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Social welfare in the 19th Century

Based on an article from 1995 by B. Arnold

Social welfare in the 19th Century

Sécurité or Mutualité Sociale, Hôpital, Mutuelle, Garantie de salaire, Caisses de retraite – these are familiar terms for the services that all employees can call on for help today. But in the 19th Century (and especially in industrial areas) life was much more precarious. The generous charitable support offered by the Champagne Houses in those times is evidence of a long tradition of enlightened social responsibility that still continues today in other forms.

France at the height of the industrial revolution

The 19th Century was the century of steam, steel, electricity and petrol, with all of the industrial developments that ensued: ever faster transport by rail and sea, and even the beginnings of aviation; plus a terrific revolution in the world of work that transformed hand work into machine work, craftsmen into factory workers, and drove a large section of the population to quit the countryside for the towns. This was also the age of the telephone and the typewriter, which modernised business administration and extended the activities of the civil service. It was a century of discovery when Science became regarded as "humanity’s benefactor".

But how was it for the people themselves? What was life like for these crowds of workers who left the countryside for ever bigger workplaces, organised in the fashion so well pictured by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.

The second half of the century marked the introduction of welfare laws, albeit poorly enforced at the start, which saw a gradual change in working conditions. In 1860, the working week was still 84 hours, and was only reduced to 60 hours when the right to time off was established by law in 1906. Note also that it was 1841 before an Act was passed limiting working hours for child factory workers (aged 8-12) to eight hours.

What happened in Champagne?

Working in Champagne was not like working in the coalmines, the steel industry or the cotton mills. Vine-growing and winemaking made this one of the rare regions that remained largely unaffected by the rural exodus. Production retained its craft-based traditions, and close relations between négociants and winegrowers were already in place (though certainly less amiable than the relationships we see today). The Champagne Houses’ principal concern was to promote their wines outside France, using every possible means to build a global reputation for Champagne before any thought of improving their productivity at home. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century meanwhile saw improvements in equipment, production and working methods.

Audacious entrepreneur Claude Moet rode the economic boom of the age and by 1780 was already producing 50,000 bottles, undeterred by the risk of exploding bottles that discouraged so many of his fellow producers. Almost a century later, in 1863, Irish writer and social commentator George Bernard Shaw would describe the case of three men who each lost an eye due to the explosion of bottles that had undergone an over-vigorous second fermentation.

These regrettable accidents bring us back to the question of social welfare and in particular to the provision (if any) made for injured workers. It is important to note here that the confiscation of Church property, and the anti-clericalism that banned the Church from intervening in public affairs, had eliminated the devoted and free assistance formerly provided by the nuns, with no alternative in place. The result was a cruel absence of "public charity", of medical assistance for all or shelter for the aged. It was then that the largest Champagne Houses stepped in to fill the void, demonstrating an unprecedented generosity that remains embodied today in three major buildings in particular: the Hôpital Auban-Moët in Épernay, and in Rheims the Hôtel de la Mutualité and the Hospice Roederer.

The Hôpital Auban-Moët in Épernay, and Rheims’ historic Hôtel de la Mutualité plus the large retirement home donated by Roederer are continuing reminders of the long-standing welfare tradition of the Champagne Houses. We see the same again in the ’seventies in Pol Roger’s gifting of nearly three hectares on the outskirts of Epernay, as a garden for people of limited means to grow fruit and vegetables. Even though at the insistence of workers’ representatives this "paternalistic" generosity has gradually morphed into salaries and benefit packages, most of these generous private initiatives retain their usefulness today, now largely run under various forms of public (State or commune) or collective management.

When the Popular Front won the elections in 1936, this same welfare tradition meant that the Champagne industry was better placed than other professional groups to strike quick agreements with the unions, so dealing rapidly with the social movements of the time. You see this today in the significantly higher rates of pay and exceptional benefits negotiated with the trade unions, via the Commission Tripartite du Champagne that determines salary structure, pay and benefits within the collective bargaining agreement for Champagne employees.

Cultural patronage is another expression of the generosity of Champagne Houses, supporting the creation and conservation of numerous works in the sphere of the arts and literature.

The generous work of our American allies on behalf of Rheims after the two world wars has been carried forward since then by Winegrowers and Champagne Houses alike. Notable examples include: the commissioning of a monumental stained glass window for the cathedral (Simon 1954); the restoration of the carillon and clock (1988); the mounting of the light show at the cathedral (1985); and the restoration of the main portal statuary (1992-1997).

One of the cathedral’s Marc Chagall stained glass windows was a gift (1970) from the Entreprises Régionales du Bâtiment under the presidency of René Blondet. Another gift, this time in 1996 from the House of Roederer to the city of Rheims, was the statue commemorating the 15th centenary of the baptism of Clovis by Saint-Rémi.

Meanwhile, back in the 19th Century the House of Mumm personally commissioned the building of architecturally exceptional cellars (1898) that survive to this day. Some 50 years later, Mumm also gave the Japanese artist Foujita the opportunity to express his art in the creation of a chapel that is still widely visited.

Madame Pommery for her part bought Des Glaneuses, the famous painting by Jean-François Millet that was then given by Pommery to the Louvre, having first been displayed in the Champagne pavilion at the Universal Exhibition of 1889.

In more recent times, this tradition of patronage was reinforced by the House of Veuve Clicquot, which in 2000 contributed to the restoration of the great organ of the Basilica of Saint-Remi (destroyed in the 1914-18 war). And in July 2004, thanks to the patronage of the House of Tattinger, the face was restored to the monumental size "Beau Dieu" statue.

Last but not least, the Grandes Marques Champagne Houses also gave Rheims’ Le Vergeur Museum a painting by Charles-Auguste Herbé showing the family of Jean-Nicolas Houzeau-Muiron (Reims 1801-1844) dressed in the style of Henri II. Muiron was the industrialist and French deputy who gave Rheims its first gas lighting.