Essay-English homework Assignment
Princeton University Press
Chapter Title: SELLING CONSUMPTION
Book Title: The Bon Marche Book Subtitle: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920 Book Author(s): MICHAEL B. MILLER Published by: Princeton University Press. (1981) Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zv9g3.11
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AMONG THOSE PHRASES so readily associated with the new department stores, and so loosely turned to as though their very mention was sufficient to raise the tone of the discussion to a plane of significance, was the “democratization of lux ury.” The term itself is a superficial one, and in some ways misleading. Although mass retailing gave way to stores ex pressly directed at a lower-class clientele, the principal firms like the Bon Marche remained middle-class institutions. The bourgeoisie more so than the working classes were the chief beneficiaries of the revolution in marketing before the First World War.
But “democratized luxury,” the puffery and misguided no tions aside, did stand for something in the minds of men who were grasping for some means of expressing, conveniently and compellingly, the implications of grands magasins selling vast quantities of merchandise to vast numbers of people at considerably lower prices than ever before. It stood for a market that was now prepared to turn practically any retail article into a mass-consumer good. And thus, at a more fun damental level, it stood for the realization that bourgeois cul ture was coming more and more to mean a consumer culture, that the two were, in fact, becoming interchangeable.
The department store alone did not lead to the appearance of a consumer society, but it did stand at the center of this phenomenon. As an economic mechanism it made that soci ety possible, and as an institution with a large provincial trade it made the culture of consumption a national one. Above all, as a business enterprise predicated upon mass re-
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tailing, it played an active role in cultivating consumption as a way of life among the French bourgeoisie.
This promotion of a consumer culture was to raise issues as vital as those of the bureaucratization of careers and the transformation of entrepreneurial roles. In the following chapter we shall see how these issues fit into a larger complex of social concerns that once again obliged the grands magasins to seek an accommodation between tradition and change. For the moment, however, we must consider how the Bon Marche set about selling not only merchandise, but consump tion itself.
AN EIGHTH WONDER
In one respect, selling consumption inherently followed from the new merchandising practices that differentiated the de partment store from the traditional small shop. The concen tration of services, integration of operations, and especially the stress on rapid turnover expanded markets by lowering prices.1 Deliveries, returns, and conscientious service made shopping a pleasurable experience. Fixed prices decreased consumer suspicions and quickened the pace of shopping.
Yet these were only the preconditions upon which a con sumer culture could be built. More than price and service in-
1 How much lower prices were in department stores was a matter of de bate. Small shopkeepers contended that only leader items were sold at ad vantageous prices, and Zola once noted that while leader items were offered at 20 percent less than similar goods in small shops, other articles were sold at prices similar to those of the boutiques. However, in another note, Zola reversed himself, maintaining that “there is at least an 18 percent margin be tween the prices of thepetit commerce and those of the grands magasins.” Other commentators offered comparative mark-up rates for department stores and small shops of 14 and 41 percent respectively in one case and 12 and 36 per cent in another. Altogether, the consensus among contemporaries, depart ment store critics aside, was that better buys could be had at the new stores than ever before; and, given the stores’ organization and marketing philoso phy, it is difficult to believe that this was not the case. Zola, NAF10278, pp. 75, 201; A. de Foville, “Les causes generates des variations des prix au XIX siecle,” VEconomiste Franfais (1 June 1878), pp. 684-85; G. Michel, “Le com merce en grands magasins,” Revue des Deux Mondes (1 January 1892).
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centives, mass marketing demanded a wizardry that could stir unrealized appetites, provoke overpowering urges, create new states of mind. Selling consumption was a matter of seduction and showmanship, and in these Boucicaut ex celled, enveloping his marketplace in an aura of fascination that turned buying into a special and irresistible occasion. Dazzling and sensuous, the Bon Marche became a permanent fair, an institution, a fantasy world, a spectacle of extraordi nary proportions, so that going to the store became an event and an adventure. One came now less to purchase a particu lar article than simply to visit, buying in the process because it was part of the excitement, part of an experience that added another dimension to life. This ambiance, in conjunction with the powerful temptation of vast, open displays,2 was to be the great luring feature of the Bon Marche.
The new building itself was designed for this effect. Pro vided with a stately fagade of stone and topped with cupolas, the exterior belied the commercial machine within. This was particularly true of the main gateway on the rue de Sevres. Monumental and ornate, it rose the entire height of the build ing and was seated under a cupola, crowned with a pedi ment, conceived as an archway for the first two stories, and decorated with caryatids and reclining statues of the gods. The impression was that of entering a theatre, or perhaps even a temple.
Inside, the monumental and theatrical effects continued. The iron columns and expanse of glass provided a sense of space, openness, and light. Immense gallery opened upon immense gallery, and along the upper floors ran balconies from which one could view, as a spectator, the crowds and activity below. Three grand staircases, elegant and sweeping, conveyed the public to these floors as if they were climbing to
2 The role of the open displays themselves cannot be minimized. Zola wrote that “women are thus dazzled by the accumulation of merchandise. This is what has made the success of the grands magasins.” Later d’Avenel noted that “it seems that one sale begets another and that the most dissimilar goods, juxtaposed, mutually support each other.” Zola, NAF10278, p. 201, D’Avenel, “Le mecanisme,” p. 356.
