France and the Republic, 1890 (Extract)

Project Gutenberg extract – 1 – France and the Republic 1889
Project Gutenberg's France and the Republic, by William Henry Hurlbert

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at

Title: France and the Republic

A Record of Things Seen and Learned in the French Provinces
During the 'Centennial' Year 1889

Author: William Henry Hurlbert

{Extract for Some additional mentions of glass are made in the book but are mostly about relating glass to other industry. - Original pagination is indicated by embedded text.}

Project Gutenberg extract – 2 – France and the Republic 1889











Project Gutenberg extract – 3 – France and the Republic 1889 p130-2



Pages 130-162

At the station of La Fère I found waiting for me, one lovely morning in July, the coupé of M. Henrivaux, the director of the famous and historical glassworks of St.-Gobain. When Arthur Young visited these works in 1787, he found them turning out, in the midst of extensive forests, 'the largest mirrors in the world.' The [Pg 131] forests are less extensive now, but St.-Gobain still turns out the largest mirrors in the world. To this year's Exposition in Paris it has sent the most gigantic mirror ever made, showing a surface of 31.28 mètres; and the glory of St.-Gobain is nightly proclaimed to the world at Paris by the electric light which, from the summit of the Eiffel Tower, flashes out over the great city and the valley of the Seine an auroral splendour of far-darting rays, thanks to St.-Gobain and to the largest lens ever made by man.

St.-Gobain, however, has other claims upon attention than its unquestioned rank as the most important seat of one of the most characteristic and important manufactures of our modern civilisation. In a most interesting paper upon the life and labours of M. Augustin Cochin, one of the most useful as well as one of the most distinguished of the many useful and distinguished Frenchmen whose names are associated with this great industry, M. de Falloux describes the works of St.-Gobain as 'an industrial flower upon a seignorial stalk springing from a feudal root.'

The description is both terse and pregnant. The history of this great and flourishing industry, stretching back now over two centuries and a half, is a history of evolution without revolution.

There is nothing in France more thoroughly French than St.-Gobain, nothing which has suffered less from the successive Parisian earthquakes of the past century, nothing which has preserved through them all more of what was good in its original constitution and objects. The establishment is like a green old oak, and, to borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, its days have been joined each to each 'by natural piety.' The place which it first took through privilege and favour, and could have taken in no other way, it has kept ever since for [Pg 132] nearly two centuries and a half, and now holds by virtue of skill, energy, and that eternal vigilance which is both the price and the penalty of free competition.

Project Gutenberg extract – 4 – France and the Republic 1889 p132-3
The 'Knights of Labour' in our America of to-day put the cart before the horse when they undertake to make labourers knights. The Middle Ages knew better, and went to work in a wiser fashion by making knights labourers. As early as the thirteenth century the glassworkers of France had great privileges granted them, and an old proverb explains this by telling us that 'to make a gentleman glassworker — un gentilhomme verrier — you must first get a gentleman.' As soon as it was established that by going into such a costly and artistic industry as this, a gentleman did not derogate from his rank, the first important step was taken towards the emancipation of industry. The glassworkers were exempted from tailles, aydes et subsides, from ost, giste, chevaulchier et subventions, or, in other words, military taxes could not be levied upon them, nor troops quartered upon them, nor requisitions made upon them. The gentilhomme verrier had the right to carry a sword and to wear embroideries, to fish and to hunt, nor could the lord of a domain refuse to him, in return for a small fee, the right to cut whatever wood he needed for his furnaces, and to collect and burn the undergrowth into ashes for his manufacture. It was the richly and densely wooded country about St.-Gobain which led to the establishment at this spot in 1665 of the glassworks since developed into the great establishment of our day. Even now, though gas has long since taken the place of wood in the manufacture, and towns and farms have grown up in the neighbourhood, no less than 2,440 hectares of the 2,900 which make up the territory of St.-Gobain proper are still in woodland; and the forests extend far beyond the limits of the [Pg 133] commune which bears the name of the Irish Catholic prince St.-Gobain, who came here in the seventh century, as St. Boniface went to the Rhine, to evangelise the country, and built himself a cell on the side of the mountain which overlooks the glassworks. Here he did his appointed work, and here, on June 2, 670, he was put to death. The mountain was then known as Mount Ereme or Mount Desert, and it is still heavily wooded throughout almost its whole extent.

The French Government also owns a very large domain around and beyond St.-Gobain, about two-thirds, I am told, of the 10,000 hectares constituting thirteen per cent. of the whole area of the Department of the Aisne, which are still covered with forests.[6] These ten thousand hectares are the remnant of the immense sylvacum of the Laonnois, the Andradawald of Eastern Gaul, through which Agrippa opened a great Roman road connecting the capital of the world by way of Milan, Narbonnese Gaul, Reims, and Soissons with the British Channel. At a short distance from St.-Gobain a part of this ancient road running from south to north through the lower forests of Coucy, is still in use, and is known by the name of Queen Brunehild's Causeway. The chronicle of St.-Bertin, cited by Bergier, attributes to that extraordinary woman the restoration of this whole road throughout Gaul, and she certainly built a magnificent abbey in the immediate neighbourhood.

