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.
The author refers briefly to the proletariat of the House: the garçons, working in the basement and in the parcels and delivery departments, most of them in fact grown men, dressed in uniform and given numbers, who slept anywhere they could: on shelves or on counters—and the demoiselles de magasin, more easily scrutinized than the male employees, and more readily exposed to disgrace: seduction, the weekend picnic, pregnancy. Professor Miller remarks shrewdly: “Demoiselles and the ladies they waited on were not all that far apart.” For the Bon Marché served a number of purposes not advertised in its beautifully produced catalogues: it provided writing rooms in which married ladies could write to their lovers, showrooms in which they could make discreet rendezvous, unnoticed in the immensity of a constantly moving crowd. There is a brief reference to the frotteurs, not, as one might expect, polishers, but, in the vocabulaire maison, men who used the shop to brush against harassed and certainly sweaty (they had to wear long black dresses) demoiselles. Clothing provided other opportunities, in this age of ample fashion: there seems to have been a steady percentage of shoplifting, mostly by carefully dressed women.
The top level of administration, the rare success stories, gérants, managers, chairmen, the continuators of the Boucicaut oeuvre: Morin, Fillot, Ricois, Caslot, Chambeau, Dru, Lucet, Plassard, reveal a boring succession of patient, prudent, yet enterprising men, nearly always one step ahead of fashion, and in fact dictating its shape in the immediate future, totally imbued in the ethos of an organization in which most of them had spent the whole of their adult lives—few came in from outside, save one or two familiers of Madame Boucicaut, including her solicitor—steadily promoted from the ranks of the head cashiers or the premiers of this or that department: blanc, furniture, silk, ready-mades, toys (toys, especially could offer a way up), sports equipment.
Here they are, little more than names, sitting in their assigned hierarchy around the boardroom table, beneath the portraits of Aristide and Marguerite. Some of them are intermarried; and in their manner of life and their very success, due to hard work, probity, commercial acumen, and advertising inventiveness sometimes amounting to genius, they seem to have taken the House rules and the annual catalogues as the guiding lights and twin catechisms of their heavily ornate style. Their solid, over-furnished homes—XVIme, VIIme, banlieue Saint-Lazare—are crammed with Bon Marché furniture and linen, carpets, curtains, clocks, paperweights, bronze gladiators, table lamps, dinner and cutlery services. They may be presumed to push their devotion so far as to wear Bon Marché ready-mades, gloves, hats, boots; and they eat Bon Marché food.
They invite one another, their social relations are confined mostly to the world of the great emporium. They do not seek social recognition, though honors, when they come, are accepted as a tribute to the oeuvre rather than to themselves. And so their private lives are quite unobtrusive and colorless. The musical evenings and the other social occasions held in the shop itself are an indirect and effective form of advertising. Deputies, senators, academicians, writers, industrialists are not cultivated for their social enjoyment, but for the greater glory of the Bon Marché. In their slightly vulgar houses hang the portraits of M. and Madame B. They are not aspiring to rise further in the world, do not seek admittance in the Tout-Paris, content to be honnêtes commis.
Even the grandchildren of some of the pre-1914 gérants and chairmen, interviewed by the resourceful and indefatigable author, speak with genuine affection of the founder and of la grande famille. Famille, Travail, Patrie could be as much the motto of the House, in its golden heyday between 1890 and 1914, as later it was to become that of the Pétain regime, a triple formula that the Bon Marché was much more successful in promoting than the incoherent regime of the Marshal and his motley adherents. There is a sort of symbolism in the decision to open a branch of the Bon Marché in Vichy toward the end of the last century; its slightly dowdy, “safe” image seemed well suited to the hepatic population of the various Sources.
All those engaged in the service of the House, especially the gérants, seem to have taken themselves as seriously as those who, forty years later, enrolled in the Marshal’s campaign of Redemption, Atonement, and Moral Renewal; and such monumental absence of humor will occasionally produce a similar bathos. In a letter addressed, from the front, to the management, by a former employee serving in the First World War, the soldier writes: “I will do everything within my weak means to throw back the invader for the honor of France and the Grands Magasins du Bon Marché,” a jumelage of such majestic proportions as only the French can offer: Grand Hôtel des Cyclistes Stéphanois et de l’Univers.
