The amazing tale of Christophe Phillipe Oberkampf
The amazing story of Christophe Philippe Oberkampf is a tale of human endeavor, artistic sensitivity, and entrepreneurial success. In a tumultuous era, when France lurched from monarchy, to revolution, to empire, Oberkampf’s quest for technological perfection, combined with his incredible work ethic and managerial skills produced an enterprise whose reputation was unsurpassed. Much like today’s Haute Couture houses, he diversified his production to attract customers ranging from Queen Marie Antoinette and ordinary middle-class women, offering the finest of luxury cottons as well as affordable fabrics. Considered by many to be the father of the French luxury goods industry, Oberkampf understood how to balance exquisite manual craftsmanship with the most innovative production techniques.
Printed cotton “chintz” from India was introduced to France in the 17th century and soon Indiennes became extremely popular and fashionable, arousing the jealousy of powerful silk, linen and wool merchants. King Louis XIV acquiesced in 1686, first prohibiting imports, then cotton printing in France - but the ban only led to a lucrative black market in smuggling and illicit printing using inferior, non-colorfast methods. Rich noblemen also supported clandestine workshops that produced French copies of Indiennes. Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s beautiful mistress and France’s leading arbiter of style, loved these washable cottons. The King finally succumbed to the pressure of his court (and also realized that the 20 million francs a year being spent on imported and smuggled goods should be go into French pockets) and lifted the ban on November 9, 1759. This landmark event threw open the doors to an economic revolution which would eventually impact the entire French economy.
From Wurttemburg to Paris
Many miles away from the court at Versailles, in the Kingdom of Wurttemberg (one of the 350 autonomous states that made up the Holy Roman Empire, well before Germany existed), Christophe Philippe Oberkampf was born on June 11, 1738 to a family of cloth printers of Dutch origin.
At age six, little Christophe-Philippe was sent to work as an errand boy in a nearby family-owned dye-works. From the age of 12, he accompanied his father on the highways of Europe as he offered his services to a succession of factories in Basel, Mulhouse, and Switzerland – relocating five times over eight years. Finally, in 1752, the elder Oberkampf started printing his own cloth and his son learned much from the experience. But like many young men throughout the ages, Christophe-Philippe chafed under the yoke of demanding parental authority - his father was at times violent. His mother came from more genteel origins and this disparity caused friction in the household. It was this trying childhood that probably drove the young man to seek new horizons.
On an autumn day in 1758 Oberkampf left for Paris, telling only his mother. Now age 20, he had developed a strong personality but knew how to be respectful when it was required. The first job he found was as a dyer in a manufactory on the Bièvre river (which runs into the Seine), owned by a M. Cottin who had sent to Switzerland for skilled craftsmen. He spoke almost no French but found that most of his fellow workers came from the four corners of France and also knew only a multitude of incomprehensible dialects. Like them, Oberkampf was paid little and only just managed to make ends meet. Soon, he was looking for a way to take charge of his own destiny.
Within the year, he partnered with Antoine Guernes dit Tavannes, a Swiss mercenary at the service of the French King, expanded his manufactory, and hired three workers. The average age of the five men was 23. At first Oberkampf did everything himself – designing the patterns, cutting the wood blocks, building the printing tables, and dyeing the cloth. At night, he even slept on his table.
Oberkampf started with the odds stacked against him. He was a commoner of simple means, a foreigner and a Protestant. In this era of absolute monarchy, the King, the aristocracy and the clergy held all the power and wealth. The priest of St Martin’s Church in Jouy-en-Josas castigated this young man who would not attend Catholic mass and who dared to work on Sundays. The Marquis of Beuvron, Lord of Jouy, went out of his way to remind Oberkampf of his subservient status and continually tried to thwart his venture. His former employer Cottin, furious that Oberkampf had become a competitor, sued him for being an “unfaithful employee, renegade, fugitive and insubordinate.” A heavy fine was levied – but fortunately never collected.
Despite these obstacles, the printing business flourished. Oberkampf took on a new partner, Joseph-Alexandre Sarrasin de Maraise, who brought fresh capital. His brilliant wife, Marie-Catherine-Renée de Sarasin de Maraise, handled all the factory’s accounts. Every piece of cloth the two men produced was branded, “Manufacture de toiles peintes et imprimées de Sarasin-Demaraise et Oberkampf, à Jouy près Versailles.”
New buildings were erected, Swiss guards were hired to watch over the printed pieces drying in fields (industrial espionage was a constant problem). In 1770, Oberkampf bought a cotton spinning and weaving mill in the town of Corbeil. He experimented successfully with chlorine to bleach his fabric (rather than laying cloth outdoors in in the sun), and with blue and red dyes. By 1774, he employed 900 workers, and recruited skilled craftsmen from Switzerland. He purchased the best cotton cloth woven in Beaujolais and Normandie, using fibers bought from the French or English East India Companies. But his most important innovation was to start engraving flexible copper plates rather than traditional wooden boards – a process first pioneered in Scotland – and in 1800, to fix the plates on cylindrical drums which could be turned by steam power. In 1785, Oberkampf invented the first machine for printing wallpaper, and shortly afterwards, Nicolas-Louis Robert designed a process for manufacturing “endless” rolls of wall-paper. Thus, the factory entered the era of mechanization.
