Social Classes

Social class in Paris in the 19th century determined how people lived, worked, interacted, traveled, and relaxed. Each class participated in and responded to the rapid changes of the era differently. Urbanization and industrialization increased the standard of living for the average Parisian, but the wealth gap between rich and poor remained very wide. Social classes diversified, fragmented, and expanded to accommodate many newly created occupations. Social classes in 19th century Paris were distinguished by their relative levels of power, authority, land ownership, and wealth, and by differences in their privileges, mobility, occupations, working and living conditions, lifestyles, mortality rates, education, religion, dress, and culture. Social classes are identified by specific productive relationships, close social contacts, distinctive social characteristics, and a sense of class identity. They are formed by similar economic conditions, united by close social relationships, held together by shared political ideas, solidified through social conflicts, and see themselves as a distinct socioeconomic group.

Three Classes, No Waiting
Three basic social classes developed by the end of the 12th century in western Europe: nobility, clergy, and peasantry. The Renaissance increased the mixing of the social classes through the creation of personal fortunes, new wealth, greater indulgence in worldly pleasures, and appreciation of the human body. Distinct social groupings have been described as classes since the late 18th century. Previously, rank and order were used to describe hierarchical social groupings. The three primary social classes (upper class aristocracy, middle class bourgeoisie, and lower or working class) existed in Paris throughout the 19th century (and still exist in many developed societies in the 21st century). Early in the 19th century, the old hereditary aristocracy and the newly wealthy evolved into the modern upper class. During the 19th century, the middle class, or bourgeoisie, developed from the groups of 18th century commercial and industrial capitalists. At the same time, many new occupations were created which primarily used mental skills rather than physical labor; the number of individuals and families in these fields exploded in number, creating a substantial, and eventually dominant, middle class. Simultaneously, the traditional rural peasants and the new urban industrial workers merged into a lower or working class. The 19th century lower class was composed primarily of workers in extractive, manufacturing, and service industries, who were dependent on wages and who primarily used physical skills. The lower class was divided into occupational sub-groupings of highly skilled handicrafters, semi-skilled workers, and unskilled laborers. Below the lower class was an impoverished underclass, often called the sunken people.

Living Dirty, Moving Often
For all social classes, living conditions in early 19th century Paris were extremely dirty and unsanitary; coal was the primary fuel for cooking and heating, streets had open drains and sewers filled with garbage and human waste. Public toilets were rare and often overflowing. Diseases spread quickly and more people died than were born. The lower class and non-natives generally had higher infant and adult mortality rates than the upper and middle classes. The population of Paris grew, in spite of high mortality rates, due to increased migration from rural areas and immigration from overseas French colonies. The overcrowded city continued to expand into all available land; there were no parks or recreation areas. During wars and at other times, governmental restrictions limited mobility, marriage, settlement, and migration. By the middle of the 19th century, institutional and judicial controls became less important and migration to the city escalated as the new industrial economy demanded additional workers. These migrants were most often lower class, single, and childless. The outer edges of Paris (10th, 11th, 12th, 14th, 17th, 18th, and 19th arrondissemonts) grew at the fastest rates and had the largest concentrations of working class inhabitants; the textile, metal and petroleum industriesí factories were concentrated in the suburbs of St. Denis, Clichy, Pantin, Aubervilliers, Puteaux and Batignolles. After 1860, the old center of the city (1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th arrondissemonts) were areas of depopulation. The population boomed in working class districts (11th, 12th, 14th, 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissemonts) and on the Left Bank (13th and 15th arrondissemonts) .

Renovations and Rehabs
The modernization of Paris for all social classes was a priority for every government in power during the 19th century. Projects to improve city planning, transportation, modernization, recreation and sanitation were begun, and the construction activity peaked at mid-century. In the 1860s and 1870s the new technology of gas and electric lights made public interiors and city streets glow, increasing productivity, decreasing crime, and illuminating nighttime entertainments. In homes, gas lighting remained the primary illumination until the 1890s, when it was largely replaced by electricity. Under Baron George Haussmanís plan, the rapid, total, and violent transformation of the city was unprecedented in Europe. People were forcibly relocated from centuries-old neighborhoods; 14,000 were evicted from the Ile de la Cite alone. Much of the city was completely demolished and then rebuilt to incorporate new government, commercial, and apartment buildings, primarily for the middle class. New railways, wide boulevards, and spacious parks brought more light and air into the city streets. Large scale retailers opened and prospered, squeezing out small retailers on back streets. Many contemporary writers and photographers recorded the desolation of the people and the landscape, but few chose to depict the war-like destruction. Martial and Delauney were among the artists who featured the old buildings of Paris in their etchings. The residents of the right bank neighborhoods and western sector of Paris were most negatively impacted by the construction. The narrow streets and medieval town character were replaced by wide metropolitan boulevards and avenues. The changes intensified the communication among Parisians of all classes as enclosed localities lost their distinct community identities. The Bastille was demolished, resulting in the 1860s in an urgent movement to preserve many neighborhood traditions as possible, and to capture the local architecture in photographs before it was too late (the photographic snapshot was invented during the 1880s). By the 1870s, hundreds of miles of old streets had been altered, widened, straightened and connected with new avenues. By the late 19th century, significant improvements in urban planning and in public health were finally completed.

