Manufrance was France’s first mail order company, with an annual catalogue, known as la Manu. It offered a wide range of products, the most famous being guns, bicycles and sewing machines. Its TSF radio, made in 1930, had an essential role during the German occupation of WW2.
Manufrance was a pioneering company, based on a unique business model and, at least for the first half of its existence, was the leader in its field.
La Manu pre-dates the American Sears-Roebuck Catalogue, so I assume it’s the oldest mail order catalogue in the world. With the wide range of products on offer each year, it now offers us a unique glimpse into French homes over an entire century.
1899 Manufrance ‘Hirondelle’ tricycle
I bought this beautiful children’s tricycle described by the seller as a Hirondelle. It has a large ‘H’ on the rear. I’ve not yet found any old Manufrance catalogues with illustrations of tricycles sold by the company. I’ve been enjoying reading the annual Manufrance catalogues since my friend Patrick in Paris introduced me to them in 2007 (and sold me my first Hirondelle Retro-Directe bicycle), so I’ve included extracts from the 1895 catalogue here.
BRIEF HISTORY of MANUFRANCE
Etienne Mimard and Pierre Blachon bought Manufacture Française d’Armes et de Tir from Mr Martinier Collin on 10th November 1885. They renamed it Manufacture Française d’Armes de Saint-Étienne.
The company rapidly expanded: by 1898 there were 1000 employees, and Etienne Mimard built a new factory (Cours Fauriel) and formed a limited company under the name Manufrance. When Peter Blachon died in 1914 he became the sole director.
There were problems in 1937, with a strike for 100 days, and the municipality of St. Etienne subsequently took over the management of the company.
After the death of Mimard, in 1944, the mayor of Saint-Etienne became the new boss of Manufrance, a novel situation, especially considering the size of the company (3800 employees by 1976) and its influence in the life of the Saint-Etienne.
After WW2, the company introduced cyclemotors and mopeds, with some success.
But advances in Japanese motorcycle design affected all European manufacturers: the effect of the innovative four-stroke Honda 50 devastated home-built moped and scooter sales.
Unfortunately, by the seventies the company was running into trouble. They did not modernise sufficiently. For example, while computers were being introduced generally, Manufrance still favoured handwritten accounts; foreign competition affected sales; too much money had been invested in creating new storage facilities.
Eventually, the company started to get behind with their orders and, in 1979, Manufrance went into liquidation. Though it was saved for a while by turning the company into a co-operative, by 1985 that too ran into trouble. Exactly one hundred years after the initial acquisition of Manufrance, the company ceased trading.
1895 MANUFRANCE CATALOGUE EXTRACTS