Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Henri Vuillard: memoirs of a san-claudian pipe maker born in 1867

"Childhood memories relating to the development of pipe manufacturing in Saint Claude since 1854."

 Text by Henri Vuillard, pipe maker domiciled at La Coupe - Saint-Claude.

[Handwritten notes delivered to Pierre Grappin, then President of the Chambre Syndicale Manufacturers of Saint-Claude for the Centennial of the Briar Pipe (1956).]

In 1954, it will be a century since the briar root first appeared in Saint-Claude. Shall we joyfully celebrate this centenary? With great caution when noticing that this material comes, especially the good quality, for at least 90% from our territory or that of our colonial empire, mainly Algeria and other foreign countries, so much so that we have a great difficulty in obtaining what we call the extra quality.

Legend has it that this material was brought to Saint-Claude for the first time by a southern turner from the Wood Fair of Beaucaire. An article in the newspaper La Croix of Saint-Claude announced that it is a turner from Chaumont near Saint-Claude, named David, which would have brought back to Saint Claude, from the wood fair of Beaucaire, the first specimens of briar,. This is very likely, since it is in the village of Chaumont that the first wooden pipes in the country were manufactured, as my father who made wooden pipes in 1860 confirmed to me. It is said that he had even fashioned a pipe, certainly in a rudimentary way, from this wood.  

What is certain is that it took several years to see manufacturing of the briar root in Saint-Claude. Consider that, to be usable, the briar root must undergo a long preparation.

First one has to remove the root that lies at the foot of a shrub, a root that measures about 10 to 20 cm in diameter. 

For turning purposes, a thousand roots are required to obtain 100 kg of briar root that may be cut in a form that has the overall shape of a pipe, what we call ébauchon.

Then a special bath is necessary to avoid some very costly splits, what is referred to as "la fente". 

I can not imagine that we could have made briar pipes before the year 1856 or 1857. In any case, my father who was a skilled turner living with his parents, farmers in the Saint-Claude region, has often told me that in 1860 he worked with a turner's lathe and fashioned pipes out of French woods: boxwood, cherry, birch, beech, etc...  

My father claimed he earned twenty francs a day, a sum that seemed huge at a time when potatoes were sold for two to three francs per hundred kilos. A whole calf hardly cost more than thirty francs. I came to realize that he was right when a few years later, he was able to use his savings to settle in Saint-Claude. 

 It was around 1865 that he worked with briar. He had been married for a year. He settled at the Tomachon, with one or two workers. He delivered, as Manzini, Martenat and Bessard do today ... bowls that other manufacturers finished. My father often told me when I was growing up, that his main customer was Mr. Edouard Vuillard, the grandfather of a namesake honorably known in Saint-Claude. Edouard Vuillard had his shop and finishing workshop, on Square Pomme d'Or, in a building that still exists, and used to be the Hotel de la Pomme d'Or. My parents lived at No. 10 Rue de la Poyat above what is currently a pharmacy. It was in this house that I was born a few years later. 

My earliest memories are from 1871 to 1872. 

[...] After the war, around 1872, I did not know why my father had abandoned his career as a pipe craftsman, it seemed to me that he could have become, like many of his colleagues, a manufacturer of pipes from A to Z. I guess he had a few financial setbacks manufacturing only ébauchons: what is certain is that he began manufacturing another equally challenging and much less lucrative activity, the production of beech wood accessories: matchboxes, spectacle cases. He first rented a workshop in the group Charles Vuillard, he later bought a small hydroelectric factory in the La Coupe neighborhood. I remember the price was seven thousand francs including hydraulic force from one fifth of the water from the river Bienne with a fall of eight feet. Despite a primitive wooden wheel, he still generated the power of a dozen horses. 

My father had some merit raising a family, he still had four children at home, mainly manufacturing spectacle cases he had to sell for about seven francs per grosse (144 pieces) and a maximum of eight francs. This was put up for sale at the bazaar for two sous. It seems incredible, it is true that there was an article a little more expensive than the case, called "rocker" and it would sell for 15 to 16Frs per grosse - the matchboxes, some for about 12 Frs per grosse - altogether he had to come up with a hundred grosses per week. What is certain is that in less than ten years my father was able to replace his wooden wheel with a metal wheel generating superior power.From that time, and until I was about twelve years old, during vacation days, the Coupe was my headquarters. While interested by my father's factory, I would follow some other manufacturers.There was another hydraulic factory belonging to the Vuillermoz Panisset brothers, they operated on the first floor a wood turning workshop.

How interesting is the handling of briar for someone who loves his job: for fifty random flawless pipes you could classify each for a different value when you consider the variety of "grain" or flame which determines the value of the briar. 

I have often been asked what is the character that determines the best pipe to smoke, that is a question that is difficult to answer. Some good pipe smokers say they found a pipe sometimes even with a default to be better than another for no reason.Some smokers have told me that the pipes made in England were better than pipes made in France. There may be some semblance of truth to that statement for the very reason that a briar pipe has never finished drying and a pipe that has stayed longer in stock will certainly be better than a pipe that has been manufactured outright. Firstly, it will be more beautiful - I have often noticed what beautiful colors one gets during the final polishing with an old briar root.


