In the fumes of chemistry: The new artificial silk industry and its workforce in France (1890s-1930s)

By Hervé Joly

For almost a century, the artificial textile industry employed up to several tens of thousands of people in France. The manufacture was based on fibres artificially produced from a chemical treatment of natural materials such as cotton or wood cellulose. The term “artificial silk” was used until it was banned by law in 1934 and replaced by “rayon”. This paper begins by describing the spectacular increase in the number of “artificial silk” plants in France in the 1900s-1920s, some of which were swept away by the Great Depression. Then, it focuses on the largely female and migrant workforce in the interwar period, by studying the population of the workers’ housing estates of two factories. The harsh sanitary conditions in these companies were the cause of several major strikes, even though conflict was apparently less intense than in the textile industry as a whole.

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