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.
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 Rhône 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 Université de Montréal. He is currently researching the response of European workers to free trade before 1914.
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Posted: 20 July 2001