The writing on the wall, part two

After posting the last blog, I had a nagging feeling that there was a question I had not answered and a connection I had not made.

I found the question by looking at the images again. It was that date: le 29 juillet 1881. The date of the law that bans posters on certain walls. I’ve seen it time without number, in various forms (the one below was so large I couldn’t capture it in a single photo), but what does it mean? The answer surprised me.

The law in question actually concerns the freedom of the press and, with amendments, is still in force. It’s a long document with many provisions, but it was intended, among other things, to allow for the open expression of political opinions. Without this law, for example, Emile Zola could not have published his famous article “J’Accuse,” in defence of Captain Dreyfus in 1898.

The section in the law devoted to “affichage” (postering) does not actually say in so many words, “Post No Bills on Public Buildings.” What it does say is that the mayor of any city, town, or village may designate certain walls on which only official posters may be placed and that “affiches particulières” (advertisements or private notices) are forbidden on these walls. It’s quite open-ended in its way: leave certain walls alone and do what you like with the rest.

And people did, pretty much. The 1881 law did nothing to dampen enthusiasm at the time for painting huge advertisements on walls and plastering vertical surfaces with posters. In fact, in the late 19th century, Paris was a jumble of advertisements everywhere you looked. This famous photograph by Eugene Atget, taken behind the church of St-Séverin in about 1900, shows a typical assortment on walls and even on the Vespasienne on the right.

That photograph contains the name of the connection I had not made: Georges Dufayel, the forgotten master of publicity. Because it is hard to spot, here is his name in a detail from the photograph, along with a fine collection of useful brushes.

Dufayel’s an old friend. I first encountered his name in 2011, when I bought a postcard that set me off on a voyage of discovery:

The postcard showed an enormous building viewed from the heights of Montmartre. I learned that it had been a department store, famous in its day, now largely forgotten. The building is still there, but the top part, where it says “Dufayel” and the superstructure above, has been removed, along with its crowning searchlight. Still, in 2011 I was able to photograph the existing building from roughly the same place on the Montmartre hill.

The department store, originally known as Le Palais de la Nouveauté, had been founded by Jacques François Crespin, and it sold household furnishings and other durable goods. Georges Dufayel was Crespin’s protégé. Before Crespin died in 1888 and Dufayel became the sole owner, advertisements included both names, as in this poster for bicycles, which were all the rage at the time.

The “Palais” was a major Paris tourist attraction in its day. Dufayel offered more than just shopping. Note that the poster above advertises a bicycle track for clients to try out their purchases. Early on, Dufayel understood shopping as entertainment.

This postcard shows a visit by a large group from Calais. They were not the only group to have their photo taken in this spot.

Note the billboard behind the group, advertising a “cinématographe.” The store included a cinema, one of the first in Paris. Many of the films of Georges Méliès were shown there.

I ended up doing quite a bit of research on Georges Dufayel and found that in addition to running his department store, he vastly extended the practice of buying on credit pioneered by Crespin (buy that bicycle on the installment plan!), built a seaside resort at Ste-Adresse near Le Havre known as Le Nice-Havrais, and founded a publicity business.

He called this business, grandly, Affichage National. Dufayel always did things grandly. In 1889, he secured the concession for advertising on the walls surrounding the Exposition Universelle. Here is the delightful cover of one of his business brochures, with illustrations by the caricaturist Albert Guillaume. It suggests Dufayel might have had a sense of humour.

Dufayel even competed with the Morris columns for a while, creating “colonnes Dufayel” for advertising on the sidewalk. The column doubled as a mailbox. A postage stamp shows the design of the columns, with space on top for advertising products or Dufayel’s own name.

An informative Paris blog provided many examples of the colonnes Dufayel, so I went hunting through our own postcard collection and eventually (bingo!) found this:

It’s not easy to spot, behind the two men facing the camera, so here is a close-up.

Dufayel’s name and his posters were everywhere you looked in turn-of-the-last-century Paris. In reviewing our postcard collection, I kept finding more images in which his name is visible. Here you can see it in at least three places, along with the tower of the department store.