Project Gutenberg extract – 5 – France and the Republic 1889 p133-5
Encouraged by the wise administration of Colbert, an association of glassworkers established itself at St.-Gobain in 1665 under the direction of a 'gentleman glassworker,' M. du Noyer. Twenty years afterwards, in [Pg 134] 1688, a Norman 'gentleman glassworker,' M. Lucas de Nehou, who had joined this association, invented the process known as the coulage of glass for mirrors, and this became the kernel of the great industry of St.-Gobain. The association took the name, in 1688, of the Thévart company, from De Nehou's most active colleague. It became the Plastrier Company in 1702, and ten years afterwards, in 1712, M. Geoffrin, the husband of the clever and enterprising friend of Voltaire and the Empress Catherine, took charge as administrator of the establishment. His wife really administered both the establishment and M. Geoffrin. It was she who confided the direction of the works in 1739 to M. Deslandes, and she is fairly entitled to her share of credit for the great progress made in the subsequent half-century down to 1789. Under the First Consulate St.-Gobain had to give up the privileges it had enjoyed and face the modern conditions of success. It has proved its claim to its ancient privileges by its triumphs ever since it surrendered them. The history of its relations with the crown and with the courts under the ancien régime is a most curious, interesting, and instructive chapter of the political and social, as well as of the industrial, annals of France, and it has been admirably told by M. Augustin Cochin in his book on the manufactory of St.-Gobain from 1665 to 1866.

A drive of less than an hour through a highly cultivated rolling country, made attractive by well-grown trees and luxuriant hedgerows, brought me to the clear, bright, prosperous-looking town of St.-Gobain. Its two thousand inhabitants owe their well-being, in one form or another, to the great company, and among the most comfortable as well as the most picturesque dwellings in the place are the houses built by the [Pg 135] company, and conceded on very favourable terms to the families of men employed in the works. Piles of timber attested the activity of the forest administration. The people I passed, singly or in groups, saluted the director's carriage in a friendly, good-natured way, which seemed to show that here, at least, the 'irrepressible conflict' between capital and labour has not yet passed into the acute stage. A fine old church of the thirteenth century, with a tower of the sixteenth, and the noble trees which cover the slopes and shade the roadway of St.-Gobain, are no more in keeping with the standard English and American type of a manufacturing town than is the parklike domain in the midst of which rise the main buildings of the great manufactory itself.

There M. Henrivaux gave me a cordial welcome. The château of St.-Gobain, in which the offices of the company have long been established, is a vast square edifice of the time and the style of Louis XIV. It occupies the site, and, I believe, comprises one remaining wing of an earlier château, which was stormed and partially destroyed by the English in the fourteenth century. Henry IV. was seigneur of St.-Gobain, and when the glassworks company, at the end of the seventeenth century, bought the domain and the buildings from the Count de Longueval, then governor of La Fère, the title of the crown to the property had to be extinguished as well as his.

Project Gutenberg extract – 6 – France and the Republic 1889 p135-7
Nothing can be finer in its way than the wide panorama of forest-clad hills and rolling vales, dotted here and there with towns, villages, and châteaux, over which you gaze from the terrace in front of this unique establishment. It has its pleasure-grounds and its park. Within the main building, besides the extensive suite of apartments assigned to the director, who resides [Pg 136] there with his family, is another handsome suite of apartments, reserved for the administrators, six in number, whenever they may choose, collectively or severally, to visit St.-Gobain. These apartments are furnished with stately simplicity, and the whole interior preserves the grand air of the eighteenth century. The fleurs de lis still adorn the lofty chimney-pieces, the waxed floors are sedulously polished, and, as M. Henrivaux says, could the ghost of Lucas de Nehou have returned to St.-Gohain only a year or two ago, he would have been welcomed at the entrance gate by a Swiss wearing the royal liveries of the House of Bourbon, and resting majestically on his halberd, like the guards of the Scala Regia in the Vatican. This imposing warden has now passed away, at the ripe age of a hundred and two, and M. Henrivaux tells me that he was more alert and active to the last than his more celebrated contemporary at Paris, the venerable Chevreuil.

When a new administrator first makes his appearance at St.-Gobain, I am told, he is received with music by day and an illumination at night, a grand mass is celebrated in the chapel dedicated to the royal Irish martyr, and the whole place assumes for a moment the aspect of another age.

In one of the salons of the administration, two pictures commemorate visits paid to the manufactory: one, under the Restoration, by the Duchesse de Berri, the mother of the Count de Chambord; the other, under the Second Empire, by the Empress Eugénie — pathetic pictures both, making the room a place wherein to 'sit upon the floor and tell strange stories of the deaths of kings.'

Beside the canvas in which the Empress appears — a graceful, gracious woman in the prime of her life and her beauty — hangs a small mirror in a gilded frame, [Pg 137] silvered by her own imperial hand in the great workroom of the manufactory. The work was well and deftly done, but so delicate is the process that when the light strikes athwart this mirror at a particular angle, you can clearly trace a faint hair line of shadow traversing it, the ineffaceable record of a ripple of laughter which broke from the Empress's lips at some gay remark made by one of the personages grouped about her while her hand was completing its task.

I spent a delightful day with M. and Mme. Henrivaux, inspecting all parts of the manufactory of mirrors, visiting the houses provided for a considerable number of the workmen and their families, on terms most advantageous to them by the company, and inquiring into the working of the co-operative association founded by M. Cochin.

This association is an association of consumers only, not of producers. Its original statutes were drawn up very carefully by M. Cochin, and as they have been as carefully observed by the members and the managers, it is the opinion of M. Henrivaux that the experiment has proved to be a success. This may be inferred from the fact that the title of 'co-operative' has been assumed in the town of St.-Gobain by a bakery, which seems to be managed on the principles of private competition under the 'co-operative' flag. If the 'trademark' were not popular, it would hardly have been assumed.

The company also encourages societies among its own workmen and in the town for educational purposes, including a philharmonic and a choral society, and is liberal in its expenditure upon the schools, both here and at Chauny, the seat of its very important chemical works.