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loges at the opera, while on the second floor could be found a reading room with the major newspapers and journals of the day, and a great hall in which the paintings of contem poraries (second-rate artists, Zola tells us) were exhibited for free. Later the two rooms were merged into a single salon, twenty meters long and eight meters high, and conceived in the grand style of a Louvre Museum gallery. Nearby was a buffet, a room whose fine furnishings, curtains, and palm leaves made it not unlike the lounge of a theatre.3
Part opera, part theatre, part museum, Boucicaut’s eclectic extravaganza did not disappoint those who came for a show. Merchandise heaped upon merchandise was a sight all its own. Bargain counters outside entryways produced a crush at the doors that attracted still larger crowds, thus creating for all the sensation of a happening without and within. Inside, the spectacle of flowing crowds intensified, orchestrated by barred passages, by cheap, tempting goods on the first floor that brought still another crush to the store’s most observable arena, and by a false disorder that forced shoppers to travel the breadth of the House.4 The oft-frenzied actions of thousands of employees, the din of calls about the cashiers, and the comings and goings of gargons in bright livery were the tumultuous accompaniment of a sensational proceeding.
Everywhere merchandise formed a decorative motif con veying an exceptional quality to the goods themselves. Silks cascaded from the walls of the silk gallery, ribbons were strung above the hall of ribbons, umbrellas were draped full blown in a parade of hues and designs. Oriental rugs, rich and textural, hung from balconies for the spectators below.5
Particularly on great sales days, when crowds and passions
3 Gargons in the buffet served Bordeaux and Madeira wine to adults,
syrups to children. 4 Boucicaut was, for example, fond of placing women’s dresses in one sec
tion of the store, coats and ready-to-wear in another. Zola, NAF10278, pp. 59-61.
5 In an observation that may have been taken from the Bon Marche, Zola remarked in Au bonheur des dames that Mouret primarily was concerned with their decorative and exotic appeal, selling his rugs practically at cost. Zola,
Au bonheur, pp. 290-91.
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were most intense, goods and decor blended one into another to dazzle the senses and to make of the store a great fair and fantasy land of colors, sensations, and dreams. White sales, especially, were famous affairs. On these occasions the entire store was adorned in white: white sheets, white towels, white curtains, white flowers, ad infinitum, all form ing a single blanc motif that covered even stairways and balconies.6 Later, Christmas displays became equally spec tacular. In 1893 there was a display of toys representing an ice-skating scene in the Bois de Boulogne. In 1909 plans in cluded a North Pole scene in the rue du Bac section, a Joan of Arc display in the rue de Babylone area, and an airplane “with turning propellor and luminous toys” above the rue de Sevres staircase.7
So the store, monumental, theatrical, fantastical, became an attraction in its own right to entice the public to visit the displays and to make of their trip an extraordinary experi ence. As early as 1872 Boucicaut was billing the Bon Marche as “one of the sights of Paris.” Soon after he offered daily tours of the House. Each day at three o’clock shoppers, or mere visitors, were invited to assemble in the reading room. From there a guide conducted them throughout the building, visiting behind-the-scenes activities and passing through the great galleries and their displays of merchandise.
It is in this role of impresario that we must also see Boucicaut’s inauguration of House concerts within and with out the store. The very inspiration was suggestive of the di rections in which bourgeois society was moving—and being moved. The presentation of concerts as regularly scheduled public events was itself of recent date, developing rapidly along these lines only in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. But their growing proliferation under middle-class sponsorship for predominantly middle-class audiences pointed to the extent to which an enterprising bourgeoisie, cognizant of a growing bourgeois demand, was coming to or-
6 Recall Karcher’s reaction in Chapter III. 7 B.M., Conseils Generaux, 18 October 1909.
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ganize the nation’s leisure and arts, as well as its industrial output, into marketable commodities. The scale remained limited, but the tendency was undeniable: middle-class cul ture, even in the narrowest definition of its artistic pursuits, was assuming a consumer mentality. Still, the step from promoting entertainment events as a consumer event in themselves to exploiting them for substantially wider com mercial purposes was a considerable one, and it is here that Boucicaut’s productions take on significance, standing as it were on the threshold of modern marketing techniques.8
The implications of these concerts were staggering. Music and shows had a long history as come-ons, but never had the connections been quite so sweeping. Now anything partak ing of middle-class identities and middle-class tastes, or even simply of public fads, could become a means to a totally unin tended and disassociated end: the promotion of a consumer society. If music could be sold to the middle classes either be cause there was a market that wished it aesthetically or that wished it socially as a sign of refinement—one of those ways by which the upper levels of the bourgeoisie sought to distin guish themselves from the lower orders, thereby setting the tone by which the lower bourgeois strata would just as ea gerly seek to assert their distinction and hence their claim to middle-class status—then it could also be sold to the middle classes as an inducement to consumption of a very different sort. And if formal choral societies had equally become a widespread phenomenon over the past forty years, to be found largely among artisans and clerks but encouraged by middle-class audiences who warmed to this exhibition of sol idarity with their own image of themselves (a side that did not escape the Boucicauts), then these societies too could be turned to the mass marketer’s account, selling far more than good cheer and bad music.9
8 On the evolution of concerts, their sponsorship and their audience in the first half of the nineteenth century, see William Weber, Music and the Middle
Class (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975). 9 On choral societies, see ibid., pp. 100-08; Zeldin, France, vol. 1, pp. 483-
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Thus Boucicaut began his series of concerts. The first per formance within the store was held in 1873, and until the death of Madame Boucicaut there would generally be one or two such events a year, usually in November and January. Saturday evening summer concerts in the square outside the Bon Marche began in the same year. Until the First World War these took place weekly, from June to September, except when the House societies were performing outside of Paris, or during inventory or Assumption.
The productions were grand and well-planned affairs. For the summer concerts, open to the general public, the House printed about 1,600 programs in advance. These were dis tributed at the cashiers, at entry ways, or in the reading room. Winter concerts—far more lavish in their conception, attended by invitation only, and apparently something of a society event—10 played to as many as 7,000 persons (of whom several thousand were employees). Rehearsals, for which performers were released early from work, were scheduled several times a week. Later, in the 1880s, well- known singers, including several from the opera, were added to the program. On the nights of the concerts themselves, large numbers of counters were dismantled, seats and special decorations set in place. Expenses ran into the thousands of francs.
