Archives and the history of urban pollution: framework elements

Why choose this subject? There is barely anything original in holding a workshop around the theme of pollution in 2020, the subject has been on the environmental history agenda for several decades now. In France, the publication in 2002 of the outcome of the Clermont-Ferrand symposium on pollution in urban and industrial societies[1], followed by the defence of Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud[2]‘s research, is a good indicator of historians’ interest in a social history of pollution in the industrial age, an interest which had already produced isolated initiatives here and there, mainly focused on city-dwellers’ sensitivity to disturbance expressed through petitions, letters and 19th century investigation files[3]. In the English-speaking world, the work of historians Martin Melosi[4] and Joel Tarr[5] on pollution goes back to the 1990s, the time of classic works such as [6] The Search for the Ultimate Sink and The Sanitary City[7]

Since the late 20th century, the history of pollution has developed considerably, no longer simply covering the beginnings of the industrial revolution or the preceding periods[8], but also the first and second halves of the 20th century, encompassing water, air, earth and site-specific pollution. Attempts to resume the problem were even produced[9]. Asbestos, lead, pesticides, acid rain and noise, as well as major industrial sites were the object of numerous historical  and socio-historical research projects, receiving wide-ranging media coverage in the scientific community and beyond, via scientific journals, academic societies and specialised research networks like the RUCHE (https://leruche.hypotheses.org/).

Environmental research, which happily is not limited to history alone, is now more likely  to extend back prior to the end of the Glorious Thirty – and the so-called rupture of Risk Society, a major work by the German sociologist Ulrich Beck[10]. The editorial success of the collective work Une autre histoire des « Trente Glorieuses ». Modernisation, contestations et pollutions dans la France d’après-guerre[11], as well as the multidisciplinary programme « Débordements industriels et leurs pollutions », the findings from which were published[12], show a solid connection between the disciplinary fields interested in the history of pollution, at least within the wider area of Human Social Sciences, including Science and Technique.

In 2020, this area of research can be considered both classic and dynamic – due to the volume of work produced – and it is now supported by universities for obvious reasons around media coverage and the politicisation of environmental questions. The big industrial accidents in the early 20th century, from Toulouse in September 2001 to Beirut in August 2020, serve to underline the vulnerability of the urban fabric that emerged from the second industrial revolution and the Glorious Thirty. Here, the mobilisation of the history community is comparable to previous mobilisations within the sociology or political sciences communities after the disasters at Feyzin (1966), Seveso (1976) and Bhopal (1984), with the company AZF without doubt acting as a hinge between the disciplines[13]. If the history of industrial risk is not directly linked to that of pollution, the two are nevertheless indissociable, at least from the angle of the history of the establishments involved.

The media coverage and politicisation of the global warming question, from the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, to the Paris Agreement in 2015, has made the environment a defining problem of post-industrial society, or more precisely, societies that believe themselves to be post-industrial. In this respect, the urban environment becomes secondary, as the problem of pollution becomes a global lifestyle problem, illustrated for example by the complaint lodged against the State for endangerment of life by around 50 inhabitants of the Arve Valley, as the Coll’Air Pur collective (2018) and judged admissible by the courts in August 2020, or the charity and political actions taken around arsenic pollution in the Orbiel River at Salsigne in the Aude, which got as far as the Senate in 2014[14] and was reopened after the Autumn 2018 floods that left the area with deposits of toxic mud after the Orbiel broke its banks. It’s worth remembering the role of the fishing organisations in the fight against pollution in waterways that goes back to the late 19th century, and the accusations that the Seine is polluted by sewage from Paris to the West – and therefore downstream – of the capital[15].

Finally, the urban renewal policies implemented from the late 1990s onwards, had to tackle the delicate question of the redevelopment of former industrial sites, giving wider consideration than simply evaluating a brownfield site’s value in terms of heritage or property to take into account how polluting it is. In 1993, the implementation of a rehabilitation and treatment policy for polluted sites lead to the launch of another policy, a « historical inventory of industrial sites and service activities likely to have polluted the earth » (Basias), followed by the creation of a database « of sites and earth that have been polluted or potentially polluted and call for preventative or curative action from the public authorities » (Basol)[16]. Neither environmental historians nor industrial heritage specialists seem to have been involved in the creation of these databases, even though they explicitly leverage a historical dimension.

