The Big Store

Norman Hampson

  • The Bon Marché: Bourgeois Culture and the Department Store 1869-1920 by Michael Miller
    Allen and Unwin, 266 pp, £12.50, September 1981, ISBN 0 04 330316 1
  • Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the 19th Century by Bonnie Smith
    Princeton, 303 pp, £15.00, November 1981, ISBN 0 691 05330 8
  • Marianne into Battle: Republican Imagery and Symbolism in France 1789-1880 by Maurice Agulhon, translated by Janet Lloyd
    Cambridge, 235 pp, £18.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 521 28224 1

When she regretfully consigned the old world to the dustbin of history in North and South, Mrs Gaskell had no illusions about the nastiness of the new, but still saw it as conferring an unprecedented independence on the working man. Dickens put the emphasis on the dehumanised pursuit and efficient accumulation of material wealth, as an end in itself: the replacement of Squire Allworthy by Mr Bounderby. In this interesting and original book, Michael Miller suggests that they may have ordered these things better in France.

His subject is the history of the greatest of the 19th-century Paris department stores, the Bon Marché, from its creation until the 1914 War. In his conclusion, however, he suggests that the Bon Marché was not an isolated enterprise but that it typified, not merely Paris stores, but French society as a whole. ‘Bourgeois culture in France was divided within itself, not so much between upper and lower bourgeoisie or the forces of progress and stagnation as between two sets of values and attitudes, one that drove it to create what the other was bound to reject.’ He presents the Bon Marché’s cure for this ‘bourgeois schizophrenia’ as of general relevance. ‘They were, in sum, a bourgeoisie whose strengths outweighed their weaknesses and whose flexibility was greater than their rigidity. They, and the Third Republic they built, deserve better than they have known.’ This comes as a surprise on two counts: nothing in the rest of the book suggests that the Bon Marché was typical, and in the course of Miller’s study both the bourgeoisie and the store itself come in for a good deal of hammer. There is perhaps a hint of schizophrenia in the author, as well as his subject.

From one point of view, the commercial empire founded by Aristide Boucicaut, and extended by his wife, Marguerite, after Aristide’s death, would have delighted Mr Gradgrind. Boucicaut himself was entirely self-made, the son of a Normandy hatter who began his career as the associate of a peddler. His wife was illegitimate. In 1852, with 50,000 francs of saved or borrowed capital, he and a partner bought the Bon Marché, which, at the time, had a staff of 12. Seventeen years later, he laid the foundation stone of a vast new department store that was to employ 1,788 men and women (mostly men) by 1877, and 4,500 by 1906. Within Boucicaut’s lifetime – he died in 1877 – what had begun as a shop had become a major commercial enterprise. When his wife died ten years later, her enormous bequests included a gift of 13 million francs to her employees.

The transition from shop to department store posed problems that were in some ways similar to those involved in the shift from artisanal to factory production. New disciplines and a more hectic rhythm of work took the place of immemorial habits of leisurely bargaining. Instead of the old progression from apprenticeship to ownership of one’s own business (at least for the more fortunate), the Boucicaut employee had to learn to accept a gradual progression up an ever more elaborate ladder of command, where all but a tiny minority would remain for the whole of their lives in receipt of orders from those above them. All this sounds familiar enough. What was original about the Boucicauts – although it is part of Michael Miller’s argument that it was not unique – was that, throughout their lives, they regarded the Bon Marché and its fast-growing staff as a family business. The directors who succeeded them, most of whom had entered the firm as shop assistants, perpetuated this tradition until the Great War. This cut both ways. If they claimed a right of supervision over every aspect of the lives of their staff, expecting them to turn up for work in top hats and sacking them for immorality, they certainly looked after them well. Boucicaut employees got high wages, although perhaps as much as half was in the form of commission, which was intended to keep them on their toes. They were given a non-contributory provident fund, later supplemented by a pension fund for those with 20 years’ service: eligibility for benefit and fear of dismissal were powerful reinforcements to discipline. In the firm’s canteens, everyone was entitled to two free meals a day. Some of the unmarried ones were given accommodation on the premises – where the sexes were kept carefully segregated. From an early date the store provided its own evening classes. Management might have a fairly obvious interest in encouraging the shop assistants to learn foreign languages, but the commercial value to the firm of fencing and music classes was less apparent. Medical treatment was provided free and some beds were reserved in the hospital founded by Mme Boucicaut. Towards the end of the period, the directors personally financed a fund to help widows and orphans, and introduced family allowances. This may not have been, as the Bon Marché claimed, ‘truly socialism in the right meaning of the word, the best form in which can be clothed the association of capital and labour’, but it was certainly a long way from the business practices of Josiah Bounderby.

