JHES-Journal for the History of Environment and Society

Le cas de la poudrette parisienne au milieu du dix-neuvième siècle

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Laurent Herment (CRH-CNRS-EHESS)

Published Nov 29, 2017


According to urban and environmental historians, the second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a break in the cycle of exchange between town and country. Far from closing the virtuous circle of exchange of matter - food and raw materials in exchange  for  fertiliser  -  evoked  by  authors  such  as  Chadwick  and  Leibig,  towns  became completely predatory on their surrounding areas. One of the most important aspects of this concerns the use of urban waste. As early as 1975, in one of the first works on this topic, Joel Tarr, discussed the use of urban waste by farmers in pre-industrial North American agriculture. Since then, many historians have debated the extent of these transfers. One of the most fruitful fields of research explored by urban and environmental historians in this context is the history of sewage farms and the use of urban waste in agriculture. But, as Tarr noted in his article: “The lack of specific sources makes it difficult to establish how widely urban wastes were put  to  agricultural  use  before  1880”  (Tarr,  1975:  603).  Since  then  however,  rural  historians have shown very little interest in these questions and even less in France than in other European countries. For France, the only truly noteworthy study is René  Bourrigaud’s  monograph  on  nineteenth-century  agriculture  in  the  Loire-Atlantique  (1994).  To  fill  the  void,  urban  and  environmental  historians  have  entered the field ( for example: Barles, 1999 et 2005a; Aguerre, 2003; Carnino, 2013). But as numerous of these works were based on printed sources from outside the rural world, they were unable to examine how these urban by-products were received in the countryside. This article aims to estimate the extent to which poudrette (dried excrement), the best known by-product of Parisian sewage, was used as a fertiliser in the countryside of the Paris basin in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is based on a group of manuscript primary sources: agricultural inquiries from 1852 and 1862, post-mortem inventories of farmers in the Ile-de France and of a Parisian entrepreneur in the urban waste business and administrative correspondence concerning the founding of a company dealing with waste and the export of poudrette. In  the  first  section,  after  a  brief  description  of  how  the  Parisian poudrette was produced and the structure of the industry, I examine the uses of poudrette and the area in which farmers employed it, in the centre of the Paris basin between roughly 1820 and 1850; in this period, poudrette was used mainly by the big farmers of the Ile-de-France in cereal-growing regions. In the second section, data from the 1862 survey will be used to show that although by then it was quite widely utilised in the area around Paris, poudrette played only a very small part in land fertilisation. Starting from these conclusions I then look at the nature of urban fertilisers in order to re-evaluate the effectiveness of town/country exchanges. The article concludes with some suggestions for a better understanding of the break between rural history and other fields of historical writing.

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