Silk Workers' Revolts

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Silk Workers' Revolts

France 1831, 1834


At the beginning of the July Monarchy, in the industrial French city of Lyon, the silk workers had a very hard life. In addition to backbreaking work, they were largely dependent on the fluctuations of the silk market and on the price of labor as fixed by the merchants. In 1831 they revolted against the merchants' tyranny and compelled the prefect state's representative to arbitrate the conflict. The government harshly repressed the uprising, as with the one that broke out later in 1834. Both times, workers from other industries joined the canuts, or silk weavers, in support of their protests.

Historians interpret the silk workers' riots in Lyon as the first modern strikes of the industrial era. The canuts' strikes foreshadowed many social struggles in industrialized countries that followed.


  • 1809: Progressive British industrialist Robert Owen proposes an end to employment of children in his factories. When his partners reject the idea, he forms an alliance with others of like mind, including the philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
  • 1813: Jane Austen publishes Pride and Prejudice.
  • 1818: Donkin, Hall & Gamble "Preservatory" in London produces the first canned foods.
  • 1824: Ludwig van Beethoven composes his Ninth Symphony.
  • 1829: Greece wins its independence after a seven-year war with Turkey.
  • 1831: Unsuccessful Polish revolt against Russian rule.
  • 1834: British mathematician Charles Babbage completes drawings for the "analytic engine," a forerunner of the modern computer that he never builds.
  • 1834: American inventor Cyrus H. McCormick patents his reaper, a horse-drawn machine for harvesting wheat.
  • 1835: American inventor and painter Samuel F. B. Morse constructs an experimental version of his telegraph, and American inventor Samuel Colt patents his revolver.
  • 1837: Coronation of Queen Victoria in England.
  • 1841: Act of Union joins Upper Canada and Lower Canada, which consist of parts of the present-day provinces of Ontario and Quebec, respectively.
  • 1846: American inventor Elias Howe patents his sewing machine.

Event and Its Context

The silk workers' riots in Lyon in 1831 and 1834 may be the first real industrial struggle in the history of France. Lyon is located at the confluence of two rivers, the Sâ one and the Rhô ne, about 200 miles north of Marseille. The town had been on international trade roads since the time of the Roman Empire. In the 1830s Lyon was the second largest city in France with a population of 134,000 within the walls and another 175,000 in the neighboring manufacturing communities of Croix-Rousse, Guillotiè re, and Vaise.

Lyon had been world renowned for the quality of its silk work since the fifteenth century. According to the Silk Law of 1744, the Fabrique consisted of the merchants—who were called "makers" even though they did not make anything—and the weavers—or the canuts, as they were called at the time. The merchants held the capital and supplied the weaver masters with the raw silk. The canuts were alone in bearing the costs associated with the weaving looms. Largely dependent on the price of labor as fixed by the merchants, the masters were more like wage-earners than craftsmen. Accordingly, they were highly vulnerable to slumps in silk prices.

The dispersion of the Fabrique and the topography of the town explain why the workers did not live at the center of the silk trade but rather in outlying suburbs beyond the tollhouses, where rents and food were cheaper. For example, in Croix-Rousse and Guillotiè re, weavers' families (about 52,000 workers) lived and worked in dark shops where they spent 16 to 18 hours a day with the windows continually closed to prevent damage to the precious silk. This dense working-class community was peculiar to Lyon but atypical in nineteenth-century France: factories were normally located in rural environments. The extreme poverty of the canuts seemed so scandalous because it contrasted with the luxury of the silk pieces made by them for the enjoyment of the rich.

Most of the time, the canut masters gave shelter to the journeymen they employed. Ultimately, their common and precarious existence generated a feeling of solidarity between the two groups and led to the founding of many friendly societies by the canuts. At the time, those societies were tolerated but they had no legal status.

Silk master weaver Pierre Charnier created the first such society in 1827; one year later, two of Charnier's companions, Bouvery and Joseph Masson-Sibut, seceded to establish the Sociétédu Devoir Mutuel along with 14 other master weavers. Like many other mutual aid societies that existed in France before the Second Empire, this one had the dual purpose of mutual aid and cooperative defense. The members pooled their resources so as to provide support to each other in the event of misfortunes such as illness, the death of a loved one, or disability. Young members could also learn the silk trade from older ones.

