We talked about the fourpenny products in connection with the Group X banquet: we return to them in connection with the class that represents them. The title of the class is as follows Furniture, clothing and food of all kinds, whose useful qualities are united with cheapness. This title lacks precision: cheapness is a relative thing: this word can be applied to luxury goods as well as to goods for everyday use. I am selling a diamond at 4500 francs which was previously valued at 5000 francs; I am making a good deal, while selling a very expensive product. But I manage to deliver a pair of socks for 25 centimes, which had previously sold for 35 centimes: not only am I making a good deal, but I am making a low price. Cheap is therefore a relative word: low price is an absolute word, which indicates very clearly the character of class 91.
Any exhibition that does not have the good market, or rather the best market, as its definite goal is a failed exhibition. The quality of a commodity can only be appreciated by its price. A plate from Gien seems beautiful to me, because it costs only 40 centimes: but if it is priced at 1 franc, I prefer a plate from Sarreguemines. It is therefore the price that must gauge the quality.
If everything that is cheap had been within the competence of the class of '91 and had been put under its control, this class would logically have absorbed the whole Exhibition. But it only had to deal with the low-priced products. Even in these modest conditions, it would have needed a whole sector to set up a bit properly: it was given
It was given less space than the trimmings class, and had to scatter its annexes, here under the outdoor walkway for foodstuffs, there on the edge of Avenue Lamothe-Piquet for utensils and pottery.
In truth, the importance of Class 91 was only fully grasped by the Admissions Committee, which tried in vain to have it recognised. Class 91 had claimed as its own all exhibits that had a displayed price: this was denied.
It had tried to concentrate everything that was collective exhibitions. But no sooner had it begun its propaganda for this purpose, than it was reminded of the fable of Procusle's bed. Three thousand or so applications had answered our call: we had to restrict ourselves to six hundred admissions, and refuse the rest. It can be said that the six hundred admissions were hand-picked, and among the first-rate establishments, the least of which deserved a medal of honour. And still there was a lack of space for the admissions: witness the Ménagère, which could have formed a low-cost exhibition on its own, and which could only obtain less than two square metres.
The importance of class 91, I said, was not well understood by anyone, neither in France nor abroad. Do we need proof of this? We vainly solicited the manufacturers of Rouen to exhibit their low-priced cotton fabrics with us: they scorned our proposal almost as an insult. The Chamber of Commerce had to exhibit, in their name and almost without their knowledge, what they were ashamed to exhibit on their own account. A first gold medal - and it did not matter to us that it was not a grand prize - came to reward this laudable initiative of the Rouen Chamber of Commerce.
And when the jury of the class found itself in the presence of its illustrious colleagues from abroad, one had to see what astonishment and surprise our explanations on the scope and purpose of the class aroused among them! Ah, if we had known!" cried Lord Canterbury and the Belgian deputy, Mr. Jacquemyns, and Commander Maestri, Director of Trade in Florence, and the delegates from all countries who came to attend our meetings. If we had let them, they would have brought back to class 91 all the foreign profits of the exhibition. I dare to predict, after what has happened to us, that if there is a new exhibition anywhere, they will only admit objects on a price scale.
We French pass by with a shrug of our shoulders in front of low-priced products, which we refer to under the derisory title of "four-penny products": the English greet them with respect under the title of "million products". These products, which we disdain, are not shipped in parcels; they are shipped in bullets, and they are quietly conquering the world.
Low-priced products can only be obtained by slave labour or by large-scale industry. In England it is the merchant-kings, the colon lords, who make the four-sound products; it is under their cover that they have conquered India, given freight to their ships, and populated Australia. Low-cost products require sophisticated machinery, large amounts of capital, and extensive, almost universal connections. To produce at low prices, it is necessary to manufacture a great deal and to earn very little on each object manufactured, by calculating on the immense quantity sold.
Is not the first law of production to give satisfaction to the greatest number? And in what does progress, both moral and material, consist, if not in imitating the sun, which has rays for everyone, even for the blind, whom it warms if it does not enlighten?