Project Gutenberg extract – 7 – France and the Republic 1889 p137-41
At St.-Gobain alone, I understand, it is now making [Pg 138] an outlay of some sixty thousand francs on new school-buildings, which is a larger sum than the total of the taxes paid by the people of the place. The 'budget' of the commune amounts to 27,500 francs, or rather more than ten francs per capita of the population. Obviously the prosperity of the glassworks makes the prosperity of St.-Gobain, which, but for them, would doubtless soon relapse into the proportions of the little hamlet gathered, twelve hundred years ago, by the Irish evangelist about the miraculous fountain, which is said to have been evoked by him with a blow of his staff, and which still flows beneath the shelter of his church.

When Arthur Young visited St.-Gobain a hundred years ago he congratulated himself on his 'good luck' in hitting upon a day when the furnaces were in full blast and the coulage going on. A traveller of the present day who should reach St.-Gobain armed with the letters of introduction necessary to secure his admission into the works, and find the furnaces not in full blast and the coulage not going on, would be in very bad luck indeed.

For while in 1789 St.-Gobain was a privileged company, enjoying, for the output of its works here and in Normandy, and in the Faubourg St.-Antoine at Paris, a chartered monopoly, the output of its works to-day, under the wholesome pressure of competition with a fair field and no favour, is enormously greater than it was a century ago, both in volume and in value; and the position of St.-Gobain among the glassworks of the world is at least as high under the presidency of the Duc de Broglie, in 1889, as it was under the presidency of the Duc de Montmorency in 1789. Yet the company is still administered, not indeed according to the letter of its original statutes of the time of the Grand Monarque, [Pg 139] but in the spirit of those statutes. It is an ancient dynasty which has simply accepted the changed conditions of modern life and modern activity, and conformed its operations to them without abandoning its fundamental principles. The successful advance of this great industry, through all the changes, convulsions, and developments of the past century, is quite as instructive as are the successive catastrophes of French politics during the same time. 'I think,' said M. Henrivaux to me, 'that when you compare the St.-Gobain of 1702 with the St.-Gobain of 1889, you will perhaps agree with me that there is some force in our double motto, 'tradition dans le progrès et hérédité dans l'honneur.'

It is a curious fact that Lucas de Nehou, the inventor of plate glass, was originally induced by the founders of St.-Gobain to leave his own establishment at Tour-la-ville in Normandy and come to their works in Paris, because the Venetian glassworkers who had been invited by Colbert into France, refused to instruct the French workmen in their 'art and mystery.' They could not be blamed for this. Venice was then the acknowledged headquarters of the glass manufacture, and it was the unchangeable policy of the 'most serene Republic' to keep all her secrets to herself. A fundamental statute ordained that if any artisan or artist took his art into a foreign country he should be ordered to return. If he did not obey, his nearest relatives were to be imprisoned, in order that his affection for them might lead him to submit. If he submitted, his emigration should be forgiven, and he should be established in his industry at Venice. If he did not submit, a person was sent after him to kill him, and after he was well and duly killed his relatives were to be released. In the thirteenth century Venetian artists suffered death under this [Pg 140] statute in Bologna, Florence, Mantua, and other Italian cities. Even in Venice the glassworks were rigidly confined to the island of Murano, in order to keep the workmen from coming into contact with strangers visiting the city. When the Republic, in 1665, as a matter of policy allowed a certain number of glassworkers to go to France, at the request of Colbert, and to take service there under Du Noyer at Paris, in his manufactory of mirrors, these workmen were forbidden to teach their trade to any Frenchman. The result, as I have said, was that Du Noyer finally brought about a combination with M. de Nehou, the owner of certain glassworks at Tour-la-ville in Normandy, that De Nehou came to Paris, that out of their joint enterprise eventually arose the company now known as the Company of St.-Gobain, that the French workmen trained by De Nehou did excellent work, and that De Nehou put himself in the way of making, towards the end of the seventeenth century, his invention of plate glass, which finally drove Venetian mirrors out of the markets of the world. The Venetian mirrors, charming as they are from the æsthetic point of view of decorative art, are simply blown glass rolled flat, cut, polished, and tinned. The art of making them came, like other arts, to Venice from the East, and in the sixteenth century the Venetian mirror was the true 'glass of fashion' all over Europe. The famous 'Galerie des Glaces' at Versailles, of which Louis XIV. was so proud, was filled up with mirrors of 'French manufacture after the fashion of Venice,' as the royal expense-rolls state, and it took De Nehou and his workmen five years — from 1678 to 1683 — to do the work. Eight years afterwards, in 1691, he presented King Louis with certain 'large mirrors of plate glass,' the firstfruits of his invention, made in 1689. In 1693, he was made Director of the 'Royal Manufac [Pg 141] tory of Grand Mirrors,' and the manufactory was established in the ruined Château de St.-Gobain.

Project Gutenberg extract – 8 – France and the Republic 1889 p141-3
A hundred years afterwards, in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Venice with a French army and made an end of that 'most serene' republic, as he did, not long afterwards, of the least serene republic at Paris. He put Berthier in command, and a commission of French savants, of which Berthollet was a member, proceeded to pick the locks and investigate the mysteries of Venetian art. Their report upon the Venetian glassworks was to the effect that France knew more about the matter than Venice. 'The industries of Venice,' said these irreverent conquerors, 'as precocious as the industries of China, have stood still like them.'

In this age of jointstock companies and limited liabilities, it may be interesting to see on what terms the original founders of the Company of St.-Gobain put their heads and their purses together, to establish a great industrial enterprise. Their articles of association were signed by twelve associates on February 1, 1703, some ten years after William Paterson and Lord Halifax laid the foundations of the Bank of England and of the British public debt. The capital of the company, estimated at 2,040,000 livres, was divided into twenty-four shares of 85,000 livres each, called 'sols,' and these again into twelve parts each, called 'deniers,' making a total of 288 'deniers.' These curious designations, taken from the currency of the time, were used down to the overthrow of the restored Bourbon monarchy in 1830. The owners of these shares, or 'deniers,' bound themselves solemnly never to make a loan, but to meet all the expenses of the enterprise by assessments in proportion to their holdings, and always to keep in hand a fund for current expenses of at least one million of livres. They were to receive ten per cent. on their capital, a special [Pg 142] honorarium of 1,000 livres a year apiece, and a fee of two crowns for attendance at meetings. All misunderstandings were to be settled by arbitration, and all the proceedings were to be secret. Under these articles St.-Gobain grew up, prospered, withstood the shock of successive political revolutions in France, and kept its place in the front of the great industrial movement of the nineteenth century down to the year 1830.