Note too the meekness-maison, the copy-book humility: “my weak means.” The soldier had got the spirit of the place, so imbued was he in it indeed that, even from the trenches, he could fall faultlessly into the style Bon Marché. Of course, he may too have been hoping for something in return. In a language so formalized, so treacly with unction, so heavily dripping in gratitude, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between a sincere expression of feelings and that of a formalized conformity. Bon Marché public pronouncements sound positively Pecksniffian in translation; to get the full flavor of them, it is necessary mentally to translate them back into French, in order to recapture the echo of standardized rhetoric. Anyhow, one hopes that the soldier, having won the war for France and the Bon Marché (not to mention Joan of Arc and Sainte-Geneviève), got his job back on demobilization.
This excellent and original study brings to mind related questions of topography. Each of the Paris department stores was carefully sited physically, in both communications and potential clientele. The Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, looking to the eastern suburbs for its specialties in fishing and gardening and kitchen equipment, is admirably placed on the east-west line Vincennes-Neuilly, with its own entrance onto the metro station Hôtel-de-Ville at the rue Lobau exit. The Printemps and the Galeries Lafayette are constructed like a great net in which the teaming commuters on foot from Saint-Lazare are filtered through: a better class of customers than perhaps the staider client of the Bon Marché, and much better than that of the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville.
The Belle Jardinière and the Samaritaine, competing at much the same level as the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, are almost equally well placed for both eastern and northern suburbs within walking distance of the Châtelet, the square also best known to every French provincial. Their immense rectangles mark the silhouette of the Right Bank riverside, they cannot be missed. The Louvre lies at the intersection of the avenue de l’Opéra, the place du Palais-Royal and the rue de Rivoli. Both the store and the hotel had been carefully sited with a foreign and provincial public in mind. But the Louvre could also be reached directly from the shallow metro station Palais-Royal on Vincennes-Neuilly (or, more likely, Neuilly-Vincennes, the Parisian appeal of the shop lying strongly to the west to Auteuil, Neuilly, and Passy). Les Enfants de la Chapelle catered, as its name implies, to a peripheral, locally based, and very modest public.
In its catalogues, postcards, and publicity handouts of the Eighties, Nineties, and the 1900s, the Bon Marché was in the habit of depicting the emporium and its annex as being in the dead center of Paris; indeed, sometimes in its pictorial maps of the Paris region, it would be the only building in the capital, vying with the château of Ecouen, the basilica of Saint-Denis, the palaces of Versailles, and the cathedral of Chartres. In other maps, Paris consists of the Bon Marché, Notre Dame, the Invalides, and the Eiffel Tower, a far from discreet reminder of its Catholic affiliations, its appeal to the military families living a little to the west (in fact, Army, if not Navy), and of the fact that the immense iron galleries had been the work of Eiffel himself, chosen personally by Boucicaut. But, of course, it was not in the center of Paris, being, on the contrary, the only department store on the Left Bank. But, within the Left Bank, it was strategically placed at an intersection of a boulevard and of four streets, directly opposite the prestigious Lutétia hotel, and served by a metro station that was a junction of the two busy lines (a station much used, in the 1970s, by the gangster Mesrine while on the run).
For an enterprise that gloried—some would say wallowed—in its piety, its good works (there is still a prix Boucicaut for vouched-for respectable young virgins about to get married), its high moral tone, the store was quite magnificently placed, on the very frontier between the quartier Saint-Sulpice, the center of religious bookshops and trinkets, of bondieuseries, seminaries, and hotels that catered for the special needs of priests and seminarists, the fashionable churches of Saint-Ferdinand and Sainte-Clothilde, and the convents and religious establishments of the rue de Sèvres. Even the residence of the archbishop, rue Barbet de Jouy, was within easy walking distance. And if Vice stalked on high heels not too far away, on rues Bréa and Vavin, at least it was Vice discreet and ostentatiously pious: Bretonnes with crosses around their necks, patronized by equally pious pères de famille who were parishioners of Saint-Ferdinand. Furthermore, it was an area thick with lycées and collèges that would provide a steady clientele for the stationery department and for sports equipment and clothing.