This society was famous for its involvement in schemes to establish a minimum price for silk products. Since the eighteenth century, this has been a traditional demand of the weavers. Nonetheless, the merchants lowered the prices in the late 1820's under the pretext of an increase in English silk production. In fact, the future of the silk industry in Lyon was not threatened at all. Its high quality was well known far beyond the borders of France, especially in the North American market.

The 1831 Riot

In 1831 three days of revolutionary violence—Les Trois Glorieuses—in Paris led to the establishment of the July Monarchy. Meanwhile, in Lyon the weavers' condition worsened with low wages and cost of living increases. Protests rose up when the Saint-Simonians, Utopian socialists, denounced worker exploitation in lectures that were closely followed by the workers.

The new bourgeois government led by Louis-Philippe did not live up to the workers' expectations. When a general strike was imminent on 25 October 1831, the prefect Louis Bouvier-Dumolart established a board of conciliation to supervise a minimum tariff for silk products. The board, which brought together merchants and canuts, was essentially a reestablishment of a previous committee, les Prud'hommes, that had been instituted by Napoleon in 1806 for the same purpose. The masters Falconnet, Bouvery, and Pierre Charnier assisted in creating the tariff.

The events in Lyon drew a lot of attention from the liberal Parisian newspapers, which criticized the board on the grounds that it would contradict the theory of free contract between employer and employee. Critics also thought that prefect Bouvier-Dumolart was too lenient with the weavers. Although he risked running afoul of public opinion, he went on with his strategy of conciliation. The momentary victory, however, quickly became anger in the working-class suburbs as most of the merchants refused to honor the rate. Some of them went so far as to stop placing orders with the weavers.

The canuts reacted with a strike on 21 November. An uprising followed when workers from other industries joined the protest. The protesters carried black and red flags that bore slogans like "work and bread." Jean-Claude Romand's famous motto, "To live working or to die fighting," became the rallying cry. Luckily for the workers, the National Guard was made up of masters in the working-class suburbs of Croix-Rousse and Guillotiè re. The guard was sympathetic to the workers' cause and, ultimately, did not confront the 30,000 strikers in the streets. After four days of turmoil, including bloody street fights, the insurrectionists besieged the town hall, established a temporary committee of 16 canuts, and announced the election of an intertrade working council. The arrival of a regiment of 20,000 soldiers led by the Duke of Orleans ended the canuts' social experiment. The National Guard of Lyon was dismissed and Dumolart was replaced by a less conciliatory prefect.

Although he had crushed the riot, Louis-Philippe's government was careful not to add fuel to the fire. One year later, the leaders' trial in Riom ended in a dismissal.

Unlike other cities in France, repression in Lyon did not cause the destruction of the working-class movement, which relied on two structures. The first, L'Echo de la Fabrique, was a newspaper written and edited by workers that began publishing in October 1831. The canuts, unlike workers from most other trades, were literate for the most part. The weekly paper's extensive coverage of the riot argued strongly for the unification of workers from all trades. The second structure, the still secret Sociétédu Devoir Mutuel, grew stronger when it added new members from the Sociétédes ferrandiniers. With more than 1,200 journeyman members in 1833, this group was essentially a union that had to keep a friendly society façade for legal purposes because unions were forbidden at the time.

Although the Saint-Simonians became closer to the workers after 1831, they eventually lost their influence on the movement as the influence of the Republicans increase. A new bill against popular meetings convinced many workers to join them. Among the weavers, the idea spread that social justice could only be realized within a new republican political system.

The 1834 Revolt

In February 1834 the canuts took to the streets again when merchants announced a price reduction for silk products. La Sociéédu Devoir Mutuel called for and led the protest. In April the movement grew stronger as the leaders were arrested and judged. Workers searched the town for weapons and built barricades. For a second time in a few years, black and red flags flew over the hills of Lyon.

Unfortunately for the workers, they could no longer rely on the sympathies of the National Guard, as it had been suppressed in 1831. During the week of 9 April, which became known as "the week of blood," soldiers violently suppressed the Croix-Rousse insurgents. Not even children and the elderly were spared. Ultimately, there were approximately 200 civilian and 130 military deaths.

Working conditions had motivated the insurrection of 1831. In 1834 the uprising took a political turn inspired by Republican values and so had national scope. Riots broke out in other cities: Saint-Etienne, Vienne, Grenoble, Marseille, Chalon-sur-Saô ne and, of course, Paris. The National Army was merciless toward the insurgents. On 4 May 1834 the state banned L'Echo de la Fabrique, the last remaining symbol of the Canuts' struggles.