As another of Boucicaut’s showcase orchestrations, Bon Marche concerts played a dual role. On one level, they were presentations to the public of a new kind of employee: disci plined, cultivated, gentlemanly. This was important, because retail clerks in the past had acquired a disreputable image. Referred to by the derogatory term of “calicot,” a title that had stuck from an unflattering portrait in a play by Scribe,
10 Invitation lists reveal large numbers of addresses from the fashionable districts of Paris. Deputies, military officers, and occasionally barons also re ceived invitations. At the same time the House was careful to invite the heads of railway stations and officials well-placed in the post office, all of whom could be of considerable importance to a store with such a large mail order trade. Invitations were also sent regularly to the press. B.M., Concert Materials.
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clerks were notorious for their disorderly behavior, their un- trustworthiness, and their claims to a status they did not have.11 Such an image could be acceptable in a small shop where neither service, nor ambiance, nor even necessarily trust was critical to a sale. But in a retail world that now stressed shopping as a pleasure in itself, the image had to change, and to this end House concerts provided a promo tional device that displayed for once not the salesgoods, but the sellers themselves.12
But it was again the ability to make of the store something it was not that was most important here. As one reviewer remarked:
“When one leaves a concert given by the Bon Marche, it is truly difficult to gather together all of one’s impressions, the program having undertaken all that is possible, and even the impossible.
“The lights, flowers, and splendors heaped beneath the eyes of the guests, the eminent artists one has applauded, all in the end shimmer, sound, and run together in the memory of someone the least distracted, and one remains dazzled, dazed for some time while trying to recover the necessary stability to arrive at some sort of judgment.
“Let us speak first of the hall. In less than an hour the store, glutted with merchandise, abandoned to a world of gnomes or genies, is rapidly transformed, as in a fairyland, into a bewitching palace, dazzling with its lights, filled with flowers and exotic bushes whose effect is splendid. Every where carpets and silk tapestries from the Orient are flung and hung in abundance, forming charming salons, hallways, and retreats, all embellished by the good taste of the tapestry-
11 In “Le Combat des Montagnes ou La Folie-Beaujon,” M. Calicot (named for a type of muslin) is an employee masquerading as a veteran of the Grande Armee. The play was first presented in 1817. See Avenel, Les calicots, pp. 15-16; J. Valmy-Baisse, Les grands magasins (Paris: Gallimard, 1927), p. 145. According to Zola, it was said that “le calicot est bon a tout et propre a rien.” Zola, NAF10278, p. 213. See also “Le calicot,” Gil Bias, 26 November 1881.
12 Press reaction was not oblivious to this side of the concerts. See for example L’Orphion, 5 December 1887.
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workers. Immense departments, earlier filled with cus tomers, soon will serve as an altar to the cult of music….”13
It was, then, on concert evenings that image and reality at last blended into one. Merchandise counters gave way to a stage, salesclerks transformed themselves into performers, the building became a deluxe concert hall. So ready to portray his emporium as a theatre, or the opera, or a land of en chantment, Boucicaut had found the supreme effect. Specta cle and entertainment, on the one hand, the world of con sumption, on the other, were now truly indistinguishable.
In still other ways the Bon Marche sought to call attention to itself and to create about it a special air. To present itself as a city and national institution while simultaneously display ing to mass audiences the best of its wares, the House partic ipated in all major international fairs, including those of Chicago and St. Louis. At the 1900 world’s fair in Paris, it had its own pavillion. The store was equally fond of publishing descriptions of itself and its wonders. At first the firm relied upon the national press, which has never been known for its high standard of ethics. Articles on the Bon Marche, most likely prepared in the offices of the same, appeared in L’lllus- tration and Le Monde lllustre throughout the 1870s and early 1880s.14 Later in the 1890s, the House began to publish its own pamphlets, in foreign languages as well as in French,
13 L’Orpheon, 5 January 1886. 14 See the following: “Les nouveaux magasins du Bon Marche,” Le Monde
lllustre, 23 March 1872; Llllustration, 23 March 1872; “Les nouveaux magasins du Bon Marche,” Le Monde lllustre, 30 March 1872; Llllustration, 30 March 1872; Llllustration, 10 October 1874; “Magasins du Bon Marche,” Llllustra tion, 6 March 1875; “Le Bon Marche,” Le Monde lllustri, 13 March 1875; “Les agrandissements du Bon Marche,” Llllustration, 2 October 1880; “Les agran- dissements du Bon Marche,” Le Monde lllustre, 2 October 1880; “Les agran dissements du Bon Marche,” Le Monde Illustri, 9 October 1880; “Les agrandis sements du Bon Marche,” Llllustration, 9 October 1880. Suspicions about the origins of these articles are raised by the fact that: (1) articles in both journals were often the same; (2) the articles frequently were filled with blatant adver tising content; (3) handwritten copies of the articles exist in the Bon Marche Archives. For a further discussion of collusion between the Bon Marche and the press, see Chapter VI.
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usually under the rubric of An Historical Account of the Bon Marchi or A Visit to the Bon Marche.
Printed in the thousands and passed out to House visitors, particularly to persons who took the House tour, these pam phlets, along with the articles, were written in a tone of fasci nation with the store and its workings. The Bon Marche was an “establishment without parallel,” the “most unique estab lishment in the world,” a “monument,” a “commercial in stitution,” a “palace.” White sales were a “feerie,” the open ing of a perfume department “the great attraction of the season” (how the public relations men must have choked over that one). One article, recounting a sale of Oriental rugs and porcelain, exclaimed that “all artistic Paris gathered at the Bon Marche that day, and the store offered the sight of a vast Oriental museum . . . transporting the imagination to the sunny land of a thousand and one nights.”