During this long life of over a century and a quarter, the payment of dividends seems to have been suspended for three years only, and that after the Terror, from 1794 to 1797. In 1792, when the Girondins and the Jacobins were tearing France to pieces between them, and courting foreign invasion as a stimulus to domestic anarchy, the works were stopped for a time in Paris, at Tour-la-ville and at St.-Gobain, but only for a time. The very able director of the company, M. Deslandes, originally selected, as I have said, by Madame Geoffrin, and who had vindicated her good judgment by managing the affairs of the company with success for thirty years, resigned his post in 1789. He was a model disciplinarian of the old school.

In 1775, finding that some of the workmen at Tour-la-ville had been seduced from their duty by a glassmaker at La Fère-en-Tardenois, M. Deslandes called upon the Intendant at Soissons to clap them into prison. Turgot, the friend of Franklin, objected to this, but M. Deslandes gave him plainly to understand that 'a government which should tolerate such misconduct would be detestable.'

When a great mirror was to be cast at St.-Gobain, M. Deslandes always took command of the works in full dress, his peruke well powdered and his sword by his side. Clearly such a director as this was out of keeping [Pg 143] with a king who would not let his officers fire upon a howling mob, and who put on a red cap to oblige a swarm of drunken ruffians.

Project Gutenberg extract – 9 – France and the Republic 1889 p143-6
M. Deslandes was followed into retirement by several of the administrators of the company, who emigrated, and in 1793 the Republic caused the cashier of the company, M. Guérin, to be guillotined on the heinous charge of corresponding with his former employers and friends beyond the frontier. Naturally this crime was committed, like so many similar crimes of that day, with an eye to the main chance. The shares of the administrators who had emigrated were confiscated, in the names of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and the confiscators sent sundry 'patriots' to sit on the administrative council of the company. Their incompetency was so ludicrous and mischievous that Robespierre, representing the State which had thus stolen an interest in the enterprise, could not stand it. He actually 'requisitioned' two noblemen — two 'aristocrats' — among the as yet undisturbed owners of the property, to come forward and direct it, just as the leader of a successful mutiny of convicts on board of a transport might 'requisition' the deposed captain and mate of the vessel to carry her safely through a storm!

With the return of law and order in the person of the Corsican conqueror things resumed their normal course at St.-Gobain; and as I have already said, the company flourished under its old organisation down to the establishment of the Monarchy of July. Then the owners of the 'deniers' put themselves and their property under the general Civil Code, in the form of what is called in modern France a 'société anonyme,' and at the first general meeting of the 'société' in April 1831 the accounts of 128 years, over which no question had ever arisen among the representatives of [Pg 144] the original holders, were presented and approved. Certainly this must be admitted to be a most noteworthy case of 'l'hérédité dans l'honneur.'

The new 'société' has greatly extended and strengthened its operations since 1831. The works at Tour-la-ville have been abandoned, the site sold, and the workmen transferred to St.-Gobain. The glassworks of St.-Quirin, the proprietors of which, on the abolition in 1804 of privileges in general, had taken to making plate glass, were taken over in 1858 by the St.-Gobain company, together with certain other works at Mannheim in Germany and the chemical works at Cirey, and the 'société' assumed the name under which it is now known of 'The Company of Mirrors and Chemical Products of St.-Gobain, Chauny, and Cirey.' In 1863 it bought up the works at Stolberg near Aix-la-Chapelle in Rhenish Prussia, in 1868 a minor manufactory at Montluçon in the Department of the Allier, and finally during this current year 1889 it is establishing a manufactory at Pisa in Italy.

The operations of the company, as it now exists, extend to six manufactories of mirrors, six manufactories of chemicals, a mine of iron pyrites, a salt mine, many thousand hectares of forests in this department of the Aisne and in the province of Lorraine, and to a local railway connecting St.-Gobain with Chauny, where the plate glass cast at St.-Gobain is polished and the mirrors are silvered. At St.-Gobain, besides the plate glass mirrors, glass is made for roofs, for floors, for pavements, for optical instruments, including the finest lenses used in the lighthouses of France. Here, as I have said, the lens was made now used at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, from which, night after night, a gigantic auroral ray of electric light leaps into space and shoots for miles athwart the sky, to the inexpressible [Pg 145] delight of the gaping crowds below, and I hope to the edification of the world of science.

Since 1870 the output of the company from its various manufactories has more than doubled. It now amounts, in round numbers, to 800,000 square mètres a year of polished plate glass; to 500,000 square mètres a year of rough glass; to a million kilogrammes a year of blocks and castings for floors and roofings, and to eighty thousand kilogrammes a year of optical glasses of all sorts.

In the time of Louis XIV. and before Lucas de Nehou had made his invention of plate glass, there was absolutely no public demand for what in those days were called 'large mirrors' made in the Venetian fashion, mirrors which to-day would not find a market in the most remote frontier towns of America or Australia. Colbert then wrote to the Comte d'Avaux apropos of the works of Lucas de Nehou in Normandy, that 'there was absolutely no market for large mirrors in the kingdom, the king being the only person who could possibly need them!'

This was in 1673.

