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Papermaking in Eighteenth-Century France: Management, Labor, and Revolution at the Montgolfier Mill, 1761-1805

Author(s):Rosenband, Leonard N.
Reviewer(s):Huberman, Michael

Published by EH.NET (July 2001)

Leonard N. Rosenband, Papermaking in Eighteenth-Century France: Management,

Labor, and Revolution at the Montgolfier Mill, 1761-1805. Baltimore: Johns

Hopkins University Press, 2000. xv + 210 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN:

0-8018-6392-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Michael Huberman, Department of History, University of

Montreal.

In this elegantly written and well researched book, Leonard Rosenband puts

history back into economic history. By the middle of the eighteenth century,

Dutch paper and techniques had made a serious dent in international markets,

forcing French manufacturers using traditional methods to adapt. Exploiting

the detailed records of one papermaking enterprise, the Montgolfier mills in

Vidalon-le-Haut, about 50 kilometers south of Lyon in the Rh?ne valley of

Languedoc, Rosenband describes the response of hexagonal producers to this

challenge. Loyal to the historical method and eschewing overt theorizing,

Rosenband’s extraordinary achievement is that with great dexterity and in an

unassuming manner, he uses the case study approach to speak to larger debates

and issues that will be of interest to many subscribers to this list: regions

and protoindustrialization, the state and economic performance, factory

discipline, and the evolution of labor market arrangements.

A family run enterprise, the Montgolfier mills housed about twenty vats in

nine locations on the eve of the French Revolution. In Vidalon-le-Haut, the

center of production, the Montgolfiers employed more than 100 adults and about

50 children. Vatmen controlled the key stage in production, manufacturing a

sheet of paper by dipping their molds, a rectangular wire mesh bordered by a

wooden frame, into a vat whose brew, composed of old rags, was also under

their supervision. Renowned for their customary workloads and practices,

referred to as les modes, vatmen were highly skilled and sought after.

They were a footloose labor supply despite repeated state attempts to control

their movement. The paper manufacturer who resisted the modes was

shunned, finding it difficult to recruit workers. The Dutch advantage lay in a

new technique, the Holland beater, that shredded fresh linen and that

dispensed with the fermentation stage of the old technique. One contemporary

estimated that Dutch organization and technique would cut costs by up to 75

percent. Using state funds and guidance, the Montgolfiers introduced the new

technology, but this meant confronting the vatmen and their customary

practices head on.

The key event in the struggle between skilled workers and the Montgolfiers was

the lockout of 1781 after which the enterprise attempted to hire new younger

recruits from the region and do the training of workers themselves. The new

regime was based on family labor and a paternalist philosophy. Replacing the

journeymen meant that the Montgolfiers had reduced the geographic scope of the

market to guarantee labor peace. An apprenticeship system assured skill

formation. Rosenband’s description of these practices, their limitations and

strengths, is nuanced. Clearly, the Montgolfiers worked at many margins of the

employment package, adjusting in the case of apprentices their conditions of

work, years of service, and bonus and final payments. Although Rosenband

recognizes the partial nature of many of the strategies invoked, what is

impressive is the degree of sophistication and understanding shown by the

Montgolfiers in implementing the new contractual arrangements. Workers, too,

seem to have been less tied to custom than we have come to expect. They

responded to the new incentive structures and fashioned new customary rules to

replace the old. In the end, Rosenband observes, the Montgolfiers challenged

somewhat successfully the vatmen’s control over skill, but they did not alter

the division of labor.

In perhaps the finest part of the book, Rosenband evaluates the impact of the

new strategies on the work rhythms and production at the enterprise. These

sections will be widely consulted because of the detail they offer on turnover

rates, work schedules and production before ‘the factory.’ Rosenband finds

that, contrary to many other accounts of pre-industrial work, production at

the Montgolfiers was stable. As for hours and days of work, they seem to be

have been similar to those reported for the late nineteenth century. The new

labor discipline had left its mark.

Ever the historian, Rosenband (Professor of History at Utah State University)

is hesitant to draw comparisons with studies of industrial relations elsewhere

or to situate his findings in the context of principal-agent theory and the

like. These would be unnecessary detours in letting the story unfold as it

should. Rosenband does make occasional reference to Sidney Pollard’s classic,

The Genesis of Modern Management (Harvard University Press, 1965) and

this is fitting. For the new generation of economic historians, Rosenband’s

book will prove to be as influential as Pollard’s was in its time.

Michael Huberman teaches at the Universit? de Montr?al. His is currently

researching the response of European workers to free trade before 1914.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century