When an Englishman says: "I would rather make my fortune by earning a penny on what I sell than by earning a pound sterling;" we accuse him of utilitarian morality. But, on reflection, we shall find that this is true morality.
Every useful product must be made accessible to the greatest number by its low price :
That is the law of progress. Here, for example, is a carpet at f francs a metre next to a carpet at 100 francs. Seriously, which is better according to the law of progress? I am well aware that the 1 franc carpet is, as a matter of pleasure and even as a matter of use, only one hundredth of the 100 franc carpet, which is why it has been said that the low price is not always the good price. But what does it matter to me, if the 1-franc carpet provides services that the other one cannot, and if it shelters the humble proletarian, who until then had not been able to reach the better but too expensive carpet, from humidity and rheumatism? Progress is here, since it removes a deprivation, and makes a deprived person a satisfied consumer. Don't talk to me about products that can only be obtained by means of a share of one's capital: their acquisition must not exceed the share saved on the wage.
There is a certain rule in political economy, and one which has been brilliantly demonstrated by the class of '91: it is that the cost price of a product decreases the more of it is manufactured. This is why, in England, the most common objects form the almost exclusive speciality of the largest industries. The richest manufacturer takes pride in having as his customers the poorest consumers, who are everywhere the most numerous. He takes pride in it, I say: we are ashamed of it. This is why the manufacturers of Rouen preferred to go and fight in an ill-chosen theatre against the manufacturers of Mulhouse, than to come to us, where they would not have found any rivals.
In general, the French exhibitors of class 91, especially the most important ones, only produce low-price products incidentally: and this is, it must be admitted, their relative inferiority vis-à-vis their foreign competitors. The less important exhibitors, who are more specialised, do not produce enough to achieve low prices: and on the other hand, they are not powerful enough to dominate their intermediaries and impose their conditions.
To justify the above by an example, let us take two considerable exhibitors, M. Groult, for pasta, and MM. Guérin and Jouault, for common woolens and cheap shawls. In the prices posted by Mr. Groult, I see a difference of no more than 15% with the prices at which his intermediaries sell to me; and I conclude that Mr. Groult has succeeded in getting his dealers to compose themselves, if he does not dominate them. In the prices posted by Messrs Guérin and Jouault, on the other hand, I notice a difference of more than 50% with the shop prices, from which I conclude that these honourable manufacturers remain dependent on their middlemen. Why is this? It is because, despite their great manufacturing, they have not made low-priced products their exclusive speciality. I would like, because of their merit, to push them in this direction of low prices; they would soon make the law for their intermediaries, instead of being subjected to it.
In France, however, we have arrived at low prices, but rather by intuition and ingenious means, than by reasoning and with large amounts of capital. Nowhere is the industrial genius of our country more evident than in class 91. The day when great associations and great capital come to feed this vein, we shall be without rivals in low-cost products as we are in luxury goods.
The bronze imitations, which have made art objects accessible to the most modest households, have a worthy representative in Mr. Mircoy.
Have you ever heard, ladies, of corsets, very well made, my goodness! at 15 francs a dozen? This has been achieved by ingenuity of means, rather than by the extent of manufacture.
In terms of household objects, there are some real curiosities, for example, chairs that can be transformed into ladders, fireproof pottery, and retorts with inner enamel, of which M. Gosse has made a great industry. I am not talking about MM. Japy or Mr. Alletz for common hardware. It is impossible to do more economically and better.
In common cotton fabrics, Rouen outstrips the English in taste, and the competition in low price. Rouen's cotton fabrics are the most important export item in France.
Clothing, this great article of general consumption, which sums up all products in its various applications, is very well represented in class 91. The representatives of this article are numerous: they are the Belle Jardinière, Messrs. Leleux, Hayem, Bouillet, Bessand, the Chamber of Commerce of Lille, the Company of Stuttgard, in Wurtemberg.
It is impossible to make better and cheaper clothes than Mr. Hayem senior, and when we speak of him, we also speak of his colleagues. We mention Mr. Hayem because his workshops are a model of good order and regularity. However, this industrialist is not a specialist in low prices; and this is his only inferiority with respect to establishments like the Belle Jardinière and the garment makers of Lille. It produces low-priced articles incidentally and in addition, so to speak; consequently, under insufficient conditions.