Everything about the store was “immense,” “vast,” “gigantic.” In particular, articles and pamphlets delighted in accounts of the size and scope of behind-the-scenes opera tions and projected an image of an incredible commercial ma chine that could impress the wildest of imaginations. Base ments were a “veritable labyrinth.” Giant electrical machines producing light for thousands of lamps were described in meticulous detail. Statistics abounded on the hundreds of employees in various services or on the thousands of letters the store received daily. And always there were descriptions of the kitchens, of their enormous equipment that could roast 800 beefsteaks at a single time, or that could prepare more than 5,000 meals in a single day. “It is necessary, if one wishes a comparison, to return to the descriptions of Homer who recounted in the Iliad how warriors roasted entire cows,” remarked one pamphlet of a store never restrained in its analogies.
Perhaps more than anything else the Bon Marche con ducted its self-promotion campaign through the immediacy of pictures. In House pamphlets, House agendas (calendar books), House catalogues, free picture cards passed out to
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children in the hundreds of thousands15 in sets or series (so that cards became collectors’ items and return visits were ob ligatory), or even simply in children’s games, the Bon Marche used the medium of pictures to play up the monumental and spectacular side of its image. There were pictures of the en trances and reading rooms that accentuated their splendor. There were pictures of behind-the-scenes operations, vast kitchens, and the sliding chutes down which packages were sent spiralling. There were maps of the Paris region, with a picture of the Bon Marche in the circle of Paris. There were centerpiece foldouts in agendas entitled “Monuments of the Paris Region” or “Paris/Picturesque and Monumental,” the one a colored map of churches, bridges, and chateaux outside Paris, with the capital itself represented solely by the store, the other a set of colored postcards of the Opera, the Hotel de Ville, Notre Dame, and the Bon Marche. A children’s game from the turn of the century consisted of a maze of the city, winding from the Bon Marche to the Arc de Triomphe.
The role of illustrated cards here was especially interesting. At least as far back as the sixteenth century, peddlers had passed from village to village selling cheap images of royal personnages, famous villains, customs, costumes, and a mul titude of other subjects. In particular they sold images of reli gious scenes, pictures of saints to hang on one’s wall or to carry on one’s person.16 These were the distractions of an ear lier time, the medium for transporting oneself beyond the realm of the ordinary, the paraphernalia of a child’s magical world. In the mid-nineteenth century the trade grew enor mously,17 again, as with the concerts, to be appropriated by
15 These figures are from the mid-1890s on. Distribution figures for illus trated cards before this time are not available.
16 John Grand-Carteret, Vieux papiers, Oieilles images (Paris: A Storck, 1902), p. 42, Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), pp. 455-59.
17 Two firms alone from Epinal—the center of such illustrated productions—may have turned out as many as 17,000,000 cards during the Second Empire. Weber, Peasants, p. 457.
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those with wider commercial interests.18 But there was more. To present these now with pictures of the Bon Marche on the back, or as a series of scenes of sights of Paris that included a view of the Left Bank emporium, or simply to change the sub ject to scenes of middle-class life in which the Bon Marche might figure prominently (a theme we shall return to shortly) was to create a whole new enchanted world of association. For the bourgeois child growing up in late-nineteenth- century France, the magical, the exotic, the fantastic, and the extraordinary were still the stuff of legendary figures, fairy tales, and heroes of the French nation; but they had also be come the stuff of department stores as well.19
Indeed fantasy and the Bon Marche could be entirely in terwoven. One series portrayed a shipment of Bon Marche toys by desert caravan to Morocco. Another told of the return of Halley’s comet, featuring a tour of modern wonders created over the past seventy-five years.20 Pictured as a fairy queen on cards of deep purples, blues, and reds, the comet was led to the Eiffel Tower, the Opera, and finally to an im mense, glowing Bon Marche from an airplane overhead. A similar theme, appearing on a Christmas catalogue, pictured a clown suspended in mid-air, a magical Bon Marche below. In a triumph of silliness (by the laws of human nature cus tomarily all the more effective), a combination picture series and narrative produced the story of “The Wonder.” This was a tale of a sultan in the Indies whose three sons all love the same cousin. Endowed with great wisdom, the sultan de cides that her hand will go to whoever can show her “the latest and most useful wonder of the world.” One brother brings a magic carpet. Another brings a magic apple that
18 Department stores were not the only ones to seize on the idea. Practi cally any company with something to advertise began to distribute similar cards.
19 Although the Bon Marche continued to distribute cards with traditional themes, religious subjects were no longer among these. The Boucicauts were not politically naive. But then this too was reflective of the transfer of magic to secular, indeed commercial, concerns.
20 This series appeared in 1910, when the comet was to make its most re cent appearance.
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cures all maladies and eventually saves the girl’s life. But the third brings a telescope through which she can glimpse the Bon Marche and its treasures. Dazzled by the sight, the heroine cries “yes . . . this is the wonder.” So the third brother wins a wife, and together they set off on an elephant to visit the store’s coming white sale.
Above all, the spectre of a modern wonder was to be found in the ubiquitous pictures of the building. Everywhere the Bon Marche was to be seen—on the backs of cards and cata logues, the frontispiece of agendas, the headings of store stationery, store order forms, and store invoices—rising from the ground as the most colossal and fabulous of palaces, wings stretched nearly to the horizon, crowds crushing along its window displays, carriages, omnibuses, and delivery wagons creating a flurry of activity on the streets before it. Or, viewed from above, its vast dimensions given full expo sure, the Bon Marche was like a monster exposition hall, en gorging crowds through its entry ways, dwarfing the city skyline as the great cathedrals had dominated Paris in earlier days. Indeed pictorially the Bon Marche was a cathedral of another sort, charismatically beckoning of its own world of entrancement.
