From poor immigrants to small industrialists: the formation of the industrial business class in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo/Brazil (1890–1960)


Key Words: poor immigrants, industrialization, industrial business community, city of Ribeirão Preto, city of Franca.




The newer generations of scholars and a public not familiar with the academic literature on Brazilian industrialization are often unaware of the debate that took place within the human sciences throughout the 1970s and 1980s around the origins of the industrial business community in Brazil (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century). From this discussion, major references arose on the subject, which crystallized an interpretation of the economic process that developed in the city of São Paulo. When the industry and business community from that era is referred to, it is in the context of the state capital of São Paulo, as if the situation here were representative of Brazil for the period. In the meantime, the rise of the industrial activity in other parts of the state of São Paulo, more specifically in the cities of Ribeirão Preto and Franca, assumed different forms from the model seen in the capital. For these cities, the humble immigrant played a major role in the creation of an industrial class.

Therefore, in this essay, we begin by reviewing the main aspects of the debate responsible for making São Paulo, the state capital, a symbol of Brazilian industrialization in the early twentieth century. Subsequently, we present the results of our research about the importance of poor immigrants to the economic development of two cities in the state of São Paulo: Ribeirão Preto (characterized by an emergent industrialization driven by the modest enterprise of foreigners in a colonial center) and Franca (where the center of shoe manufacturing originated through the initiative of humble shoemakers).


1. Reviewing the literature on the creation of the industrial business community in Brazil (1890-1930)


The discussion about the creation of the industrial business community in Brazil during the period under analysis may seem already exhausted to some and may be common sense for those who have the slightest knowledge about the subject. However, a brief review is relevant to emphasize the main nuances that are difficult to generalize beyond the city of São Paulo.

We start from the interpretation of Caio Prado Júnior[1], according to whom the industrialization process culminated in the early twentieth century in the proliferation of small manufacturing units. By analyzing the two national industrial censuses (1907 and 1920), Prado Júnior found this sector of the economy to be sustained by small plants whose owners were immigrants. The owners initially used insignificant resources in their ventures and, thanks to occasional profits and a frugal lifestyle, achieved some success.[2]

Fernando Henrique Cardoso[3] did not believe the industries in Brazil in the early twentieth century were capable of driving the economic development of the second half of the century. They were unable to do so, he argued, because their management did not follow an appropriate rational and professional standard. The immigrant group and sectors coming from the rural bourgeoisie, along with other groups of the new urban middle class, made up the social matrix of that industrial business community. Their archaic mentality was replaced only when foreign capital began flowing into the Brazilian industry after 1950, and professional managers came onto the scene.[4]

In the mid-1960s, after an extensive study of the largest manufacturing units in the city of São Paulo, Luiz Carlos Bresser Pereira[5] found that 31.2% of the directors were of Italian origin and 48.8% were from other foreign countries. They all had parents or grandparents born outside Brazil. Only 20% of the directors were of Brazilian descent. Another conclusion from the research concerns the social origin of the directors. The data showed that the majority of respondents (71.5%) were of middle-class origin.[6] Only 7.5% belonged to the lower class.[7] When questioned about the social origin of the directors’ parents and grandparents, Bresser Pereira discovered that there had been intergenerational social mobility.[8]

Warren Dean[9] coined the concept of the immigrant bourgeoisie,[10] that is, foreign individuals who settled in Brazil as representatives of foreign companies, and who later started manufacturing the products they imported. As for the industrial business community born in Brazil, Dean maintains that coffee growers predominated, meaning that “[…] quase totalidade dos empresários brasileiros veio da elite rural. Por volta de 1930, não havia um único fabricante, nascido no Brasil, originário da classe inferior ou da classe média, e muito poucos surgiram depois.”[11] The poor immigrant, according to Dean, “[…] tinha pouca probabilidades de elevar-se acima da classe inferior; quando muito poderia chegar ao nível do comércio varejista ou das oficinas mecânicas.[12]

The study by Sérgio Silva[13] corroborated Dean’s theses. For Silva, the industry in Brazil started out large, mechanized, and employing hundreds or thousands of employees. Those responsible for this setup were importers. As Silva put it: “[…] a principal fração da burguesia industrial brasileira, chega ao Brasil como imigrante no final do século XIX ou início do século XX e trabalha como importador”[14] Along with these, there were the coffee growers who saw an opportunity in the industrial activity for capital investment and helped to shape the nascent industrial business community in the country.[15]

José de Souza Martins[16] did not agree that Brazilian industry started out large. According to him, the existence of small businesses cannot be disregarded, because even with their technical and economic limitations, they sought to fill the demand for products internally. However, they failed when the dynamics of the economy demanded higher-quality goods in larger quantities. Big industry would result not necessarily from individual action but from a consortium of people. Martins dismissed the possibility of immigrants without resources becoming industrialists. The story of the poor foreigner who became rich through hard work had just been a myth, one spread by employers to make their workers work harder.[17]

We could extend this analysis to many other authors.[18] However, those already cited suffice to exemplify the role given to each class or social group in the process of creating the industrial business community. With few exceptions, the immigrant bourgeoisie and the rural bourgeoisie are the social matrices of the industrial bourgeoisie. The humble immigrants served primarily as labor. When we analyze the existing industry in the city of São Paulo, these findings are relevant. However, we believe this phenomenon cannot easily be generalized to the rest of the state of São Paulo. In other cities, this process took different shapes, especially since almost everything, the material life, in these cities, by the early twentieth century, had yet to be done. In precisely this period, many immigrants were setting up in these locations, bringing, along with their few possessions, some know-how – the essential knowledge for those who rose socially in the new society.