In 1702, ten years after the invention of the process by which plate glass is made, a mirror with a surface area of one mètre cost 165 francs. In 1889 such a mirror costs 30 f. 25 c. A mirror with four mètres of surface area cost, in 1702, 2,750 francs. In 1889 it costs 136 francs.

When we come down to modern times and to the much larger mirrors produced of late years, the fall in prices is extraordinary. In 1873 a mirror with ten square mètres of surface cost 1,200 francs. To-day such a mirror can be bought at St.-Gobain for 467 francs, showing a fall of nearly two-thirds in price within sixteen years! [Pg 146]

Project Gutenberg extract – 10 – France and the Republic 1889 p146-7
To-day the total production of polished plate glass in the world is estimated as follows:—
square mètres
England (4 companies) 900,000
Belgium (6 companies) 600,000
Germany (4 companies) 150,000
United States (7 companies) 500,000
France (not including St.-Gobain) 130,000
St.-Gobain 800,000


From this it will be seen that nearly one quarter of the plate glass of a world in which plate glass, like champagne, is rapidly ceasing to be a luxury and becoming a necessity, is produced at this ancient establishment. With a keen perception of the tendencies of this age St.-Gobain, of late years, has been fitting its machinery to produce the very largest plates of glass possible to be made. Go where you like, from the Eden Theatre in Paris to the Casino of Monte Carlo, from the new monster hotel at the Gare St.-Lazare to the enormous edifice which an enterprising firm of tradesmen has planted in the centre of the Corso at Rome, and the vast glittering sheets of silvered glass turned out from the great forges everywhere confront you. At the French Exposition of 1878 St.-Gobain enabled the 'fly gobblers' of two hemispheres to admire themselves in the most gigantic mirror ever made down to that date. It measured six mètres and a half in height, by four mètres and eleven centimètres in width, which gave it a surface area of 26 mètres 12 centimètres. Naturally M. Henrivaux determined to surpass this prodigy in 1889, and to match the Eiffel Tower with a mirror. The Belgian rivals of St.-Gobain suspected this, it seems, and sent forth subtle persons to spy out the plans of the great French manufactory. These colossal plates of glass are cast [Pg 147] upon immense 'tables' of metal, and by ascertaining the dimensions of the tables ordered for St.-Gobain the ingenious Belgians hoped to get the measure of the effort it would be necessary for them to outdo. In anticipation of this subtlety the director of St.-Gobain ordered two immense tables, and when these were sent to the manufactory, had them skilfully thrown into one. Upon the gigantic table thus prepared the grand mirror of the Exposition of 1889 was cast at the eleventh hour. This mirror was the special delight of the Shah of Persia during his visit of this year to Paris; and as I suppose the seven plate-glass manufactories which have grown up in my own beloved country under the benediction of the Protective Tariff, since a prohibitive duty was originally clapped on plate glass to encourage the one solitary establishment of the sort then existing in America, will give themselves up to producing something more stupendous still for the New York Exposition of 1892, I here set down its dimensions. It measures in height 7 mètres 63 centimètres, and in width 4 mètres 10 centimètres, giving it a superficial area of 34 mètres 24 centimètres. It is 12 millimètres thick, and weighs 940 kilogrammes. This enormous glass was cast from a single crucible, containing 1,600 kilogrammes of vitreous matter. To have seen this operation would have been worth a very much longer journey than that from New York to St.-Gobain, for the colour and glow of such a mass of vitreous matter in fusion can only be matched by the evanescent hues of a crimson aurora on a fine night in the North, or by the intense lights which play over the surface of a stream of molten lava.

Project Gutenberg extract – 11 – France and the Republic 1889 p147-50
At every stage in the operation the utmost skill and delicacy of handling are required to convert what might easily pass for a heap of rubbish swept together [Pg 148] from a macadamised roadway into the smooth, glittering, lustrous plate which the French so picturesquely call a glace, and which indeed most nearly resembles the evenly frozen surface of a crystal lakelet. These sands, silicates, chalks, and carbonates — rough contributions from Oken's 'silent realm of the minerals' — are first crushed and mingled together by machines — one of the best of them, I was glad to hear, of American invention—then passed on into the great rectangular hall, in which they are shot into the crucibles of the melting furnaces and fused, mainly by gas, on a system invented and perfected by the late Dr. Siemens, I believe, who made such a stir a decade ago at Glasgow by his discourse on the storage of force before the British Association. The furnaces which, according to their varying capacity, now require from eight to ten tons of coal a day, consumed, before the development of the Siemens system, from sixteen to twenty tons. Twenty-four hours now suffice for the fusion and the casting of the glass, and if the casting were now to be conducted as ceremoniously as in the time of that fine old martinet M. Deslandes, M. Henrivaux would pass his life in a cocked hat, knee-breeches, peruke, embroidered coat, and sword, for the casting now takes place every day and at a fixed hour. None the less, rather the more, it is a work still of extreme nicety, one to be done by experts, who must be as cool as soldiers under fire. In a certain way and measure it is like ladling out the molten lava of Vesuvius and pressing it into slabs for a lady's toilette-table. The plates, once cast, must be smoothed and made even. This is a very pretty process, and used to be performed by machines which bore the very pretty names of valseuses. That paviour's rammers should be called demoiselles has always seemed to me an outrage and an impertinence, though I may suppose it [Pg 149] finds its excuse in the short-waisted costumes of our grandmothers. But the movement of the glass-smoothing valseuses was really a sort of waltz movement. The plates of glass were fixed with plaster on a solid rectangular table. Granite-dust was scattered upon the plates, and then a wooden plateau, armed on the under side with bands of cast iron or steel, was set to waltzing over it backwards and forwards with a semi-rotatory motion, the granite-dust supplied becoming finer and finer as the waltzing went on.