And ultimately the store did become a new church. Dubuis- son, an authority on kleptomania, remarked that “the grand magasin finishes . . . by exercising upon certain temperaments an attraction entirely comparable to that the Church exercises on others.”21 Zola noted that: “. . . the department store tends to replace the church. It marches to the religion of the cash desk, of beauty, of coquetery, and fashion. [Women] go there to pass the hours as they used to go to church: an occu pation, a place of enthusiasm where they struggle between their passion for clothes and the thrift of their husbands; in the end all the drama of life with the hereafter of beauty.”22
21 Paul Dubuisson, Les voleuses de grands magasins (Paris: A. Storck, 1902), p. 42.
22 Zola, NAF10278, pp. 88-89. In his novel Zola wrote of his imaginary store: “It was the cathedral of modern commerce, solid and light, made for a people of clients.” Zola, Au bonheur, p. 275.
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For increasingly large numbers of women, a new, irresistible cult of consumption had been created.
A WAY OF LIFE
The Bon Marche opened its doors to everyone, but most often it was the bourgeoisie who passed through them. A working-class clientele undoubtedly existed, but its numbers were limited by the cash-only policy. Indeed, alongside the Bon Marche, the Louvre, and other major houses, there grew up a whole subculture of department stores that specialized in credit sales for the working-class trade.23 There was, in fact, something distinctively respectable about the Bon Marche that could make it forbidding to those who lacked middle- class pretensions, let alone middle-class means. The store drew its tone from the quarter that enveloped it, one that was known for its affluence, its Catholic orders, and its bien- pensant ways. As a specialty the Bon Marche catered to the religious trade,24 an accent on propriety characteristic of the store’s custom as a whole. Fashionable but reserved, the House drew heavily among visiting provincials, while the fastest circles in Paris were likely to go elsewhere.25 Yet
23 The principal of these was the Magasins Dufayel located in the eight eenth arrondissement near the outskirts of Paris and claiming a sales volume of about 70,000,000 francs at the end of the century. For details see Adminis tration et Grands Magasins Dufayel, 1898, Archives du Departement de la Seine, D 17z; Saint-Martin, Les grands magasins (Paris: 1900), pp. 36-37, 90-95, 123-24; Georges d’Avenel, Le mecamsme de la vie modeme (Paris: A. Colin, 1900-1905), vol. 4, pp. 376-83.
24 The Bon Marche always maintained stocks of religious articles and, later, religious uniforms. Catholics themselves, the Boucicauts during the early years of the store relied on nuns of the quarter to aid them in their paternalism. See Petition, Le Gourieric. So close was the identification be tween the Bon Marche and this clientele that rumor-mongers suggested that the House and the Church were linked to one another. Belief in this canard extended even to the police. One agent reported at the time of Boucicaut’s funeral: “. . . no ecclesiastics were seen at the burial, even though several persons have said that the Company of Jesus had confided great sums of money to the deceased.” Prefecture de Police, Ba 967, report of 28 December 1877.
25 Zola, NAF10278, p. 209.
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the common thread running through the clientele was less one of temperament than of identity. The Bon Marche sold its wares to all those who shared, or wished to share, in the middle-class way of life. Stalking grounds of both upper and lower bourgeoisie, the Bon Marche swept through its portals not only those lured by irresistible prices or by an irresistible event, but also those who saw in the emporium an irresistible linkage with their life style or their dreams. This too was to have its role in the selling of consumption.26
To leaf through the catalogues, the agendas, and the illus trated cards of the Bon Marche is to come upon the world of French bourgeois culture before the First World War in a way that perhaps no other medium can so vividly convey.27 It is not a comprehensive picture that these lists and illustrations offer us. There is no hint of the failings of middle-class mar-
26 In addition to the fact that the Bon Marche sold for cash only, the
bourgeois character (petite bourgeoisie included) of the Bon Marche’s clientele can also be seen in Zola’s list of prospective clients for Au bonheur des dames, containing types drawn nearly completely from the bourgeoisie (it is to be remembered that Zola’s notes were based largely on his visits to the Bon Marche and to the Louvre). In another note, Zola refers to the attraction of the petite bourgeoisie to the new stores. Zola, NAF10278, pp. 164-72, 202. For a more direct statement on the predominance of the bourgeoisie at the major stores, see Giffard, Grands bazars, p. 269. In undated minutes from assembly meetings in the early 1920s, Colledeboeuf, a man who had been with the Bon Marehe for many years, remarked that “the Bon Marche clientele is princi pally bourgeois.” B.M., Undated Assemblies Generates, 1920s. When the Bon
Marche absorbed the Magasins Dufayel in 1924, there were complaints from
shareholders that this would harm the reputation and standards of the Bon Marche, since the two stores were completely unlike, including their clien tele (the heads of the Bon Marche in turn promised that the sole connection between the two stores would be a financial one). Le Petit Economiste, 12 De cember 1924; La Vie Financiere, 24 December 1924. Finally, pictures in cata logues and agendas leave no doubt that this was a store selling, for the most part, to a bourgeois clientele. In fact not until the end of the prewar period did work clothes appear in Bon Marche catalogues, and even then these were primarily of the genre of uniforms for grooms, chauffeurs, valets, and bell boys, that is uniforms most likely bought by their bourgeois employers.
27 On catalogues: The Bon Marche printed semi-comprehensive catalogues such as a General Catalogue for Summer, but it also mailed out other catalogues throughout the year. Many were issued by departments and most were printed in conjunction with a sale. They might be simply reviews of new or traditional stocks or they might be devoted completely to specialty items.
