“Dimanche soir – reçu lettre ce matin. Compte sur toi pour mercredi. Embrasse tous. Jean.” Sunday night – received letter this morning. [I] count on you [to come] on Wednesday. Love to all, Jean. The date on the postmark is June 13, 1904.
The message is written on the picture side of a postcard that we found in the stamp and card market in the gardens just off the Champs-Elysées. The photograph showed a huge building we didn’t recognize, with the words Dufayel on an elaborate clock tower topped with a dome which was further topped with a spire. Printed on the card are the words “Vue panoramique prise de la Butte Montmartre – P.P.C. – Paris.” (Panoramic view from the Montmartre Hill. P.P.C. might mean “picture post card.”)
Dufayel? Apparently it was a huge department store that sold furniture and housewares. When it opened in 1856, it was called Le Grand Magasin des Nouveautés. When the original owner died in 1888, an ambitious employee called Georges Dufayel bought it and gave it his own name.
Dufayel (1855 -1916) was quite an operator. He either invented or popularized the notion of buying goods on the installment plan and buying from a catalogue. He also sold coupons that could be used in other stores, and took a cut of each transaction.*
Les Grands Magasins Dufayel expanded over the years until the store occupied most of a city block to the east of the hill of Montmartre – about a hectare in all. The inside was palatial, with chandeliers and mirrors, and contained a winter garden and a theatre that seated 3,000. On top of the dome was a revolving searchlight of 10 million candlepower – roughly similar to the light that currently revolves on top of the Eiffel Tower. The statues on either side of the entrance represent “Credit” and “Publicity” and over the door is “Progress” riding in a chariot. (For pictures of the interior, click here or here.)
The building is only one of the points of interest in the photo. There is a tall chimney on the right, and a sort of crane on the left. In front is a lively street scene, with people coming and going to and from small, awning-shaded shops. The area is not fully developed, since “Terrain à Vendre” (land for sale) is painted on one of the walls in the foreground.
Curious to see what was there now, we set off with a friend on a fine May morning to find out. We located the building shortly after leaving the Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station. We approached its southern front first, which was also impressive, before we found the west-facing façade shown on the postcard. The building is now occupied by the BNP Paribas bank.
Alas, what was once the front entrance is now the back of the building and is obscured by an ugly fence. The squared-off dome was gone, and so is the huge clock face, but the stonework with its relief sculpture of Progress riding in a chariot is still there.
We wondered if the view from the Butte Montmartre would still show the street in front (rue André del Sarte). We climbed the steps at the end of the street and headed into the Louise Michel park to take a look.
At first we took the lower path, where thick trees and bushes prevented us from getting a clear sight of the building.
But when we took a closer look at the postcard, we realized that since the lower path was visible at the bottom left, the picture had been taken from much higher up.
Eventually, on one of the upper paths, we found a bridge over what must have been a small creek or gully that gave the same view as the postcard, although trees still obscured part of the view.
The land that was for sale at the turn of the century had been sold. The chimney and the crane were gone. But the street still contained small shops and cafés, and people were still coming and going.
What about the other side of the postcard? Who was Jean expecting on Wednesday? The card arrived on the same day it was sent (the Monday). Who needed e-mail in those days of same-day mail service?
The postcard was addressed to “Mademoiselle Lucienne Ricard, 18 rue Nicolas-Simon, Tours, Indre-et-Loire.” Rue Nicolas Simon does not appear on Google maps, but I found it on an image of an old Baedeker map of Tours. When I compared it to the current map, I realized that the street had been renamed rue Jules Simon. No. 18 is still there, visible in Street View.
Jean must have known Lucienne well, because he used the intimate “tu” form of address. I wonder if they were brother and sister. And, if Jean’s last name was Ricard, whether he was the novelist of that name who published several books in the 1920s and 1930s.
I hope Lucienne made the rendez-vous in Paris with Jean. Perhaps they shopped at Dufayel, entering the palace of commerce by the grand doors under the clock tower.
Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball.
*Dufayel also bought a house at 76, avenue des Champs-Elysées, which had once belonged to a duchess, tore it down, and had the architect who had designed his store (Gustave Rives) create an even more elaborate mansion (now demolished). He installed himself there in 1905 or so with his art collection. His name is also associated with Saint-Adresse in Haute-Normandie, where there is another large building bearing his name. He created a resort area in the town known as “Nice – Havrais” (the Nice of the area of Le Havre). Busy guy.