Saturday 4 June 2022

Tobacco Manufactories

This post is based on a lecture given in 2011 by Paul Smith, a specialist in industrial archaeology with the Direction générale des patrimoines (see references blow).

Paul Smith explains how the organisation of the tobacco trade into a royal monopoly dictated the structure of the tobacco processing industry and its associated buildings:  

Unusually for this period, the workforce employed by the Tobacco Farm was concentrated in large-scale factories, an organisational preference dictated both by operational convenience and by the need for tight security. The state tobacco monopoly of the 19th century was also to be characterised by large factories, whereas small scale operations were the rule for the period of deregulation during the Revolution.

The manufactures, which were built and maintained directly by the Crown, functioned as symbols of royal authority.  Situated in major ports or urban centres, they represented prestigious architectural projects. Their innovative design anticipated the model factories of Eugène Rolland in the nineteenth century.

Manufacture de tabac Architectes: Jacques Martinet et Jacques V. Gabriel, Le Havre 1728.

Paul Smith begins his discussion  with this view of the interior of one of the earliest of the factories, the manufacture du tabac in Le Havre.  The illustration is is a small vignette from an engraving of 1728 in the Bibliothèque Nationale.  At the tables to the right tobacco leaves are being "spun" or twisted into ropes or "rôlles" -  the basic form in which tobacco was sold in the Ancien Régime.

Already, at this early date, the enduring characteristics of the tobacco industry are apparent - firstly, the large scale concentration of workers and, secondly, the use of child labour: children can be seen under the tables passing up the leaves of tobacco to the ouvriers fileurs.  

We know what the exterior of this building looked like from various plans and old photographs:

The elaborate facade, with the arms of the Compagnie des Indes, was designed by Jacques Gabriel premier ingénieur des ponts et chaussées, one of a dynasty of royal architects.  It was still to be seen in early 20th-century postcards, and also featured on labels used to seal packets of tobacco.  After the Allied bombardment of 14th-15th June 1944, the monumental gateway was virtually all that was left standing of the original building.  Almost immediately, in 1945, it was classed as a historical monument.  However, this did not prevent it from being dismantled in the '60s and no-one knows where the blocks of stone might now be.  

Fortunately other early tobacco factories do still survive. The manufacture at Morlaix, again among the earliest, is still substantially standing.  It was rebuilt on the present plan between 1736 and 1740 by the royal architect Jean-François Blondel and is depicted in detail in a huge engraving in the Bibliothèque Nationale, probably intended as a prospectus for the project.  Detailed plans, with measurements, also survive in the local archives. There is no view of the interior but the workforce numbered 500-600, making it similar in scale to the manufacture at Le Havre.

To the right of the engraving is the main factory accommodation, with the house of the works manager in front, and behind it a square courtyard with the workshops arranged round.  The bell on top of the house is still in place today.  The bâtiment de l'horloge, with its central clock tower, was a hundred metres or so long. To ensure security, the entire manufactory was enclosed by a twelve-foot high wall, which extended up as far as the first floor.  To the left of the engraving, with direct access to the quay, is the hôtel des receveurs, the offices where the import and distribution of tobacco were administered.  A ship can be seen in the foreground preparing to unload its cargo. 

Between the two buildings can be seen the magasin, the warehouse in which the tobacco was stored. Tobacco has to be protected from sunlight to prevent uncontrolled fermentation -  hence the blank walls.  Below is an aerial photograph from 1952, when the manufactory was still in use, specialising in the production of cigars.   


Paul Smith, "Les tabacs: architectures d'une industrie d'état: XVIIIe-XXe siècles"  Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine.  Public lecture delivered 17.11.2011 [Video]

See also, by Paul Smith:
____, "Les reconversions des manufactures françaises des tabacs" [online article, 2020]  
2_patrimoine_industriel12_smith.pdf (
_____, "Les tabacs, une industrie en cartes postales"[presentation] in La Carte postale: source et patrimoine (IUP, 2012), p.67-91.

Reality of working in the manufactures?

The many photographs which survive from the 19th century, give some idea of the grim reality of working in the tobacco factories, which, under the Ancien régime, commonly employed children as young as nine or twelve.   Here, for example, are some tobacco sorters at Le Havre in the 1870s:

Were these large factories a source of industrial unrest or was the lack of traditional artisan organisation a barrier to action?