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riages, no sign of the pressures or anxieties that could weigh upon middle-class lives. It is an idealized view that one gets, but then one that for this very reason is capable of imparting the self-image of that culture. How the bourgeoisie liked to conceive of their lives, what they expected of their lives, the minimum baggage they felt they could carry along with them in their lives all come into focus in the pages and pictures of the Bon Marche. Nor are we dealing here with merely a surface phenomenon. The images and accoutrements bespeak a real ity all their own. It is through them that we begin to under stand what we mean when we refer to the respectability or to the solidity or the certainty of prewar bourgeois life. And it is thus through them that we encounter a substantial part of the way the bourgeoisie did live their lives.
In this dense world of sensations and impressions there are images that especially seem to capture the culture that they were intended to portray. There are the covers of blanc cata logues that itemize the details of a proper bourgeois house hold: the richness of collections, the richness of embroidery, the solidity of storage chests, the very indispensability of linen to the bourgeois way of life. There were certain things, these scenes remind one, that a bourgeois home could not do without. There had to be too many sheets. There had to be curtains on the windows. There had to be tablecloths on the dining table (the dining room itself being another bourgeois requisite).28 The setting of the table—a frequent cover scene—recalls still other bourgeois basics. The household had to be equipped to entertain in the proper fashion. And it had to have servants, at least one or two.
There is the precision with which the bourgeoisie defined their lives. Women did not wear just coats, but coats for visit, coats for travel, coats for ball, or coats for the theatre. When they went to town they wore a dress for the city and at night a dress for dinner. In times of mourning one dressed in mourn ing,29 a fact no different than that men had their shirts for the
28 Tablecloths seem to have been the most recurrent motif on the covers of these catalogues.
29 Mourning garb, in its own way, was something of a fashion item. Cata logues often carried several pages of selections.
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day and their shirts for evening dress, their outfits for sport and their outfits for travel. This was a carefully patterned so ciety where appearance was always, to a point, a function of occasion, a badge that one understood what was correct and adhered to it rigorously.
The occasions themselves reveal the bourgeoisie’s world. This was also a civil, leisurely, and gregarious society, an image equally conveyed in agenda events and catalogue pic tures. It was a society of sociable visits or days of reception. It was a society that ate well and that held large dinners. It was a society that patronized theatres as a social event. And it was a society that traveled and played a great deal. In the summer one always seemed to be at the seashore or on a trip to the countryside. There were always badminton games and tennis games or bicycle rides or hunting forays. This was a very ac tive society. By the turn of the century the Bon Marche was selling gymnastic equipment for the entire family. But jt was also a very relaxed society. An 1880 summer clothing cata logue carried the following scenes: women sitting on a bench in a garden, women in a park, women holding parasols or fans, women painting, girls chasing butterflies, girls looking at chickens on a farm. For children it was a playful and care free society. Children in illustrated cards or catalogue scenes were well-fed and well-dressed (boys almost invariably in sailor suits). In Paris they visited zoos, played in the Tuileries, or went to circuses. In wintertime they attended their own fancy-dress balls, and in summer they followed their parents to the ocean or to the provinces. There were whole series devoted to vacations at the seashore or adven tures in the country. Life, these pictures tell us, was warm and secure, its pleasures a thing to be taken for granted.
There are the images of family life in the bourgeois manner. This was a culture where children were visible, well-scrubbed, and cared for. At the turn of the century the Bon Marche employed 80 people in its baby clothes department, 55 in knitted goods for children. In Bon Marche scenes children played among themselves, but they were as frequently ac companied by their parents, especially their mother, whose role was to be with her children. Children shared their own
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world, but they were part of their parents’ world too. Family occasions were a fundamental part of bourgeois life. There were ordinary moments like family dinners (although blanc catalogues suggest a certain ritualization here), and there were special moments, as when children got married to begin a household of their own. In 1907 there were over 100 employees attached to the Bon Marche’s trousseaux depart ment.30
Family life also meant family expectations, a final image that these pictures convey. Children were expected to be bien Sieves, a concept that ranged from proper bearing to learning the social graces. Bon Marche catalogues carried back braces “recommended as a support for persons having a tendency to stoop” and support collars “to prevent children from lower ing their heads.” Catalogue scenes showed that gentlemen always shook hands. Illustrated cards showed that children learned how to dance and that they dressed correctly just as their parents. Most of all being well-raised meant, as the arti cles and clothing for school and university and later the bar make clear, preparing oneself for a proper station in life. This, along with private property, was the sine qua non of being bourgeois.
As a reproduction of bourgeois life in these years, the Bon Marche catalogues, agendas, and illustrated cards thus offer a glimpse of a world and its values that has rarely been repli cated. Yet there is a good deal to be found in these materials beyond simply the reflection of a class’ self-image. Far more than a mirror of bourgeois culture in France, the Bon Marche gave shape and definition to the very meaning of the concept of a bourgeois way of life.
The picture of the proper household, the correct attire, the bourgeois good life were all, to a degree, Bon Marche crea tions. They were the way many middle-class people did live their lives, largely because middle-class institutions like the department store told them that this was the way they should
30 Figures on employees are drawn from the Uvre d’or. Very likely these numbers included individuals attached to workshops or the reserves in the basement.
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live their lives. Institutions like the Bon Marche made bour geois life palpable. They produced a vision of a bourgeois life style that became a model for others to follow. The relation ship between the Bon Marche and its culture was therefore a symbiotic one, with implications that were several and pro found.
In one respect the Bon Marche came to serve essentially the same role as the Republican school system, at least for those of middle-class means or middle-class aspirations. It became a bourgeois instrument of social homogenization, a means for disseminating the values and life style of the Parisian upper middle-class to French middle-class society as a whole. It did this by so lowering prices that the former’s possessions be came mass-consumer items. But it also did this by becoming a kind of cultural primer. The Bon Marche showed people how they should dress, how they should furnish their home, and how they should spend their leisure time. It defined the ideals and goals for French society. It illustrated how success ful people or people who wished to be successful or people on their way to becoming successful lived their lives. All this it did in ways that fit the upper-middle-class mold. In its pic tures and in its displays the Bon Marche became a medium for the creation of a national middle-class culture.
