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Bourgeoisie and Business

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Increasingly vague class distinctions were reinforced by the rise of a wide range of businesses. The term bourgeoisie, says historian Gordon Wright, could apply to a range of people, "from the millionaire banker or industrialist of Paris or Lyons to the village grocer or postal clerk of Clochemerle" (Wright 158). Generally, bourgeoisie were divided into three groups: the politically powerful grand bourgeois, the land-holding middle bourgeoisie, and the independent business owners of the petty bourgeoisie.

Business among the Grand and Middle Bourgeoisie

"Business is other people's money."
- Alexander Dumas the younger, 1824-1895

La Bourse
One sign of the growing importance of business in Paris was the move of the Exchange from temporary locations such as the Palais Royal to a permanent building at La Bourse in 1826.

Northwest sector, Paris, 1847

The Exchange was founded in 1724 as a place where merchants could meet to discuss business. When it opened in 1827, La Bourse housed stockbrokers, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Court of Bankruptcy, among others. It was open to the public, however an 1847 guide book advises, "as it was found to encourage a passion for gambling among the gentler sex, [ladies] are not . . . generally allowed to enter during hours of business" (Galignani, 221). In fact, this "passion for gambling" was considered by many to have become an obsession of the bourgeoisie. Historian David Harvey reports that "the bourse seemed to become the center of corruption as well as of reckless speculation that gobbled up many a landed fortune" (Harvey 80). The two images below illustrate this point.

Degas' At the Stock Exchange, 1879

This is a lithograph from 1857 by Alphonse Chigot. It depicts a crowd of Parisians outside of La Bourse, which has been overrun by what appear to be daemons (notice the unnaturally long, thin limbs), riding on a much larger, winged monster, which stares hungrily down on the crowds. The reactions of the Parisians themselves are varied. Those wearing top hats, presumably bourgeoisie, or at least wealthy men, are in positions of alarm, supplication, or flight. There is an overturned carriage in the foreground, as well. The people in the lower right corner, however, do not appear to be paying any attention to the carnage behind them. Instead, a group of children and an elderly man are listening to a man -a worker or bohemian?- playing the violin. By juxtaposition, this image presents a dramatic view of the contrast between the rich and the poor. (Click here to see this image with the subjects mentioned pointed out.)

This painting by Impressionist Edgar Degas shows a scene from the Stock Exchange. The line of sight composition of the painting is typical of Impressionist paintings, seeming to give the viewer an objective picture of life. The principle figures are two men, probably, from their well made clothes, of the upper bourgeoisie. The man first man is looking at a slip of paper being shown to him by a figure only partially within view. The second man is looking over the shoulder of the first, also at the slip. The third important figure in the painting is in the background: a less distinct, almost sinister figure who appears to be copying something onto a piece of paper in his hands. This figure's attention is also focused on the two principle men. Overall, it is a fairly negative portrayal of the business which went on in La Bourse.


Business among the Petty Bourgeoisie and Proletariat:

The Petty Bourgeoisie included less successful, independent business owners: anyone from small time entrepreneurs to artisans to lesser employees of the state. A few had inherited a business or craft, but most had only recently worked their way up from the proletariat. Many times, the distinction between petty bourgeoisie and proletariat was purely psychological, based more on "attitudes, values, and lifestyle than [on] economic status" (Wright 160).

This is an early stereograph taken in the 1860's by H. Jouvin and entitled "Group of Merchants from Les Halles." It depicts a market day in Paris, capturing the crowds typical of such events. In analyzing the composition of the stereograph, one should note the lack of concrete objects, which would distract the eye from the crowds. Many of the women are wearing shawls, which might identify them as from the petty bourgeoisie or working class.

This photograph from the 1840's shows a group of petty bourgeoisie outside of a Parisian grocery store. The customers wear cloth hats, and sturdy clothes suitable for labor. They appear to be lounging. It is important to remember the limitations of technology when looking at early photographs: moving objects were difficult to capture. Thus, the presence of people, and the clarity with which they were depicted implies that they remained in these positions for some time. The goods sold in this grocery store would have come from local farms, and were taxed before they entered the city.

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