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The Great Bourgeois Bargain

The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store, 1869-1920

by Michael B. Miller
Princeton University Press, 266 pp., $13.50

One should not be put off this fascinating book on the Bon Marché department store in Paris by the litanic style of the introduction, which hammers home again and again the distinction between gemeinschaftlich and gesellschaftlich (I have not the faintest idea what these cumbersome teutonic adjectives mean, nor do I know what possible bearing they can have on good M. and Mme. Boucicaut, the founders of the store, the one a Norman, the other a Burgundian). Nor should one be put off by the author’s obsession with the word “culture” (which makes twelve appearances on page 3 and thirty in the introduction: an awful lot of “culture” in fact, though not the brand that made Goering reach for his revolver). Moreover, throughout the book, the author refers to the “bourgeoisie” as if it were a physical being, endowed with an overriding sense of purpose and a great deal of guile. Professor Miller’s “bourgeoisie” is a busy sort of bee, always up to something or another, or merely “pulling itself into the nineteenth century.”

The reader should plough on through these insistent litanies, discarding the code as he goes; and then he will discover, behind these cardboard frontages, that there coyly lurks a very good book that does full justice to its title and that, only here and there, in occasional genuflections and furtive gropings at the beads of a sociological rosary, brings the author back to his votive subtitle. It is business history with a difference: social history has been added in. Professor Miller is an imaginative and compassionate social historian who writes about people—most of them faceless and nameless, most of them infinitely weary, with fallen arches, bad feet, bunions, and disintegrating socks—with sympathy and sly humor.

The Bon Marché is certainly the most famous of the Paris grands magasins. It was also the limb out of which grew the Louvre, the Printemps, and the Galeries Lafayette. The Samaritaine, the Belle Jardinière, and the Bazar de L’Hôtel de Ville do not really belong in the same family tree, since they deliberately catered to a humbler, lower-middle-class or even working-class clientele. The Bon Marché was not the oldest Paris emporium: the Ville de Paris, the Pauvre Diable, the Coin de Rue, and les Enfants de la Chapelle (which the author fails to mention) were all older. But the Bon Marché was the biggest of the lot, came out first with all the most original ideas, put on the most stupendous sales, and represented the summit of the sad, stuffy, weary, endlessly deferential profession of shop assistant.

To get into the Bon Marché was to fulfill one sort of timid ambition. To stay in the Bon Marché until one was expendable at fifty was an even more fantastic one. Few made it that long; 40 percent at least were out after five years, perhaps with a reference, certainly with bad feet. Such was the grind that there does not seem to have been time for a pause to assess and to contemplate; as far as I know the Bon Marché has secreted no Kipps, no Mr. Polly, no Hoopdriver, or any of the other characters H.G. Wells wrote about in his stories of commercial life. Perhaps there would have been none of these either had Wells worked in a vast machine such as Harrod’s or Swan & Edgar’s, rather than in a haberdasher’s on Bromley High Street.

We know only the bare facts about Aristide and Marguerite Boucicaut; the spur of their commercial genius eludes us. Aristide was born in Bellême, in Lower Normandy in 1810. He took to the road in 1828, and only reached Paris in 1835 at the age of twenty-five. He worked as a shop assistant at the Petit Saint-Thomas, using his evenings to learn English. Marguerite Guérin was the illegitimate daughter of a peasant from the Saône-et-Loire who had come to Paris, with the usual letter of introduction to some vague cousin, in the 1830s; like thousands and thousands of provincial girls, she worked first as an apprentice laundrywoman, escaping from the steaming laundry boats to take up a small job as a servant in a restaurant. It was there that, in 1835, she met Boucicaut. They were married the same year. Both early careers continue to illustrate absolutely classic eighteenth-century patterns; both appear to have walked to Paris, Boucicaut pausing on the way.

But almost at once the nineteenth century takes them both over: Boucicaut learns English, he is soon a partner, then he buys out his partner. And the rest of the two careers are part of the public history piously chronicled of the House, the oeuvre, the grande famille. What distinguishes both the founder, the foundress, and a chain of continuators (one is struck by the unconsciously Stalinist vocabulary of House handouts) from similar entrepreneurs and members of the managerial class was their apparently sincere piety. The Boucicauts were ardent Catholics—and the author does not suggest that their ardor owed anything to the fact that the Bon Marché set up shop in the most clerical quarter of Paris, though this was at once to prove a fruitful combination—and they appear genuinely to have believed that they had a moral duty toward their ever-increasing staff. The Bon Marché was an oeuvre in which moral values were constantly emphasized and from which moral failings would result in instant dismissal. Boucicaut was a Pétain under a glass and steel roof. Madame Boucicaut lingered on as the guardian of the tomb. Both were sincere and simple Catholics. The vocabulaire-maison, especially after the death of Boucicaut, apes that of the parish bulletin, the words loyal and loyauté forming the core of a Bon Marché anthem.

