Factories on Fire. Industrialisation and Fire Risk in the Textile Sector (France, 1830-1870)

By François Jarrige, Bénédicte Reynaud

The question of fires is an excellent testing ground for thinking about the invention of the factory in the 19th century and the conditions for becoming accustomed to industry, despite the risks and growing threats that coincided with its development. How did the experience of fire shape manufacturing sites and labour relations in the early industrial period? This research, based on reports from local authorities of the five main textile-manufacturing departments in France between 1800 and 1870, leads us to inquire about the magnitude of this risk, as well as its costs and its effects. Fires were one of the major sources of capitalist rationalisation in the 19th century. During this period of decisive transformations, also marked by industrial crises and numerous social and political upheavals, the factory came to the foreground of landscapes and discourse. The specific regional aspects of industrialisation shaped the form and magnitude of risk. In return, risk shaped the multiple paths of industrialisation, coinciding with the invention of the factory in both its material and social dimensions. Faced with the increased capital used and the gigantic scale of facilities, the work of men and machines had to become standardised in order to contend with an ever-present risk.

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