Material Culture: Luxury Shopping in 18th-century Paris

They have waistcoats by the dozen, nay hundred, magnificently embroidered, with buttons the size of 6 livres coins containing precious miniature portraits.

French country nobleman about the Parisians, 1787

Paris as a capital in the 18th century has particular associations of luxury -– as Jean-Baptiste Colbert (Louis XIV’s minister in 1665) writes: “Fashion is to France what the gold mines of Peru are to Spain” and, true to form, its ‘Ancien Regime’ brought about the flourishing of European style. Not only a taste for its French silks, tapestry, porcelain, mirrors, clocks and cabinetwork which prompted Voltaire in 1735 to sigh “we are the whipped cream of Europe”, but also a wider, exotic market: Asian goods – cottons, especially muslins and printed calicoes, silk, porcelain, ornamental brass and ironware, lacquer and paper fancies became prized luxuries.

A reading of Molière, Jean François de Troy, about 1728.

These were to accompany Enlightened tastes for domestic dining, tea-drinking, collecting and complementary leisure excursions in the city’s coffee houses, shops, pleasure gardens, assemblies and theatres. In this way, luxury shopping in 18th-century Paris ushered in modern comfort and convenience, enjoyment and sociability, taste, aesthetics and refinement – savoured in elegantly decorated stores.

 ‘La bienvenue’, 1892, by Gustave Jean Jacquet (1846–1909), Sotheby’s.

The uniqueness of Paris at this time was heavily influenced by its glittering court who were catered to by craftsmen and shopkeepers well-versed in the rule of distinction attributed to their clientele. From this was borne the notion of quality, one which promoted invention, skill of craft and novelty among merchants to entice the cities affluent patrons. The luxury industries thrived with various accolades praising the reputation of goods made in Paris, a preference owed to elegantly turned out wares. 

E.361-1905 Print Engraving La Marchande de Mode; Engraving. La Marchande de Modes, with eight lines of verse: Les Dieux ont pris plaisir a vous rendres parfaite’ etc. R Gaillard after Francois Boucher. About 1755. René Gaillard; François Boucher, after Paris 1755 Engraving.

The above print shows a Marchande de Modes displaying her box of trimmings to her wealthy client. These retailers sold luxurious embellishments for clothing – in particular fine lace, ribbons and silks. Small trinkets and accessories like snuffboxes and fans fed into their repertoire. Marchands de Modes constituted the high end of the luxury retail market and attractively appointed shops such as ‘Le Petit Dunkerque’ (1767) – along with the art dealers on the rue Saint-Honoré – were frequented by the fashionable elite.

View of Paris from the Pont Neuf, 1763, by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet  (1715–1793).

The Parisian general retail market itself diversified in the pursuit of distinction and individuality according to popular tastes, marked by the insatiable appetite of its patrons for new and affordable luxuries. This is seen in particular when we consider the volume of semi-luxury goods that flooded the world of consumerism from the mid-late 18th century: strass (to manufacture artificial stones), plated wares, earthenwares and mixed silks are described as ‘populuxe’ by Cissie Fairchilds.

An attractive and qualitative vocabulary was used by shopkeepers to richen the appeal of their wares. To these ends, the trade almanac became a means to facilitate these descriptive elements and, through the smallness of its format, calendrical composition and notable variety it became a highly fashionable form of publication at the time. Merchants of the mechanical arts and manufactures of the capital were provided, detailing quantitive and qualitative classifications. Advertisements within these almanacs stressed the novelty of the product, its high quality, beauty, tastefulness, variety and comparative cheapness, the honesty of the shopkeeper and the opportunities for mail order.

Carte-réclame du magasin Au Petit Dunkerque à Paris.

Illustrated advertisements adopted visual play on the name of the shop, on the refinement of ornament and on the choice of typeface. For example, celebrated jeweller, Granchez, had his bill heads made up with decoration which incorporated a refined and theatrical image illustrating the name of his shop (Le Petit Dunkerque) and the luxury objects to be found within. The same image was used on his trade card (seen below): a putto unveils the view of fortified town, Dunkirk, bridged to the capital, with nautical notes of sailing ships. The foreground is used to display the treasures of the shop: tooled boxes, snuffboxes, necklaces and jewellery – consolidating the shopkeeper’s reputation.

