jean fourastie

 Here is the second chapter of The causes of wealth, translated by Theodore Caplow from Machinisme Bien être de Jean Fourastié in 1975.



 Chapter II


ALTHOUGH systematic studies of the purchasing power of wage earners are practically nonexistent for earlier times, and although, under these conditions, it is even less possible to speak of studies of the average level of living of the total population, we do have a sufficient number of documents to form a rough idea of the changes in the economic environment of the average Frenchman during the past three hundred years.

These documents suggest a division of the history of the level of living into three major periods, each corresponding to one of the major types of consumption described in the previous chapter:

1) The era of the traditional level of living probably goes back to furthest antiquity and came to an end between 1750 and 1800. The level of living during that very long period was characterized by the irregular but frequent occurrence of famine bringing death to some fraction of the population. This stage was characterized by the predominance of coarse cereals in the budgets of wage earners.

2) The nineteenth century marks an important step forward in the French level of living. Bread replaces millet. The periods of high bread prices, still strongly felt by the population, affected the death rate only to the extent of small oscillations that become less and less distinct.

3) In the third period which began in France with the beginning of the twentieth century, the bread consumed occupies only a small part of the total budget, and crises of agricultural underproduction go practically unnoticed except in wartime. However the principal portion of the budget continues to be allocated to food.

The fourth type of budget, characterized by the predominance of non-food expenditures, has not yet appeared in France in 1951.

We shall thus describe here the first three stages of a development that is not yet finished. In retracing this development in France, we must not lose sight of the fact that these major types of evolution are not peculiar to France, but can be observed elsewhere and everywhere in the world. At the present time it is still possible to substitute comparisons between places for comparisons between historical eras. Millions of men in the modern world-in China, in India, and in North Africa, for example, are still subject to the conditions prevailing in the France of 1700. Modern Spain, the Balkans, and to a lesser degree, Italy, show features analogous to the France of the Second Empire. Finally, modern France itself can be fairly compared to the United States in 1920[1].

In other words, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the present condition of various peoples, with respect to the level of living, is the result of a historical development having a common point of departure. Roughly, it may be said that before 1700 the nutritional situation of all the people of the world was approximately the same. Everywhere the level of living was controlled by the level of agricultural production. Everywhere the expansion of population was periodically checked by famine that imposed upon the population the Draconian and capricious rhythm of climatic disasters. Although the level of living has been raised practically everywhere since then, the rate of improvement has been extremely variable from one nation to another. For some of them, the situation is hardly different now than in the traditional period. For others, it is so much altered that, scientifically speaking, there is hardly any common measure between the original condition and the present state of affairs. Thus the nations are spaced out along a single historical trail.



The small place given to famines by the historian is absolutely absurd. As soon as one has grasped the extent and the frequency of the phenomenon, the resulting human suffering and the limits imposed upon population, famines appear, in a sense, as the fundamental events of traditional history. Their description takes up only a few paragraphs in the thousands of pages of classical history. What is even more serious is that the historians have not observed the bond existing between famine and other economic, social, and political facts. Famines are treated like any other historical fact without any perception of their determining character.

The writers of former times were not eager to describe an evil whose horrors were familiar to everyone and that appeared to be inevitable; the weather conditions that were the immediate causes were independent of human influence. However, famines also have remote causes that might have been subject to control had they been taken into account. These were the numerical surplus of population and the lack of storage for good harvests. Certainly the technique of storage might have been perfected well before 1730 if the importance of the problem had been understood and if there had been a real effort to solve it. Here again, as with the water mill of Marc Bloch, the essential problem was not the technology but the mentality of the time.

Only rarely, then, did contemporary writers describe these phenomena that to them were regular and appeared so natural. What attracts the attention of those chroniclers who describe a given famine is not so much the great loss of life which is reported but the immediate circumstances: that, for example, "it never rained from Easter Monday to Michaelmas"; or that, on the contrary, "there was such a downpour on St. John's Day that the grain rotted even as it was being harvested." Or perhaps it was a hail storm at the beginning of spring. In general, the historians were so little interested that it now requires a considerable amount of archival research to establish even the dates of the worst famines. Horrible episodes that brought the death of one out of five living beings are passed by in silence while every detail is given about the marriage of the Dauphin, the disgrace of a minister or a mistress. Our modern historians have often followed the well-beaten paths. It is easier to copy what others have written and what is incidentally pleasing to the reader than to examine half-destroyed parish records in the dust of the archives[2].

There were no civil registers for those earlier periods other than the parish records which were badly done and often lost, and no general censuses which might have shown the full results of the famines. It is only by means of persistent research that the way can be opened for the discovery of the critical factors of history, in the abundant and sterile mass of narrative history.

Labrousse was one of the first to study and promulgate the importance of famines in the social history of the ancien regime.

We have seen above that the essential feature in the history of the level of living before 1800 was the very great variability of the price of grain and the stability of nominal wages. The nominal wage varied only very slowly. In an average year it corresponded approximately to the price of 2,500 pounds of grain. But the current price of grain at various times deviated markedly from the average. The tables give an example of these variations for the period before 1740. Prices varied by a factor of one to three, but the variation had been still greater at an earlier time. Labrousse gives the following figures for the average national price of a setier of grain:

The amount of variation is understated by a national average and especially by one calculated for calendar years, since the crisis situation depends upon the state of harvests and is never exactly the same from one province to another.

Even in periods of low prices, the wage earner obtained a General Indicators of the Level of Living bare physiological minimum of cereal calories. He had therefore no margin. It is easy to imagine his situation when, with his wage remaining at a steady 100 francs a year, a setier of wheat increased to 43 francs and the same amount of rye to 35. What then can be said of a situation shown by the gazettes of Strasbourg as published by Father Hanauer[3]? These gazettes record, between 1620 and 1646, variations in the price of cereals whose range exceeds eight to one. The price in 1646 was the same as in 1620 (5.3) but in 1635 it touched 45.2.

A sufficient number of historical documents have been preserved to describe the social condition of the nation in the course of these great eras of crisis.


The words poverty, misery, scarcity, and hunger, recur constantly under the pen of those historians who turned their attention to the social situation of the masses of the population before 18oo. We read what Vauban wrote at the end of the seventeenth century: "There are not ten thousand small or great whom one could call well off... Close to a tenth part of the population is reduced to beggary and actually begs, or else are in no condition to give alms to these because they themselves are very nearly reduced to this unfortunate condition." With the alternation of relative comfort and atrocious misery, the situation described by Vauban appears to have been continuous from the Middle Ages until about 1725. After that date, an essentially different evolution occurred and foreshadowed modern times. It is therefore necessary to distinguish two clearly different epochs in the history of the level of living under the ancien regime.


      A. From the Middle Ages to Louis XV

In 1643, St. Vincent de Paul wrote in a sermon addressed to the Daughters of Charity of Paris:“In many places bread is rarely eaten. In Limousin and in other places they live most of the time on bread made with chestnuts. In the region from which I come, they are nourished by a small grain called millet which is placed to boil in a pot. At the dinner hour, it is poured into a dish and they of the house come around it to take their refection, and afterwards they go out to work”.· All of the accounts of those times report similar facts. Painting and sculpture give us an even more definite idea of the situation of the peasants in the rare cases where the artist was willing to take models who did not belong to the aristocracy or the middle classes. In this respect, the paintings of Le Nain are invaluable. In the celebrated Peasants' Meal in the Louvre (1642), Le Nain evidently did not wish to force the note of poverty. One child holds a violin in his hands, two other personages are drinking a glass of wine. However, one of the peasants and one of the children are barefoot. The virtual absence of household equipment and the shabbiness of ill-fitting clothing can be seen in the Peasants' Meal in the collection of the Duke of Leeds. We see here an assemblage around a goblet and a plate rather than a proper meal. The old man and the woman have the air of dignified and courageous suffering that is found in so many documents and descriptions of the time. The boy of about fourteen, whose long hair hangs about his face, shows an already adult degree of fatigue. The clothing of all of them is worn and ragged.