Instead of these valseuses two great plates of glass are now fixed side by side with plaster on huge tables, and two large ashlars are set turning by steam on their own axes while they describe a great orbit over the plates of glass. A stream of water constantly plays upon the plates, which are also constantly powdered with fine sand. The ashlars turn on their axes thirty or forty times a minute, and the plates of glass are usually smoothed and 'evened' on both faces now by these machines in from eight to nine hours, including the time spent in taking them out of the plaster after one face has been smoothed, and fixing them anew in the plaster, that the other face may fare as well. Here again a considerable economy of time has been made. And, after all, when one looks into the practical production of any of these great marvels of human industry, it is in this economy of time that the real advance of modern science beyond the results of ancient invention seems to consist. With all our nineteenth-century chorus of 'self-praising, self-admiring,' where should we be if certain — for the most part, uncertain and forgotten—men of genius had not invented the primordial processes which made art and civilisation possible? The workshop came first, and was the real marvel in the case of every great industry. To talk of the 'invention' [Pg 150] of the steam-engine, for example, is an absurdity. The 'invention' was the engine, an invention as old as Egypt or China. The discovery that steam could be made to work the engine is the more modest modern achievement. In this industry of glass-making the amazing thing is that it should have come into the mind of a man so to apply the heat of burning wood to sands and silicates enclosed in an earthen vessel as to convert them into an entirely new substance possessing qualities not perceivable by any human sense in the sands, the silicates, or the earth.

Project Gutenberg extract – 12 – France and the Republic 1889 p150-2
What our modern progress in chemistry and in mechanics has enabled the makers of glass to do, is greatly to reduce the trouble and cost of producing this entirely new substance, greatly to improve the quality of the substance produced, and to extend the range of the uses to which it can be applied.

What would the Egyptians, who paid their tribute in glass to Rome, have thought of a serious order to pave the Via Sacra with blocks of purple glass? Yet such an order could be executed now at St.-Gobain, and when one sees the great flags weighing nine kilogrammes made here and used to let light into the cellarage below the carriage-ways, for example, of the huge Hôtel Continental, at Paris, it comes easily within the probabilities that the whole underworld of our great cities in time may thus come to be made available for divers uses, as so much of the underworld of Broadway now is in New York.

The great 'pavement question' is an open question still, in spite of asphalte and of wood, and there would seem to be nothing in the nature of things to prevent its being eventually solved by the glassworkers. The roofing question clearly belongs to them. The casting of glass for roofs began, I believe, with England, in the [Pg 151] time of Sir Joseph Paxton, but it has been immensely developed at St.-Gobain. Over a hundred thousand square mètres of glass roofing made here were required for the building of the Exposition of this year at Paris. All the most important railway stations in France, from Nantes to Strasburg (unless the Germans have changed this), and from Calais to Marseilles, are thus roofed. In great warehouses, markets, public museums, street galleries — like those of Victor Emmanuel at Milan — factories, workshops all over France and the Continent, this conversion of the roof into a colossal window has revolutionised matters within the last twenty years. The light is making its way even into Turkey, where the great bazaar at Salonica has been roofed in glass by St.-Gobain, and as the Chinese, who, despite their early invention of glass, never got beyond using it for beads and little bottles, have condescended to admit great French mirrors into the Imperial Palace at Pekin, the glass roof may, ere long, make its way even into China.

In the form of tiles, such as are now made here, glass must inevitably, sooner or later, displace slates and shingles and terra-cotta for the roofs, even of private houses, it being quite certain that these glass tiles can be so used as to give a much better light in the garrets of private houses than can possibly be got through the windows. When that comes to pass the burglar's occupation of clambering stealthily from roof to roof will be seriously interfered with. What with glass roofs and glass floors and electricity, indeed, the city of the future is likely to be much more easily 'policed' and patrolled, as well as incomparably more cheery and habitable, than the city of to-day. Perhaps, too, when we all come to living in glass houses, the cause of peace and good neighbourhood may gain, and [Pg 152] even Mrs. Grundy may grow more careful about looking into the affairs of her friends and acquaintances.

If that much maligned potentate the Emperor Nero had any real notion of the capabilities of glass when he established the first glassworks at Rome, the lamentation with which he took farewell of the world, 'qualis artifex pereo,' may have been inspired by regret at his not being allowed time enough to develop them. Certainly such gigantic mirrors as those which St.-Gobain has this year sent to the Exposition would have shown to better advantage in his colossal 'Golden House' than in any of our petty modern palaces. In what palace in England or in France to-day could a mirror measuring 7 mètres x 63 centimètres in height by 4 mètres x 12 centimètres in width, and thus displaying a surface of more than 30 square mètres, be placed, without dwarfing everything about it? These immense and magnificent mirrors must go hereafter to decorate palaces of public resort — 'palaces of the people,' not palaces of princes. What was a royal luxury when Colbert wrote to D'Avaux in 1673 has become a popular attraction. The smallest restaurant in Paris would think itself discredited to-day were it decorated with one of the grandes glaces for which Colbert in 1693 thought St.-Gobain would find no purchaser save the king; but the Grand Café and the Hôtel Terminus of the Gare St.-Lazare order mirrors in 1889 which no king of our times would very well know what to do with.

Project Gutenberg extract – 13 – France and the Republic 1889 p153-5
Yet, once more, how the cost of these mirrors has fallen! In 1702 a plate-glass mirror showing two square mètres only by surface, cost, at St.-Gobain, 540 francs. In 1889 such a mirror, showing four square mètres of surface, costs, at St.-Gobain, 136 francs. A mirror [Pg 153] showing ten square mètres of surface, which could not have been made in 1702 at any price, can now be had for 467 francs!