Oberkampf became a French citizen in 1770. He understood the importance of public relations to promote his ventures. Overcoming his shyness, he invited many of the King’s ministers to Jouy; even Queen Marie Antoinette paid a visit. He wove a wide commercial network throughout France and abroad, helped by his ties to the Free Masons. Conrad Gerard, France’s first ambassador to the United States came to Jouy. Oberkampf’s partner, Sarasin de Maraise, met Benjamin Franklin.
Marie Antoinette took a great interest in Toile de Jouy – perhaps because Oberkampf was an immigrant like her – and decorated four of her chateaux with the fabric. Royal patronage culminated in Oberkampf receiving the title of “Manufacture Royale” for his factory in 1783 and letters of nobility for himself in 1787. He chose as a motto “Righteousness and Vigilance.” The Oberkampfs began attending court, the ladies of the family dressed in their father’s boldly colored prints.
From this point, Jouy prints were fashionable in homes ranging from palaces to the “bourgeois” houses of the rich middle class. In 1789, on the French Revolution’s eve, the factory employed 2,000 workers.
The Revolution proved a challenging time. Early on, Oberkampf (who was open to new ideas) attended the Estates General at Versailles to learn of the reforms it planned to implement. As the Revolution descended into the chaos of the Terror, he navigated its treacherous waters with a steady hand. Despite his aristocratic title, he did not emigrate but worked hard to keep the factory open – eventually, it was declared “of use” to the Republic. He subscribed to state loans and ensured that family members played roles in revolutionary institutions such as the local regiment of the National Guard, which was commanded by his nephew, Samuel Widmer. As paper money started to depreciate, he invested instead in cotton cloth, buying up every available yard and warehousing it for future use. In February 1790, he agreed to serve as town mayor for two years, to steer Jouy through this period of upheaval. The grateful townspeople wanted to erect a statue in his honor, but, ever-modest, he refused. Then, in 1794, a factory engraver named Voët accused Oberkampf of royalist sympathies and denounced him to the Committee of Public Safety – fortunately the complaint was not investigate and, some time later, Oberkampf even reinstated Voët to his former job.
In time, production flourished again. In order to conform with republican values, no French citizen wanted to be seen wearing silk; a boon for the cotton clothing industry.
Napoleon and Empress Josephine made a surprise visit to the factory in Jouy-en-Josas in 1806, accompanied by 30 retainers. Napoleon was thrilled to see seven and a half meters of white cloth go into production each minute and emerge as printed fabric. In 1801, when Napoleon was still First Consul, he had offered to make the industrialist a Senator, but Oberkampf had demurred. Now, Napoleon unpinned his own “Legion d’Honneur” decoration and bestowed it on Oberkampf, saying, “no one is worthier to wear it.” The Emperor returned in 1810, this time with Empress Marie Louise, to question Oberkampf about English manufacturing processes since France had banned all imports from Britain: “You and I are waging a tough war on the English,” said Napoleon, “you with your manufacturing and me with arms…. But you are doing the better job.” A year later, in 1811, two of Oberkampf’s employees were given imperial dispensation to visit England and managed to smuggle out drawings, hidden in the pages of a music portfolio.
In 1806, Oberkampf participated in the first French industrial trade fair at the Louvre and won its gold medal. Three years later, in 1809, he was awarded the Decennial Prize for valuable services to Science and Art.
By the end of Napoleon’s reign, the factory was the third largest enterprise in France, both in terms of capital invested and number of employees, just below the glassworks at Saint Gobain and the coal mines at Anzin. There were now 36 buildings, the largest over 100 meters long with 342 windows. Its products were sold throughout the world, in 17 foreign cities and in all royal courts. Back in 1789, Thomas Jefferson had brought trunk loads of Toile de Jouy home to Monticello at the end of his Paris posting. Now, an efficient system of mail order allowed Oberkampf to reach clients as far away as Salonica in Greece and Constantinople in Turkey.But Napoleon’s defeat spelled disaster. After the battle of Waterloo in 1815, Oberkampf watched as Prussian and Cossack troops pillaged and ransacked his magnificent life’s work. “This sight is killing me,” said the grey-haired Oberkampf. He died on October 7th, age 77. By then, the number of workers had dropped to 485.
Oberkampf’s relentless quest for technical innovation launched France into the industrial age, yet many of his greatest successes came from refining concepts already pioneered in England and Scotland.
