Smith’s Faubourg Saint-Germain (part 2 of 3)

Alternate Title: The Garbage Collectors of Paris

The collection of garbage was one of the many public works under the wide-ranging jurisdiction of the police of Paris. (In addition to public safety, the police of Paris at the time also oversaw all the public markets of the city, regulated the provision of grain, and operated the prisons, among many other things.[1] Beginning in 1704, the cost of removing rubbish from the city was paid out of funds allocated to the police, and by 1780, the total funds allocated for garbage collection amounted to 260,307 livres.[2])

The collection of garbage in Old Regime Paris was an impressive undertaking by any measure, especially for its time. Once a week early in the century, and daily by 1770, two-wheeled carts rolled through the streets of the French capital. In 1766, the year Smith lived in Paris, about 120 carts and 240 men were at work cleaning the City of Lights.[3] The men engaged in this work were mostly farmers (laboureurs) or small landowners who worked their own land near Paris, but the garbage collectors were not poor peasants, since they owned their own horses and carts and were paid approximately 2000 livres per year for their services.[4]

Each morning, the attendants manning these carts collected the refuse that residents had amassed in front of their homes.[5] One half hour before the carts arrived (between 8:00 and 9:00 A.M. in winter and 7:00 and 8:00 A.M. in summer), 20 employees of the police passed throughout each quarter sounding a small bell. The bell warned residents that they were to begin assembling waste and dirt in neat piles for the garbage collectors. These piles were then loaded by the two men who attended each cart–one working with a shovel, the other with a broom–and the rubbish was then transported directly to refuse dumps outside the city.[6]

(As an aside, these dumps were originally located outside the city gates and often grew into small hills. See Barles 2014, p. 202. In Paris, these mounds have been completely integrated into the urban landscape; the labyrinth of the Jardin des Plantes, for example, are on the remnants of a historical dumpsite that is still visible today. Ibid.)

Alas, I can find no reference to the essential function of garbage collection in The Wealth of Nations. Either Smith failed to take notice of the trash collectors of Paris, or he did not find this essential public work sufficiently noteworthy to comment on in his second magnum opus.[7] But what Smith could not have missed–indeed, what no visitor to the “City of Lights” at the time could have failed to observe and appreciate–was the lighting of Paris by night. (I will write about the street lamps of the French capital in my next post.)

Screen Shot 2022-05-02 at 3.35.55 AM

Credit: Eugène Atget (circa 1899), via Wikimedia Commons (Google Art Project)

[1] See generally Williams 1974.

[2] BO, MS 1422, p. 971, cited in Williams 1974, p. 176.

[3] See Williams 1974, p. 177 n.159.

[4] Mildmay, p. 118, cited in Williams 1974, p. 177. The horses used to draw plows on their farms were also used to pull the garbage carts. BO, MS 1424, p. 99, cited in Williams 1974, p. 177.

[5] BO, MS 1421, p. 605, p. 606, cited in Williams 1974, p. 176.

[6] Mildmay, pp. 117-119, and BO, MS 1424, p. 99, cited in Williams 1974, p. 177.

[7] I find the first scenario highly unlikely given Smith’s deep interest in political economy and his attention to detail. The plausibility of the second scenario, however, would depend on the relative merits of Edinburgh, Glasgow, or Toulouse’s garbage collection systems, towns where Smith resided for significant amounts of time prior to arriving in Paris in early 1766.

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Smith’s Faubourg Saint-Germain (part 2 of 3)

  1. Pingback: Smith’s Faubourg Saint-Germain (part 3 of 3) | prior probability

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