Saint Chamond as a commercial town, nail making and ribbon weaving, had all but disappeared by 1850.
During the first half of the nineteenth century the basis of the Saint Chamond economy thus became transformed from domestic production to large-scale factory production. Capital and labor were transferred from craft to mechanized industries. In this complex process, the choices, activities, and capital of Saint Chamond's merchants and entrepreneurs played a decisive role. The transfer of labor, however, required a distinctly human shift and thus entailed the decisions, choices, and will of workers in Saint Chamond as well. Industrialists certainly felt pleased with this town's technological transformation; but how did workers experience it?
In some other parts of France where industrial capitalism similarly transformed industries and local economies, artisans resisted change and retarded its effects by maintaining control over their own labor. Although the Le Chapelier Law of 1791 was intended to abolish guilds and other worker associations, many persisted. Craft guilds, confraternities, compagnonnages, and other quasi-religious associations helped artisans extend their work identity to a sense of fellowship with other members of their trade. Associations enabled them to maintain some control over their work by regulating entry into the craft through apprenticeships and by regulating standards of production.
In other cases, however, economic development alone undermined the power of worker associations to preserve their way of life. In Saint Chamond, for example, merchants controlled raw materials, imposed standards of work, and monopolized the sale of finished products. Confréries persisted throughout the nineteenth century, but they came to be dominated by employers and confined themselves primarily to religious functions. As associations weakened, the family assumed more significance as a repository for culture centered around work, and particularly as a main source for apprenticeships. Consciously or not, it developed into the primary theater in which tactics for preserving a way of life became formulated; equally, it became the arena in which workers relinquished their way of life. How they responded to economic change in large part depended on the degree to which the family operated as a production unit and on the extent of their success in passing skills on to new generations.
While during the course of the nineteenth century industrialization reshaped family life, what happened within the family also largely determined the fate of domestic industries. In Saint Chamond, the majority of men and women devoted themselves to some stage in the production of nails, ribbons, and the processing of silk. Most work took place in the home, and in both silk processing and iron working, parents passed skills on to their children. Each craft, however, responded to economic change in Saint Chamond very differently. Despite a decline in the ribbon industry, weavers clung to their trade and persisted in passing it on to their children. Nail makers and their sons more readily abandoned their craft.
One reason for the divergent patterns in these responses stems from the nature of the work itself. In the end products as well as in the labor that created them, these two crafts could not have differed more. Ribbon weavers turned organic material into beautiful luxury items that had little utilitarian purpose beyond the satisfaction of consumer vanity. Their value was subject to the whims of constantly changing fashion. At the same time, their production required lengthy apprenticeship, highly developed skills, dexterity, patience, and, for the best ribbons, a true artistic talent. Nail makers turned inorganic material into an exclusively utilitarian object with little aesthetic value. Only seasoned nail makers appreciated aesthetic qualities in details of difference among the thousand or so varieties. Their indispensability insured more consistent employment. The creation of nails, however, required more practice than training, more brute force than talent.
Ribbon weavers indeed felt more pride in their work, which partly explains their greater attachment to it. But this attachment did not stem from the nature of the work alone. The relationship between family and work among both nail makers and ribbon weavers provides insight into cultural approaches that informed their behavior. A key difference between the two crafts helps to explain their divergent responses to economic change: though both industries took place in the home, ribbon weaving depended upon the family as a unit, while nail making relied primarily on adult male labor. To survive in the face of technological change and loss of control over various stages of production, ribbon weavers drew more heavily on the productive capacities of their wives and children. Nail makers, on the other hand, turned outward from the family and tended to seek opportunities that were less domestically oriented.
From the preparation of raw materials to the marketing of the final product, ribbon production had a complex organization, of which weaving constituted but one stage. It was this stage, however, that involved the family most completely as a work unit. A master weaver usually owned three to six looms on which he, his family, and his journeymen worked. His wife and children provided invaluable assistance in auxiliary tasks such as winding bobbins. Wives also supplemented the family income by spinning or warping silk for merchants. As heads of a family enterprise, weavers exercised considerable independence.
Yet because weaving was only one stage in ribbon production and, indeed, dependent upon the other stages, weavers could not enjoy complete autonomy. All phases of ribbon production were seasonal, contingent on the silk harvest between May and July as well as on orders from fashion houses in London, Paris, and New York. Silk preparation lasted from three to six months, and looms operated for about eight months of the year. It was in silk preparation and marketing that merchants had gained considerable control by the end of the eighteenth century. Called maîtres faiseur fabricant-they put others to work, or they "put work out"-they had come to direct the bulk of the Saint Chamond labor force that worked in silk. The fabricant experimented with patterns, textures, and colors and decided which ones he would have produced for firms in Paris, London, and New York. He then had raw silk prepared and dyed according to the specifications of the pattern and hired a weaver to produce it. The leading ribbon fabricants of Saint Chamond-especially the Dugas brothers, Dugas-Vialis and Co., Bancel, Gillier and Sons, and David-Dubouchet-were the wealthiest and most important in France.