In the Cart at the Louvre, not a single article of clothing appears worn out. Obviously these are rich peasants. They have a pack animal, three pigs, and a dog. Even the baby has shoes. But the mother is seated on the ground and the coarse garments are like those now worn by convicts. None of them fit. The courtyard exhibits a squalid disorder.

The Peasant Family of the Louvre again shows barefoot children. The oldest is dressed in a shirt that is twice large enough for him, open to the navel. Their breeches are shapeless. The mother, whose face is ancient although she can hardly be more than forty, holds a glass of thin wine in her hand. This premature aging of the female face was often remarked by· the chroniclers of the time. The father, whose clothes are frightfully ragged, is cutting a lump of gray bread.

The Return From The Baptism of the same Le Nain, the Peasants' Meal of Adrien Brouwer in the Museum of Basle, and of more recent date, the Farmer's Family of Fragonard in the Leningrad Museum portray similar settings. There is practically no difference as far as the level of living is concerned between these pictures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the miniatures in the Book of Hours of the Duke of Berri, and the sculptures of Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals[4].


As an objective summary of the description given by historians and chroniclers of the economic situation of the masses of the population in those times, I cannot do better than to reproduce the few paragraphs given over to this subject in the twenty volumes of Glotz's General History. In Volume II of the History of the Middle Ages, M. Augustin Fleche speaks of the misery "which was generally the fate of the rural classes in the tenth century."

“The poverty of the peasant was shown in his house, a simple wooden hut with a straw roof and a floor of beaten earth, the stable joined to the living quarters; in his less than scant furniture, in his clothing, even in his food, which was limited to those products of the land which the lord was willing to leave to him and consisted mostly of black bread, of vegetables, of milk, more rarely of fish or of pork. There are many evidences of a rude existence, devoid of all comfort and all joy, which often amounted to a condition of total deprivation. One finds in the Miracles of St. Benoit, which provides a mass of valuable information about rural life, one of the abbey serfs fleeing to Burgundy because he is too poor, another committing robberies because he cannot find any work to support his aged mother, still others forced to beg because they have no means at all. If we remember that on the church lands, the situation of the serfs was regarded as favorable, it seems likely that often in the tenth century the land did not support its people. Besides, what use to cultivate when the crops served only to provoke seigneurial rapacity?

Always difficult, the situation of the rural classes became tragic at certain moments. In the annals of the tenth and eleventh centuries, the word famine appears repeatedly. According to Raoul Glaber, 48 years of scarcity were counted between 970 and 1040. Nor is this surprising. The decline of commerce having reached a maximum in the tenth century, it was enough for the weather to bring about a bad harvest or for a district to be ravaged by war, for the most elemental necessities to become scarce. Doubtless among the famines reported by the chroniclers, many were only on a local scale, but at times the affliction was general. Such was the great famine of the year 1000 which, writes Raoul Glaber, raged throughout the Romanesque world to such a point that there was no region which did not lack bread. The chronicler reports that in many places the people, prey to atrocious sufferings, went as far as to "eat not only the flesh of animals and of the filthiest reptiles, but also even that of women and children." In 1031, it was, in certain respects, even worse: "The weather was so unseasonable that no favorable time for planting or for the harvest could be found, in particular because of the water which invaded the fields. The ground was so inundated by the continual rain that for three years not a furrow suitable for planting could be made. At harvest time weeds and tares covered the entire country. A bushel of seed, in the soil where it did best, did not return more than a sixth of its own measure at the time of gathering and this sixth hardly amounted to a handful." Neither Italy nor Gaul nor England was spared. Everywhere were enacted those scenes of. horror which the chronicler has admittedly dramatized, but without changing the reality of certain facts to which he was the desolate witness, like the sale of human flesh at the market of Tournus

The famine had other consequences, too. The inadequate nutrition in time of scarcity was responsible for epidemics which were equally dreadful. In his account of the misfortunes ofthe year 1031, Raoul Glaber says that in Burgundy they made bread with a white earth in which was mixed a bit of flour or bran and that many people who tried to satisfy their hunger by means of this singular concoction swelled up and died. Such a diet must have had the most disastrous consequences for general health, and it is not surprising that this famine was followed by a plague which lasted three years and decimated the population of Europe. Almost at the same time, André de Fleury observed in Aquitaine a strange disease which he called ignis sacer and which attacked and ate into the bones. Leprosy, however, was rather rare. It did not spread until after the Crusades. (page 588).”

Similarly, we find in Volume VII of the History of the Middle Ages by Calmette and Duprez the following observation:

Famine, scarcity, epidemics. The famine, scarcity and epidemics which raged in the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are only too well known, and to them must be added the less visible but equally certain phenomena of malnutrition and overcrowding of population into the fortified towns. All of these troubles crowded that unfortunate era with woeful scenes and paroxysms of commiseration.”

 Henri Pirenne describes in the same work the famine of 1315:

"The famine of 1315 and the Black Plague. It must be remarked that if the fourteenth century could not continue its advancement, the disasters which overwhelmed it were in large measure responsible. The terrible famine which overwhelmed all of Europe from 1315 to 1317 caused greater ravages, it appears, than any of those which had preceded it. The statistics which, by accident, have been preserved for Ypres, give some idea of its extent. We know that from the beginning of May to the middle of October of 1316 the city magistrates ordered the burial of 2,794 corpses, an enormous number when we reflect that the total population probably did not exceed 20,000. Thirty years later a new and more frightful disaster, the Black Plague, struck the world, which had hardly recovered from this earlier shock. Of all the epidemics known to history, this was undoubtedly the worst. It is estimated that from 1347 to 1350 it destroyed about a third of the European population..[5].”


These descriptions, however fragmentary they may be, leave no doubt about the reality of these evils. They also show that historians may easily confuse the manifestations of a problem with its causes. When Henri Pirenne writes, for example: "It must be remarked that if the fourteenth century could not continue its advancement, the disasters which overwhelmed it were in large measure responsible," it seems that he might as reasonably have written, "The catastrophes which overwhelmed the fourteenth century show the impossibility of advancement in the condition of the world of that time." In the same way Flèche seems to regard the rapacity of the landowners as the cause of the prevailing misery and does not speak of the general conditions of agricultural productivity except in connection with periodic crisis. He does not stop to think that even in the good years the harvest may have been so small as to limit the consumption of the masses. Not only is the solution of the problem of famines not perceived, but the problem itself is not scientifically posed and its economic importance is scarcely understood.

The economic system of the ancien regime was clearly characterized by the existence of a limited agricultural productivity. When productivity neared its limits, insecurity followed. The average level of living, hardly sufficient for the preservation of the race, was seriously threatened by climatic or political disturbances. These often led to major disasters.

We can retrace the large swings from relative prosperity to extreme misery in the course of the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. Studying the situation of the Parisian region under Louis XII and Francis I, Yvonne Bézard describes a time when the level of living of the people was really very high. But she notes that in less than fifty years the situation was seriously altered[6]. We shall return later to the causes of these cyclical variations.

The important fact emerging from this discussion is the existence throughout the course of many centuries of frequent periods in which the level of living fell so low that sizable fractions of the population died of hunger. Anyone familiar with the resistance of the human organism to hunger and anyone who has studied the physical, intellectual, and moral conditions of the Nazi concentration camps can form some idea of the severe limitations set on human progress by the periodic impact of these famines. The mortality rates recorded at Ypres in 1315 or at Bourg-en-Bresse in 1709 are of the same order of grandeur as those of the worst periods at the Auschwitz Camp (15 per cent in six months, about one in three per year).

The precarious situation of the peasant population lasted until the seventeenth century. The last famine recorded in France was that of 1709. Labrousse was able to find the number of deaths recorded at Bourg-en-Bresse in the course of that period: There were 150 deaths in 1706, 200, in 1707, 230 in 1708, 550  in 1709, 300 in 1710, 120 in 1711.