It will have been noted that, in the course of this work, I have frequently spoken of intermediaries. Indeed, the question of intermediaries dominates the whole question of low prices.
When a manufacturer does not make a special article in large enough quantities, it is obliged to remain at the discretion of intermediaries, because it cannot reach the consumer directly.
There are necessary articles, such as cotton or thread cloths, sheets, utensils, whose consumption is forced, and which do not deteriorate through poor sales. The intervention of intermediaries has little influence on the price of these articles. At a 10 per cent discount, an intermediary will always take a piece of cloth, a large quantity of socks, or a batch of household utensils, because he is sure to sell everything he buys into the consumer market, and because, in the worst case, the merchandise will lose nothing in his shop by not being sold.
But for common fancy goods, such as clothing, wallpaper, etc., the condition is different. Here the middlemen rule, unless the manufacturer produces in such proportions of quantity, and hence of low price, as to be able to seize consumption directly without the aid of middlemen.
When I buy a shawl or a madras, I, as a trader, say to the manufacturer: "I am not sure of selling the objects I buy from you: their colour may fade, fashion may change; I am only covering my risks by asking you for a large discount. This shawl, you say, costs you 6 francs; you are going to raise it to 10 francs and give me a 40% discount. You are going to raise it to 10 francs and give me a 40% discount. Thanks to my intermediary, you will make a larger quantity, which will allow you to produce below 6 fr. That will be your profit. "
If my counterpart is a small manufacturer, he will be subject to my conditions; if, on the other hand, he produces or can produce in large quantities, he will say to me: "It does not suit me to let the article be quoted at 10 fr. because I claim to impose it on general consumption by its low price and relative quality. If you don't want it at 7 fr., leave it: I can wait. I will find other merchants who will take me on the conditions you refuse, and who will sell to the public, at a better price, better articles to which you cannot compete. "
If I had not gone into all these explanations, it would have been impossible for me to make the reader understand what were, not only the character of the class 91, but especially the manner of proceeding and the doctrine of the admission committee first, and of the jury afterwards.
In our opinion, the only exhibitors in this class, for the reasons we have explained, should have been the cities and the large industrialists, exclusively devoted to the manufacture of low-cost products.
That is why, among the gold medals awarded at some truly progressive and remarkable low-price collective exhibitions, the same award was given to Messrs. Japy frères, of Beaucourt, for household articles, to Mr. Gosse, of Bayeux, for hard laboratory porcelain, and to Mr. de Cartier of Auderghem (Belgium), for his iron minium replacing lead white for exterior paints, because no one could compete with them, and they allowed the public to benefit directly from the low prices obtained in their manufacture.
The reasons which have led to the exclusion from the gold medal of some other exhibitors, perhaps equally deserving, are independent of the merit and value of these honourable manufacturers. Among these, we will mention in the first line Messrs. Laîné père et fils," for the dyeing and finishing of fabrics and clothing; Leleux, for men's clothing; Savart, for footwear (he, at least, was legitimately made a knight of the Legion of Honour); Lebaudy-Landry, for the mechanical manufacture of bread (we have already spoken of this); Geoffroy-Guérin, of Gien, for ceramics; Paraf-Javal, who competes with the Rouennais for dyed and printed cotton fabrics; Noël-Martin, for pastes and flours; Retoui frères, Magnier and Saint frères, for wire cloth; Leroy-Durand, for economic candles; Bideau and Guérin-Jouault for common shawls, and many others who have been forgotten, such as M. Lebisnerais, for sheets, M. Roussel, for mattress fabrics, and a good worker, M. Bajeau, for ingenious applications of gutta-percha. It would be necessary to almost exhaust the list of the six hundred exhibitors, all deserving, who competed.
Class 91 is a credit to French industry as a whole. It shows it the way forward. In addition to the pledges it gives us, it leaves us hope. Applying the law of large numbers to industry, as the English have done up to now (we know with what success and glory), opens up a whole future for national work.
©L'Exposition Universelle de 1867 Illustrée