Most childless folks did not have the luxury of worrying about where their money would go. The stevedore unloading coal from a barge and the woman hawking cheese out of a basket that she hoisted on her shoulders were unlikely to possess property at the end of life. Half of all French adults who died during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries left no material legacy at all, and another quarter left less than one hundred francs. Only during the prosperous 1950s and 1960s did more French people have legacies to leave.
What could one hundred francs buy? In Balzac’s Old Goriot, set in 1819, the mid-range tenants at Madame Vauquer’s boarding house pay seventy-two francs a month for a room and board. In other words, one hundred francs was just enough for a month’s rent in a dilapidated Parisian apartment in an unfashionable quarter, where the tenants’ shabby and faded clothing was matched by the low quality of the furniture. Three-quarters of all adults in France died without having savings to pay much more than one month’s rent at such a place.
Thomas Piketty, “Data Appendix,” to Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2010), 67.
Margaret H. Darrow, Revolution in the House: Family, Class, and Inheritance in Southern France, 1775-1825 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 16.
Honoré de Balzac, Old Goriot, trans. Marion Ayton Crawford (New York: Penguin Classics, first published 1951), 35.