Dufayel died in 1916. His department store survived into the early 1930s, and his successors continued the tradition of publicity, which included patronage of some excellent poster artists of the day. Here is a lovely example from the 1930s, by Leonetto Cappiello, designer of many famous posters:

In the Second World War, the department store served as barracks for soldiers. One American soldier, E. Carver McGriff, who wrote a memoir of his war experiences, was billeted there in 1944:

The truck finally pulled up in front of Magasin Dufayel on Rue de Clignancourt, a large, upscale department store which the Germans had commandeered as housing for German occupation troops. Now it was our turn. When I entered, I saw an enormous stairway, and on its landing was a magnificent mirror some twenty feet high. The building was in excellent condition. We went to the next floor which was filled with cots, and that became my home.*

McGriff’s book is interesting and enjoyable, but I bought it simply because of its connection to Dufayel. I admit that Dufayel is a bit of an obsession with me. And part of that obsession is the fact that he is steadfastly ignored in so many histories of Paris. Why?

He was an outsider. He came from humble beginnings, and his department store was located in a working-class neighbourhood near Montmartre – unlike Le Bon Marché, La Samaritaine, Les Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, or the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville, all of which are in much more affluent neighbourhoods. He was so successful that he made his competitors uncomfortable. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, but was never part of the inside circle of Parisians in his generation.

He was an odd duck. He built a house on the Champs-Elysées that was so grand that even he couldn’t live in it, and ended up living in a smaller building in the courtyard. (The house has been largely demolished, although a couple of pillars remain in one of the arcades off the Champs-Elysées.) Dufayel had no family (he was wedded to his work), and the only friend who is consistently mentioned is the architect Gustave Rives, who collaborated with him on many construction projects in Paris (including the department store and the house on the Champs-Elysées) and in Ste-Adresse.**

Dufayel was unconcerned by what others thought. He had a saying, “Bien faire et laisser dire.” Now this could be translated in two ways: “Do well and let them talk” or “Do good and let them talk.” He certainly did well. But did he do good? He employed thousands of people – although a strike at the store in 1905 brought to light his excessive demands on his employees; he didn’t seem to realize that not everyone was a workaholic like him. He sold a lot of furniture in a way that allowed lower-income people to buy things over time. He brought a touch of turn-of-the-century glamour to a small seaside town near Le Havre (although many buildings, such as the Casino and other attractions, have since disappeared). And he covered the walls of Paris with advertisements, including his own name. Hm. A mixed record.

Still, he interests me. After all my hunting, I still know so little about him. And the next time I see another postcard with his name on it, I shall probably buy it.

*E. Carver McGriff, Making Sense of Normandy (Portland, Oregon: Inkwater Press, 2007).

**Many of these big public buildings served a new purpose in the First World War, becoming the headquarters of the government of Belgium in exile. The building shown below still stands, and we have visited it.

Text and contemporary photograph by Philippa Campsie; postcard images from our collection; Atget photograph, brochure, and poster images from Gallica.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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16 Responses to The writing on the wall, part two

  1. This is great! Stay true to your obsession and glory to the ‘outsider’!

  2. Susan Walter says:

    As I’m sure you know, Crespin was an interesting man too. And his wife, Camille du Gast, who had a penchant for parachuting out of hot air balloons and was an avid motor sports enthusiast and participant. She spent her widowhood fending off assorted family members who wanted to get their hands on Crespin’s fortune, including their daughter, who tried to assassinate her.

  3. Cat says:

    Such fascinating stories. Love the postcards as well. I always look forward to getting a new article of Parisian Fields in my email inbox!

  4. S.K.Ferris says:

    I always seem riveted by the detailed stories you come up with!
    I love to wander when I am lucky enough to get to Paris, aiming to discover nostalgic remnants of another era. Your articles only make me want to get there again so I can resume my criss-crossing of those 20 arrondissements!

  5. Narelle Jarvis says:

    This piqued my interest as my career was as a graphic designer in advertising. These days I am very much against visual pollution of the confronting publicity as I walk along a street or drive through the countryside. Don’t mind it in magazines though. thankyou for a terrific article.

    • I agree. I wonder what Dufayel would have thought of those enormous advertisements that wrap entire Paris buildings, often while they are under renovation. They can be seen for miles, usually advertising some luxury brand. He probably would have approved, but I find them distracting.

  6. Jan Whitaker says:

    I included the Dufayel store in my book The World of Department Stores because I find it necessary to dispel the idea that so many people have that the old department stores were all luxurious and elegant! Dufayel really was a “people’s store.” And now I know — thanks to you — that it was in a working class neighborhood.

  7. Mark Wilson says:

    Loved the article. You have a way w/ words (and ideas) that is fantastic to read. My own historical obsession led me to Paris in 2019, and I’ve been thinking about the city ever since. We stayed across the street from Le Bon Marche, completely unaware it was a high-end part of town. Shame, I’m really a Dufayel kinda guy.

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