After purchasing the silk cocoons, the fabricant hired young girls to unravel their single threads and wind them onto skeins. This work lasted approximately three months after the cocoon harvest and was the most distasteful in the silk preparation process. The worker first had to find the end of the single strand that composed the cocoon. She took about six cocoons at once and plunged them in extremely hot water to loosen the gum. She next unraveled all six cocoons while twisting the strands together and then placed them on a skein.
Workers could perform this task in their own homes, but increasingly fabricants employed them in workshops. By the 1830s skeining workshops were equipped with motorized spools and furnaces for centralized heating of water basins. This job especially relied upon migrant labor-young girls who usually returned to their rural villages after the season. As such, skeiners "belonged to the poorest class" and suffered the most miserable conditions. The stench of cocoons permeated the workshop and penetrated their clothing. The constant submersion of their hands into nearly boiling water caused chronic pain. Soaking them in red wine and cold water during breaks and after work provided meager relief. Skeiners earned 60 to 90 centimes for their sixteen-hour workday. Fabricants usually lodged them, but under conditions Villermé described as miserable. They slept two together in beds of straw and ate meals consisting of "weak bouillon, legumes, potatoes, potherbs, a few milk products and sometimes a little codfish."
After having the silk skeined, the fabricant then sent it to a miller. Silk millers exercised a profession in their own right, but they too came under the direction of fabricants-they worked as jobbers, fulfilling precise orders. Millers "threw" silk for merchants in Lyon and Saint Etienne as well as for those in Saint Chamond. They too relied on a female labor force, most of whom worked under their supervision in a workshop. Workers placed the skeined strands of silk on a mill consisting of rotating vertical spindles and bobbins. The mill twisted each thread in one of two directions to form the warp and weft, respectively. The tightness of the twist depended on the kind of thread required for the weave of a particular design.
Water powered the spindles that twisted the silk, so the millers clustered along the Gier River, where they employed and lodged in workshops at least eight to ten workers, and sometimes as many as thirty or forty, who each supervised up to sixteen spindles. The women who worked for silk millers suffered conditions not much better than those of the skeiners. They too labored a sixteen-hour day for 90 centimes. Their employment lasted about six months.
Once the miller completed the job he sent the silk back to the fabricant, who in turn sent it out to a dyer. After scouring, cleaning, and dyeing the silk, the dyer returned it, still on skeins, to the fabricant. There the warp thread underwent one further stage of twisting on wooden spindles. Finally, warpers (ourdisseuses) performed the delicate task of placing all the strands in a parallel fashion and stretching them with equal tension. Spinners and warpers worked either in their own homes, on the premises of the fabricant, or in the workshops of headmistresses. These processes too became increasingly centralized in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Because their work required skill, practice, and patience, warpers fared somewhat better than skeiners, mill workers, and spinners. They earned 1f40 per day, and some of the older, more experienced women were permitted to work in their own homes. Their work also lasted only six months.
After warping, the fabricant finally sold both the warp and the weft to the weaver. The weaver wove the silk into ribbons which he sold back to the fabricant, who then again employed a female labor force to perform the finishing, including folding and packaging the ribbons for marketing.
With the exception of the weaving and dyeing, this industry from start to finish relied upon an extensive, protean female labor force drawn from both town and country. The women could perform almost all these preparatory processes in their homes, provided they could obtain the proper materials and equipment. But in the first half of the nineteenth century, fabricants and silk millers increasingly organized these workers into workshops. A number of factors made centralization more practical. Most important, fabricants could better supervise the workers as well as the silk itself. In addition, silk could not tolerate changes in temperature or humidity, and keeping the raw materials under the fabricant's supervision assured proper treatment. The concentration of workers in shops also helped prevent the theft of silk and its waste products.
The government inquiry of 1848 reported, not surprisingly, very poor conditions among the mill workers, skeiners, and spinners who labored in workshops. Respondents complained of overly strict supervision, stomach ailments, and leg varices induced by having to stand for long periods of time or by pumping the spinning-wheel pedal. Because silk could not tolerate atmospheric variations, these women suffered winter cold, summer heat, and high levels of humidity and breathed foul air because windows and doors had to be kept closed. Silk particles caused serious chest irritation. Long hours and workshop discipline surely made conditions there worse than those in workers' own homes.
The history of family and occupational life in Saint Chamond can be retrieved from marriage records, especially when used in conjunction with birth and death records for the purpose of reconstituting families.
Excerpted from Industrialization, Family Life, and Class Relations by Elinor A. Accampo Copyright © 1989 by Elinor A. Accampo. Excerpted by permission.
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