Friday, July 13, 2012

Au Bonheur des Dames

It would be difficult to visit Paris and not visit Les Grands Magasins.

I was browsing Paris Forever and was smitten with the background story on Emil Zola. Consumed with the development and innovation of the first big department stores like Le Bon Marche of the Second Empire, Zola built a novel around them, Au Bonheur des Dames/The Ladies Paradise.

The novel is focused on Denise, an orphaned, poor, young country girl who moves to the big city, becomes a shop assistant in the department store, and ultimately wins the heart of the owner of the store bla bla bla.

There are many intriguing back stories within this poor girl-meets-rich boy tale that reveal much about the early days of the Second Empire, when Baron Haussmann was changing the face of Paris.

Le Bon Marche became the model of all future department stores as we know them. They offered workers some benefits like free lunches (but they had to sit at the same spot daily). The women could lose their jobs instantly in hard times and often had to take to the streets till they were rehired.

Retail trade changed dramatically with the coming of big emporiums.

The vast variety of products offered all in one place was a huge asset.

Prices were fixed unlike previously in the small boutiques.

Illustrated catalogs were provided so shoppers could plan and dream.

Everything was provided to make women comfortable and happy to keep them inside the store including the first ladies tea salons. 

Mirroring Zola's imagined tale of love in a department store, real-life Ernest Cognacq, while working at Le Bon Marche married dress assistant Louise Jay. Together they went off to create La Samaritaine. In the Marais, Musee Cognacq-Jay  is the result of their accumulated riches. Department stores Printemps(founded in 1865, by Jules Jaluzot and Jean-Alfred Duclos) and Galeries Lafayette(founded in 1893, two cousins, Théophile Bader and Alphonse Kahn) were soon to follow along with Macy's, Harrod's.
Zola's Au Bonheur des Dames will fill you in on the inner workings behind the doors of the grand magasine you have thrown money at. He touches on many social issues of the time: the rise of a consumer culture and the changing role of women. Altogether a fascinating read, especially the detailed historical introduction.



Merisi in Vienna said...

Bonjour, Paris!

Fascinating behind the scenes and historical information, Carol!
I shall order the book.

A wonderful weekend to you,

Parisbreakfasts said...

Honestly Merisi I was surprised to be so drawn into a Zola book but it's all about us...women's obsessions.

Cynthia said...

I love that book! It's so old Paris, definately a must read :)

Merisi said...

And there I thought I was finished with Zola .... ;-)

Unknown said...

great research and wonderful summarizing for a glimpse of the origins of retail!

zz said...

Would just love to go to Les Grands Magasins, Carol .....looks fabulous !!

Anonymous said...

There is also Le Bonheur des Dames in La Viaduc des amazing shop if you like needle arts and items that surround them. Delight, delight the whole message of Paris...

amola-tesouras said...

Should you ever visit Lisbon, Portugal, do take a stroll around Chiado where you can see the old facade of a former perfume shop named... you guessed! Au Bonheur des Dames (photo here at Wikipedia).

It was even featured in an early forties Portuguese movie where the hero worked in the department store next door and was in love with the shopgirl from the perfume shop :-)

Unfortunately while well preserved, it's no longer a perfume shop but a part of a Nespresso store... such is our modern world!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I love the idea of this book. It's a shame that Amazon is charging so much for a public domain book!

J'adore your lovely blog.


Parisbreakfasts said...

Blame it on Penquin but you can get it in French for $.99 for the Kindle.

Foodwalker said...

Wonderful blog today.
I don't know this book but will look for it.


Parisbreakfasts said...

The introduction is fascinating French history at least in the English version - makes you want to read the whole Zola series(10 books in all)

Karen said...

Great history lesson.

Nikon said...

Great story and great collection of photos and illustrations!
Enjoy the weekend!

Geri, NJ said...

Will look for this...only familiar with Germinal(twice read during my idealistic youth and oddly thanks to Vincent Van Gogh) and Therese Raquin...Thanks!

Jeanette, Mistress of Longears said...

Who knew? Finally, something the Chinese did not invent! And what a brilliant idea!

Hilevine said...

I also highly recommend Lady's Paradise (English title) which was required reading in a class I took several years ago at the University of California, Berkeley. The great late Susanna Barrows taught the History of Paris (as well as Modern France). Visit the very top floor of the Bon Marche and notice the wood floors creaking as you walk.

Parisbreakfasts said...

I have never been to the top floor at Le Bon Marche!
It's on the top of my list..I want to walk where Zola walked.
Weren't you lucky to get great exposure to French history at university..I'm playing catch-up.

Parisbreakfasts said...

Interesting...thank you Hilevine
Susanna Burrow's thesis on 'The role of the Parisian cafe in the emergence of modern art' is available online

Parisbreakfasts said...

Muinto obrigada patuxxa for the equisite photo reference!
I must come to Lisbon.
Rio isn't enough :)

foodwalker said...

I forwarded this post about the department stores to our cultural geographer son who replies:

this lady writes about modernism, shopping, urban spectacle, public space and women.
This said with admiration.