After that date, the history of France· does not exhibit another typical famine with general and severe over mortality due to hunger. After 1770, economic crises do not imply a reduction of the population. A new era begins to be discernible.


      B. From Louis XV to Napoleon I

To say that large numbers of men no longer die of hunger does not mean that they have achieved the physiological minimum of 2,700 to 3,000 calories. It signifies only that the most unfavorably situated strata of the population are still able to obtain, during the worst months of scarcity, the 800 to 1000 daily calories by means of which death may be averted.

The average level of living under these circumstances remains so inadequate from our viewpoint that the reader may be tempted to minimize the difference between the era of famines and the era which followed immediately afterward. Nevertheless, it was really a new era for humanity. After 1709 in France whole cities and regions were no longer delivered entire to the furies of hunger. After 1709 we do not hear of children being eaten and human meat was no longer sold on the market of Tournus.

After 1709, the demographic expansion of the Western nations was progressively freed from the millennial rhythm of the famines. The brutal saw teeth of the old mortality curve gives way to curves with less rapid oscillations. The mortality excesses of famine years, formerly the predominant factor in demography and the sole determinant of the growth of population, disappear. Other factors, formerly present but negligible, take the place of this hyper-mortality-fecundity, the marriage rate, and infantile and general mortality.


We tum again to the works of Labrousse-this time in order to study the trend of the level of living in France in the course of the eighteenth century. Any reader who examines the extensive studies of this author and the mass of source materials on which they are founded is bound to be impressed by the solidity of his conclusions and the reality of the facts which he describes. In their essentials, they have not been challenged in any way and are now taken as authoritative.

As far as the level of living is concerned, the conclusions of Labrousse can, I think, be hastily summarized as follows:

1) From 1725 to 1789 the price of essential staples (wheat, cereals, other food products) rose faster than wages.

2) Rent and profit also rose faster than wages.

3) As a result the average level of living of the working masses was reduced, while that of the land owners rose. These trends were very slow. I would venture the estimate that the loss for the wage earner was from 10 to 15 per cent and the gain for the property owner was from 15 to 20 per cent between 1725 and 1780.

4) There were numerous periods of high grain prices but no famine during this time.

5) The average level of living of wage earners in the course of the period may be visualized by comparing the laborer's daily wage of one franc with the price of a setier of wheat at 25 francs.

6 ) The total population increased greatly, from perhaps 18 or 20 million to 27 million at the time of the Revolution.

We can say, then, that as far as the average level of living is concerned, the eighteenth century hardly differed from the previous centuries. If an estimate were attempted of the per capita purchasing power, measured in pounds of wheat, of the average wage earner from 1725 to 1789, compared to the period 1625 to 1725, the difference between these figures would be smaller than the errors involved in the calculations. Statistically, we must conclude that the average level of living remained at much the same level. But two essential and related facts can be observed in the eighteenth century:

1) The deviations above and below the average level of living were much reduced in comparison to former times.

2) Since there were no famines, the population grew rapidly and reached a density never known before.


The average level of living during the eighteenth century took on for the first time the character of an habitual level of living.

To get an idea of what this habitual level of living was like, the Voyage in France of Arthur Young is one of the few useful documents. Young had the true spirit of an observer and a sufficient awareness of concrete economic facts to give his attention to the important elements of agriculture and food production. Furthermore, as he was an Englishman, nothing in France appeared natural to him, and he often availed himself of that essential faculty of the scientific spirit-surprise. It is truly impossible to look for an explanation or even a clear account of facts unless one is surprised by their existence and does not take for granted the interpretations which are currently accepted.

On every page, Young compares France and England. He is astonished by the differences which he notes between the situation of the two peoples. France is much poorer than England. How? Why?

Without accepting Young's detailed answer to these questions, which is at least partly debatable, it is useful to look at his account of the facts[7].

First of all, Young is struck by the poor quality of housing, the lack of paving and floors, the absence of windows. This is a point to which we will return in connection with housing. We cite only in passing this typical description of a worker's house in a favorably situated district in Savoy:

“The houses have a repulsive aspect… they are huts of mud, ugly, covered with straw, smoke escaping from a hole in the roof or even from the windows. Window glass seems to be unknown and these houses have an air of poverty which clashes with the general appearance of the country side”.

Besides the inadequacy of housing, one fact obsessed our Englishman: the filthiness of human beings and particularly of the maids at wayside inns.

For example, at Souillac: “It is not in the power of an English imagination to figure the animals that waited upon us here, at the Chapeau Rouge. Some things that called themselves, by the courtesy of Souillac, women, were in reality walking dung·hills. But a neatly-dressed clean waiting-girl at an inn will be looked for in vain in France[8]. And the same at Pezenas: “At supper, at the table d'hôte, we were waited on by a female without shoes or stockings, exquisitely ugly, and diffusing odours not of roses; there were, however, a croix de St. Louis, and two or three mercantile-looking people that prated with her very familiarly…”

The words misery and poverty occur constantly in Young's account:

“Poverty and poor crops to Amiens; women are now ploughing with a pair of horses to sow barley ... they plough and fill the dung-cart”. “Pass Payrac, and meet many beggars, which we had not done before. All the country girls and women are without shoes or stockings; and the ploughmen at their work have neither sabots nor stockings to their feet”. “To St. Martory is an almost uninterrupted range of well enclosed and well cultivated country. For an hundred miles past, the women generally without shoes, even in the towns, and in the country many men also”. “There is a long street in the episcopal town of Dol, without a glass windo… “To Combourg. The country has a savage aspect; husbandry not much further advanced, at least in skill, than among the Hurons, which appears incredible amidst enclosures; the people almost as wild as their country, and their town of Combourg one of the most brutal filthy places that can be seen; mud houses, no windows, and a pavement so broken, as to impede all passengers, but ease none; yet here is a chateau, and inhabited. Who is this Mons. de Chateaubriand, the owner, that has nerves strung for a residence amidst such filth and poverty[9]?”. “To Montauban. The poor people seem poor indeed; the children terribly ragged, if possible worse clad than if with no clothes at all; as to shoes and stockings they are luxuries”.

Young gives few descriptions of the people's food. Here are two notes which are the most exact that I have been able to find for that epoch:

” To Tonneins…. These people, like other Frenchmen, eat little meat; in the town of Leyrac five oxen only are killed in a year; whereas an English town with the same population would consume two or three oxen a week.” “To Hasparren. Fair day, and the place crowded with farmers. I saw the soup prepared for what we should call the farmers' ordinary; there was a mountain of sliced bread, the colour of which was not inviting; ample provision of cabbage, grease, and water, and about as much meat for some scores of people as half-a-dozen English farmers would have eaten, and grumbled at their host for short commons”.

In reading these words, the modern reader may believe that Young was systematically vilifying France. On the other hand, it is certain that a traveler in Calabria, in Sicily, in Sardinia or Portugal, might have observed pretty nearly the same situations around 1930, and even today might see worse things yet in North Africa, in Egypt, in India, or in China. Present reality provides evidence to verify the testimony of the past. Moreover, although Young is manifestly imbued with characteristic British superiority and happy to show it, it is only fair to say that the spirit of denigration is quite foreign to this observer whose essential purpose was to improve the fate of men by taking account of the natural forces which they faced.