Michael Miller seems determined to interpret the motives of the Boucicauts as being primarily manipulative. ‘Above all, as the Boucicauts structured this web, to match their new commercial ends, they created conditions wherein they could propose to the employee that he too was part of making the Bon Marché what it was ... This would always be the message behind the grande famille image.’ There is a sense in which this is obviously true: the founder and his successors were not naive and they were well aware that payment by commission and pensions for long service put a premium on zeal and made for tight discipline. But to suggest that the grande famille was no more than an image, the representation of something that it was not, is ungenerous to the Boucicauts, besides conveying an anachronistic view of what 19th-century families were like: sons could be disinherited or kept in order by the prospect of eventual rewards. The directors chose to pay for the widows’ and orphans’ fund, when they could presumably have financed them out of the firm’s profits, and Mme Boucicaut was not going to get much benefit from those 13 million francs that she left in her will. The most striking evidence of the extent to which all concerned accepted the idea of the grande famille is the fact that, during the 1919 strike (the first the firm had ever known), their leaders assembled the strikers round the statue of Mme Boucicaut, with the implication that, had she still been alive, she would have been on their side: two days later 2,000 of them marched to place a wreath on the Boucicaut tomb. In a sense, this is an irrelevant issue. Whatever one makes of the motivation does not alter Miller’s point that the Bon Marché succeeded, not merely in preserving much of the sense of personal relationship that had characterised pre-industrial society, but in making it the foundation of its own triumph in the new one. Of course, the very extent of the Boucicauts’ achievement made life harder for small shopkeepers, and the efficiency of their purchasing policy may have depressed wages in the firms that supplied them, but that is another story.

Michael Miller has a second string to his bow. He argues that the Bon Marché not merely smoothed the transition from one society to another for its own employees but, on a much wider scale, weaned bourgeois society from its old values of thrift and self-denial, to the delights of indefinite consumption. Through its extensive mail-order business it disseminated these new habits throughout the whole country. There may be something in the second point, although one would like more information on the extent of the Bon Marché’s penetration of provincial society. The first looks much more dubious.

Understandably perhaps, Miller never tries to define what he means by ‘bourgeois society’, which allows him to credit it with whatever characteristics suit his immediate purpose. These can be rather odd. ‘Paternalism that encouraged thrift, that sought to broaden the employees’ minds, to refine their sensibilities, and to protect their virtue, fell directly in line with the great dream of 19th-century employers to check the development of working-class consciousness by turning the workers into bourgeois themselves.’ There is a hint here of both radical chic and transatlantic puritanism. The Thermidorean regime that followed the Terror is generally regarded as supremely ‘bourgeois’ but it was scarcely conspicuous for thrift, broadmindedness, sensibility – or virtue. On the whole, in 19th-century France, it was the men who liked their wives to be thrifty, cultivated and virtuous, and women who enjoyed shopping.

The Bon Marché was certainly skilful in turning a shopping expedition into something exciting: Miller describes how they did this, in some splendidly evocative pages. He can also be solemnly naive, as when he tells us that the store’s publicity material gives ‘no hint of the failings of middle-class marriages, no sign of the pressures or anxieties that could weigh upon middle-class lives’. This is hardly surprising: one does not have to buy a special outfit for either a divorce or a depression.

The fact that a great many people enjoyed spending their money at the Bon Marché does not, in itself, tell us much about the mores of bourgeois society. There were more people about with more money to spend, and the low prices at the Bon Marché allowed them to buy more things. Since the store, unlike the small shopkeeper, did not give credit, it did not pioneer new ways of enabling customers to spend money they had not got. In other words, it may simply have succeeded in attracting rather a large share of what would otherwise have been spent elsewhere. It does appear that department stores in general encouraged the growth of a peculiar form of kleptomania which aroused some interest in certain sections of the medical profession, but kleptomania is scarcely a major characteristic of bourgeois society.

Michael Miller describes his book as ‘business history of a new sort’: he has certainly revealed enough to show that the trail he blazed is worth further exploration. Professor Smith is in much more of a hurry to draw wide conclusions from the examination of a particular case. Her book deals with the wives of the textile families of the Nord and is restricted to about forty families. She has an interesting story to tell. In the first half of the 19th century these women were actively concerned in their husbands’ businesses and quite capable of running them entirely when their spouses were away for long periods, prospecting for customers. Some time about 1850 they withdrew into domesticity. This implied a complete change, not merely of attitudes, but of personality and belief. They became much more actively involved in religion and soon found themselves at loggerheads with the anticlericalism of the Third Republic.

While it would obviously be rash to assume that these cases were typical of French middle-class women as a whole, there is promising material here for the social historian, and Bonnie Smith is sensitive to the way in which the women she studies created a specifically feminine society, with its own values. Unfortunately, she is positively obsessed with the idea that they opted for a life exclusively determined by their reproductive function. Even if this were true, one would want to know how and why they came to make this rather curious choice. Instead, we are merely told that it happened. When she gets going on ‘the rhetoric of reproduction’ Professor Smith is in such a hurry to enlarge on the psychological implications of her bourgeoises’ new role that she scarcely stops to listen to them. She makes quite a point about charity being reserved for married mothers and legitimate children, but the one example that she quotes as ‘typical’ was a woman whose clients were ‘especially the shameful poor, the fallen people’. There may be something to be said for her point of view, but not for her insistence on seeing everything from this one perspective. Religion in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular, seem to strike her as so demonstrably absurd that its cultivation by her ladies is one more proof of the infantile regression that they not merely accepted but welcomed. This is indeed ‘rhetoric’ rather than history.