One wonders in what order things came about. Did the Bon Marché set up shop where it did because it was already a clerical quarter, well served by the clerical Gare du Montparnasse that linked Paris to a clerical West? Or did the quarter become more clerical because it had been chosen by the pious M. and Mme. Boucicaut? The answer would seem to be a bit of both. Certainly some of the churches in the vicinity were built years after the Bon Marché as if to facilitate a ready transfer from shopping to spiritual uplift (though the Bon Marché could provide plenty of that, too; it was not the place to go for pornography). The provincial lady, there to provide for her daughter’s wedding and setting up house—the store had a special section for marriages and was especially well adjusted to supplying the entire needs of a jeune ménage, from bedding to cutlery and leather-bound books that would look well in a glass-fronted bookcase (from internal evidence, and the discovery in the country home at Samois of twenty years of pre-1914 Bon Marché catalogues, it became apparent to me that the entire contents of Madame Thullier’s two houses had been provided, in one vast order, by the store)—could combine an extensive tour of the various departments with a confession or two thrown in at the end (all the more piquant if the writing room had been used for illicit correspondence or for a rendezvous). There seemed no doubt that the founders of the shop had considered the quarter as suitably solid, anyhow less likely than the Grands Boulevards to endanger the virtues of the hundreds of young people employed in the enterprise. The quartiers de plaisir were at a fairly safe distance.
Certainly, one of the reasons that the Bon Marché put such a gigantic and, at the same time, imaginative effort into the production and distribution of its annual or seasonal catalogues was to familiarize a provincial, foreign, and colonial clientele with a location that would not immediately spring to mind for the tourist and the visitor. Its success in thus fighting against a location that, for the traveler by train, was much less accessible from the main stations than the other great stores, can be gauged from the fact that the carrefour Sèvres-Babylone was converted, in a matter of years, into one of the best-known sights of Parisian topography, familiarized in the shorthand of au carrefour, or “let us meet at the main entrance,” as one might have said “under the clock” at Waterloo or the Biltmore, to the inhabitants of Roromantin and Rocamadour, Brussels, Berlin, Rome, Saint Petersburg, London, and Madrid, as well as to those of Algiers (where a branch was opened), Casablanca, Oran, Tananarive, Saigon, and Hanoi.
Like the Army and Navy, the Bon Marché had early acquired a firm stake in colonialism, the catalogue circulating throughout the French empire. A colonial clientele represented a particularly good catch, because they tended to buy in bulk. And was not the role of France in Africa and in Cochin China to convert the heathen? An enterprise that would have appealed to the founder. One suspects that the catalogues of the Bon Marché circulated as far afield as the less exalted Chasseur français. Both would seem like links with home to the official sweating it out in Douala or Pointe-Noire. The colonial appeal is perhaps the only aspect of Bon Marché imperialism that the author has neglected. And, of course, the annual catalogues were translated into English, German, and Spanish (though South Americans preferred the more alluring Printemps). Personal reminiscences of the Russian Revolution allude to the fact that to be found to be in possession of a Bon Marché catalogue was taken to be an indication of bourgeois origin—as indeed it was.
So by 1900, the Bon Marché had indeed acquired droit de cité. By then a great many provincial children would have been easily persuaded that the Maison Boucicaut was indeed Paris itself; a visit to Paris was a visit primarily to the store, to be fitted up with bathing costume and summer clothes in early July, before the holidays (which, in French primer society, always began on July 15, the day after the prize-giving), and with sailor suit, overcoat, strong shoes, thick stockings, pencil box, satchel to be worn on the back, and black blouson with long sleeves, in time for the rentrée.
Of course, such an operation could just as well be carried out in a branch in Rouen or Bordeaux, but a visit to the maison mère would be a major treat. Such a visit might also take in the Théâtre du Châtelet, a great favorite with the provincials, but little else. As for little Parisians the neat, brightly colored delivery vans, driven by uniformed garçons, to be seen in every quarter carrying the Boucicaut flag up the heights of the XXme and the XVIIIme, would be a reminder of a Thursday afternoon excursion to the shop, followed by a visit to a pâtisserie. For such, the Bon Marché signified half-holidays, holidays, and the approach of Easter and Christmas. It was both a family shop and a children’s shop, but children of course accompanied by elegant, well-dressed mothers, themselves well behaved and grateful.