As a matter of fact, when he did find less distressing conditions, he pointed them out with enthusiasm, as proof that it is possible to obtain more satisfactory conditions of life for a people. (An example is Monein near Pau.) It was also with enthusiasm that Young followed the efforts of the Duke of Larochefoucauld-Liancourt. The quotation which follows seems to me to sum up very nicely what Young thought of the situation of the peasant class in France and the spirit in which he made his observations:

“Walking up a long hill, to ease my mare, I was joined by a poor woman, who complained of the times, and that it was a sad country. Demanding her reasons, she said her husband had but a morsel of land, one cow, and a poor little horse, yet they had a franchar (42 lb.) of wheat, and three chickens, to pay as a quit-rent to one seigneur; and four franchar of oats, one chicken and 1 sou to pay to another, besides very heavy tailles and other taxes. She had seven children, and the cow's milk helped to make the soup. But why, instead of a horse, do not you keep another cow? Oh, her husband could not carry his produce so well without a horse; and asses are little used in the country. It was said at present, that something was to be done by some great folks for such poor ones, but she did not know who nor how, but God send us better, car les tailles et les droits nous écrasent. This woman, at no great distance, might have been taken for sixty or seventy, her figure was so bent, and her face so furrowed and hardened by labour; but she said she was only twenty-eight. An Englishman who has not travelled cannot imagine the figure made by infinitely the greater part of the countrywomen in France; it speaks, at the first sight, hard and severe labour. I am inclined to think, that they work harder than the men, and this, united with the more miserable labour of bringing a new race of slaves into the world, destroys absolutely all symmetry of person and every feminine appearance. To what are we to attribute this difference in the manners of the lower people in the two kingdoms? To GOVERNMENT”.


The situation thus evoked by Young, and confirmed by other writings of the economists of the time - notably Lavoisier - and confirmed also by what we have said about real wages and what will be said further on about the national product, leaves an impression of extreme precariousness. A brilliant but not numerous elite lived off an apathetic mass. The income of the great depended upon the extreme poverty of the small. Intellectual and artistic civilization could only exist for a minority; that minority could only assure its own security by the poverty of the masses, and its security was essential for its civilization. For if the population had not been very large and therefore very poor, the rent of the land would have been low.


With the eighteenth century, the era of millet came to an end for France. The time passed when the King of France could feed his workmen with two daily pounds of millet bread, a quart of wine and two bowls of gravy soup, sometimes fat, sometimes lean[10].



With the beginning of the nineteenth century[11], and more particularly with the return of peace to Europe after 1820, the history of the level of living of the working classes enters a new phase[12].This does not mean that misery disappeared, nor even that the subsistence minimum was achieved among the poorest wage earners. On the contrary, we will see that the 1830's offer the spectacle of numerous industrial centers where large parts of the population were clearly malnourished and where misery exercised its sway. But the general climate changed little by little. Problems which once had been crucial diminished; others appeared and took their places among the great social dilemmas.

In the first place, not only did famine not reappear, but even the periods of high wheat prices became less and less marked and their impact was less and less felt by the population. In the same way, the great epidemics ceased to occur[13].On the other hand, unemployment not only persisted but appeared in conjunction with social crises of a new type which, although much less serious than the ancient famines, were perhaps less easily tolerated psychologically by the working class.

If we take in at a single glance the whole of the period 1820 to 1940, the improvement of the level of living of the working class appears substantial, but this improvement was so imperceptible in the short run and so often disturbed by regressive movement that it is difficult to give a definite idea of the trend except by comparing the situation of extreme years. This is what we shall do further on. In the meantime, it seems possible to distinguish three major stages in the social history of the last century:

1) From 1820 to 1871, the industrial revolution was getting underway. Heavy investments were made, but the consumption goods offered to the working class accumulated only slowly and sometimes diminished. Population increased so rapidly that despite a small increase in agricultural productivity, the entire product of the whole of French soil was necessary to support the inhabitants. The migration of the peasants toward the cities did not involve the depopulation of the countryside, but was supported by a surplus of births among the rural population.

2) After 1871,  there was a new explosion of technical progress - what G. Friedmann has called the second industrial revolution - as a result of the introduction of electrical power in industry. At the same time, the mechanization of agriculture began to be felt. The output of the land and the productivity of labor increased markedly, and since at the same time population ceased to expand[14], the area necessary to support it decreased and the countryside began to empty. The level of living rose faster than in the previous period as a result of the cumulation of gains in both the agricultural and the industrial sectors. However, the rhythm of expansion remained slow. Interrupted by World War I, it recommenced rather feebly after the war.

3) After 1929, a third phase opened under the unfavorable auspices of a world economic crisis. Nevertheless, this was a period of lively technical improvement and consequently of rapid improvement in the living conditions of the worker. World War II interrupted this phase, but did not terminate it. The war and the resultant ruin effected a profound regression lasting until 1950 or thereabouts. Since then the pre-war level has been regained and one can see the re-establishment of an ascendent and relatively accelerated trend that began about 1930.

     A. The Level of Living of' the Working Class in about 1830

Besides such historians as Ernest Levasseur and Paul Louis who studied the condition of the working class after the French Revolution, a number of contemporary studies of undoubted scientific value tell us something about the average level of living in the France of 1830. Among the conscientious observers were Villeneuve-Bargemont, Guerry, Angeville, and above all Villermé who, in his great Inventory of the Physical and Moral Condition of Workers Employed in the Manufacture of Cotton, Wool and Silk, gives us the best data for analysis. Although it is not possible here to enter into the details of a subject so huge, we shall try to sum up the observations made available by grouping them around three topics: The nutrition of the working classes, the problems of the most disfavored fraction of the population and - in spite of the clearly unfavorable impression which the first two studies will give - the slow but incontestable improvement of the general level of living in the course of the first half of the nineteenth century.

1) Nutrition. As noted above, the fundamental fact which emerges from a study of the nutrition of workers in 1830 is that such terms as "millet" and "buckwheat biscuit" are no longer employed. We have seen above, in discussing the subsistence minimum of Villermé, what pattern the author ascribes to the food budget of a working family which is "not in need." The standard ration of Villermé actually gives a number of calories equal to or greater than the subsistence minimum of 2,700 to 3,000 calories per capita per day. Villermé gives many examples of the actual consumption of working families, based on meticulously detailed inquiries. There is, for example, the ration of a family of six persons as shown by the studies of the Industrial Association of Mulhouse.

This is how Villermé summarizes his observation for that same region of Mulhouse[15]:

“With respect to nutrition, and in other respects as well, the workers in cotton can be divided into several classes. For the very poorest, those of the spinning and weaving mills, and some day-laborers, the diet is commonly composed of potatoes as a base, some thin soup, a bit of poor milk, bad "pasta" and bread. Fortunately this last is of fairly good quality. They do not eat meat or drink wine except on pay day or the day after, which is to say, twice a month.

Those who have a better position, or, who having no dependents, earn 30 to 35 sous a day, add to this diet some vegetables and sometimes a small quantity of meat.

Those whose daily wage is two francs or more eat meat with vegetables almost every day ....[16]

The working class diet was similar practically everywhere in France, somewhat better at Sedan, worse at Lille, and Sainte Marie-aux-Mines. The average food allowance varies around the following quantities: two pounds of bread, 100 grams of cheese or butter, vegetable soup, meat and meat soup on paydays. The drink was diluted cider at best, wine was an exceptional treat. In the poorer districts, the menu recalls that of the eighteenth century even more. Villermé describes the diet of workers on the shores of the Swiss lake of Zurich in this way:

“...Their habitual food is made up ... of the following items: potatoes which are the base, and which are eaten with everything in the form of bread, when they are not eaten alone. A bit of bread which is usually of good quality. Meatless soups and broths made with flour, oatmeal and so forth ... dairy products. Some fruit; eggs from time to time. Sometimes fish in certain localities. Finally, chicory coffee with milk for the women's breakfast. Meat is a rare food for them. They do not eat it at all, or at most have it once a week".

Such a situaltion is easily inderstood if we recall that the nominal wage of the  working class was only one franc a day, while the price of bread varied 30 and 40 centimes a kilo.

According to a remarkable study mentioned by Villermé :

"In a Rouen factory, two-thirds of the workers did not earn the 450 francs a year necessary to have the following menu every day - two pounds of bread, seven cents worth of cheese or butter, a portion of meat and soup, or gravy soup at the cook shop. Diluted cider as a beverage [17].”