Thus, through the Bon Marche, Paris and the countryside became more alike. The millions of catalogues mailed from the center to the provinces carried the message of a set way of life, much as the textbooks the Ministry of Public Instruction sent to the communes carried a set vision of society. Bon Marche catalogues brought Parisian fashions, and the values and expectations underlying them, more directly into the homes of middle-class people in Limoges or Nimes or the small country towns of the Touraine. Provincials who shopped by mail-order or who travelled to Paris to buy di rectly from the store (and these must have numbered in the tens of thousands or more every year) shared in a common culture, whether they lived in the large towns of Normandy or in the small villages of Auvergne. This was not something new that the department stores initiated. But it was a process
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that the grands magasins reinforced and accentuated in the course of creating a national clientele.
Perhaps more important, the Bon Marche spread bourgeois culture to the new white-collar workers, steering these float ers toward middle-class shores. The Bon Marche offered these people, whose formidable growth toward the end of the century was largely a product of the grands magasins themselves, a way of life to imitate and the access and iden tification that would enable them to do so. It was the latter of these proposals that was especially significant. Through the department store, middle-class pretensions could find satis faction because images and material goods were coming to constitute life style itself. Bon Marche goods were so inter woven with perceptions of the bourgeois way of life that a purchase of a Bon Marche tablecloth or a coat for the theatre became a purchase of bourgeois status too. One could imag ine that one was bourgeois by wearing the uniforms that the Bon Marche prescribed or by simply buying a tennis racket or clothes for the seashore. One could feel relatively secure that one’s children would share in bourgeois advantages if one dressed them in sailor suits or bought them trousseaux. It was the old concept of Vhabit fait Ie moine raised to a far vaster scale than ever before imaginable. Becoming bourgeois had always, to a point, been a matter of consumption, but never so clearly, never so extensively, and never at prices that made its attainment so comparatively easy.
This meant something else again. As bourgeois culture be came a purchasable commodity, so too did it become a mere matter of consumption. Bourgeois culture could be sold in the marketplace because over the course of the century it was coming to be more and more a culture of consumption. This also was a process the department store had not initiated, but one that it had accentuated to such a degree that the very scope of quantitative change made it qualitative as well. It was the department store that was largely responsible for lowering prices and for creating overpowering urges to con sume. Even more, the department store turned the bourgeois model in a likeminded direction. The very definition of
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bourgeois that appeared in the pages and displays of the Bon Marche was no longer sharing a certain life style but rather buying certain goods in order to live that way of life. By Bon Marche standards, identity was to be found in the things one possessed. Consumption itself became a substitute for being bourgeois. All of which implied that the principal medium of consumption—the department store—now became the arbi ter of bourgeois identity, defining it accordingly with what the House had to sell.
Here lies the fullest meaning of the idea that the Bon Marche shaped the bourgeois way of life. The images the Bon Marche spread to the middle-class masses were not simply drawn from the values and habits of the Parisian haute bour geoisie. They were also a Bon Marehe creation that translated those values and habits into marketable goods. In Bon Marche pictures and on Bon Marehe counters the concepts of a proper household or proper dress or being a leisure class were transformed into so many linens, so many dresses, and so many sporting goods. At the same time, new needs were created almost systematically, so that the definition of life style was kept fluid and open in accordance with changes in the consumer goods available. Fashions were the clearest example of this. It was not simply that clothing styles varied from year to year or that complete changes occurred, as in the early years of this century. There were also entirely new kinds of clothing to fit entirely new kinds of wants. By the 1890s the Bon Marche was selling cyclist apparel for both men and women. A decade later it was carrying coats for the au tomobile. By 1913 the House carried the trend further, mail ing out a fifty-page catalogue entitled “Clothing and Goods for Travel and the Automobile, Bicycles and assorted acces sories, Games for Open Air, Sports.” Any craze, or even any event, became an occasion for consumption. As Franco- Russian relations drew closer together, Russian toy soldiers began to appear on Bon Marche counters. In 1892 a Bon Marche gift catalogue pictured French and Russian soldiers saluting each other, thus placing bourgeois consumption at the service of public policy, and public policy at the service of
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bourgeois consumption. Later, in 1905, there were special of ferings of Russian and Japanese toy soldiers, and in 1913 there were toy soldiers from the Italo-Turk War. Or new con sumer needs might mean simply a replacement of the old with the coming of the new. In 1910 the Bon Marche adver tised “complete installations for modern kitchens,” perhaps one of the first instances in the creation of what was to become the most powerful urge behind the culture of consumption—the belief that new meant better, and hence indispensable.
But there was still more. To sell a consumer culture, the Bon Marche sold itself as an integral part of bourgeois life in France. Much like the theatre, whose image the Bon Marche was always ready to assume, the House offered itself as a bourgeois social fixture, a meeting ground and a place to be seen as well as a place of entertainment. This was why the Bon Marche provided a reading room with newspapers and writing paper, and a buffet with wines and syrups. Shop ping, as the Bon Marche presented it, was now a full-time preoccupation. Shoppers were expected to spend their day at the store; and if they needed a place to leave aged parents or restless children, a place to meet friends or to arrange ren dezvous, or simply a place to repose and prepare themselves for a return to the galleries, the House was willing to provide for these needs.
