The Emergence of the Foreman

The Ambivalence of an Authority under Construction in the French Textile Industry (1800–1860)
By François Jarrige, Cécile Chalmin

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the suppression of corporations in which the master was defined as a paternal authority, and the crumbling of the traditional hierarchy of the artisanal workshop, necessitated a complete reconfiguration of workplace authority. The progressive emergence of the figure of the foreman resulted from these transformations. While the term pre-existed the French Revolution, it was industrialization and its new technical and disciplinary demands which generalized the function of the foreman. Little by little he emerged in the textile industry to supervise the workers, stimulate productive flows, and support mechanization. Although the employers represent the foreman as a competent, intelligent worker, and as the guarantee of good manufacturing order, an examination of daily interactions in the workshop suggests that his position was ambivalent. In the first wave of industrialization, the factory remained defined by weak hierarchical structures of authority, as well as by the preservation of pockets of worker autonomy. Because of this fact, the position of the foreman was often precarious, and the exercise of his authority uncertain.

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