Monday, 1 March 2021

Week 9: Bargains at the world's biggest shop

100 years ago this week: Week 9

Some tempting promotions were on offer a century ago at the Palais de la Nouveauté, an eccentric and eclectic store that marketed itself as the world's largest. If most of the city's other 'grands magasins' are today still in operation, this curiously positioned 'palace' was already in decline in 1921.  

Read on to find some bargains.

(Click on the image above to see the full-size version)

What was on offer at the biggest shop in the world in 1921? From March 1, the principal promotion was gentlemen’s leather boots at 29 francs – a return to pre-war prices! An attractive deal at a store branding itself in this advert as not only the world’s largest, but also the cheapest in the city.

If I have chosen this advert for this week’s post, it is because four questions popped into my head when I saw it in the Petit Parisien. What was the Palais de la Nouveauté (also known as Grands Magasins Dufayel), where was it located, what was its situation 100 years ago, and what trace is left today?

What was the Palais de la Nouveauté?

Finding information on the store is simple, but it is not my goal to tell the full history here. Just a quick overview then. The Palais de la Nouveauté was created by a man named Jacques-François Crespin who opened the store at the southern end of Montmartre in 1856 (positioned at this time outside of Paris). Crespin needed space at reasonable rates to become firstly a large-scale wholesale retailer, before later opening to the general public. The initiative was a success, but when Crespin died in 1888, the store was taken over by one of his employees, Georges Dufayel, who took it into a whole new dimension, transforming it into one of the most impressive structures (by this date) in Paris.

The store took Dufayel’s name and completely embraced the belle époque aesthetic. He added monumental facades from the leading sculptors of the time and domes that beamed lights into the Paris sky. Inside under vast skylights were winter gardens, a theatre, tea rooms and even a cycling track to test out potential purchases. Underneath these was an underground rail system with a central station and tracks linking the different stores. Although it specialised in furniture, shoppers could now find almost anything they wanted. Fresh flowers were often handed out to contented shoppers when they left the store with their purchses.

It may have been the biggest store in the world, but it wasn't really this big!

This may have all seemed luxurious, but it was opulence for the masses. Dufayel offered the possibility to almost everybody to become a consumer through an innovative credit scheme. Shoppers took away goods they would never normally have been able to afford, then paid for the items in weekly or monthly installments. Agents were employed by Dufayel to collect these payments directly from the clients on their doorsteps.

Where was it located?

The Palais de la Nouveauté formed a quadrangle, with the main entrance facing west (towards the Sacré Coeur) on the Rue de Clignancourt. It sat on the edge of the Goutte d'Or - prime Zola territory! It was not an area associated with luxury, and not one into which Parisians would generally have ventured. In the Hachette map from 1894 below, I have filled the block taken up by the store in red. The Gare du Nord can also be seen to the south-east.


What was the situation 100 years ago?

Prior to the First World War, the Grands Magasins Dufayel was in rude health. In 1912, it  employed 15,000 people, and it was at this period that it began promoting itself as the world's largest. Dufayel - a self-made man from a working-class background - was known as 'le roi de Montmartre' (or the 'marchand de meubles' - furniture salesman - to those who didn't appreciate new money), and rich enough to build himself a sumptious home on the Champs Elysées*.

Had the Palais de la Nouveauté become too big and Dufayel too ambitious? Numerous Dufayel outlets were opened across France, and some sources claim he committed suicide after accumulating debts. This does not seem to be the case though. A newspaper report I found on December 29, 1916 (the day after his death) puts the cause as pneumonia. He apparently died an extremely wealhty man too, and left money to all of his employees - apart from those that had taken part in a strike in 1905!

Dufayel's death occured in the middle of WW1, when non-essential commerce was already naturally suffering. The store took another hit on September 15 1918, when a German shell landed on a section of the Dufayel store situated on boulevard Barbès.

By 1921, the Palais de la Nouveauté - or Grands Magasins Dufayel - was orphaned from its owner and scarred by war. Its model based on eye-catching lavishness and frivolity - clients could have their hands x-rayed for entertainment - were no longer the order of the day in a post-war recession. The advert above shows a store attempting to adapt and survive. The emphasis is placed on practical clothing for men, women and children as well as cuts of material and basic food items, and the 'cheapness' of the goods is highlighted. At the bottom of the ad, it is noted that customers could also pay with their war bonds, probably a necessity in a society where little money was in circulation. 

I am pleased to see though that a little levity was still possible, with concerts in the tea room each afternoon.

The Palais de la Nouveauté continued trading for several more years, although the exact date it went out of business is not clear (probably when WW2 broke out). Many sources (Wikipedia!) say 1930, but this cannot be the case as I have randomly found an advert published in the Petit Parisien in February 1935. The address though is a little different - the previous main entrance on the rue de Clignancourt is no longer mentioned - so perhaps this is where the confusion arises, There is no doubt though that it was still a substantial structure - the advert boasts 'huge furniture galleries, unique in the world'.

What traces remain today?

Walk around the same block today (marked in red on the two 3D views below) and you will see many traces of the original buildings, although it is difficult to imagine it as a single department store. Most noticeable is the original shop entrance on the Rue de Clignancourt (see photo below), which seems even more incongruous today in a tightly-packed quarter of modest commercial outlets (where you may well find a cheap pair of boots!). The impressive corner elements on the Boulevard Barbès (photo) are also still in place housing a bank and a larger-scale shop (a Virgin Megastore until 2013), although as is the case with the main entrance, the domes have disappeared! 

Compare the scale of the block here with the sketch above!



French bank BNP Paribas owns most of these buildings today, but almost nothing is left of the original shop interiors. It is mostly a classic case of facadism, with the monumental exteriors providing a shell for modern constructions - offices and flats (including the rather pretentiously named 'village Saint-Pierre' - built at the beginning of this century) - hidden behind. 

If you find yourself on the Montmartre hill, take a wander down and admire what was once a temple to shopping. It is perhaps more Parisian than the Sacre Coeur that looks down on it!

________________________________

*Situated at number 76, the impressive house was demolished after Dufayel's death and transformed into a shopping gallery. Some columns from the house can still be seen in the gallery today. It is said that Dufayel found the house 'too magnificent' and chose to live instead in a smaller annexe in the courtyard. 

5 comments:

Philippa Campsie said...

You found a picture of his house! I have been looking for one for ages. Bravo.

Adam said...

Philippa: Yes, that was a nice surprise, but George Dufayel could have been a major rabbit hole here. He seems to have been a fascinating character and someone I presume you are very interested in - is it your photo that illustrates his Wikipedia entry?

Susan said...

Sadly the French public heritage authorities are quite keen on facadism, and not very interested at all in retaining any sense of original function. Just so long as the view fits a stereotype ideal.

Adam said...

Susan: I agree. It's not even clear when the store actually ceased trading, let alone what happened to all of the extremely impressive interiors. This was obviously a unique establishment with vast staircases, a theatre, a winter garden and glass roofs, but bit by bit they must have been picked off and knocked down. I'm sure a few traces must remain inside the BNP offices though.

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