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Article de La Guinguette - 2002 - septembre - culture

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Here are the wings!

The bicycle as a must-have item? Of course!

When they started selling bicycles at the end of the 19th century, it was a deluxe product intended for the upper echelons of Parisian society.

But there was just a little problem: the product itself. The first bicycles were heavy, very uncomfortable and not very compatible with clothing fashions of the time.

What a nice little challenge for the advertising part of this fledgling business. That was the starting point for "Here are the wings" - an exhibition celebrating the advertising posters for the bicycle from 1890 to 1938, at the moment in the museum of Art and Industry in Saint-Etienne in the department of Loire.

Anne-Sophie Giraud does the honours for us:

Going by horse, at the time, was fine but it was a little bit common and when you wanted to stand out, when you wanted to appear a bit posh, well, you had a bicycle.

So from the start, the first thing you are going to try to do that is tell them that the bicycle is something quick and light. And then you want to make people happy. We want to convince the gentlemen, so right away we are going to have to show ladies who are very very skimpily dressed, to get them to buy the bicycles. It's cars nowadays. The ladies, they are not that well covered up. It is not very practical, it is not very comfortable, but it attracts the eye and so that's how they used this way of getting their message across.

On the other hand, if we wish to convince the ladies, then we are going to say that they are not going to lose their respectability, because at that time how did you get on to the machine? They used to ride a horse side saddle, so getting on to a bicycle is seen rather badly. Are the ladies going to lose their virtue?

So, we are going to convince them. So like Imbert, Imbert this brand in fact used the same mode of expression as the images of the catechism in fact. We meet the same persons; look at the little angel with a head and little wings. The same backgrounds too. You have the impression that you are in heaven and then the lady, she almost resembles a saint and she is wearing a suitable dress. So, look, she has a little hat, a close fitted blouse. That's a kind of pair of trousers, a trouser skirt, because that, that was very shocking to her contemporaries, and then the ankle boots which came up almost to the knee so as not to show the leg because as well as the act of getting onto the bicycle, there is also the leg which has to be revealed, so that is really out of the question.

There are also many references to animals. So, 'the swallows' which is a brand from Saint-Etienne, the brand of ManuFrance, for lightness, and then we have wasps, we have butterflies, we have eagles. There were all these themes which were around.

So, lightness, that's a big problem because bicycles at that time weighed more like 30 kilos rather than 10 kilos as today. So you had to tell people that the bicycle, that it goes quickly and you have no worries, that it is comfortable. So that is the start of misleading advertising too. The gentleman is a dealer for the brand in Paris and he is going to convince the ladies, so he is very well dressed. There again there is a problem of clothes that has to be addressed. He is well turned-out, a bit of a dandy and he holds his bicycle with three fingers, with a detached appearance. So there, the ladies, they admire him and in the end they are going to go off all together on a bicycle.

For speed too, that has a slightly weird side, a bit unnerving, provocative even. So here is an American advert, the brand Buffalo. So this lady here, she is good looking, a pretty Parisian. She has a little flower in her hair. She has a little bunch of flowers in front. She is quite cute, except that she has run over some hares as she was going so quickly. So that, you see, was maybe a bit less shocking to her contemporaries at the time, but now it is politically incorrect. We would no longer have the idea of doing this in order to say that we are going very quickly.

There is also a reference to the devil for the Coventry Cross Cycle. In fact there, the devil is more a Faustian. We are in a time when the legend of Faust had just appeared, and the devil traditionally had seven league boots[1] in order to go very, very quickly. And here, as a modern devil he has taken off his seven league boots, he has bought a bicycle and so he is going even more quickly. So, the peasant there, that's really quite demeaning. That's the earthy side; he is really from a by-gone time and is really impressed by the progress which is overtaking him.

At the start of the 20th century, the market for the upper classes was saturated and then there was the arrival of cars which became the latest craze. The manufacturers of bicycles had to find sales elsewhere. And so the bicycle was democratised.

Tourism was developing at that time and for the middle classes who had less money, one of the ways of getting away, or going far, was to have a bicycle. So in our posters as well as showing the bicycle, you also have the countryside. So a countryside which is more or less realistic, but a countryside which emphasises the sea or the mountains.

And then you also have, to convince the working classes in the 1930s, another graphical form. You have the brand Terot there which is apparently showing a lady, a working woman and her husband with berets, so very French too, and who would have been inspired somewhat by cubism. It is quite abstract there, there is hardly any countryside. Or you have references as with a brand from Saint-Etienne, the brand Ravat to "comics", to all these American comic strips. So there, that is Superman who is shown in the picture. It's the same with the brand Laborde, there we have more the impression that it is Pieds Nickelés[2] who is on the bicycle. So there, they're really addressing the mass market.

Apart from the bicycle itself, there were all the accessories on sale too. When they invented the inflatable tyre, everyone though that it was the big cheese. A bit over the top.

The tyre, it had similarities to the 'start-up' businesses that we had two or three years ago []. Everyone was making tyres. Everyone was trying to communicate and in the end there were very few who survived. So in order to get themselves noticed, in fact, they used lots of humour and then they all had more or less the same way of communicating. So now we know Michelin's Bibendum [4], but in fact at that time, all the brands were using Bibendum. So you have the poster of Larve which is very interesting because you have Bibendum and on these tyre posters, very often you have reference to Indians. So there we find these two themes. So the Indians, that symbolized in fact the tyres which were going to puncture, the arrows. You find that on an awful lot of posters, like that, an Indian who is angry because he cannot succeed in puncturing a tyre and who is obliged to sharpen the point because his arrow is now ineffective.

Saint-Etienne was the biggest centre for manufacturing bicycles in France, especially with the factories of ManuFrance. Some of these posters recall this time in terms a little surprising in our day.

Here you have a return to French industry and their way of communicating. There are red colours, you have big chimneys, big chimneys spewing out thick smoke. Today that is something which goes over very badly because when we see this image, we have the impression that it is pollution.

There will be perhaps a bit too many of you to go to Saint-Etienne to see this exhibition before it closes on 22 September. But there is a very well illustrated catalogue with long detailed amusing articles and that will assuredly please you if the subject stirs you. It is available on amazon.fr.

[1] There is a tradition in European folk literature that the devil wears boots which can traverse seven leagues (21 miles) in a single step.

[2] Pieds Nickelés is a cartoon strip character invented in France in 1908, featured in a film and several books, the latest of which appeared in 2009.

[3] This is reference to the dot com businesses of the Internet boom of 1998-2000.

[4] Bibendum is the name of the 'tyre man' in the Michelin advertisements. The name is Latin.

$Id: 2002_09_cul.htm 6 2010-02-05 10:37:26Z alistair $


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