However inadequate this diet might be, it had one essential advantage for the working class - its relative stability. After 1820, the price of bread maintained a relatively constant level unknown before. The average national price began to assume a definite direction  as a result of the extent and the regularity of exchanges between provinces. While the variations recorded before 1789 often reached the proportons of one to four within very few years, and variations of one to two in short periods were common before 1800,  the absolute minimum price of bread for the period 1820 to 1854 was 20.16 per quintal, while the absolute maximum was only 30.05. In the course of this period of 25 years, there was only a single rapid increase in the price of wheat, that which carried the price from 20.90 in 1825 to 29.38 in 1828. The price remained high from 1828 to 1832, but it never exceeded 150 per cent of its lowest level[18].

2) The crises of overproduction began to be more feared than the crises of underproduction. In the course of the crises of the new type, the manufacturers abandoned the workers whom they had snatched from the countryside during the period of prosperity. Unemployment swept the industrial centers. The men most recently hired were let out without warning, the others had their working time reduced. On the whole, the sufferings caused by the fluctuations of earnings became more important than those due to variations in the price of bread, and the problems imposed upon the working class by industrial crises began to substitute in men's minds for the traditional threat of agricultural crises. Thus, there was still great poverty and in several respects the fate of the average worker appeared more unfavorable during the initial period of industrial progresse than during the final stages of the traditional period. Doubtless white bread replaced black bread almost everywhere, and doubtkess if the peasant came to the city it was because the level of living there appeared to him to be higher than in the country - at least psychologically. The city of 1830 was an America where one might try his luck. But what hardships were reserved there for those who did not succeed! The peasant house, poor, but in the open air, was exchanged for an insanitary warren. The hardships of peasant labor, supportable in the fields, were transported to the odorous and unhealthy factory. The moral and social framework of the village disappeared for the new anonymous masses, thrown into inorganic suburbs. It was the hideous era of proletarization.

Villermé, Flora Tristan, Jules Simon, and Noiret encountered misery everywhere. Villerme gives a description of the workers of Mulhouse which deserves to be famous:

“The workshops of Mulhouse alone reckoned in 1835  more than 5000 out of about 11,600 workers who lived in the surrounding villages. These workers are the least well paid. They consist principally of poor families encumbered with young children, who come from everywhere during times of industrial activity. They come to Alsace and hire themselves out to manufacturing. One must see them arriving each morning in town and leaving at night. Among them there are a multitude of women, pale, thin, walking barefoot through the mud, and, when it rains, having no umbrellas, covering their heads with an apron or a skirt to protect their faces and necks. There are an even greater number of young children no less dirty, no less emaciated, their rags covered with oil from the machines. The children do not even have on their arms, like the women,… a basket with their provisions for the day. They carry in their hands or hide under their vests or where they may, the lump of bread which must nourish them until their return home.

Thus, to the fatigue of a working day which is already excessively long, being at least 15 hours, there is added for these unfortunates, the discomfort of a regular and painful trip back and forth. The distances are from three to six miles and sometimes even more. The result is that they arrive home in the evenings overwhelmed by the need to sleep and leave the next morning without having completely rested.”

The situation is no better for the weavers at Reims, Lille, or Rouen. At Sainte-Marie-Aux-Mines, Villermé makes this frightful comment:

“If my information is correct, the workers of the factory of Sainte-Marie-Aux-Mines are generally discontented with their lot; however, the weavers who are the great majority, are too weak and have too little energy for this discontent ever to be feared”.

At Sedan, the situation was better. It was, in fact, the best in France because of the solid tradition of worker-employer relations, and even more because of the proximity of Belgium where, since wages were then lower than in France, the price of food was correspondingly less. For the only time in the course of his travels in France, Villermé was able to see at Sedan child workers at play:

“The day of my arrival at Sedan, I was surprised, in passing the door of a woolen factory at the moment when the bell signaled the return to work after the dinner hour, to see there a great number of children ... playing, running, jumping with a gaiety and a petulance which, even without their thriving appearance, would have already shown me the most evident proof of their excellent state of health. At the sound of the bell, all of them hurried into the courtyard. The poor children, even younger, by the way, who worked in the cotton spinning mills, do not resemble these at all.”

The total impression which one gets from an attentive reading of the documents of the time may be summarized thus: More than a third of the working class of the cities, living in horrible dens, heaped on pallets without covering, without light, without fire, without water, suffered from "frightful indigence, brutalization, vices, and a profound degradation." The popular tongue gave the name of "white Negroes" to these exhausted, thin, and dirty creatures. Villermé, a thorough bourgeois, concluded that their condition could not be blamed on their vices, but rather their vices on their condition, and that, in general, "they deserve all of the sympathy of men of good will, for their good qualities and the respectable cause of their misery[19]."


3) The symptoms of improvement. Sad as this situation may have been as described by impartial observers, it does not appear worse than the fate of preceding generations. In fact, none of these authors presents the condition of his time as more unfavorable than that of the previous years. Moreover, we must take into account in this matter a psychological factor that is extremely powerful and that each of us can verify easily and daily, the passage of time colors old memories in rose. This influences many people today in their recollections of "the glorious epoch" before 1914. Many of us have a tendency to describe favorably the remembered conditions of childhood or youth, whether it was a worker's apprenticeship or a boarding school. Some former prisoners even come to the point of remembering with a certain melancholy not devoid of wistfulness, their years of captivity in Germany!

The testimony of old workers who have described the improvement of the material conditions of life has therefore a special value. Such testimonials are not rare in the social literature of 1830 to 1840. They are certainly more frequent than in the social literature of today. Villermé interviewed at Reims and in other cities a number of old people who recognized a substantial improvement: In clothing, woolen cloth had replaced cotton in winter, cleanliness had been diffused among the workers' daughters, white bread had taken the place of coarse bread:

“Fifty years ago, the woolen workers of Reims were in a deplorable state of poverty, like those in other occupations. Those of them who were best off, piled into tiny rooms, badly fed, badly clothed, would seem very poor today. It is said that those who ate meat and meat soup once a week were envied, while today every worker who is reasonably well off has them twice a week. Finally, the health of the Reims worker in former days was not as good, in general, as we see it now[20]

Evidence that improvement had been felt can be found in a great number of the memoirs of the time[21]. Even housing, however inadequate, did not seem to represent a regression. The hut of the peasant to the north of Loire, windowless or with a narrow window sealed by wooden shutters all through the winter, with its floor of beaten earth, was not necessarily more wholesome nor agreeable than the workers' housing. Characteristically, the dark, narrow, and tortuous streets, in which the working class was heaped, were in many places made up of houses originally constructed for another class of inhabitants. The development of a quarter of Paris like the Temple is typical in this regard. There, the working class took the place of the aristocracy. Of course, the density of the population increased greatly during the transition, but without exceeding the normal density in other kinds of workers' housing. One must not forget the mediocrity of hygiene and comfort in middle class houses under the ancien regime. With regard to housing, as we shall point out later on, France is a lazy beneficiary, or victim, of her past. Our ancestors have left us the houses which they constructed. We would rather dwell in them than to make the effort of building new ones. Many a worker family still lives in the house of a merchant or citizen of the ancien regime and in many of our southern cities, even of the Middle Ages.


Such are the general indicators of the level of living of the working classes around 1830. It would obviously be worthwhile to extend this description and to apply it to each of the succeeding decades from the Restoration to our times. This would be quite possible, since there are many sources. It has been done in part by Duveau in his notable thesis on The Life of Workers under the Second Empire. This book, to which the reader is referred, excuses me from describing the two fascinating decades between 1850 and 1870.

It must be noted, however, that the number of objective and quantitative studies, instead of increasing from 1830 to our day, decreased until about 1930, with some sign of recovery in recent years. Here, as elsewhere in economic science, the intellectual school has done its worst. The doctrinaires have triumphed over the observers and theory is preferred to experiment.