In an imaginative passage, the author asserts that the Bon Marché was not just a shop, but a way of life, designed to meet—and indeed to provoke—every middle-class need and craving, to equip its customers with every visible status symbol—new ones were being discovered all the time—and to enable the Hulots of prewar days to walk out in self-confidence, even with a jaunty air and the light flicker of a bamboo cane (purchasable in the umbrella department, from the umbrella salesmen who, in the Livre d’Or photographs, gaze out at us with most distinguished hauteur, above their high collars), aware that they were properly clothed and fully equipped, and that, if dressed up for le cyclisme, one did not tuck the bottoms of one’s trousers into one’s socks.
How much less ill at ease would poor Hoopdriver have been had he had access to a suburban Bon Marché! It was the apparently immobile, changeless, frozen world of the French primer, of a type which was still in use in English schools in the 1920s, as though the Great War had never been: the band—the garde républicaine, is always playing in the bandstand, the little boy in sailor suit is always sailing his boat in the grand bassin, the little girl is always pursuing a butterfly with her butterfly net, a tiny boy is always rolling his hoop, elegant ladies are always sitting, in decent bathing costumes, under brightly colored parasols, languid ladies are always reclining in hammocks, reading edifying literature (chez Mame), family groups are always having tea on the open balcony, the formal fountains are always playing, little girls in straw hats are always batting their cerf-volants across a net, artistic women in loosely fitted print gowns are always sitting at their easels, painting, girls and boys, well wrapped up in coats with fur collars, are always engaged in snowball fights, Nanny is always pushing baby in an elaborate pram with a white canopy, young men in white trousers and blazers and boaters with bright ribbons are always lounging, dangling their tennis rackets, the game is always about to begin, the bonne (Alsatian or Breton) is always laying the table for a grand dinner, the napkins laid out with their fantails in the air, the elderly, white-haired, deferential gardener is always watering the flowers, gentlemen in white gloves are always dropping their visiting cards in silver trays, the family home is always faux-Henri III with crenalations, as in Larousse, under “Maison.” For, in Larousse, too, everything is eternally immobile, solid, well-made, long-lasting.
Everyone knows what to do, to remove gloves before shaking hands, how to kiss a lady’s hand, slightly bent over it, when to advance a chair, when to sit down, how to retain the crease in tight trousers in the act of sitting down, how to light a cigar, when to open a door, how to blow one’s nose, when to raise one’s hat, and to whom. If in doubt, go to the Bon Marché, the academy of bon ton.
Professor Miller, who is a sociologist, perhaps overemphasizes the deliberate imposition of the middle-class ethos, as a form of “social control.” The Boucicauts were concerned primarily to sell goods, to ensure a constant and rapid turnover; they were not consciously attempting to construct a safe class system. But he is undoubtedly right in pointing to the resultant strengthening of middle-class conformism, from one end of France to the other. In this respect, Bon Marché catalogues had much the same unifying effects as the advance of literacy and the consequent spread of a sense of a national identity as described so brilliantly by Eugen Weber.* The Bon Marché, too, could keep abreast of diplomacy and foreign affairs, providing dolls dressed as Russian as well as French soldiers (or, rather, officers). The shop did not cater to a closed, immobile middle class, but rather to a wide-open one. Even its own employees could gain access to its lower ranks; and the point of the musical evening was to display its own salesmen exercising middle-class skills. Through its catalogues, middle-class values spread further and further down, to be emulated, at a still lower level, by the catalogues of the Belle Jardinière, the Samaritaine, and the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville.