In 1802, under Napoleon, a mirror showing four square mètres of surface cost 3,644 francs, or very nearly three times the present cost of a mirror, not tinned like the mirrors of 1802, but silvered, of twice and a half that size. While new markets are constantly opening to this great industry all over the world, the progress of chemical science and of mechanics is as constantly suggesting new economies and new improvements in the manufacture of glass, and St.-Gobain, though one of the most thoroughly French of all French 'institutions,' shows no Chauvinism in its incessant study and prompt appropriation of these economies and these improvements. During the invasion of 1814 the workmen of St.-Gobain marched off to Chauny to resist the advance of the Prussians, and the manufactory had to pay a heavy fine for its patriotism. But it avails itself as readily of German as of French science to-day, and I found M. Henrivaux entirely and minutely familiar with the very latest phenomena of the great change which is coming over the glassworks, as well as all the other industries, of Pittsburg, through the use there of natural gas instead of coal gas and coal. All the most recently invented furnaces — English, German, American — have been tried and tested here as soon as they were made; and the latest American 'crushers' and 'regulators' get to St.-Gobain as soon as they do to Pittsburg. The materials which go to the making of a plate-glass mirror pass through seven processes before the original heap of pebbles, dust, and ashes is transformed into a sheet of splendour and light.

A hundred years ago more than ten days were [Pg 154] required to complete these seven processes, from the crushing and mixing and putting into the furnace of the soda and the silicious sand and the charcoal and the lime and the broken glass, called here calcin, through the fusion, and the moulding, and the squaring, and the smoothing, and the washing, and the polishing. Now this is all done in half the time — 127 hours instead of 246.

With all this the condition of the workmen employed at St.-Gobain has also steadily improved. It seems always to have been good, relatively to the general conditions of workmen in other industries and other establishments in France. Under the original statutes, and in the time of the excellent M. Deslandes, the nominee of Madame Geoffrin, who ruled St.-Gobain with great success from 1759 down to the Revolution, the workmen of St.-Gobain, as I have shown, were looked after, as well as kept to their duty, on strictly patriarchal principles, not likely to find favour in modern eyes. That they did not themselves dislike the system may be inferred from the fact that no such thing as a strike has ever been known at St.-Gobain, and that a considerable proportion of the workmen employed here now are the direct descendants of workmen employed here in the last century. There are even workers by inheritance, as men may be soldiers and sailors or magistrates by inheritance. Of course with the great extension in our own time of the operation of the company, great numbers of workmen other than glassworkers have come into its employment. But in the glass manufactures alone there are now employed: at St.-Gobain 375 workmen, at Chauny 583, at Cirey-sur-Vezouze 628, at Montluçon 473, at Stolberg, in Rhenish Prussia, 842, at Waldhof, in Baden-Baden, 518; making, in all, 3,419. [Pg 155]

Project Gutenberg extract – 14 – France and the Republic 1889 p155-7
The wages of the workmen are paid by the day, by the month, or by the piece, according to the special work which they do, but in all cases (and this, I believe, has been the rule here from the beginning) the workman is interested in his work by one premium on the amount, and by another on the quality of the work done. Furthermore (and this also dates from the beginning) the company look after the primary education of the children of the workmen. At St.-Gobain, at Chauny, at Cirey, at Montluçon, and I believe, also, at Waldhof, it maintains schools for both sexes at its own expense, together with asylums and training schools for the children. In these there are now more than 1,400 children. When the company owns no such school it pays a subvention to the nearest school for the benefit of the children of its workmen.

Here at St.-Gobain the company owns a number of houses, each house having a garden and dependencies, which it lets to the workmen at an average rental of eight francs a month. I saw not long ago, at one of the stations on a line newly opened by the Great Eastern Railway Company of England, very neat and even handsome cottages well built of brick and thoroughly comfortable, which are leased to servants of the company at 2s. 6d. a week, or ten shillings a month. The houses I saw at St.-Gobain let at less than seven shillings a month, were quite as large as those of the Great Eastern Company, and the gardens were much larger.

I gathered from the remarks made to me at St.-Gobain by people who seemed to be both well-informed and well-disposed, that of late years the liberality of the company in regard to these houses has, in not a few cases, worked mischief rather than good. They are not confined to St.-Gobain, and the company owns [Pg 156] and leases no fewer than 1,256 of them. A good many allotments of land around the factories are also made at nominal rates to the workmen, who cultivate them assiduously. The glass-founders are particularly favoured in making these leases and allotments. Besides these houses meant for families, the company provides lodgings near the factories for unmarried workmen, or for workmen whose homes are at a considerable distance from their work.

Within the buildings of the manufactory itself at St.-Gobain, M. Henrivaux showed me some such lodgings, as well as several bath-rooms which the workmen are allowed to use on the payment of a very slight fee. It is his experience that the workmen prefer to consider the bath as a luxury, and to pay for it.

All the relations between the company and its workmen, indeed, seem to me to be governed by a sensible avoidance on the part of the company of everything like fussy paternalism; and to this, in some measure, I have no doubt, must be attributed the remarkably smooth and easy working of these relations through so long a course of years. The workmen are treated, not like children, but like reasonable beings, who may be expected to avail themselves of advantages which are offered them with an eye at once to their own interests and to the interests of the company.

The co-operative societies at St.-Gobain and at Chauny, for example, were founded in 1866, not by the company, but by the employees of the company under statutes carefully drawn up by M. Cochin, and the company simply undertook to assist them; in the first place by leasing them, at a low rent, the buildings necessary for the business, and in the next place by taking charge gratuitously of their financial operations. The goods supplied are sold only to members of the societies, [Pg 157] as in the co-operative stores in England. The transactions amount to about 1,500,000 francs a year, the goods are sold at prices below those charged in the local shops, and the members divide an average annual profit of from eight to ten per cent. The management is entirely in the hands of the members.