The early 21st century also contributed to dissociating the environment from the political ecology sphere alone, and placing it at the heart of government in all urban societies. The embedding of climate scepticism in populist circles – as demonstrated by Joe Biden the day after his election in November 2020, when he made the link between the restoration of American democracy and the return of the US to the Paris climate agreement signed in December 2015 by Barack Obama – help to make the fight again pollution a normal issue in public debate at local, national, European, and even world level. Social demand, coupled with controversy and even crises linked to the environmental question, as the Yellow Jacket movement in France, October 2018 showed so well, justify political and human science departments profiling ‘environmental history’ positions.

The link between environmental history and urban history, which is the foundation of our workshop, is nothing new. From Thomas Le Roux to Renaud Bécot, via Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud, Sabine Barles and André Guillerme, a significant portion of French environmental research is founded mainly on the city of the 18th-21st centuries, notably due to the complexity in arbitrating on the public interest between protection of the population, urban development and economic development. Pollution is certainly produced no more litigation in the city than in the countryside, but the players and sounding boards involved in the litigation cases are of another scale and generate different volumes of archives[17]. Cities have never been able to conceal the problems of pollution and have therefore not been able to erase them from the collective memory, much less their archives.

It remains that if the subject of urban pollution, considered here as an environmental history issue, is topical and therefore in both the academic and media spotlights, we are nevertheless far from identifying an archival benchmark, epistemology, or simply a collaboration tradition that is as well-established as in other sectors linked to urban research, like streets, roads, bridges and ports. In 2009 for example, the French National Archives, Ecole des Ponts (School of Structural Engineering), Centre d’Histoire des Sciences et Techniques (Centre for the History of Science and Technology) at Paris 1 university and the committee for history of the Ministry of Ecology and Sustainable Development organised two important study days, entitled Les Ponts et Chaussées et Leurs Archives. Questions de sources, questions d’histoire (Civil Engineering and its Archives. Questions on Sources, Questions of History), whose findings were partially published in the journal Pour mémoire (18, Winter 2016, readable online). The committee for history of the Ministry of Ecological Transition, which has dedicated several of its recent publications to questions of pollution and the environment was however not able to resolutely address the question of archives, as evidenced, for example, by the absence of a corpus of oral archives explicitly dedicated to the history of public policy to fight pollution[18]. The need for testimonials is ongoing, as recently shown by the launch of an oral investigation campaign on the fire at the Lubrizol factory on 26th September, 2019, by the departmental archives of Seine-Maritime in collaboration with the geographer Eric Daudé from the University of Rouen (https://www.univ-rouen.fr/actualites/enquete-lubrizol-votre-journee-du-26-septembre-2019-entretien-avec-eric-daude/).

At a time when social demand for data and the history of pollution is rising, it is interesting to dedicate a workshop to reflection on the reciprocal usage of archives and the history of urban pollution. At the very least, it will help to circulate the corpus of research and signal archival bodies that will help to write the history of pollution. Here, two indicators can serve as hooks to measure how far is still to go in signalling urban pollution archives.

The first indicator, is the FranceArchives portal, which has been connecting research instruments at national, departmental and even municipal archives since its creation in March 2017, like those in Lyons which counted 16,000 documents exploring ‘pollution’ and 1,738 documents when the plural search term was used. Twenty departmental archive centres are represented but Seine-Maritime, Les Bouches-du-Rhône, Le Nord, La Haute-Garonne are all omitted, despite their many polluted and polluting industrial sites. All French départements have ICPE archives and used to have departments or commissions for dangerous, nuisance or insalubrious establishments at least since the decree of 1810, even before that, as work by Thomas Le Roux and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz has shown. There is therefore a disconnect between what is held and the research instruments online, which is a reminder of the difficult and laborious acknowledgement of scientific interest – with regards to history, a discipline that provides reader archives – of environmental themes fitted years ago. In the case of Seine-Maritime for example, the site of the departmental archives recognises nothing for the term ‘pollution’, while the Excel spreadsheet for the archives of the Administration Inspection, founded as we known after the Law of 1917 and readable on the intranet, runs to 18,000 requests for authorisation of which a significant portion was rural.