Granchez, owner of the Extensive and beautiful Shop of French and English goods, à la Perle d’Orien at Dunkerque and at Paris, Quay de Conti, au Petit Dunkerque, stocks all the novelties that art produces in jewellery and metalware, and sells without overcharging both wholesale and retail’

Reputable shops earned their prestige from courtly patronage: absolutist power impelled court society to curry favour and boast rank through consumption. The wealthy’s opulent hôtels particulier of St Germain and St Honoré required outfitting – or set dressing – with lavish food, dress, architecture and interior decoration which the city’s merchants supplied, knowingly exploiting the rule of distinction. For example, they made claims to quality: that of the shopkeeper, their clientele, the shop and its products by reputation. The shopkeeper’s themselves created an aristocracy of sorts based on being ‘well known’, ‘renowned’, ‘famous’ or ‘successful’ by trade – one might have even be ‘privileged by the King’ or an ‘expert’ in their field, thus bestowing a sense of rank and standing. Clearly, this was to appeal to rich connoisseurs who pursued and cultivated the arts.

A collector might, for example, have sufficient funds and leisure to indulge in life’s pleasures, follow the fashions, be curious about inventions and particular when it came to quality, skill and selecting art. Shopping was indeed a form of seduction and flattery, ushering the consumer in as ‘the man of taste’ whose critical eye was solicited by the eager-to-supply shopkeeper. Shops would pander to taste, novelty and curiosity: wallpaper merchant Crépy promised that ‘one would always find in his shops those ready to satisfy the curious’; the florist Grou ‘all that is beautiful and rare’; Compigné ‘tortoise-shell boxes, made in a new taste and with much art’; haberdasher, Besson ‘things made in the newest and most distinguished tastes’ and Miss Blakey, ‘all those things of taste that may interest Seigneurs on account of their novelty and perfection’.

The location and decoration of shops became part of an elaborate show, employing a whole economy of persuasion, promising to guarantee the customer a luxury experience beyond the goods sold. This included window-dressing, displays, exhibitions, promotional sales and sale announcements, creating an attractive aesthetic and front both complimented the objects and established the owner’s expertise and reputation. Shops took on the appearance of private collections, reception rooms, a cabinet of curiosities and even museums. Thiéry’s description in the Guide des amateurs et des étrangers voyageurs à Paris (1787), for example, of Syke’s English shop at the Palais Royal mentions a tempting assortment of ‘collections’, ‘english prints’ and ‘a very varied and well-assorted display of all manner of the rarest and most curious things…’. The baronne d’Oberkirch records how Rose Bertin welcomed her clients into a ‘salon’ decorated with ‘all the crowned heads who honoured her with their protection’ and smartly outfitted on all sides in ‘damasks, dauphines, brocaded satins, brocades and lace.’ Critical to the experience was the explanation, demonstration and tactile encouragement of the merchandise. This behaviour was to improve and embellish the city, fitting interiors with mirrors, mahogany and gilded wood; all the better to reflect precious jewels and tempting trinkets.

Luxury shopping in 18th-century Paris, then, was in many ways the precursor to how we perceive designer luxury today. Even the language used in the wonderful world of marketing reflects society’s nose for sniffing out refinement throughout history – something highlighted in an equally insightful article by Amanda Vickery. We also tend to still invest in experience as did 18th-century Parisians, buying into the aesthetic and delivery of not just a product but a lifestyle. With the rise of fast fashion waning, many of us now buy into stories of manufacture using high quality materials, skilfully made by practised artisans.

Read about Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles  here…
Find out about Benvenuto
Cellini’s famed salt cellar here here…
Fancy a change of scenery? Explore the comb in Medieval and Renaissance Europe here…

You can tweet me @she_noted, gain little insights in pictures from @she.noted or find my blog’s facebook page @shenoted – it’s always so lovely to hear from you!


Sources Used: 

Clare Haru Crowston, The Queen and her ‘Minister of Fashion’: Gender, Credit and Politics in Pre–Revolutionary France in Gender & History, Volume 14, Issue 1, April 2002, Pages 92–116. (available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com)

Amanda Vickery, ’18th-century Paris: the capital of luxury’, The Guardian, Art and Design, July 29th, 2011. (available at https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jul/29/paris-life-luxury-getty-museum)

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