Ah, the great department stores of Paris. Rising up behind the glorious Opéra Garnier on the city’s right bank, with all their many floors of designer goods, luxury articles and gourmet foods. Galleries Lafayette, Printemps, these names have become so famous and they attract such an audience that they have their own Paris metro stops. They are in many ways (many costly ways) the pinnacle of shopping and are known in France as the Grands Magasins.
So, when on a recent cold and wet April morning we came across a beautiful hand-hammered sauté pan with the maker stamp of ‘Grands Magasins du Louvre‘ we were confused and a little intrigued. Was there another Grand Magasin we didn’t know about? Having been many times to the Louvre itself we had never come across any great department stores in that area, unless they were hiding somewhere, in which case how Grand could they be? The pan itself offered some clues. It was still in remarkably good shape, but based on the thickness of the copper and the manufacturing techniques used, it most likely dated from the first few decades of the previous century. Perhaps there had once been a great deparment store close to the Louvre that now had disappeared?
We started doing some research and as it turned out, we had stumbled upon a true bit of Parisian retail history, going back to the middle of the 19th century. Paris was about to undertake its major transformation from a still predominantly medieval street plan, to the large boulevards envisioned by the influential Baron Haussman. As part of the many changes, the Rue de Rivoli, which ran along the north side of the Louvre, was expanded and on a small square just across from what now is the main pedestrian path to the famous glass pyramid, a luxurious hotel was put up: Le Grand Hôtel du Louvre. Since the potential benefits of being in such a prime location wasn’t lost on the Parisian owners of the hotel, they decided to rent out the ground floor to a retail establishment.
A trio of French enterpreneurs – Alfred Chauchard, Auguste Hériot and Léonce Faré – made the winning bid and opened Les Galeries du Louvre in 1855, a fashion house for the discerning Parisian consumer. At first business was quite slow, which led to the departure of Faré. It was a decision he would come to regret, because within a decade business had surged. Realizing that there was a demand for a general department store, the founders expanded on the original formula and would soon offer any product under the sun, from mink coats, to the costliest silk fabrics, from bathtubs, to indeed all types of kitchenware.
Soon, the premises became too small. The hotel was moved to the other side of the square (where it can still be found today), the store was enlarged to take up the entire block and it was given a new name: the Grands Magasins du Louvre. By 1865 the company had revenues of 15 million francs, a very considerable amount in those days. Ten years later, revenue had almost tripled to 41 million francs. The store itself had become an institution. More than 2,400 employees staffed its 52 departments. It was the first great French store to open an affiliate across the Atlantic, and its annual events were highlights on the Paris social scene. At one end-of-year exhibition, it was said that 2 million toys were put on display in the great hall. The extravaganze of the surroundings, and the impact its retail innovations had on small neighborhood stores was among the inspirations for Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur de Dames. It was by any standard the greatest store in Paris, perhaps even the world.
The store continued its success through the first decades of the twentieth century, but during the Second World War disaster struck. On the night of the 24th of September 1943 an English Avro Lancaster bomber was brought down by German anti-aircraft guns. It crash-landed and exploded on the roof of the Grands Magasins du Louvre. The building was utterly destroyed in the fire, only pieces of the facade remained to guard the burnt-out interior.
The store never recovered. In 1974 it officially ceased business. A year later a British investor decided to renovate the building, and it now houses the 250 galleries that make up the Louvre des Antiquaires, though they only occupy the ground floor. Outside, on the pavement, next to the main entrance, you can still see two stone lions which belonged to the original building. The only reminder of what once was the greatest store in the world.
All postcard images are courtesy of Jean-Paul Devienne and many more can be found on his wonderful blog at commerces-immarcescibles.blogspot.fr.
The catalogue image is from 1911 and the full catalogue including listings of kitchenware, kitchen equipment, ovens, gardening articles and much more is available for download at www.ultimheat.com