Nothing is available to help a junior researcher or even a normal citizen understand where and how to look for historical elements on urban pollution, across a long timeframe, nor has a classification of the archives of pollution ever been attempted. The FranceArchives portal suggests that these archives do not only relate to the public records of the Administration Inspection, but also other fields which are a priori less logical, like the protection of historical monuments, foreign affairs, associative or audio-visual records of La Contemporaine, research records of the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and the archives of the Monde du Travail in Roubaix, which holds the archives of the Comité Central des Houillères de France (Central Committee of French Collieries) and the Fédération des Chambres Syndicales des Minerais, Minéraux Industriels et Matériaux non Ferreux (Federation of Syndicates of Ores, Industry Minerals and Non-Ferrous Materials) – an example of just one public archive amongst many, that is returned in a search on ‘pollution(s)’.

The second indicator, the Gazette des archives, a professional organisation known in the profession since the inter-war years, whose archives are partially readable on the site Persée (1933-2017 collection). A search for the term ‘pollution’ in the bibliographical database of this journal returns 102 results. The first articles tackling the problem go back no further than the 1960s and are mainly professional reflections on the consequences of atmospheric pollution on the conservation of archives, most likely from international congresses and Anglo-Saxon research. Some archivists, like Michel Duchein at the French National Archives were even specialising in this question as early as the 1960s, producing technical articles and minutes of professional congresses. The general history of pollution, meaning the identification of the theme for the constitution of research instruments, appeared in the Gazette in the early 1980s at a time of the constitution of the INA and the broadcast of radio shows on ‘the city or pollution’ within the likely but unmentioned context of academic media coverage of acid rain from 1979, or the disaster at Seveso[19]. In the 1990s, the topic of pollution was taken on by archivists, through company archives. The retrospective acknowledgement of climate change and global pollution was only signalled in the early 21st century via work on water agency archives, instituted in the 1960s, or early archives concerning inter-communalities. This brief exploration nevertheless shows that the subject has not yet been built as such by archivists, despite strong social demand for perspective on these questions.

The result of a research programme that has been extended until 2021, the ANR Transenvir piloted by Stéphane Frioux from the LARHRA (http://larhra.ish-lyon.cnrs.fr/anr-transenvir and notably https://www.vitae-lyon.fr/ )[20] and another research programme started in 2019 and lead by Vincent Lemire at Isite Future, Archival City (https://archivalcity.hypotheses.org/), our workshop also aims to write the history of pollution through archives. Beyond the identification of archives and early sketches of possible classifications,  we are aiming to understand how they were put together, from the point of the view of the  producers (central, decentralised or territorial administrations, major State bodies like mining engineers, pollution tax etc) as well as the more general point of view of the place of pollution in the public spaces of the contemporary city: the archives of community organisations, media, university and private archives etc). Exploring pollution through archives, means understanding how pollution has historically been managed in urban societies, how corpuses of reference were put together within the mechanism of State (a continuation of the work of Laure Bonnaud and Emmanuel Martinais on the socio-history of administrations for example[21]: The history of the collections that are the most representative of the measurement of the real or supposed fight against pollution largely remains to be written. The constitution (filtering, logging, level of description) and the overlap of archives relative to the decree of 1810, the law of 1917 then the law of 1976 on polluting establishments are neither known nor accessible, while the long-term collation of data in some environmental areas like climate, has become scientifically obvious and a social issue.

