wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Michael Miller

The Bon Marche

Part opera, part theatre, part museum, Boucicaut's eclectic extravaganza did not disappoint those who came for a show. Merchandise heaped upon merchandise was a sight all its own. Bargain counters outside entryways produced a crush at the doors that attracted still larger crowds, thus creating for all the sensation of a happening without and within. Inside, the spectacle of flowing crowds intensified, orchestrated by barred passages, by cheap, tempting goods on the first floor that brought still another crush to the store's most observable arena, and by a false disorder that forced shoppers to travel the breadth of the House. The oft-frenzied actions of thousands of employees, the din of calls about the cashiers, and the comings and goings of garcons in bright livery were the tumultuous accompaniment of a sensational proceeding.

Everywhere merchandise formed a decorative motif conveying an exceptional quality to the goods themselves. Silks cascaded from the walls of the silk gallery, ribbons were strung above the hall of ribbons, umbrellas were draped full blown in a parade of hues and designs. Oriental rugs, rich and textural, hung from balconies for the spectators below. Particularly on great sales days, when crowds and passions were most intense, goods and decor blended one into another to dazzle the senses and to make of the store a great fair and fantasy land of colors, sensations, and dreams. White sales, especially, were famous affairs. On these occasions the entire store was adorned in white: white sheets, white towels, white curtains, white flowers, ad infinitum, all forming a single blanc motif that covered even stairways and balconies. Later, Christmas displays became equally spectacular. In 1893 there was a display of toys representing an ice-skating scene in the Bois de Boulogne. In 1909 plans included a North Pole scene in the rue de Bac section, a Joan of Arc display in the rue de Babylone area, and an airplane 'with turning propeller and luminous toys' above the rue de Sevres staircase.

So the store, monumental, theatrical, fantastical, became an attraction in its own right to entice the public to visit the displays and to make of their trip an extraordinary experience. As early as 1872 Boucicaut was billing the Bon Marche as 'one of the sights of Paris.' Soon after he offered daily tours of the House. Each day at three o'clock shoppers, or mere visitors, were invited to assemble in the reading room. From there a guide conducted them throughout the building, visiting behind-the-scenes activities and passing through the great galleries and their displays of merchandise.

It is in this role of impresario that we must also see Boucicaut's inauguration of House concerts within and without the store. The very inspiration was suggestive of the directions in which bourgeois society was moving—and being moved. The presentation of concerts as regularly scheduled public events was itself of recent date, developing rapidly along these lines only in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. But their growing proliferation under middle-class sponsorship for predominantly middle-class audiences pointed to the extent to which an enterprising bourgeoisie, cognizant of a growing bourgeois demand, was coming to organize the nation's leisure and arts, as well as its industrial output, into marketable commodities. The scale remained limited, but the tendency was undeniable: middle-class culture, even in the narrowest definition of its artistic pursuits, was assuming a consumer mentality. Still, the step from promoting entertainment events as a consumer event in themselves to exploiting them for substantially wider commercial purposes was a considerable one, and it is here that Boucicaut's productions take on significance, standing as it were on the threshold of modern marketing techniques.

The implications of these concerts were staggering. Music and shows had a long history as come-ons, but never had the connections been quite so sweeping. Now anything partaking of middle-class identities and middle-class tastes, or even simply of public fads, could become a means to a totally unintended and disassociated end: the promotion of a consumer society. If music could be sold to the middle classes either because there was a market that wished it aesthetically or that wished it socially as a sign of refinement—one of those ways by which the upper levels of the bourgeoisie sought to distinguish themselves from the lower orders, thereby setting the tone by which the lower bourgeois strata would just as eagerly seek to assert their distinction and hence their claim to middle-class status—then it could also be sold to the middle classes as an inducement to consumption of a very different sort. And if formal choral societies had equally become a widespread phenomenon over the past forty years, to be found largely among artisans and clerks but encouraged by middle-class audiences who warmed to this exhibition of solidarity with their own image of themselves (a side that did not escape the Boucicauts), then these societies too could be turned to the mass marketer's account, selling far more than good cheer and bad music.

Thus Boucicaut began his series of concerts. The first performance within the store was held in 1873, and until the death of Madame Boucicaut there would generally be one or two such events a year, usually in November and January. Saturday evening summer concerts in the square outside the Bon Marche began in the same year. Until the First World War these took place weekly, from June to September, except when the House societies were performing outside of Paris, or during inventory or Assumption.

The productions were grand and well-planned affairs. For the summer concerts, open to the general public, the House printed about 1,600 programs in advance. These were distributed at the cashiers, at entry ways, or in the reading room. Winter concerts—far more lavish in their conception, attended by invitation only, and apparently something of a society event—played to as many as 7,000 persons (of whom several thousand were employees). Rehearsals, for which performers were released early from work, were scheduled several times a week. Later, in the 1880s, well-known singers, including several from the opera, were added to the program. On the nights of the concerts themselves, large numbers of counters were dismantled, seats and special decorations set in place. Expenses ran into the thousands of francs.

As another of Boucicaut's showcase orchestrations, Bon Marche concerts played a dual role. On one level, they were presentations to the public of a new kind of employee: disciplined, cultivated, gentlemanly. This was important, because retail clerks in the past had acquired a disreputable image. Referred to by the derogatory term of 'calicot,' a title that had stuck from an unflattering portrait in a play by Scribe, clerks were notorious for their disorderly behavior, their untrustworthiness, and their claims to a status they did not have. Such an image could be acceptable in a small shop where neither service, nor ambiance, nor even necessarily trust was critical to a sale. But in a retail world that now stressed shopping as a pleasure in itself, the image had to change, and to this end House concerts provided a promotional device that displayed for once not the salesgoods, but the sellers themselves.

But it was again the ability to make of the store something it was not that was most important here. As one reviewer remarked:

'When one leaves a concert given by the Bon Marche, it is truly difficult to gather together all of one's impressions, the program having undertaken all that is possible, and even the impossible.

'The lights, flowers, and splendors heaped beneath the eyes of the guests, the eminent artists one has applauded, all in the end shimmer, sound, and run together in the memory of someone the least distracted, and one remains dazzled, dazed for some time while trying to recover the necessary stability to arrive at some sort of judgment.

'Let us speak first of the hall. In less than an hour the store, glutted with merchandise, abandoned to a world of gnomes or genies, is rapidly transformed, as in a fairyland, into a bewitching palace, dazzling with its lights, filled with flowers and exotic bushes whose effect is splendid. Everywhere carpets and silk tapestries from the Orient are flung and hung in abundance, forming charming salons, hallways, and retreats, all embellished by the good taste of the tapestry-workers. Immense departments, earlier filled with customers, soon will serve as an altar to the cult of music...'