In the Middle Ages the now famous wines of the Montagne de Reims were barreled in casks crafted by Reims coopers, then delivered to retail merchants who sold them at the celebrated fairs and markets of the period. There were cooperages pretty much everywhere in Reims, much to the dislike of the local gentry who resented having their peace disturbed by singing craftsmen as they wielded their hammers..
Guillaume aux Mains Blanches (William White Hands), in his capacity as Archbishop of Reims and Peer of France, lent a sympathetic ear to their complaints and ordered the building of a new quarter, dedicated to the noisy trades, in the former suburbs of Reims. Known as La Couture, it was located outside the city walls, following the line of what are now the Rue des Telliers, the Rue du Clou dans le Fer, the Rue Tronçon du Coudray and the Rue des Fuselliers.
Once resettled, the coopers enjoyed certain privileges, such as the right to erect awnings and arcades without special permission. La Couture became a kind of small market town in its own right, specialising in the sale of oak staves (merrains in French). Any grievances or disputes were brought in the first instance before the Mayor, who was elected every year, not a Tribunal des Echevins (equivalent to the Magistrates Court). Cases were heard at the then Place des Coutures, now the Place Drouet d’Erlon.
The Corporation des Tonneliers gradually took shape and in 1379 the profession was regulated by the Archbishop. On 7 December 1565, the Parlement of Paris endorsed a decision taken by Reims’ magistrates forbidding coopers from trading as wine brokers.
A major turning point came at the beginning of the 17th Century when Dom Perignon turned a previously still wine into the sparkling wine we now know as Champagne. A friend of his then passed on Dom Perignon’s secret to his own nephew, Nicolas Ruinart, who built a company specialising in the production of sparkling Champagne: the House of Ruinart, forerunner of all other Champagne Houses, founded in 1729.
It was then that cellarmen started to appear in Reims - workers whose winemaking activities until that point had been exclusively confined to the cellar rooms. The Corporation des Tonneliers meanwhile retained its monopoly as a regulated profession and fiercely defended its market prerogatives. All that changed in 1791 when French Revolutionary Leader Le Chapelier introduced an eponymous law making any association of arts and crafts illegal.
The Corporation then regrouped into a trade union in 1830, under the Second Empire, but with a very limited remit largely confined to attending the funerals of its former members.
In the following decade the company of coopers opened its doors to Champagne House cellarmasters, who were admitted from 1842 onwards. The Master Coopers who worked alongside them were mainly in charge of tirage (drawing wine from the barrel) and reliage (barrel trussing), using methods that varied from House to House and supported by a team of their choosing.
At a meeting held on 30 April 1848, the board voted to commit 1,500 francs of its total financial assets (1,671 francs) to help fellow coopers in distress.
In 1855 a foundation was set up for the celebration of a messe patronale (patronal mass) to be held every year thereafter on the feast day of Saint Jean Baptiste (St John the Baptist) or the following Monday. The Corporation was now 150 members strong.
In 1878, Monsieur Deproye, cellar master at the House of Krug, took office as president. Helped by a few friends, he embarked on a reorganisation of the corporation that won moral and financial support from several Champagne Houses. By 1879 the celebrations in honour of St John the Baptist Patron Saint of Coopers and Cellar Workers enjoyed the backing of the entire Champagne industry - so the following year it was decided to add a flourish of brass instruments.
The year 1886 saw the official founding of the Société de Secours Mutuel des Tonneliers et Ouvriers de Caves, established for the benefit of coopers and cellar workers. The society was sponsored by all of the Champagne Houses and included a significant contribution from the four year-old Syndicat de Grandes Marques. It was the aim of this society to "guarantee its members medical treatment and financial support in time of sickness; short-term assistance in cases of invalidity; and in case of death, suitable funeral arrangements." In the minutes of its Annual General Meeting of 25 May 1887, Syndicate president Florens Walbaum expressed hope that this kind of association would not be restricted to the town of Reims and promised that the Syndicate would lend its "sympathy and help" to mutual funds set up elsewhere in the department. From that time onwards, salaried employees (vineyard workers, cellar workers and office workers) enjoyed a level of welfare that was the envy of other workers. However paternalistic it may seem today, such generous charitable support was often a lifesaver for employees. It provided them with a form of social security that was before its time and would continue for more than 150 years.
Every year on the occasion of the Fête de La St Jean (festival of St John) an official reception for members of the corporation was hosted by the Syndicat de Grandes Marques at the cellars of a Champagne House. Highlights included a prize-giving ceremony - long-service awards, bankbooks for deserving young workers and honorary awards - and afternoon amusements at the Reims municipal circus, or watching the traditional bull-running festival in streets of the city. The daylong festivities culminated in a grand ball, bringing to a close an array of social and recreational activities that played an essential role for nearly two centuries right up to the 1950s.
Since the end of World War II, the Corporation’s remit has been steadily reduced as compulsory social insurance contributions have increased (social protection, mutual insurance schemes, pension schemes ...). Thus have the philanthropic and unifying principles on which the corporation was founded been generalised to benefit the working population as a whole. Coopers and cellar workers (together with all other categories of employee, including office workers and winegrowers) meanwhile to continue a level of social welfare that is unrivaled in other industries.
Among those who deserve special mention for their service as president of the corporation are:
|1957||Raymond Collet||Charles Heidsieck|
|1998||Jean-Claude Colson||Coopérative Palmer|