The over-valuation within the French framework of public archives consistent with a top-down approach (State/prefects/collectives) induces a form of history that contests, for example, the stance of Anglo-Saxon researchers who insist upon the importance of the private sector (the development of the insurance sector historically influences risk management by industrials more surely than national legislation[22]. In this area, as in others, international comparisons can help shift the certitude of research and archive avenues. The archives of syndicates[23], unions or charitable organisations like Friends of the Earth (held in national archives), even a whole body of grey literature printed during the period of study (for example, the journal Pollution atmosphérique since 1959 are also indispensable for cross-referencing sources and, sometimes, filling in the gaps in public files (calling to mind, for example, the paucity of the archives of the ministry of Robert Poujade (1971-1974) held at the national archives).

Listing pertinent questions with a view to building a possible history of the archives of pollution therefore constitutes one of the horizons of expectation of this workshop, at which we will lay the groundwork based on sharing experiences between archive practises and research practices.

Stéphane Frioux

Loïc Vadelorge


[1] Massard-Guilbaud, Geneviève and Bernardt, Christoph, Le démon moderne. La pollution dans les sociétés urbaines et industrielles d’Europe, Clermont Ferrand, Presses Blaise Pascal, 2002

[2] Massard-Guilbaud, Geneviève, Une histoire sociale de la pollution industrielle dans les villes françaises (1789-1914), research thesis, Université Lyon 2, 2003.

[3] Corbin Alain, « L’opinion et la politique face aux nuisances industrielles dans la ville préhaussmannienne », Histoire, économie et société, 1983, n°1, pp. 111-118. Faure Olivier, « L’industrie et ‘l’environnement’ à Lyon au XIXe siècle », Cahier des Annales de Normandie, 1992, n°24, pp. 299-311. Claustre Pierre-François, « Une ville saisie par l’industrie: nuisances industrielles et action municipale à Argenteuil (1820-1940) », Recherches contemporaines, n°3, 1995-1996, pp. 91-119.

[4] Melosi, Martin, Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform and the Environment, 1880-1980, College Station and London, Texas A&M University Press, 1981; Environmental History Series #4 ; Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870-1930, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1980 and for early articles on the subject: « Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Environment and the Disposal of Municipal Refuse, 1860-1920 »,  The Historian, 35, August, 1973, pp. 621-640 and « Urban Pollution: Historical Perspective Needed », Environmental Review, 3, Spring, 1979, pp. 37-45.

[5] Tarr, Joel, « Urban pollution-Many long years ago », American Heritage, 1971, vol 22, issue 6, readable on https://www.americanheritage.com/urban-pollution-many-long-years-ago and « Changing Fuel Use Behavior and Energy Transitions: The Pittsburgh Smoke Control Movement, 1940-1950 A Case Study in Historical Analogy », Journal of Social History, 14, Summer 1981, pp. 561-88, with B. Lamperes)

[6] Tarr, Joel, The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Air, Land, and Water Pollution in Historical Perspectives, Ohio, University of Akron Press, 1996

[7] Melosi, Martin, The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000

[8] Legay, Jean-Pierre, La pollution au Moyen-Âge, Paris, Edition Jean-Paul Gisserot , 1999 or Boudriot, Pierre-Denis, « Essai sur l’ordure en milieu urbain à l’époque pré-industrielle », Histoire, économie & société, 1988, 7-2 pp. 261-281

[9] Jarrige François and Le Roux Thomas, La contamination du monde, Paris, Le Seuil, 2017.

[10] Beck, Ulrich, Risikogesellschaft. Auf dem Weg in eine andere Moderne, Suhrkamp, 1986, published in English as Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, Sage, 1992. See Fressoz, Jean-Baptiste, « Beck Back in the 19th Century: Towards a Genealogy of Risk Society », History and Technology, vol. 23/4, December 2007, pp. 333-350.

[11] Pessis, Céline, Topçu, Sezin, Bonneuil, Christophe, (dir.), Une autre histoire des Trente Glorieuses. Modernisation, contestations et pollutions dans la France d’après-guerre, Paris, Editions de la Découverte, 2013

[12] Letté Michel and Le Roux Thomas (dir.), Débordements industriels. Environnement, territoire et conflit XVIIIe-XXIe siècle, Rennes, PUR, 2013.