In this preliminary sketch of a quantitative measure of the level of living we must limit ourselves to certain landmarks. At least the principal tendencies of the complex beginnings of the industrial revolution must be taken into account. We shall review in very general terms the facts observed from 1830 to 1930, and then we shall discuss a few statistical indexes that allow us to measure the changes observed between these dates.


     B. From 1830 to 1930

In 1830, machinisme had just been born. The social structure was practically the same as in the previous century. There were yet no railroads. Steam engines were strange novelties. Only the textile industry had entered a new period of activity. However, the essential scientific discoveries had already been made. It remained only to implement them. In other words, the necessary conditions having been satisfied, the technical progress that was formerly unthinkable became possible. Furthermore, the viewpoint of the ruling classes favored the effort. The Renaissance, then the eighteenth century, and finally the Revolution had profoundly transformed traditional mentality. In the words of Jean Marchal, the individual had become Faustian before the state. He knew he was able to transform nature and he desired such a transformation.

We may describe the century from 1830 to 1930 as the first century of technical progress. Certainly there had been some measure of technical progress in the course of previous centuries, but the evolution had been much slower, the elements affected by progress were much fewer, and for the daily life of the average man, much less essential before 1830 than after.

Nevertheless it would be a mistake to think that the decisive progress accomplished first by coal and steam, later by electric power and the internal combustion motor, had any drastic influence on the level of living. It was rather the style of life which was changed during this century. The improvement of the level of living was so slight that it could scarcely be felt from one decade to the next, and there would even be uncertainty about the direction of the trend if a comparison of the periods at both ends of the century did not settle the matter.

The first century of technical progress can be divided in France into two almost equal intervals. During the first stage, population grew very rapidly and the level of living was checked by this very growth. During the second stage, technical progress reached the countryside and a permanent agricultural crisis appeared to lower the level of living of the peasant class. In effect, a pendular movement was produced. The great capital investments that were indispensable for technical progress were supported at first by the labor of the urban working population. Later they weighed more heavily on the peasants. World War I not only prolonged but aggravated the problem of completing the technical transformation of the French nation.

It is not possible to review here the economic history of France during the past century-at least, not in the light of these leading ideas. It is likely that it would be possible to establish a series of causal relationships as yet unnoticed[22].

Such a study would describe the peasant prosperity under the Second Empire related to the high price of wheat, the building of rural roads, the clearing of new lands, the large scale construction of rural housing, and the creation of new farms and new villages. The sharp decline of the 1880's would be brought into focus. Wheat, which under the Empire had maximum prices of more than 30 francs per quintal and minimum prices of more than 20, fell suddenly to the range between 13.5 and 23. The peasant exodus began, the villages were abandoned, the houses fell into ruins, and the newly cleared lands went out of cultivation.

The collapse of the price of wheat, the cause of the emigration of the rural population, was itself attributable to the increase in productivity of cultivated land and the halt in demographic expansion. The last year when the average hectare in France gave less than ten quintals of wheat was 1879. The three years, 1894, 1895, and 1896, each exceeded 13 quintals. Fourteen quintals per hectare were reported in 1898 and 1899, 15 in 1903, 16 in 1921, 17 in 1929, and 19 in 1938. The productivity of the average hectare in 1938 was triple that of 1815 and more than double the average of the period 1815 to 1880.

The population, which grew from 27 to 39 million between 1800 and 1880, increased only from 39 to 42 million between 1880 and 1939. The area planted with wheat, which had increased steadily from 4.5 million hectares around 1815 to about seven million in 1880, necessarily reached a plateau and then declined after 1880. It had fallen to five million hectares by 1938.

The determinism of technical progress shows itself here in full strength. It would be fascinating to study it in detail and to show its relation to that other variable engine of human economy-demographic movement. We must limit ourselves here, however, for lack of time and for lack of the material means of research, to the investigation of the level of living in its essential aspects. For this, we must first investigate the trend in the purchasing power of the working masses, then the development of real national income per capita; finally we shall examine the numerous indicators of the level of living, which after 1830 provide us with more and more accurate statistics.

1) The purchasing power of the working masses. The general outline for the study of the real earnings of workers in the last 150 years may be found in Chapter Two of my Civilisation de I975 and in Chapter Nine of the Grand Espoir du XXe Siècle. The reader is referred to these texts, whose conclusions can be summarized thus:

a) The evolution of real earnings is very different if we consider hourly wages instead of daily, weekly or annual wages. Between 1830 and 1938 the length of the working day was lowered from 12 to 8 or 9 hours. The length of the working week was reduced from 72 to 40 hours. These figures represent orders of magnitude rather than exact averages.

b) The evolution of real earnings is very different measured in relation to wholesale or retail prices and differs generally in relation to the prices of products with great or small possibilities of technical improvement. The fact is that no improvement of purchasing power can be observed with reference to any product or service whose methods of production have not changed since 1830.

A given wage may take on very different measurements of purchasing power, according to the articles of consumption to which it is related. This relationship dominates the study of the level of living, because it permits us to identify the reasons for the improvements that have taken place. We shall return to this matter in a later chapter. Here it is sufficient to notice the reality and the extent of the observed disparities in price movement. We may take as an example the evolution of purchasing power since 1700, measured on the one hand with reference to a commodity such as mirrors, subject to great technical improvement, and on the other hand, with reference to a service that still requires the same work as formerly : a private lesson, a medical visit, a seat at the opera, the execution of a portrait by an artist, the defense of a case before the courts, the signing of a notarial act, the creation of a dress or of a hat by a dress maker or a modiste, a square yard of tapestry, the binding of a book by hand, an architect's plan, or a haircut.

In 1702 it required 42,500 laborers' hourly wages to buy a mirror four meters square. In 1850 it still took 7,200, while in 1950 it required only 200. By contrast, it still takes more than half of an hourly wage to pay the barber.

Purchasing power has been multiplied by 210 as far as mirrors are concerned. During the same period it has decreased by 35 per cent at the barber's. The key to the mechanism determining any average level of living is to be found in these few figures.


These figures suggest that the measures selected for the level of living must be specified with care on pain of arriving at complete confusion.

Expressed in kilograms of wheat at the wholesale price, the average hourly wage of carpenters and cabinet makers at Paris went from less than one kilogram in about 1800 to about 1.2 kilograms in 1830 and nearly eight kilograms in the period 1930 to 1935.

On the other hand, the daily wage in kilograms of wheat increased much less-from 10 kilos around 1800 and 13 kilos around 1830 to 65 in 1930-35. The annual wage follows the same trend as the weekly wage, because vacations, when they exist, are now paid.

But the gains in real earnings are less when they are expressed in average retail prices of food and other staple commodities. Setting values of 100 for 1750 to 1760 and 140 for 1800, the real average weekly earnings of skilled laborers of Paris did not exceed 250 at their maximum point in the period 1930 to 1935 and fell to lower levels thereafter.

Happily, the provincial worker and the miner have gained appreciably more. Measured by retail prices, the annual earnings of a workman in the mines tripled between 1820-40 and 1931-38. The annual wage of a country laborer doubled between 1801-10 and 1931-38.

The salaries of high ranking personnel, far from improving, fell off considerably over the same interval. The salary of a Councilor of State is a good index of the earnings of senior executives also in private industry, because if serious gaps develop between the salaries offered by private enterprise and by government, too many high officials would leave the public service. The purchasing power of the salary of Councilors of State was reduced by half between 1801-10 and 1938-39[23].

The ordinary studies of the level of living, which have begun to appear in recent years in France and abroad, generally refer to a working class consumption that is constant in time and consists principally of food items at the retail prices of the urban markets. We have the costs of a uniform style of life for France, calculated by Simiand, by the General Statistical Office, and by Kuczynski.

The following table shows the estimates of the General Statistical Office and the clearly less optimistic estimates of Kuczynski. The indexes are not corrected in any way for unemployment, illness, or taxes. However, Professor Kuczynski has tried to take note of the fluctuations due to changes in the duration of work at the time of cyclical crises[24].