The author offers some telling examples of career patterns at a less exalted level too. Here is a young man born in a village in the Calvados; he moves to Rouen, spending one year as a shop assistant in the local branch of the Belle Jardinère; once in Paris, he spends eleven months at the Pauvre Diable, ten at the Coin de Rue, eight at the Louvre, before entering the Bon Marché, whence he moves steadily upward, from premier to manager, through la caisse, la batterie de cuisine, via rideaux—not to be curtains in his case. (Would one go from baignoires and bidets to literie, or would it be the other way round? There is an element of mystery in the vocabulary of these Brief Lives that certainly has nothing to do with the grinding monotony of the reality.) Another example the author provides is of a peasant born in the Basses-Pyrénées who starts as a shop assistant in Pau, moves on to a slightly better job in a large store in Bordeaux, before spending four years in military service, after which he reaches Paris, eventually landing a job in the Bon Marché, not a place, as far as employees were concerned, that one walked into.

Both case histories, indeed like the early stages of the careers of the Boucicauts, retain an eighteenth-century pattern of geographical mobility, despite the railways that, one might have thought, would have tempted people to come straight to Paris and to make the great city in a single leap. Not at all, so it seems. La montée à Paris, on the contrary, is taken in several, prudent stages, like an early-nineteenth century Tour de France. So there is a period of acclimatization in the nearest provincial capital: Rouen, Pau, or Bordeaux. The only change is that they would now come up, seated, by train, in the hope eventually of landing a job that, after years of standing, twelve hours a day, might eventually offer the supreme luxury of being once more seated. The Bon Marché offers a dramatic contrast between the standing and the seated: the latter a tiny elite.

Most such employees remain poor, faceless, nameless young men, dressed like mannequins (look at all those starched collars in the group photographs from the Livre d’Or), deferential, endlessly patient, of careful and studied gesture, and sweet breath (no garlic was served, one supposes, in the vast House restaurants), and well-brushed hair.

The author allows himself the brief fantasy of wondering how, in their weary sleep, they may have had night-mares about infuriating female customers, trying on dress after dress, fingering article after article. But where did they go when, at the end of the day, they escaped from the public stage, the electric glare, and the stifling heat and litanic noise (la caisse, la caisse) of the monster shop, in order to let off steam, to display their bourgeois clothes and their middle-class airs, and, above all, no doubt, to SIT DOWN, legs outstretched under a marble-topped table on a café terrace, while they fingered their moustaches? What was the private face of the meager existence of these young men, or not so young, clothed in black and white?

Some, we are told, rushed off to enjoy the noise of café-concerts and music halls; and this would be a bad mark against them. Could they ever escape the prying eye and the minute intelligence service of an insistent and fussy Moral Order? Did not the Boucicaut information service (which relied on concierges for the distribution of catalogues) trace them down to their little hotel rooms in the Xme, the XVIIIme and the XXme, scout out their compagnes, scrutinize the dubious sheets, break into their pathetically exiguous, fragile privacy? This seems likely, for mistresses and drinking habits are noted down on dossiers, along with rudeness, insolence, and answering back—the deadly sins—among causes for dismissal.

What an awful life! Surely much worse than the relative freedom of the factory or the harvest. And yet, and yet, one can follow the author in being convinced that a great many Bon Marché employees readily adapted to the Boucicaut ethos, that they clung, with dogged desperation, to the outward garments of middle-class respectability, as if, like the Naval & Military Tailors, Gieve’s, Clothes Make the Man (and Gieve’s Make the Clothes), the uniform, the deference, the good manners, the careful politeness (Madame désire?) really were a ladder into bourgeois respectability. They were even, we are told, prepared to give up precious leisure, the poor secrets of privacy, to stay on in their immense prison in the evenings, in order to learn fencing, a virile sport, or to take Spanish or English lessons. Perhaps some even trailed behind them, once outside the immense portals, the odor of incense, and the rancid smell of Left Bank clericalism.

Certainly the most astonishing aspect of the Boucicaut achievement is that so many of the employees seem genuinely to have adopted the House spirit and indeed to have felt quite filial gratitude toward their Father and Mother on Earth, carrefour de Sèvres-Babylone, the latter perhaps the most ill-named street in Paris. Of course, these are the ones who managed to stick it out to honorable retirement and a generous pension scheme. The wastage rate was colossal; but many who were dismissed were sorry to go. In a way, the Bon Marché really did look after its people, provided, that is, that they conformed to House rules; and these were both elaborate and strict.

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