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The Réveillon Riots

"Death to the rich!  Death to the aristocrats!"

The Réveillon Riot, which took place on this day in 1789, was one of the first violent outbreaks of the French Revolution.  A mob of outraged workers and skilled-laborers destroyed the Réveillon Wallpaper Factory in the Saint-Antoine district in Paris.  They also destroyed the stately home of Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, the owner of the factory, looting his wine cellar and setting fire to his possessions.  The rioters also directed their fury at other prosperous local businesses, including the saltpetre manufacturer Henriot.  The infantry and artillery were dispatched to disperse the mob.  At the end of the riot, many people lost their lives (tallies ranged from 25-900) and several businesses and homes had been destroyed.

What caused such violence?

To understand the cause of the riot, let us first take a look at the lives of the people involved.

Jean-Baptiste Réveillon, owner of the Réveillon Wallpaper Factory, had entered the world of commerce as a common apprentice tradesman, haberdasher and stationer.  For several years, he ran his own shop, importing a variety of wallpapers from England.  

After making a financially advantageous union, he was able to expand his business.  Soon, the ambitious and focused Réveillon owned a paper mill, a wallpaper factory, and an exclusive shop near the Tuileries that offered luxury wallpapers and catered to the ancien regime.

In 1782, Réveillon developed a new process for making vellum.  In 1783, he was given a royal patent.  His wallpaper factory could proudly proclaim the title Manufacture Royale.

By the early 1780s, Jean-Baptiste Réveillon was an extremely wealthy man, boasting a thriving business and a spectacular mansion with a huge library and prodigious wine cellar.

The common workers and skilled laborers employed by Réveillon worked long hours in miserable conditions for little money (approximately 35-50 sous per day).  Six days per week, they toiled away in a drafty, poorly-lit, fume-filled factory from sun up until sun down regardless of their health or fitness.  At the end of the week, they received their wages, which were barely enough to purchase the loaves of bread they would need to consume to survive another week.  On their way out of the factory on the corner of rue de Montreuil and rue du faubourg Saint-Antoine, they might pass the private staircase leading to Jean-Baptiste's opulent private residence located above the factory or they might see him alighting from one of his carriages, his fashionably dressed wife clinging to his arm.  Or, they might have encountered a deliveryman with a crate of wine (Jean-Baptiste was a connoisseur of fine wine.  At the time of the riot, his wine cellar contained over two thousand bottles). 

So, what caused the riot?
As has often been the case, the violence began with a rumor. 

Jean-Baptiste Réveillon was rumored to have made a declaration that he would cut his workers' wages to a measly fifteen sous per day.  As is the nature of rumors, it became more elaborately embellished and distorted each time it was repeated.  Soon, the workers of the rue du faubourg Saint-Antoine were grumbling in the alleys and complaining in the cafes that they'd heard several different factory owners were threatening to cut wages, including Dominique Henriot, owner of the Henriot Salt-petre Factory.

With resentment and hunger gnawing at their bellies, the workers soon formed a mob of 3,000 and marched on the rue du foubourg Saint-Antoine, where they destroyed the wallpaper factory, Réveillon's home, Henriot's home, and other businesses.
After tossing Henriot's possessions and Réveillon's precious papers onto a bonfire, the mob hurled roof tiles at approaching guards, burned factory owners in effigy, and went about dismantling and destroying the wallpaper factory.  They even helped themselves to Réveillon's wine. 

(Can you imagine the mob, streaked with soot and dusted in wallpaper powder, standing around a roaring fire, swigging rare wine from the bottles?  Can you hear them laughing gleefully as they toss the highly flammable wallpaper gum into the flames?)

In the end, hundreds were wounded, many died, and several lost their homes and businesses.

More Tidbits:

Did you know...Réveillon allowed his factory to be used for the development of the first hot air balloon.

Did you know...the first hot air balloon was launched on September 12, 1783 from Jean Baptiste Réveillon’s garden at Titonville, (his mansion)

Did you know...Jean Baptiste Réveillon designed a wallpaper called papier bleu d'Angleterre that was so popular even Marie Antoinette hung it on the walls of her private apartment at Versailles?

Did you know...Réveillon's wallpaper factor was named Folie Titon?

Did you know...Réveillon hired artists from the Gobelins Tapestry Factory to design some of his wallpapers?

Did you know...the building that once housed Folie Titon is gone, replaced by the Faidherbe – Chaligny Metro Station?

Were Réveillon's workers part of the mob?
It's difficult to know for sure, but the evidence suggests that Réveillon's workers were not part of the crowd that destroyed his home and business.  In fact, most of the rioters came from another area of Paris.

Was Dominique Henriot really innocent?
Dominique Henriot denied the rumors and insisted that he had never intended to cut his workers wages.  Described as a kind, generous man and an understanding employer, the salt-petre manufacturer even gave up some of his profits to help support his workers during difficult, lean years and the off season (salt-petre was only mined and manufactured during part of the year). 

What became of Jean-Baptiste Réveillon?
The insensitive, loose-lipped businessman escaped harm by climbing over his garden wall and seeking refuge in the Bastille.  Later, with the help of Jacques Necker, Réveillon fled France with his family and his fortune.  They all resettled in England. 

The rue du faubourg Saint-Antoine today...is a busy street full of homes and businesses.  To see and learn more about rue du faubourg Saint-Antoine today, visit Peter's Paris.

My thoughts:
On the surface, it seems a shame that a man as clever and industrious as Jean-Baptiste Réveillon and as kind as Dominique Henriot suffered the loss of their homes and livelihoods because of a few thoughtless sentiments. 

However, one must also consider the miserable plight of the average worker in his factory, toiling away for fifteen hours a day, six days per week, to earn barely enough to buy bread.

What are your thoughts? 
Were the workers right to riot?
Should the factory owners have paid their workers more money?

1 comment:

  1. If history books were made this easy to understand, then reading up all the events of the past would be such pleasure. The write-up made justice to the story of the rebellion and the fascinating works of the mind of the people back then.

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