At Dieppe at least, we learn that the manufacture was prone to disputes: 
See: Francis Renout, "La manufacture de tabac de Dieppe", Cercle Généologique deu Pays de Caux Seine-Marine [website], post of 10.08.2017.
 A first "revolt" by workers was recorded in 1715.  In 1729 dragoons had to be brought in to put down a protest over bonuses: the workers barricaded themselves inside the premises, compelling the governor  to appear alone in the courtyard to negotiate.   The word "strike" had not yet been coined, says the author of this article, but this was the first time in the history of France that a factory had been occupied by its workforce Another dispute occurred in 1733, but this time troops were rapidly brought in to put down the protest.


There were never more than ten manufactures at any one time.  In the first half of the 18th century manufactories were constructed in the Atlantic ports of  Le Havre, Dieppe and Morlaix, followed by Marseilles (closed 1779), Paris, Sète, Tonneins, Toulouse and Valenciennes.  There was also a substantial works at Nancy for the tobaccos of Lorraine.

According to Price, the final authoritative list of 1790 dropped Marseilles and showed ten establishments, seven general: Paris, Dieppe, Le Havre, Morlaix, Tonneins, Sète, Valenciennes;  two for smoking tobacco only (Toulouse, Nancy) and one for snuff only (Arles)   [France and the Chesapeake, vol. 1, pp. 412-413]


In 1687 two large manufactures were recorded, in Dieppe and Morlaix . By 1690 the Morlaix works were making 330,000 lb of spun tobacco annually. In 1690 the first establishment was damaged in a fire ascribed to enemy bombardment.  With the return of peace, it was replaced by a much larger works on the outskirts of the town at the manor of Penanrue in the commune of  Ploujean. This was run by the Compagnie des Indes from 1723 to 1730.   Between 1736 and 1740, a new royal manufacture was built on the quai de Léon to the design of Jean-François Blondel. (see above).  On the eve of the Revolution it employed 750 workers.

Production continued at Morlaix throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, coming to an end finally in 2004.  As Paul Smith notes, despite many 19th-century additions and modifications, the site preserves much of its 18th-century appearance.  After a disastrous fire in 1995, the buildings were restored.  The complex was classed as a historical monument in 2001 and a new museum of industrial heritage is due to open on the site in 2022.

Base Mérimée :  

"Petit précis d’histoire sur la Manufacture des tabacs de Morlaix" Baix de Morlaix [blog]. Post of 28.03.2017.
"Histoire de la Manu" , Espace des sciences, Morlaix website.


The manufacture or pétunerie  at Dieppe was one of the first and "most considerable".  Tobacco processing had been carried out on a large scale in the port from as early as the 1660s -  the technique for spinning tobacco is said to have originated there.  In 1715 the works employed more than a thousand workers, including children as young as nine.  As noted, the workforce had a record of turbulence; the Compagnie des Indes was only narrowly dissuaded  from moving its operations  entirety to Le Havre.  When the original premises were destroyed during the Anglo-Dutch bombardment of 1694, the Farm leased the splendid maison Miffant in the rue d’Écosse, which still survives and was renovated in 2015. 

Maison Miffant - (

In 1729 a vast new site was acquired in the rue Duquesne close to the shore and a purpose built factory complex erected. This new works opened in 1738. A detailed survey of 1738 lists  615 workers, a substantial number, though  noticeably fewer than the 1,000-1,500 employed a generation earlier.   The establishment was therefore comparable in size to the works at Le Havre and Morlaix.  Later in the century, the industry in Dieppe declined, but it was still a major employer;  a document from 1791 lists names of 368 workers and the specialised tasks they performed.  

Following the suppression of the Ferme in 1791 the tobacco works at Dieppe went out of use, but in 1854 it was renovated for the large-scale manufacture of cigarettes.  Production finally ceased only in 1938. The buildings do not survive today -  most of the factory was  destroyed in the Allied attack on Dieppe on 19th August 1942.  In 2018 the site, which preserves the outline plan of the original manufacture,  was converted into a cinema complex.

Francis Renout, "La manufacture de tabac de Dieppe", Cercle Généologique deu Pays de Caux Seine-Marine [website], post of 10.08.2017.

Old photos of  the later works: 


The Compagnie des Indes began its operations in Le Havre in 1724 on the site of a former tennis court in the rue de la Crique in the Saint-François district.  In 1726 construction began on a  new works on land belonging to the Capuchin convent in the rue du Grand-Croissant (rue de Bretagne). The new manufactory was designed by the royal engineer Jacques Martinet and Jacques Gabriel, premier ingénieur des ponts et chaussées.

