First impressions: the prohibition on printed calicoes in France, 1686-1759

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Crosby, G (2015)

This thesis examines the French prohibition on both importing printed cotton from India and printing it in France between 1686 and 1759, an interdiction significantly longer than any other European country, and challenges the portrayal of the ban as a sustained protectionist measure for the anciennes manufactures. Although it was undeniably instigated for this reason, the ban was prolonged due to conflicting government policies, vested interests and an overriding fear for France’s reputation for high-quality products. The study shows that attacking a fledgling, technically incompetent industry conveniently concealed that the textiles trades’ loss of skilled workers and markets were the result of decades of a poor economic situation. The examination of primary sources has revealed how the government unwittingly handicapped the state-controlled French East India Company, whose main cargo was cotton, and the repeated granting of exemptions as appeasement negated the possibility of effective law enforcement and engendered perpetual confusion. Restricting the public’s use of the fabrics only excited demand, and the challenges of enforcing the ban and eradicating the banned merchandise are explored through a case study of Nantes. The correspondence of officials has revealed the extent to which provincial application of the law was discretionary, and evidence from prosecutions has shown that women of lower social status were particularly vulnerable. Significantly, this study has also uncovered that enforcement was indeed frequent and widespread, and that the severest sentences have been masked in prosecutions for other types of contraband. The complex processes involved in imitating Indian techniques, and the widely accepted method of transfer of technology from Asia are re-examined, confirming that French cotton prints were technically inferior throughout the period, and concurrent development to other European nations should not be assumed. The study has also revealed that a greater amount of the indiennes were used as furnishings than imagined, that different qualities circulated, and also that covert printing was mainly carried out on linen, which has been greatly overlooked. French printing continued to be inferior for decades, and the conclusions made on prohibition-era products based on later samples must be questioned.
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