[13] See, for example, Coanus, Thierry and Pérouse, Jean-François (dir.), Villes et risques. Regards croisés sur quelques cités « en danger », Paris, Economica, 2006, and Coanus Thierry, Duchêne François, Martinais Emmanuel, « Risque, territoire et longue durée: vers une société du risque ? », Annales de la recherche urbaine, 2004, n°95, pp. 19-25.

[14] https://france3-regions.francetvinfo.fr/occitanie/aude/carcassonne/arsenic-aude-rapport-du-senat-preconise-creer-fonds-75-millions-euros-depolluer-sites-1871700.html

[15] Frioux, Stéphane and Jean-François Malange, « Risque perçu et risque vécu. Les pêcheurs à la ligne et la pollution des cours d’eau en France aux XIXe et XXe siècles », in Christèle Ballut and Patrick Fournier (ed.), Au fil de l’eau. Ressources, risques et gestion du Néolithique à nos jours, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2013, pp. 335-348. Barles, Sabine, « Experts contre experts : les champs d’épandage de la ville de Paris dans les années 1870 », Histoire urbaine, n°14, 2005, pp. 65-80.

[16] https://ree.developpement-durable.gouv.fr/themes/risques-nuisances-pollutions/pollution-des-sols/sites-et-sols-pollues/article/la-gestion-des-sites-et-sols-pollues. Ogé Frédéric, « L’inventaire des sites potentiellement pollués », Nature Sciences Sociétés, 1998, 2, pp. 65-69  and « Les recherches sur les sites potentiellement pollués en région Rhône-Alpes », Revue de géographie de Lyon, 74, 3 (1999), pp. 217-223.

[17] In particular, the resources of the sub-series 5M which contains files relating to requests made by institutions under the decree of 1810, then the law of 1917 (and the resources in series W that extended the files). See, for example, Guillerme André, Jigaudon Gérard, Lefort Anne-Cécile, Dangereux, insalubres et incommodes. Paysages industriels en banlieue parisienne, XIXe-XXe siècle, Seyssel, Champ Vallon, 2004. Baret-Bourgoin Estelle, La ville industrielle et ses poisons. Les mutations des sensibilités aux nuisances et pollutions industrielles à Grenoble, 1810-1914, Grenoble, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 2005. Massard-Guilbaud Geneviève, Histoire de la pollution industrielle. France, 1789-1914, Paris, Editions de l’EHESS, 2010.

[18] Within the framework of the ANR Transenvir however, an oral archive campaign was lead by Renaud Bécot, liaising with the Ministry of Ecology, on the former management of the Directorate for Pollution and Risk Prevention and the Directorate for the Protection of Nature.

[19] Christian Castellani, « I.N.A., Archives audiovisuelles : objectifs et missions », La Gazette des archives, n°111, 1980, pp. 335-354

[20] See also: Frioux Stéphane (dir.), Une France en transition ? Horizon, risques environnementaux et horizon écologique dans le second XXe siècle, Ceyzérieu, Champ Vallon, 2021, 408 p.

[21] Bonnaud, Laure, Experts et contrôleurs d’Etat : les inspecteurs des installations classées de 1810 à nos jours, Doctorat de sociologie, ENS de Cachan, 2002 and Martinais, Emmanuel, Les sociétés locales à l’épreuve du risque urbain. Un siècle de gestion du danger dans deux contextes de l’agglomération lyonnaise, Thèse de géographie, Université Jean Monnet Saint-Étienne, 2001.

[22] Van Manen, Niels, « Les plans d’assurance incendie de Goad : cartographie des risques d’incendie et normalisation des risques industriels (1885-1903) », Le Mouvement Social, 2014/4, 249, pp. 163185. Meisner Rosen Christine et Sellers Christopher, The Nature of the Firm: Towards an Ecocultural History of Business“, Business History Review, 73, 1999, p. 577-600.

[23] Bécot, Renaud, Syndicalisme et environnement en France de 1944 aux années quatre-vingts, doctoral thesis under the direction of Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud, Paris, EHESS, 2015


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