The discrepancies between this table and certain comparable measures are not surprising if we recall the divergence from 65 to 21,000 recorded in Table XIII. It is only necessary to include different kinds of consumption to arrive at different indexes. But even according to Kuczynski's table the long term improvement of purchasing power is clear beyond argument if 1850 and 1935 are compared. The development, unmistakable in the long term, is very irregular in the short term. There are numerous regressions which have the effect of removing from people's minds the feeling of progress. It should also be noted to what extent the years 1878 to 1880 mark a change in the pace of development.

 2) Average per capita real income. The foregoing considerations leave no doubt whatsoever of the fact of substantial improvement in the purchasing power of the skilled worker in France. This improvement can be estimated, between the beginning of the eighteenth century and our own time, as the tripling of the hourly real wage, and the doubling of weekl earnings, measured in relation to the classic staples. As for the average laborer, his hourly wage has been multiplied by 3.5 and his daily wage by 3 (see Tables VI and VII).

However, the preceding study raises certain questions. Has the improvement of the urban worker's level of living been achieved at the expense of the peasant? Is it related to the closing of the fan of salaries, the reduction of the purchasing power of high officials, and of high salaries generally, or in other words, to a more egalitarian distribution of income?




Only a study of real per capita income will allow us to answer this question. Unfortunately, estimates of national income are subject to serious errors. Until recent years, the only figures available for France were obviously too low. Happily, the problem of estimating national income was partly solved after 1946 by the statisticians of the General Planning Commission under the inspiration of Jacques Dumontier. Since 1950, official estimates of French national income have been calculated with increasing accuracy by the national accounting service of the Ministry of Finance. The figures given in the second line of Table XV are those of M. Froment, except for 1830. They are by far the best available, and appear to me to be valid within a margin of perhaps twenty per cent.

By dividing these estimates of national income by the national population at each date, and then dividing the result by the cost-of-living index, we obtain the real per capita income, expressed in 1913 francs.

As the table shows, real per capita income was only 290 (standard) francs in 1830. It has exceeded 1,100 francs since 1900. After 1900, progress was much slower, no more than 1 per cent from 1900 to 1913, compared to an average of about 2 per cent in the previous century. World War I brought a setback. The level of 1930 was hardly above that of 1913. Even more serious was the new stagnation of 1930 to 1938, an interruption in progress which, as we shall see in the next chapter, was unique to France. These results are based, as we have just noted, on new estimates of the national income. On the whole these confirm the estimates of foreign economists, notably Colin Clark who dates the "loss of momentum" in France from the turn of the century.

These figures also serve to show that the improvement in the condition of wage earners was not achieved at the expense of the other classes of the population. On the contrary, from 1830 to 1938, per capita real income quadrupled, while the laborer's daily wage scarcely tripled. In a closer view, it appears that although the average urban worker earned less than the average Frenchman from 1830 to 1913, he earned much more between 1913 and 1938. However, it should be noted that the work week had generally been reduced from six days in 1913 to five days in 1938, so that the worker's real annual earnings were only 10 per cent higher at the later date. The improvement in the condition of the French working classes during this period had been almost exclusively applied to a reduction of working hours. The level of living had been voluntarily that is, by legislation, sacrificed to the style of life.

Of course, these figures are only meaningful with reference to the group of goods and services included in the cost-of-living indexes used. With reference to manufactured products, the improvement of the wage earner's purchasing power, as well as that of the average Frenchman, appears much greater. For example, the average hourly wage was worth only half a kilowatt of electricity in 1900, against three kilowatts in 1938. In 1900, it required 40 hours of a laborer's wages to buy a bicycle pump, but only two hours in 1938. The bicycle itself cost 100 days of work in 1900, and only ten in 1938.

The findings thus obtained, which appear on line four of Table XV are not very different in general trend from those presented by Colin Clark in 1940 when he published The Conditions of Economic Progress.

Aside from short-term fluctuations, Clark's estimates confirm the long-term trend towards the improvement of the level of living in France. In spite of World War I, the average level of living in the course of the decade 1925 to 1934 was almost exactly twice as high as in the decade 1850-59, even though the average duration of work in the cities had been reduced from 70 hours a week to 48.

All the figures of Table XV confirm the reality of this improvement. The reader may do well to study them. They give some idea of the complexity and the variety of economic life. Without any detailed commentary, and without returning to the major trends, we may here note certain of the most remarkable conclusions. The credit balance of savings accounts, per capita, represented the equivalent of four kilograms of bread in 1830 and 560 kilograms in 1938. France had three times as many automobiles in 1955 as it had bicycles in 1900. The consumption of sugar per capita increased from 2.3 kilograms in 1830 to 26 kilograms in 1955. That of grain from 1.4 to 1.9 quintals, potatoes from 1 to 3.5 quintals, coffee from 2.5 to 3.8 hectograms. The average consumption of tobacco quadrupled, that of beer tripled, that of wine more than quadrupled, that of chocolate was multiplied by 50. In 1938 every Frenchman used seven times as much cotton and three times as much wool as in 1830. The number of doctors at the service of the French people more than doubled, while the dentists increased  ten-fold.

The number of students in secondary education quintupled,  the number in higher education tripled. The future intellectual character of our civilization was assured by a change without precedent in the history of humanity

[1] "The average national production of India does not suffice to nourish two inhabitants out of three ... even supposing that they had no need for clothing, lodging or transportation, and eating the coarsest of foods." Shah and Khambata, La richesse de l'lnde et sa capacité fiscale.

[2] M. Meuvret, op. cit., who is the great specialist of social history of the reign of Louis XIV, states that many deaths were not registered during famines because so many of the dead were transients. Men and women, made homeless by disaster, died on the roads… Many were not taken to the church or buried by the priest who in that case would usually not register them in the Death Register. It was only in 1955 that the Institut National d'Études Démographiques published a guide for historical research in the old civil registers. See Michel Fleury and Louis Henry, Des registres paroissiaux àl'histoire de la Population.

[3] Hanauer, op. cit., p. 96.

[4] Among the most instructive sculptures are "La mouture du blé" (on the capital of Vezelay), "Les Mois," of the cathedral of Amiens and those of Notre Dame (the reaper carries his hay on his back, as the peasants of Lake Como still do).

[5] Henri Pirenne, Gustave Cohen and Henri Focillon, Histoire du Moyen Age, t. VIII, p. 167. There are many descriptions of famines. For example, itis estimated that in the winter of 1438, one-third of the population of Paris died of famine or disease (cf. Histoire des famines à Paris, by Francois Vincent, chap.II). Short, in his valuable book, New Observations on Bills of Mortality, numbers famines from the Christian era to the year 1800 at 239. Short's work, whichis now quite old, would be a good point of departure for modern research onthis important problem.

[6]  Yvonne Bézard (La vie rurale dans le sud de la région parisienne de 1450 à 1560 writes that in order to buy a hectolitre of wheat, a workman must work "5 days under Louis XII, 10 days under Francois I, and 15 days in 19I4." One hectolitre of beans took 3 working days under Charles VIII, 10 days under Henri II, and I5 in I9I4. According to Bézard, a cow took I2 working days under Charles VIII, 43 days under Francois I, and 133 in i9I4. Thus, it would appear that the situation of a man of average income under Charles VIII and Louis XII was quite favorable.

Unfortunately, these averages are not real averages. She adopts, for example, as the price of one hectolitre of wheat, 11 sous, 6 deniers under Louis XII; 1 livre, I7 sous, under Francois I ; 2 livres, 2 sous under Henry II. But she reports that the price of wheat-muslin was 30 sous, 4 deniers in 1482 and 8 to 9 sous in neighboring years. She makes the mistake of not understanding that if the price of wheat quadruples in two years, it is because something serious has happened and averages are meaningless.

Furthermore, the era of Louis XII was a time of very high level of living. It did not last very long and did not avoid famine during its short duration.

