France – A Great Lady Merchant

My friend Madame Veuve M- belongs to what is called in France ” le haut commerce.” In other words, she is a merchant, head of a wholesale house, as important as any of its kind in Paris.

In the provinces lady merchants often have their dwellings close to the business premises. At Croix, near Lille, for instance, I once visited the mistress of a large linen manufactory, living in princely style within sound of mill-wheel and workmen’s bell. Her vast brand-new mansion stood in charmingly laid-out grounds. As I made my way to the chief entrance I caught sight of the coach-house containing landau, brake, and brougham. On arriving, myself and friend were ushered by a major domo in superb livery through a suite of reception rooms all fitted up in the most luxurious style and adorned with palms and exotics. In the last salon we were received by a fashionably dressed lady, whose small white hands glittered with diamond rings. But my friend’s warehouse which I have just visited is situated in the heart of commercial Paris, amidst that congeries of offices and wholesale houses around the Bourse, in some degree answering to our own city. Here of course an agreeable residential flat is out of the question, so every afternoon she journeys to her pretty country house, a quarter of an hour from the capital by rail. There she turns her back upon the work-a-day world, finding oblivion in flowers, pets, and the,exercise of hospitality. Were it not, indeed, for these daily breaks in her arduous routine, she would never be able to support the perpetual mental strain entailed upon her. For this great business woman is not only the sole manager of a large concern, exporting her wares to all parts of the world, she is also an inventor, and her task of inventing is continuous ; no sooner is one creation off her hands than she must set to work upon another. From the 1st of January until the 31st of December, a brief interval excepted, the distracting process goes on ; the very thought makes one’s brain whirl.

Madame M-, then, is the head of a large lingerie, or fine-linen warehouse, one of those establishments from which issue trousseaux and the latest fashions in slips and morning gowns. For times bave changed since the days of Mrs. Glegg and Mrs. Tulliver. We all remember how those worthy ladies had their under-linen always made of the same pattern. Nowadays dainty fabrications in silk, lawn, and lace must have as much novelty about them as dresses and bonnets, and when I add that my friend is her own exclusive designer, enough will have been said to indicate alike her responsibilities and her gifts.

The demand for originality in lingerie is insatiable. Alike the cheapest and costliest model of one month must essentially differ from that of the last, and of course all madame’s productions are models. Dispatched to the provinces, London, Cairo, the Transvaal, Ceylon, these patterns are copied by the hundred thousand.

Think of such a task, the obligation of daily inventing a new petticoat or morning wrap ! A novelist’s duty of devising new incidents and unhackneyed imbroglios is surely light by comparison. No elegantly dressed lady like her country-woman just named is Madame M ; whilst her customers, lady shopkeepers, from the country drive up in the latest and richest toilettes, the mistress of this great establishment is as plainly and unpretendingly dressed as a woman-farmer or country innkeeper. You soon find out, however, that you are conversing with a person of very uncommon endowments endowments that would be very uncommon out of France. For there is no gainsaying the fact—the French business woman forms a type apart, and the Parisian ouvrière no less so.

Madame M-‘s burdens are lightened by the competence of her superintendent fitters and workmen. On this subject she was eloquent

” The Parisian ouvrière,” she said to me, ” stands absolutely alone. In quickness, taste, and general ability she has no equal. The hand-sewn garments you admire so much are got through with amazing expeditiousness.”

Three hundred needlewomen are employed, who do the work, which is cut out for them, in their own homes, and earn from 1 english pound a week upwards. One of these brought home a bundle of peignoirs during my visit—an alert-looking, bright-eyed girl, bareheaded after Parisian fashion, and evidently fully alive to the value of time. Depositing her pile, with a mere ” Bon jour” to mistress and sub-ordinates, away she went quickly as she had come. In the warehouse four demoiselles are employed, a superintendent, a cutter-out, a fitter, and a baster, i.e. one whose business it is to tack the respective parts of a model together. Highly instructive it was to watch the four severally occupied. A new morning gown was being tried on a dummy, the fitter and the baster putting their heads together and adding a dozen little improving touches. The forewoman was attending to a buyer, and seemed to know without being told exactly the kind of article she wanted. What struck me about all four was the evident pleasure taken by each in the exercise of their intelligence and the interest shown in their work. Evidently they considered themselves, not mere wage-earners, but working partners in a great concern, the credit of the mistress’s house being their affair as much as her own. Doubtless all four would in time themselves become business women, owners or managers of shops or warehouses.

A great concern indeed is such a lingerie. So tremendous is the demand for new patterns that I was assured it is impossible to keep up the supply.

Everything you see here is sold,” said my hostess to me, glancing at the closely packed shelves around her with almost a sigh. From floor to ceiling the place was packed with gossamer-like garments, not a vacant spot to be seen anywhere. The warehouse reminded me of a military store I had once seen in France, a vast emporium of soldiers’ clothes kept in reserve, boots, képis, pantaloons, and great-coats by the hundred thousand. Whilst these were all of a pattern, make and material not differing in the slightest particular, quite otherwise is it with Madame M-‘s elaborate productions. Here some difference either of shape or trimming stamped every article, from the hand-made peignoir trimmed with Valenciennes lace destined for rich trousseaux to the cheap but pretty slip within reach of the neat little ouvrière. Such divergence is a sine qua non, a kind of hall-mark. And in the hands of a Frenchwoman how often will the merest touch bring this result about ? An extra inch or two of lace, a clip of the scissors here, a stitch or two there, and the garment of yesterday has become a novelty !

