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Reviewed by:
  • La Naissance de l’industrie à Paris entre sueurs et vapeurs 1780–1830
  • Daryl Hafter (bio)
La Naissance de l’industrie à Paris entre sueurs et vapeurs 1780–1830. By Andrè Guillerme. Seyssel: Champ Vallon, 2007. Pp. 432. €29.

For Andrè Guillerme, the story of French industry is a teleological saga of artisanal imprecision and painful labor—the “sweat” of the title—giving way slowly to the scientific precision and rationality of improved chemistry, metallurgy, and the steam engine. Guillerme’s attention to the official reports of government inquiries, almanacs, and contemporary periodicals enables him to give an account of the men who gained governmental favor and the major enterprises of the period under consideration, and he also pays some attention to the lesser workshops that made no technical advances. His sources are responsible for both the virtues and the deficits of his book. To his credit, Guillerme has created a manual of Paris industry during a crucial era for the history of industrialization, and his bibliography provides a starting place for any researcher of the topic. At the same time, his reliance on certain sources, especially government reports, ensnares him in contemporary biases rather than applying the perspective of current scholarship.

Throughout the text the British model of industrialization remains the gold standard. Reliance on the model obscures major industries like silk weaving and papermaking where French technology superseded British. It also leads Guillerme to discount the technical strides made by eighteenth century artisans and to denigrate their handicraft system. Instead, he writes that workers were “freed” from the restrictions of guild rules to enter “production [End Page 213] of industrial type, rational and uniform” (p. 79). Few of the bumps, hesitations, and failures of early mechanization are mentioned.

The book’s repetitive organization also undermines its impact. Every section follows a set plan, with Guillerme writing about how artisans suffered from the effects of malodorous and dangerous processes, how France lagged behind England, how intuitional and messy artisanal techniques needed to give way to rational, standardized, disciplined industrialization, and how the development of effective chemical processes opened the door to improved metallurgy and the achievement of an Industrial Revolution. We are left without an understanding of the structure of industrialization and of the steps entailed in becoming modern. Zigzagging chronology does not help.

Nevertheless, it is important to note what Guillerme does contribute. He has given us a detailed and sympathetic account of industry in Paris during this crucial era. Eighteenth-century Paris was a beehive of artisanal production. But it was much more than that. Metal- and leather-working industries polluted rivers and wells and presented rumormongering water carriers with opportunities to increase their business. Alcohol, aged in basement pits and then transferred to barrels, was judged potable when it no longer gave off fumes that extinguished candles. Primitive chemical processes promoted unhealthful conditions. Then, during the Revolution, the scientific model that had been put into place in the 1770s “was improved by way of demonstrating republican success” (p. 70). But the triumphal rationality of the late century seems to be diminished by the large role that the collection of bones, cowhides, urine, ashes, and rags still played in making gelatin, sulfate of ammonia, dyes, glass, paper, and metal products. Despite the praise given to revolutionary rationalism, Guillerme acknowledges that the Industrial Revolution was not really implanted in Paris until the 1820s, during the Bourbon Restoration.

Since Guillerme does not address the structure of economic life, we are not sure exactly how chemistry, metallurgy, and the steam engine turned Paris into a city of modern industrialization. However, his admirably Balzacian account of poor families living close to slaughterhouses and collecting offal, kitchen grease, broken bottles, and dead dogs, rats, and cats for use in manufacture does present us with a compelling reason to welcome the advent of modern times. [End Page 214]

Daryl Hafter

Dr. Hafter, a past president of SHOT, is the author of Women at Work in Preindustrial France (2007), which is reviewed in this issue of Technology and Culture.



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