Industry Explodes
The increasing movement of lower class workers and middle class entrepreneurs into Paris paralleled the exploding increase in the shipping of raw materials to the factories of the city and its suburbs, as well as the commerce of finished products into markets in the city and out into the countryside. The boom in real estate and commerce shifted vast sums of money into the hands of entrepreneurs who increasingly dominated society and overpowered any competition. The rapid expansion of commercial traffic by river and rail transformed the landscape. Heavily loaded barges and their accompanying coal-powered tugboats polluted and congested the River Seine. Huge train yards and coal yards were built in and near the city, irreparably scarring the land. Lower class workers flocked to the docks and the yards to service and power the trains and barges, and to handle the loading and unloading of copious quantities of livestock, tools, food, textiles, and other products.

Urbanites on the Loose
Social class traditionally stratified the urbanites of Paris and their agricultural neighbors, limiting and determining their social interactions and travel behaviors. During the 18th century, wealthy, upper class tourists, who could obtain required passports and identity papers, had traveled by horse drawn carriage across France; they had rolled across the country on excellently maintained roads, principally to see rural peasants in their quaint regional costumes. By the early 19th century, upper class tourists to and from other cities traveled more quickly via railways and had little desire to visit rural communities. Urban areas were regarded as sophisticated and central to modern life, while villages were considered miserable and squalid. Parisians journeyed to the seashore and the forest of Fountainbleau; upper class and middle class travelers even dressed in different, and appropriate costumes for their sojourns. Travel and tourism in France increased substantially during the 19th century, stimulated by the expanding railway system, and by the increasing time and money available to the middle class and lower class for leisure activities . By the end of the 19th century, some urbanites attitudes reverted and rural life was again perceived as healthier and more moral, and was seen as a necessary remedy to urban civilization. City dwellers were acknowledged as cultured, but highly pressured to improve their financial and social positions.

People of all classes visited the countryside; the upper class and middle class bought property or built country homes near the forest of Fountainbleau to spend their leisure hours eating, boating, swimming, walking, reading, socializing, and enjoying their private ornamental gardens. Impressionist painters Claude Monet (1840-1926), Alfred Sisley (1939-1899), and Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) were avid boaters; Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) even gave up painting for yachting in his later years. Following the practice of Barbizon painters like Charles FranÁois Daubigny (1817-1878), many of the Impressionists rented or purchased studio-boats. These studio-boats enabled them to paint landscapes while on the water, transport materials easily from one location to another, while providing a convenient place for rest and social visits. Monet also became a fanatical gardener, constructing elaborate mini-landscapes to entertain in which also served as painting subjects. He built hothouse studios across his estate.

Guidebooks for tourists of all social classes proliferated, providing information on destination locations, village fairs, and scenic walks to visit gardens, explore ruins, and view chateaus. Rural tourism became a social equalizer and brought classes in contact with each other as never before. The parts of the countryside visited by city dwellers were increasingly viewed as the preferred place for exercising sexual freedom, committing immoral acts, and indulging in intrigue. Sexual, homicidal and financial vices became more common in the Paris suburbs and adjoining rural areas. Some critics blamed railways and rural tourism for degrading French society, diminishing political solidarity, and weakening family bonds.

On the Town
During the 19th century, as working hours decreased through automation and legislation, there was an increasing demand for leisure activities. Entertainment entrepreneurs responded with an enormous increase in the number of cafes-concerts, public ballrooms, dance halls, theatres and other establishments. Theatre auditoriums were designed in tiers; their stratification reflected the division of society by class. Generally, the royal box, or loge, faced the stage surrounded by as many as five vertical balconies. Yearly loge rentals cost thousands of francs and were occupied only by the wealthy upper class. Stall seats on the ground floor were less expensive (equivalent to several daysí wages for a working class person) and primarily occupied by the middle class.

The lower class could afford the highest gallery seats far above the boxes. Even higher, at the ceiling level, seats were provided to men recruited from the streets and cafes who were instructed to applaud on cue in exchange for free admission. Cafe-concerts provided bands indoors and outdoors for dancing. American and ethnic dancers and their dances were imported to France greatly increasing the cross-cultur al nature of the entertainments. Even the tempo of the dances quickened, reflecting the changes in the pace of life, the changes in society, and in dress which permitted new styles in dancing. New theatrical productions were introduced including the can-can, musical hall revues, and operettas. Cafe-concerts, cabarets and other venues featured fortunetellers, shooting galleries, belly dancers, circuses and motion pictures, and helped disrupt traditional social hierarchies by permitting mingling between upper and lower classes.

All in the Family
Most people of all social classes in 19th century Paris lived in patriarchal, extended families with or near their relatives; they cared for and supported one another during good and difficult times. In general, female relatives cared for the children and the elderly. Most women married, while men remained the primary wage earners. The male role as a good provider emerged in the 19th century as women were relegated to household and domestic chores. Technology brought mechanical devices into the home, but time spent by women on household labor did not decline appreciably. Humanitarian protests against the treatment of women and children in factories led to legislation restricting women and children from dangerous and heavy occupations, required minimum age, and limited maximum hours. Specific division of labor into menís and womenís jobs, hostility from men, and substantially lower wages for women made it difficult for them to pursue careers. Married women lacked many basic rights regarding property ownership, divorce and custody of children. Women had few educational, occupational or political rights; they rebelled and began fighting for increased rights. By mid-century, long courtships and elaborate marriage contracts became less common as marriages based on romantic love became more widespread. Family bonds became stronger as families were able to provide more economic support for their children including university educations (primarily for the young men), long vacati ons, large inheritances (for the young men), and dowries (for the young women). Until the 1870s, nearly half of the infant population was fed by wet nurses instead of by their natural mothers. The use of wet nurses declined as more mothers breast fed their babies; swaddling ceased, and babies grew up healthier and stronger. As infant mortality declined, people purposefully controlled the number of their children to concentrate their resources and to better improve their economic and social status.

Back to About Social Classes Main