The initial project was completed in 1728. The buildings formed a square around a central courtyard, with  warehouses and offices on the ground floor and the workshops on the first.   An aqueduct supplied water from the nearby Saint-François fountain. A second courtyard, facing the rue du Grand-Croissant, was  constructed after 1728  with the splendid gate bearing the Compagnie's arms.  Finally a huge warehouse was added in 1745, with further additions in 1765.  In 1793 the complex comprised "three large courtyards surrounded by vast buildings" .

Having ceased production during the Revolution, the manufactory resumed work in 1811 under the new Imperial monopoly.  The site continued in use until 1940 when its operations were transferred to Morlaix.  The buildings were badly damaged in 1945.  They were  finally demolished to make way for redevelopment in the 1960s, when the monumental gate was dismantled.  

This block of flats in the rue de Bretagne stands on or near the site of the old tobacco factory and is (presumably) intended to recall its gateway and courtyard:

Base Mérimée (listing last updated in 1992):

Damien Patard, Le Havre d'avant...[blog]
Post of 28.03.2009: "La manufacture des tabacs"


The manufactory for the capital occupied the grounds of the tabac's administrative headquarters in the once magnificent Hôtel Longueville, which had been acquired by the Farm in 1746.  The long rectangular site was situated in the heart of the city between the rue St. Thomas du Louvre and the rue Saint-Nicaise, close to the Tuileries. The royal architect Piere Contant d'Ivry was invited to redesign the space.  Three large rectangular buildings for drying tobacco were built in the square central court, which opened onto the rue St. Thomas du Louvre.  A series of new buildings filled the area once occupied by a famous formal gardens. Stables and shabby shops were clearly visible from the place du Carrousel and the Tuileries, and were deemed to be in poor taste.  After the dissolution of the Farm, the firm of Robillard continued production on the site for some time, though the most prominent Parisian tobacco manufacturer of the Restoration era was Phélippon et Cie, who created a new works at the Gros Caillou  with a thousand operatives.  The Hôtel Longueville and its dependencies was finally demolished in the course of the reconfiguration of the Louvre area under the July Monarchy. 

Paul Harper,  "Tobacco 1791" in Géricault Life Magazine,c.2019-2022.(The painter Géricault's worked as inspector with the Robillard factory in the Revolutionary period.)


 A manufacture was established at the port of Sète in 1751 to process tobacco imported from Whitehaven and the Scottish ports of Ayr, Abderdeen and Glasgow.  It occupied the site of a former sugar refinery where the town's indoor market now stands.  According to a contemporary report, in the early 1770s, it employed three hundred workers and supplied the Ferme's bureaux in Lyon and other provinces along the Rhône. By the end of the 1770s, however,  the tobacco trade in Sète went into terminal decline due to the disruption caused by the American War of Independence: in 1778 the principal importers of were bankrupted.  By 1788 only a single ship still operated.  

Louis-Bernard Robitaille,  Sète - la singulière (2011), p.33 [free ebook]

 Local archives also reveal a series of disputes concerning the uncontrolled burning of tobacco debris.  In 1779, at a time when tobacco imports faced problems,  a fire severely damaged the works, destroying five workshops. 

Hervé Le Blanche, "Sète, fin XVIII è : le tabac peut brûler", THAU INFO [article]


In  the 19th and 20th centuries Marseilles was to become a major centre for cigarette production.  The imposing Imperial manufacture survives, but there is not much information about earlier activity.  According to Wikipedia, an 18th-century works was situated near the Carmelite convent at the corner of rue Paradis and rue Vacon.  It ceased production in 1779.


A royal manufacture was established at Tonneins by the Compagnie des Indes, perhaps as early as 1718.  The area had been an early centre of tobacco culture, and the industry relied on the easy transportation provided by the Garonne.  The magnificent present structure, on the quai de la Barre, dates mainly from Imperial period. There are currently plans to convert the site into an enterprise park. 

Danielle Fournie, "Manufacture des tabacs de Tonneins", Musée de l'histoire de Tonneins [website]


Like Marseille, Toulouse was important  in the 19th-century tobacco industry.  The manufactory, now part of the university, dates only from the 1880s.  The 18th-century works were situated in the rue de la Pomme.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I like your blog very much and thanks for the citation. Regarding the Robillard firm. The Robillard firm was first established (it seems) sometime in the fall or summer of 1791 after the abolition of the monopoly (March 1791) and continued production at the Hotel de Longueville until late 1806, when the firm relocated to the Hotel d'Augny in 1807. Production continued there until Napoleon re-introduced the monopoly in 1810. Great work and great images!


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