Just as dolls are made in Germany, and return thither after being dressed in France, so Manchester nainsook and Nottingham lace are sent to Paris, returning to England in the shape of exquisite garments. Only Calais competes with Nottingham in the production of cheap pretty lace, and as the fashion in lingerie is now as capricious as that of millinery and dressmaking, Valenciennes and Maltese are generally superseded by the machine-made imitation. The consumption of Nottingham lace is enormous.

The conclusion must not be jumped at that the necessity of daily inventing a new morning wrap or skirt, and closest attention to a large wholesale business, implies narrowness or want of sympathy. And here I would mention that even Balzac and Zola have occasionally rendered justice to the French business woman and bourgeoise generally. What a charming portrait is that of Constance Birotteau, and how exquisitely has Zola outlined the village bakeress in ” Travail ” ! A novelist of less rank, but of almost equal popularity, has made a mistress-baker heroine of a story. But Ohnet’s portraiture in ” Serge Panine ” is spoiled by its melodramatic climax. It is a thousand pities that so few French novelists are realistic in the proper sense of the word, and that they so seldom represent life and character as they are in reality.

How beautiful is friendship, for instance, and what a large part does friendship play in French lives ! Madame M- delights in the exercise of unaffected hospitality, and at parting bade me remember that in her cottage ornée there was ever a bedroom at my service. So in September of the present year (1904) I accepted the genial invitation.

My friend’s collage ornée, or villa, lies within a quarter of an hour of Paris on the western railway, and was built by herself is indeed as much her own creation as the elegancies in lace and muslin turned out under her direction day after day. Her example was evidently being followed by others in search of quiet and rusticity. On either side of the road builders were busy, substantial dwellings in stone rising amid garden-ground to be, newly acquired plots as yet mere waste. And small wonder that commercial Paris thus bit by bit appropriates the verdant zone outside Thiers’ fortifications, gradually becoming a kind of semi-suburban gentry, a landowning class having distinctive features.

The village selected by Madame M- for her country retreat is not picturesque, but happy in its surroundings, gentle slopes and woodland forming a plain entirely given up to market gardening. Not wholly unpoetic and certainly grateful to the eye is the vast chessboard, patches of sea-green alternating with purple ; the rich yellow of the melon and reddish ochre of the gourd conspicuous as Chinese lanterns amid twilight foliage.

With natural pride madame opened the gate of a handsome house built of stone, and square like its neighbours, with prettily laid out flower-garden front and back, and receding from the latter a couple of acres of kitchen garden and orchard, the whole testifying to rich soil and admirable cultivation. Flowers, fruit, and vegetables were here in the utmost luxuriance, with choice roses, although the season was advanced. What, however, most struck me was the populousness of the widow’s domain. As we entered the roomy, elegantly fitted up dwelling a ten-year-old girl ran up to its mistress for a kiss.

” My forewoman’s little sister,” madame informed me. ” They have no friends living in the country who can receive them during the long vacation, so I have had both and a friend to stay with me. And, indeed, I am never alone,” she added.

Pet dogs, a cat, and pigeons must of course be caressed ; then I was introduced to the gardener and his wife, who acted the part of cook, my hostess being evidently on friendliest terms with her people here as in her business house. Delightful it was to witness this fellow-feeling, and to realize the family life of the villa, a domestic circle though not composed of kith and kin. It is less any place than its spirit that takes hold of the imagination. Amid these evidences of laboriously acquired wealth and open-handed dispensation and vicarious enjoyment, I could well understand a fact hitherto puzzling, namely, that the greatest woman-philanthropist of contemporary and indeed of historic France made her millions by shop-keeping

The position of business women, won by sheer capacity and assiduouness, has been immensely strengthened by Republican legislation. The Code Civil, as is shown else-where, bears hardly upon the sex. Step by step such in-justice is being repaired. Thus by the law of 1897, for the first time women were entitled to act as witnesses in all civil transactions. Twenty years before an equally important measure had been passed, and women heads of business houses became electors of candidates for the tribunaux de commerce, or what may be called commercial parliaments. The members forming this tribunal are called prud’hommes, and are chosen alike from the ranks of employers and employed. Their business is to settle all matters in discussion or dispute, a share in the representation is, therefore, vital to feminine interests. Commercial tribunals in the interest of the productive classes are a creation of the Revolution, the first being opened by the Constituent Assembly. It was not till 18o6 that Conseils de prud’hommes were organized in twenty-six industrial towns. The composition of those bodies was at first far from democratic, consisting half of masters, half of foremen and small employers. By a still more reactionary measure, in 1810 any council could imprison refractory workmen for three days. Doubtless ere long we shall find lady merchants and others, not only voting for the prud’hommes, but fulfilling their functions.