The conjunction of consumption, life style, and the life of the store could also be found in the special sales and the pro motions that came in their wake. Yearly rhythms, the Bon Marche suggested, were now structured in the sequence of Bon Marche events. Months were no longer consequential, and even seasons lost much of their former meaning. Instead, the year now progressed from a clearance sale in early Janu ary to the Christmas and New Year’s sale in December. Along the way were the blanc (late January or early February), a sale of gloves, flowers, lace, and perfume (late February), sea son’s novelties (March), a summer clearance sale, and a spe cial sale of carpets and furniture (September). Summer fash ions sales took place in April or early May, winter fashions
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sales in October. Like the Revolutionaries of 1793, the Bon Marche created a calendar all its own. Winter was a time when white goods and New Year’s gifts were bought, spring and fall a time when old fashions were discarded and new styles adopted. For all those persons who read newspapers or received catalogues or in some way or other were exposed to the sales, it was not difficult to conceive of the year as a con tinual scheduled visit to the store on the Left Bank.
Cards for children served much the same function. Just as pictures of the store were integrated into sets on the institu tions of Paris, so too were there series that portrayed a visit to the House as part of a child’s daily adventures. There were cards that pictured buying trips at the Bon Marche and cards that showed children and their mothers riding omnibuses and carrying bundles with Bon Marche labels. One series, devoted to the end-of-the-year sale, showed children hawk ing signs of the coming exposition. Other cards portrayed Bon Marche delivery boys bringing Bon Marche packages, or even children receiving cards as they left the Bon Marche. Cards of this sort, along with those of visits to the Tuileries or trips to the seashore, were all of the same genre. Each de picted a side to growing up in France, each was a device to shape a bourgeois child’s image of his world.
Most interesting of all, in this vein, were the agendas. Like illustrated cards, these too were deeply rooted in the popular culture of France, having as forerunners the almanacs of ear lier days. Almanacs as simple calendars, listing the days of the year, the phases of the moon, and church holidays can be traced as far back as Roman times.31 Almanacs in book form, published annually and containing diverse information in addition to calendars, date from the end of the fifteenth cen tury. In 1679 the first Almanack Royal appeared, offering pre dictions for the year’s weather and information on the phases of the moon, mail service, palace holidays, and the principal fairs of the kingdom. By 1697 it was also listing state dig-
31 Outside Western civilization, still earlier calendars were produced by the Egyptians and the Chinese.
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nitaries and important civil servants. The Almanack Gotha, dating from the eighteenth century, was still more diverse. Here one could find statistics on various countries, advice on personal hygiene, articles on the human body, and details on the peoples of the world. For the semi-literate and beyond, there was a whole genre of almanacs, largely astrological and sensational, but also offering advice on health, farming, and cooking. During the reign of Louis XV, almanacs, doubling as calendars or books for noting dates and expenses, became a phenomenon of enormous proportions. There were proph ecy almanacs, astronomical almanacs, medical almanacs, al manacs of fashion, of songs, of religious holidays, and so on, until practically every subject became the excuse, or the mate rial, for another almanac.
Almanacs were probably the most widely read of publica tions, often the only literary contact for great numbers of in dividuals. Their popularity led propagandists, as well as pub lishers, to issue almanacs in abundance. In earlier days state decrees had forbade political use of the medium. But by the nineteenth century the restrictions had gone, and political almanacs were once again common. Another form of prop aganda was commercial. This took two directions. First, there were professional almanacs, listing the merchants of a par ticular profession along with the usual almanac offerings. The Livre Commode began this tradition as early as 1691 and was later succeeded by the Almanach du Commerce de Paris and then the Didot-Bottin. Second, some individual merchants is sued their own almanacs, like La Faye the perfumer, who in 1772 published a combination catalogue-almanac, or Bresson, who sold designs to be sewn on screens and furniture, and who published an almanac containing information about his work.32
Bon Marche agendas emanated from this second strain.
32 Emile Mermet, La pubhcite en France, histoire et jurisprudence (Paris: 1879), pp. 125-45; Victor Champier, Les anciens almanacks illustres (Paris: Bi- bliotheque des Deux Mondes, 1886), pp. 46-47; John Grand-Carteret, Les al manacks frangais (Paris: J. Alisie, 1896); Genevieve Bolleme, Les almanachs populaires aux XVII et XVIII si’ecles (Paris: Mouton, 1969).
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Perhaps the first of their kind offered by the new grands maga- sins, the agendas basically were calendar books with space to jot down daily engagements. Like earlier almanacs they con tained a range of information and amusing diversions. There were cartoons, menus, and extracts of articles and engravings from encyclopedias or other books. There were also theatre plans and lists and information on the postal system, lycees, museums, churches, hospitals, police commissariats, and oc casionally notaries. In the 1890s, centerfold texts with colored pictures on “The Cries of Paris” or on world affairs or on co lonial possessions became a standard feature. And there were also publicity and information about the Bon Marche, a good deal in fact. Pictures of the store with House slogans were common. So too were full-page announcements of sales dates, information on mail-order, details on deliveries, and directions for omnibus lines leading to the Bon Marche.
In one sense, then, Bon Marche agendas were a brilliant ve hicle for store self-promotion. Trading on the popularity of almanacs in France, and serving a variety of functions, they were assured of a market that would swallow them whole and accept the information they offered on store and city life. But, in a still larger sense, they were another means of iden tifying the Bon Marche with the bourgeois way of life. By placing store news alongside details on churches, theatres, lycees, and notaries, agendas implied that the Bon Marche was another bourgeois social institution of Paris. And by placing pictures of the House and reminders of special sales along side “Reception Day” pages and monthly dinner menus, agendas further suggested that a visit to the Bon Marche was another part of the bourgeois social calendar. Indeed, by creating an image in which bourgeois society could not be conceived of apart from the Bon Marche, these calendar books proposed that a trip to the store was simply another of one’s daily comings and goings. Like catalogues, sales, and picture cards, agendas told their readers that the life of the bourgeois and the life of the department store had become one and the same.
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