It is unfortunate that in France we do not appreciate the quality of a pipe root. In England, they pay up to 5 and 6 pounds for a known brand pipe made an impeccable way.To return to the manufacture of the Mariller brothers, it is unfortunate that their business sense was not up to their technical prowess, for they have never been equaled in this area. I still have a few samples of their production and I'm sure you will not find any worker in Saint-Claude ever able to reproduce them perfectly. They had found the perfect shape of the meerschaum of Vienna, and it was almost inimitable even then. But similar models that were delivered as first choice only made it too easy for dishonest clients to create a problem and get discounts. Arsene Mariller who finished his career as foreman was never unhappy and was able to raise a large family. 

In 1874, twenty years after the introduction of briar in Saint-Claude, what was the situation of pipe manufacturing in our city? Arguably, this industry had thrived at a fast pace, many manufacturers existed at that time, many have disappeared since. However we can properly identify a dozen manufacturers whose descendants are spread over four or five generations and whose firms still exist if not under the same name then under a different company name:

- A-Delacour still exists with the same name 

- Jeantet-David founded in 1816 still exists under the same name 
- Grandclément-Gauteron & Co  still exists under the same name 
- Reymondet-Gruet became Reymondet Frères in Tomachon
- Edouard Vuillard became Fils de Charles Vuillard 
- Hyppolite Vuillard currently Emile Vuillard Fils and Co. 
- Osias Grappin currently Grappin Fils and Co. 
- Flavien Mandrillon became Gay-Mandrillon 
- Saint-Oyant-Burdet currently Berrod-Regad
- Potard Frères became Fieux-k Duc & Co. and Gaston Girod & Fils currently
- Vincent Péchoux became Henri Vuillard & C° 
- Rosenberg was taken over by the firm Haas which disappeared around 1904 
- Vincent-Cottet became Vincent-Coutier 
- Eugène Grenier, became Gros-Grenier-Ostorero. 

I could not say that these houses have made huge fortunes during these twenty years, but it is certain that without exception, all of these companies were successful and prosperous.


In 1879, I remember an extremely cold year, the river Bienne had frozen to such an extent that in the entire area along the Faubourg and the Serves neighborhood one could skate. More to the point, it is this year that the first gas factory was built, the bridge across the Bienne did not exist as I saw some cars loaded with materials for the construction of the plant, crossing the icy river.Nothing striking at this time if it is a fire that broke out one Sunday in the brewery Combes. I remember it and I can set the date, I was precisely close to the gas plant being built when we heard the bugle call. In less than 10 minutes, we were with my friends at the scene of the fire, that's where we could see a breathtaking spectacle, firefighters who had a banquet that day, threw everything out the windows including the dishes! [...]

Invoice dated 1881

In 1882, I was fifteen, my father was overwhelmed, he could not be at two places at once, that is to say managing the factory of spectacle and beech matchboxes  and also be in its stores monitoring packaging, finishing and wholesaling various articles. He was therefore obliged to withdraw me from school to help him, that I did not mind too much, especially as I felt I needed to spend my physical strength. I joined the factory. [...] All workshops at that time were driven by hydraulic force and no backup engine existed, so the water from the Bienne which fed the water channel was often lacking, especially since the wooden dam that retained water was far from watertight. To remedy this, the only way was to halve the staff, some working from noon to midnight and the other from midnight to noon. In summer this schedule was bearable, it was not the case in winter. When you're young and you like to sleep it is hard to get up at midnight.[...] I was always pleased to see the pipe carvers work, I had a friend by the name of Louis Vuillermoz who worked at the Notton Férand factory which is located below the Place du Pré - it was only referred to as the "Under the Pré ". Notton Férand had its shops where we find today the establishment Grappin Fils and Co. Notton Férand has disappeared like so many others after being quite large.

Louis was working on a machine that I never saw because it was forbidden to enter the workshop. He would see me coming from the window and would come over to shake my hand, we had always a friendly chat. At this time the work day was supposed to be ten hours, but overall it was nine hours, stoppages being frequent.To return to my friend Vuillermoz, one day he wanted to show me what was his kind of work. It was a pipe that had been milled ("fraisée"). I could not say that the milling was as perfect as what you see today, but it was a big improvement compared to the work of stripping ("dégarnissage"). Vuillermoz told me that it was his father who was the inventor of this machine. It does not seem that this machine has been copied pretty quickly, but I think I can say that in 1888, the year I left the Coupe for my military service, the workers of the shop A. Delacour still stripped their pipes with a saw. [...]

In 1888 I do not remember any significant change in the manufacture of pipes in Saint-Claude.I was 21 and I had to be called in the Fall to do my military service. [...]
I was assigned to the 13th Artillery Regiment in Vincennes. [...] I had a great friend named Quarez. For one thing, there was a definite affinity since his job was to sell and repair pipes. Nothing could better remind me of St-Claude, he had a store on rue Drouot.

My parents were very generous with me during these three years. My father even sent me care packages of pipes that I would sell in the barracks. It was easy to find buyers. At that time it was rare to see a soldier without a pipe for the reason that good tobacco which the soldier was entitled to was called "Gros Q" and could not be smoked without a pipe. 

Even after leaving the regiment, former soldiers became pipe smokers and the pipe industry was thriving at the time. This simple market in France was a very meaningful outlet, which was of natural interest to Saint-Claude.

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