The process that converted the bourgeoises du Nord from thrifty entrepreneurs in their own right into dames patronesses – and presumably clients of the Bon Marché – looks more like another manifestation of that old faithful: the rise of the middle class. One generation succeeded so well that its daughters were able to retire from business and vivre noblement, as they understood these things in the Nord at that time. They did not, as Professor Smith implies, cling on to pre-industrial attitudes: they aspired to post-industrial status. Hence the conspicuous consumption, the arranged marriages, sense of family dynasties, assumption of the role of Lady Bountiful, adoption of royalist policies and of particular kinds of religious observance. Hence, too, an obsession with etiquette that was all the more punctilious because they were not very sure of themselves. No doubt there was much more to it than that, but in general this seems a more plausible, if less exciting explanation than Bonnie Smith’s uterine interpretation of history.

When I joined a Free French warship in 1943 I was rather surprised to find her upper-works adorned with metal plaques exhorting us to Valeur et Discipline, Honneur et Patrie. There may have been a touch of Gallic rhetoric about this, or perhaps one has to fall back on abstractions when loyalty cannot be personalised, as it was in the Royal Navy, where Petty Officers led us in prayers for a gentleman whom they invariably described as ‘our gracious sovereign: Lord King George’. One can speculate, perhaps not very profitably, on the implications of this difference in style. What is surely more important is how much it mattered. When I was an ordinary seaman, Lord King George never seemed to arouse much emotion of any kind. During my two years on board La Moqueuse, I cannot remember anyone actually mentioning our slogans. Quite possibly they were only noticed by the seamen who had to clean them.

Such irreverent thoughts are provoked by Maurice Agulhon’s rather solemn study of the way the French Republic came to be personified as Marianne. Apart from one single reference in 1793, the name does not seem to have been much used until the middle of the 19th century. Like ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’, it originated as an insult, apparently in the south. Marianne was the country cousin of the sansculotte. The name has always stood for a conception of the Republic more cheerfully plebeian than the austere embodiment of vertu that appealed to Robespierre or David. Marianne came into her own when it was necessary to find something to replace the portraits of the fallen Emperor, Napoleon III, which had adorned official places. Presidents of the Republic were no substitute. To enthrone them in effigy might give them ideas; if not, it would be an expensive business to change them at frequent intervals. It did not have to be Marianne, but there was no obvious substitute which would refer exclusively to the Republic, but not to any particular kind of republic, social or conservative. Precisely because of her accommodating nature, she was unlikely to give rise to much passionate emotion. One can whip people up in the name of liberté or égalité; one can even try to do it in the name of vertu: Marianne is not a fighting slogan.

All this does not bode very well for Agulhon’s subject. His 500 footnotes are a tribute to his perseverance but one cannot help wondering whether it was all worth while. He begins with a brief reference to Classical representations of liberty and monarchy, but his story proper does not start until 1789. This is a mistake: if the subject was worth studying at all, it should have begun earlier. There were symbolic fêtes, with triumphal chariots graced by local beauties, posing as France, Liberty, Patrie etc, during the Pre-Revolutionary period, and these presumably perpetuated carnival traditions that went back much earlier. Even the allegories did not have to be altered very much after 1789. Local people cannot have regarded Revolutionary symbolism as entirely new, and although the Roman Catholic Church was actually mocked for the first time in 1793-94, some earlier fêtes were certainly Classical and secular, even if they ended in a Te Deum.

Agulhon, in his introduction, says that one of his concerns is ‘whether the specific nature of artistic, literary or “intellectual” facts means that these cannot be exact and truly contemporary reflections of the ideological reality.’ There is certainly a subject here, and a very big one, but it has not got much to do with the humble Marianne in the local mairie. Agulhon’s subject is not art but propaganda. However one defines serious art, no one is likely to regard more than the odd one or two amongst his many excellent illustrations as an example of it. By studying art one may hope, at least in some cases, to obtain new insight into the society in which it originated. It may serve as a means by which that society acquires a new self-consciousness – which will, in turn, affect its future development. Propaganda can be interesting too, as the form in which authority chooses to represent itself, and caricature can offer us a rejection of such self-glorification. Both, however, start from the official view: busts and statues cannot tell us anything about a regime that the men who commissioned them did not know; if well done, they may tell us a lot about the men who made them, but that is another matter.

Agulhon sternly rejects temptations to stray from his chosen path into more abstract arguments: why was the Republic personified as a woman; was there any conscious parallel between Liberty, virgin mother of the Republic, and the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ? This leaves him with a rather arid inventory of statuary. From time to time he appeals for national surveys to investigate such subjects as whether, during the First Republic, columns and statues complemented or competed with each other. There are questions more urgently in need of answering.