The national press commented widely on the events in Lyon. In December 1831 a reporter of the very bourgeois Journal des Débats saw a reflection of "the infighting which takes place in the society between the propertied class and the non-propertied class." In Le Globe, Saint-Simonist Michel Chevalier called the situation "a blatant symbol of the industrial situation in France."

The Lyon workers' protests, and the opposition they faced from the contemptuous merchants, served as an example for proletarian struggles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, the canuts were highly skilled and worked in a traditional environment. They were not like the proletarian workers of the following decades who were usually rural migrants that formed the miserable and undereducated labor force of major industries.

The canuts appear as mythical figures in the works of romantic writers such as Stendhal and Victor Hugo, as well as in the songs of the Parisian singer Aristide Bruant, whose famous refrain was sung in Parisian cabarets until the First World War: "We are the canuts, We are walking naked."

Little wonder that, a few decades later, Pierre Proudhon as well as the Commune of Paris (1871) took their inspiration from the canuts' resolutely federalist statements.

Key Players

Bouvier-Dumolart, Louis (1780-1855): Dumolart started his career as prefect under the first Empire. He served in several departments before being nominated in the Rhone in May 1831. During the first canuts' riot of November 1831, he tried to pacify the strikers when he enforced a minimum tariff for silk products. Critics thought he was too indulgent toward the insurgents, and he was dismissed at the end of the uprising. In December 1831 he gave the press a report of his correspondence with the government during the events.

Charnier, Pierre (1795-?): Weaver master. Charnier founded the first friendly society, the Sociétéde Surveillance et d'Indications Mutuelles of Lyon in 1827. He was a royalist and Catholic. During the uprising of 1831, he participated actively in the negotiations with the prefect Bouvier-Dumolart for the establishment of a tariff for silk products. Charnier's companions were critical of his political links. After the riot of 1831, he went to Paris to deliver a report of the events of Lyon to Prime Minister Jean-Paul-Pierre Casimir-Perier.

Masson-Sibut, Joseph: Master Masson-Sibut assisted Charnier in the management of the friendly society created in 1827. Masson-Sibut despised Charnier's authoritarianism and so he left the organization. With Bouvery, another dissident mutuellist, they created la Sociétédu Devoir Mutuel and the newspaper, L'Echo des Fabriques a few years later. Masson-Sibut wrote a pamphlet about the circumstances of the riot of 1831.

Romand, Jean-Claude: This silk worker was one of the leading strikers in 1831. He coined the phrase,"to live working or to die fighting," and authored the book " Confessions d'un Malheureux" (1846). At the trial of Riom, Romand was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for his participation in the riot and was condemned to five years of hard labor for having stolen a loaf of bread.

Soult, Jean-de-Dieu Nicolas, Duke of Dalmatie (1769-1851):Starting during the French Revolution, Soult distinguished himself on many battlefields in Europe. As the minister of the war, he was responsible for the repression of the 1831 riot. Following this, he was promoted to prime minister in 1832.

See also: Paris Commune.



Bezucha, Robert. The Lyon Uprising of 1834: Social and Political Conflict in the Early July Monarchy.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974.

Froment Pierre. Fernand Rude. Le mouvement ouvrier à Lyon de 1827 à 1832. Paris: Anthropos, 1969. Original work published 1944.

Moissonnier, Maurice. Les Canuts: Vivre en travaillant ou mourir en combattant. Paris: Messidor/Editions Sociales, 1988.

Montfalcon, Jean-Baptiste. Histoire des insurrections deLyon en 1831 et 1834, d'aprè s des documents authentiques. Toulouse, France: Eche, 1979. Original work published 1834.

Perdu, Jacques. La révolte des Canuts (1831-1834). Paris:Spartacus, 1974.

Rude, Fernand. C'est nous les Canuts. Paris: Maspéro, 1977.

——. Les révoltes des Canuts 1831-1834. Paris:(Re)Découverte, 2001. Original work published 1982.

Willard, Claude, ed. La France ouvriè re, des origines à 1920, Vol. 1. Paris: Editions Sociales, 1993.


Budde, Erika. "Silk in Lyon." Silk Circa 1840. Northampton Silk Project Web Site [cited 20 September 2002]. <>.

Additional Resources


Maitron, Jean. Dictionnaire Biographique du Mouvement Ouvrier Français, le Maitron. Paris: Les Editions de l'Atelier, since 1964.

—Patricia Toucas-Truyen