Project Gutenberg extract – 15 – France and the Republic 1889 p157-9
The company has founded at St.-Gobain a kind of savings-bank in which the workman may make deposits of from one franc to 400 francs, drawing interest at the rate of 4 per cent. per annum, until the maximum is reached, when the money is either paid back to the depositor or, if he prefers, invested for him, without charge by the company, in the public funds or in railway securities. In this way many of the workmen are coming to be small capitalists. If they wish also to become house-owners the company advances, at the lowest possible rate of interest, the necessary funds for the purchase, and workmen in good standing with the company find no difficulty in getting gratuitous advances of money repayable in small fixed amounts, upon showing good reasons for the advance. And in all the establishments of the company, except at Montluçon, where there is a special fund to give assistance in cases of accident or disease, the workmen and their families are entitled to medical advice and medicines at the expense of the company.

In addition to all these arrangements for promoting a real community of interests between the company and its employees, there is a pension fund out of which retiring pensions, varying from one-fifth to one-fourth of the wages earned by the pensioner, are granted to employees who have served the company for a certain number of years, or who find themselves disabled from further service by age or by disease. A certain proportion, determinable by the circumstances of each case, [Pg 158] of these pensions is settled upon the widows and young children of the pensioners; and in order to encourage habits of thrift and forecast among the workmen, the company undertakes to manage without charge the investment of a certain proportion of his wages by any workman in the 'pension fund' of the national government.

The total outlay of the company upon these various methods of promoting a community of interests between itself and its employees amounted in 1888 to 438,033 francs, thus divided:—

Pensions 241,657
Medical Service 100,055
Schools and Religious Services 57,788
Recreations 17,667
Gifts and Assistance 19,758

The outlay upon 'recreation' is made in the form of subventions and prizes granted to associations of the workmen, such as shooting and gymnastic clubs and musical societies. The manufactory, for example, boasts a philharmonic society of its own, and there is a Choral Society of St.-Gobain. Both of these have scored successes in various public exhibitions. There is a rifle club, founded in 1861, and reconstituted in 1874, with an eye to the possible military necessities of the country.

The relations between the company and its employees under this system, the germs of which were planted here two centuries ago, have assumed such a character that the workmen habitually speak not of the manufactory but of the 'maison.' They are and feel themselves to be members of a great economic family. Of 2,650 persons now actively employed in St.-Gobain, Chauny, and Cirey, 432, or 16.3 per cent., have been employed [Pg 159] for more than thirty years; 411, or 15.5 per cent., for more than twenty and less than thirty years; 553, or 20.9 per cent., for more than ten and less than twenty years; and only 1,254, or 47.3 per cent., for less than ten years.

It would be instructive to compare this record with the records of the most important industrial establishments in England and America during the past thirty years, and I should be glad to see this done by some of the people who talk so glibly in England and America of the inherent fickleness and instability of the French character, as offering an adequate explanation of the political catastrophes which have so often recurred in France during the past century.

Project Gutenberg extract – 16 – France and the Republic 1889 p159-61
One of the most curious features of the establishment at St.-Gobain is a subterranean lake. The fine forests around St.-Gobain and La Fère — forests of oak, beech, elm, ash, birch, maple, yoke-elm, aspen, wild cherry, linden, elder, and willow — flourish upon a tertiary formation. The surface of clay keeps the soil marshy and damp, but this checks the infiltration of the rainwater and therefore favours the growth of the trees. In the calcareous rock the early inhabitants hollowed out for themselves caverns, in which they took refuge from their enemies and from the beasts of the forest; and these caverns, called by the people creuttes — an obvious corruption of the name of crypts, given them by the Roman conquerors of Gaul, just as the early French trappers gave the name of 'caches' to the Indian hiding-places of the Far West — are to be found all about Soissons and Laon. The more modern lords of St.-Gobain, its monks and its barons, dug out of the calcareous rock the stones which they used to build their châteaux and their churches, and they created great creuttes beneath St.-Gobain. It seems to have [Pg 160] occurred to M. Deslandes, during his long and skilful supervision of the works here, that these caverns might be put to the very practical use of securing an adequate water-supply. The idea has been thoroughly carried out, and the subterranean reservoir of St.-Gobain is much more impressive as a spectacle than the crypts of the Cisterns at Constantinople. It is kept filled to an average depth of one mètre by the infiltration of the surface waters and by the overflow of a pond, La Marette, on the plateau of St.-Gobain, and it covers an area of some 1,200 square mètres.

After two or three hours spent in visiting the various departments of the glassworks overhead, M. Henrivaux led me through winding passages, which reminded me of the dismal vomitories at Baiæ, down into this strange underworld. Walls and pillars, partly of the natural rock, left in the working of the quarries, partly of masonry built up to strengthen the reservoir, give this weird water, when you reach it, the aspect rather of a stream than of a lake. A workman, who had preceded and guided us with a swinging lantern, put out a long boathook, and drew slowly around to the landing-place a long, shallow boat, into which he invited us to step. M. Henrivaux had kindly sent orders in the morning to have the reservoir illuminated with Venetian and Chinese lanterns of various colours. These had been hung from hooks in the rocks and pillars with infinite good taste at long intervals, so as to illuminate not too brilliantly the mystical darkness of the scene. Looking upon the vague, indefinite vista, as it glimmered away into an indefinable distance, one seemed really to stand

Where Alp, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless by man,
Down to a shoreless sea.

[Pg 161]

Seating ourselves carefully in the boat, our silent boatman, like a spectral gondolier, rowed us silently along the labyrinthine canals of this dim and ghostly Venice. Vathek Beckford would have made them waterways to the Hall of Eblis.

{ Some additional but minor references to glass appear in later chapters}