[7]  From our point of view, Young is much closer to the realities than the classical economists of our day. In reading his pages, the notion of the productivity of work leaps to mind. It would seem that given a little systematic reflection, he might have formulated a valuable theory on the level of living. The same can be said for Lavoisier.

[8] This and the succeeding quotations are in the language of the English original.

[9] He was, among other things, the father of the great author and social philosopher.

[10] Cf., Comptes des bâltiments du Roi, published by Guiffrey (I, p. XX), the food order for March 22, 1684, "to feed the workers on die buildings of His Majesty at Versailles."

[11] The time passed when the troops of Louis XIV, sent to Larhaix to put down a peasant revolt, could roast children on a spit. All is not beautiful in the machine age, and horrible things still happen. But this occurred among Frenchmen and in the age of Corneille. (Lavisse, Histoire de France, t. VII, pp. 2I4-I7.)

[12]. We have several documents of economic and social research under the First Empire in various Departments. According to an annual report on the Department of l'Orne for 1809, an official document which had no interest in blackening the facts, this was the state of the peasant: "Housing is in general unhealthy, low and humid, with no opening but the door. Breakfast is bread and butter: and dinner, soup made of a vegetable, often chestnuts. Most people drink water. The more prosperous use fat in cooking. Beef appears on the table only for an important holiday. They make their own cloth, which is coarse. They wear cotton leggings and wooden shoes. The furniture is scant and they all sleep in the same room. They are superstitious and immoral. One sees many child mothers." The portrait is not flattering, but the author adds, "the situation is much better in the east and the south of the Department than in the north and the west," (Levasseur, Histoire des classes ouvrières et de l'industrie de 1789 à 1870, pp. 510 and 511). See also the important research of Gautier, Pourquoi les Bretons s'en vont? (1950)

[13] Leprosy was conquered in France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, smallpox and typhus in the eighteenth century, and cholera in the nineteenth.

[14] The population of France was 27.5 million in 1801, 38.5 million in 1870 and 42 million in 1939.


[16]Those who received two or more francs a day did not number more than 10 per cent, and those who had no dependents were extremely rare.

[17] This is the minimum diet as studied by Villermé (cf. Villermé V. I, p. 180). The investigation (which followed) with the May 25, 1848 decree, describes a situation which differs very little: "For the class of the poorest workers, the die consists almost entirely of potatoes. In general, meat is too expensive to be eaten. For some, the same as far as bread is concerned. Housing and clothing as poor as the d1et." (Manuscript of the· National Archives, cited in Rigaudias-Weiss, Les enquêtes ouvrières… , p. 223.)

[18] The last rapid rise in the cost of wheat was between 1851 and 1856, when it doubled. It is the only time it reached this high in that century. It is, of course, a question of a rise in the price of wheat without a concomitant variation in wages.

[19]In the preceding discussion I have taken Villermé as a base rather than Buret (De la misère des classes laborieuses  en Angleterre et en France, 1840). However, Hilde Rigaudias-Weiss in Les enquêtes ouvrières en France entre 1830 et 1838, much prefers Buret to Villermé.

If I had taken Buret's book as my base or those of other worker or socialist authors, I would have arrived at a much more pessimistic description. For example: Leroux (De la plutocratie), estimates at 8 million the number of indigents in France about 1830 (or one inhabitant in four). Buret estimates that there were three and a half million (or one in 9.7). Buret estimates that one inhabitant in 4.2 should have been helped (Buret, I, p. 265). Villermé, however, limits himself to the official figures, one in thirty for the entire country and one in 12.3 for Paris. In using Villermé as a reference, the situation in France in 1830 is the most optimistic that the studies permit.

Villermé seems like a more scientific observer than Buret. He has no doctrinaire ideas to defend, but is sceptical and conscientious in his work. Villermé gives more concrete evidence than does Buret. Buret himself said "it is not enough to know what happens; it is necessary to know what should happen," (II, p. 125). My job here is to describe what is, and to leave to others the necessary but difficult job of describing what should be.

[20] Levasseur, II, p. 295.

[21] Cf. Rainneville, Du travail (Amiens, 1837).

[22] Current economic histories are purely descriptive. One of the best economic histories of Europe is Shepard Bancroft Clough and Charles Woolsey Cole, Economic History of Europe (3rd ed., revised; Boston, 1951). The best world economic history of the period 1880 to 1900 is that of Colin Clark, The Conditions of Economic Progress (2nd ed.; London, 1951).

[23] Same sources. The retail price is measured for this evaluation by the General Index of Retail Prices which, since 1913, has been computed by the General Statistical Office of France; from 1801 to 1913 it was computed by Simiand, and before 1801 it is an index calculated by the author. An estimation of the index for 1750 to 1760 is given in La civilisation de 1975, p. 54.

The militant syndicalist Paul Louis concludes his study of the working class level of living since 1800, in his valuable Histoire de la classe ouvrière en France, with the following comments:

"We shall try to present the trend of real income for the past century and a half in summary form, taking the case of a skilled worker of Paris, a mason or watchmaker, for example, and determining what that worker was able to buy with his daily earnings at various dates. Here are the results of this inquiry:

"With his daily earnings, the Parisian worker was able to obtain: In 1801, 10 kilos of bread, or 5 kilos of meat, or 3.5 kilos of butter, or 120 eggs, or 100 kilos of potatoes.

"In the period 1850 to 1855, 16 kilos of bread, or 4.25 kilos of meat, or 3.70 kilos of butter, or 60 eggs, or 87 kilos of potatoes.

"In the period 1882 to 1884, 18 kilos of bread, or 4.88 kilos of meat, or 2.20 kilos of butter, or 94 eggs, or 77 kilos of potatoes.

"In the period 1910 to 1913, 26 kilos of bread, or 5.60 kilos of meat, or 2.70 kilos of butter, or 71 eggs, or 64 kilos of potatoes.

"In 1925, 18.50 kilos of bread, or 2.60 kilos of meat, or 1.90 kilos of butter, or 58 eggs, or 29 kilos of potatoes."

Obviously, this summary leaves an impression of great confusion. Gains are recorded for bread, and sometimes for meat, but appreciable losses appear for eggs and potatoes. These disparities are incomprehensible at first sight, and call for explanation. The method used also raises certain questions.

a) A summary of this kind ought to give not only the result of the calculations, but also the figures on which they are based, like the price of the various items at each period, the quality chosen, the amount of daily earnings. Even the month of the year from which prices are selected has a considerable influence, and ought to be shown. Without these data, any evaluation of the figures is nearly impossible.

b) In taking the skilled Parisian worker for purposes of reference, M. Louis happened to take the category least favored by the trends of the time. Our index of wages for this group ranged only from 48 to 670 between 1810 and 1930, while the index for the unskilled provincial worker ranged from 54 to 965 during the same interval.

c) 1925 was an inflation year, in the course of which wage earners were at a particular disadvantage, as prices rose more rapidly than earnings. Moreover, the regression caused by World War I was still felt in 1925, although a rapid recovery took place in subsequent years. See Tables XIV, XV, XVI.

d) The daily earnings of 1801 refer to a working day of twelve hours, those of 1925 to an eight-hour day.

e) As we shall see later, the disparities in trends which appear (e.g., cheaper bread, dearer eggs) are related to disparities in the technical progress achieved in sectors of agriculture and transportation. In selecting products which have benefited from much or little technical improvement, it is possible to obtain results much more divergent than these. Among food products, the extremes seem to be sugar on the one hand, potatoes and tobacco on the other. To estimate trends in purchasing power, it is necessary to take account of the worker's total budget, and not just a few food products.

f) Whatever reservations there may be about the statistics for 1801, it is clear that the reduction of the price of bread, even supposing that 'there had been only regressions with respect to other food items", is crucial; it is precisely this reduction which permits the worker to buy other food items, formerly unavailable to him by virtue of the sole fact that he could not buy enough calories to nourish his family even in the most convenient form, bread.

[24] . J. Kuczynski; Labour Conditions in Western Europe, 1820 to 1935 (1937).