It was not just a matter of outward appearance, of clothing suited to a score of different occasions—and for the Boucicauts, the more changes of clothing in the course of the day, the better. Suitable leisure occupations were evoked, because leisure was a middle-class commodity. Fencing was encouraged, because it was regarded as a manly, very Gallic, sport. The Bon Marché was quick to realize the vast possibilities of the bicycle, the motor car, and the airplane: each would provide for several layers of elaborate protective clothing. Bon Marché people went on family holidays, forty or fifty years before the congés payés were ever heard of, and at a time when three-quarters of Parisians never ventured far beyond the Valley of the Marne on Sunday outings. Bon Marché people went skating in winter, went to the opera, the theater, dances, children’s parties, were to be seen at Longchamp and Chantilly (but not at Vincennes). Bon Marché people traveled first or second, took sleepers, took the waters, went to church (the shop does not seem to have made any special bid for Protestants and Jews, perhaps because there were not many of them, and it is permissible to suppose that the Bon Marché salesmen were ardent anti-Dreyfusards), had Christmas parties, gave and received presents.
The true test of the durability of a way of life is when it imposes its own calendar. There was a Bon Marché year which began with the early-January sales and extended to the Christmas sales in December. Early February was the time for la Grande Semaine du Blanc, a prodigious display of linen; mimosa, perfume, lavender, gloves marked “late February,” the nouveautés made their appearance in March, summer fashions crept in in April and early May, winter ones, in October. July might mark a spending spree on holiday clothing; la rentrée, in September, would see a run on the stationery department, with the kitting-up for school for the next academic year (Bon Marché children always got prizes).
November could be expected to see a run on flowers, artificial and real, especially chrysanthemums, as well as to reduce accumulated stocks of black (like good Catholics, the Boucicauts were very funeral-conscious and cemetery-orientated, though the Bon Marché never had a line in coffins). There was always a brisk winter trade in black crêpe, black silk, black armbands, and lapelbands. It was an easy journey—all at the same floor level—from death, from black-edged cards, note paper, and faire parts (the black borders would not be too ostentatiously thick, for that would be vulgar) to First Communion: complete outfits in white silk, small suits in black, with white silk armbands, never to be worn again, white missal, silver-framed photographs. Carpets and Oriental rugs for some reason favored October. Each month had a Bon Marché identity though August must have had rather a jaded one. Until the 1880s, the shop was even open on Sundays, though only after mass.
Everything about the Bon Marché was designed to reassure, as expressing continuity as well as solidity. One annual catalogue would follow another—though I do not know whether any appeared during the First World War, while, at the same time, each year would be given a specific pictorial identity, some of them beautifully designed. It provided a world in which death was decently, respectfully acclimatized, and in which revolution was inconceivable—Boucicaut and his successors may have missed something there, not having discovered that clothes would also make the revolutionary—and in which middle-class values went unquestioned. It would never have occurred to the directors that the unity of the French family could be fragmented or that children could question the authority of their parents. So the great days of the Bon Marché coincide with the lush years of the Third Republic. The author is right to stop in 1920.
This is first-rate social history. But Professor Miller is equally at home in the intricacies of business organization, accounting, advertising, delivery, mail order, salary scales, pension schemes, employee shareholding provisions. This is also very good business history. What is unique perhaps is the combination of such different skills. For the author never neglects the human element, and though the personnel dossiers that he has used give only the barest facts of employees’ biographies, he supplements such sparse documentation with an imagination vivid enough to take in the fallen arches and the tired feet, the high rate of firing, and the long, long slog to relative success.
The Bon Marché was probably a better employer than most of its rivals; certainly more attempted to enter its great portals than were ever received. But the work was grinding, the espionage invasive and minutely organized. In many ways, the Bon Marché was a trap for ambitious young men, many of whom would have been much better off employed in some small shop in an unfashionable part of the city, where they would have time to chat with customers and where they might even end up by marrying the boss’s daughter. But then they would not have acquired a middle-class veneer. And some even seem to have enjoyed the Bon Marché and really to have believed that they were part of a team.
The Bon Marché is special. But so is Harrod’s, or the Army & Navy, or l’innovation, or the Bazar Hotel de Ville, which, at least in the kitchen section, runs to a rough sort of camaraderie. Professor Miller has set very high standards indeed for others to emulate. Apart from his teutonic and litanic introduction and conclusion, there is little that one could quarrel with. The famous school is in Juilly (not Jouilly) and “A Dr. Lacassagne” is rather hard on the famous Lyon criminologist. The Dr. Lacassagne would have been nearer the mark.
July 16, 1981