At first, he combined old and new techniques - traditional wood blocks were used to print polychrome and small motifs while copper plates were introduced for monochromes and larger designs. Oberkampf invented the process of “picotage,” filling the spaces on woodblocks with pins, likes bristles on a hairbrush, to print tiny dots on cloth. The two could even be combined in the same fabric. When copper rollers were introduced in 1800, they could print 5,000 meters a day, as compared to the 30 meters a day that could be printed by a skilled artisan using wood blocks - the same output in six days that 42 wood-block printers could produce in six months. In 1809, Oberkampf's nephew Samuel Widmer introduced steam power to heat the dyeing vats. At its peak, the factory in Jouy generated 40,000 pieces of printed cloth a year. Amazingly, the precision and subtle detail of copperplate printing still cannot be matched by modern printing methods – and reproducing the process is now prohibitively expensive.
Eleven steps were required to get from the initial drawing to the finished cloth: drawing, test engraving on paper, bleaching, stretching, printing, and filling in by hand (female workers used their own hair to make tiny brushes). But production passed from department to another with an efficiency that would impress even today’s factory manager. These processes are illustrated in a fascinating 1783 design by Jean-Baptiste Huet.
Over 34 different plants and minerals were used to obtain the vibrant colors that characterized the textiles: red from madder roots, yellow from the weld plant, blue from woad or indigo plants, green by printing blue over yellow. Then in 1809, the factory’s chemical laboratory discovered a way to produce a solid green color. Despite the success of his own chemical innovations, Oberkampf continued to be fascinated by the vivid colors produced in Persia and India, so he sent agents on several trips to the Orient.
Over the 55 years in Jouy-en-Josas, Oberkampf continually sought to improve his technique and designs to satisfy his customers. He had a canny ability to judge trends. “One must be able to read into the future, he noted, “because in every era, there is a type that is more sought after than the others and this will always be the case. The most skilled is also the man who knows when to stop in time in order to have the fewest leftovers when that type ceases to please.”
From 1795, Oberkampf offered single-color designs (red, blue, purple, light and dark brown), printed on cheaper cotton using his new mechanized techniques so that many more customers could have access to Toile de Jouy. Each year, he traveled to Lorient (the port in Britanny for the French East India Company), Amsterdam and London to purchase Indian cotton and study new patterns. The English market was particularly important as Toile de Jouy was considered superior to goods made in England.
Oberkampf considered the social dimension of his work to be as important as its artistic and technical aspects. Inspired by his own early years as an underpaid worker, he was also influenced by his family’s Protestant culture and the ideals of the Enlightenment, notably the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He transformed these convictions into a series of concrete measures that were highly innovative for their time: low-interest loans so his workers could purchase or build houses (these could be worked off through overtime at the factory), interest-free loans for the neediest, vocational schools for children from age 12 which included paid apprenticeships, and paid sick leave.
The factory’s health clinic was open to both workers and the community. Oberkampf even organized smallpox vaccination campaigns at a time when most people did not understand how “an evil could produce good.” And since he loved music, Oberkampf invited the musicians of the royal chapel at Versailles to perform in the factory dining hall.
Oberkampf rang the factory bell himself for 50 years (it is still in the gardens of Jouy’s town hall, his former house). His efforts to keep the factory open during the chaotic years of the French Revolution earned him the everlasting gratitude of his employees who “worshipped him like a demi-god.”
Oberkampf had an uncanny ability to conjure the images that would please his clients – at first, mostly courtiers, aristocrats and wealthy commoners – but later, the middle classes, as he began offering products at different price points. Over 30,000 distinct designs came from Jouy’s drawing tables. Oberkampf called on the best artists of the day to draw the motifs – Jean Baptiste Huet (in the 1780s and 90s), Louis Jean-François Lagrenée, Horace Vernet (in the 1810s) and Louis Hippolyte Le Bas.
From the block printed single color “Chinoiseries” patterns (mostly in red) of the 1760s, printed on a mix of linen and cotton, Oberkampf moved to single color prints in the 1770s, representing mills, pastoral scenes and landscapes for which Toile de Jouy is best known today. After the pastoral scenes came allegorical and mythical scenes, as well as scenes from contemporary history. These durable fabrics were used for furnishing and can be read like story books… Of particular interest are motifs that record the major milestones in Oberkampf’s eventful life – the first hot-air balloon, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution. It is important to remember, however, that compared to the volume of multicolor impressions, the number of monochrome figurative designs is tiny, but they were often printed in large quantities and at cheaper prices, usually for resale through other manufacturers.
Oberkampf was always eager to be the first to record sensational events. In 1780, just after Lafayette and Rochambeau departed for the American War of Independence, Oberkampf printed a design called “Hommage de l’Amerique à la France,” showing a feathered native American bowing to a mature woman wearing a crown (France). Sometimes, events could overtake the manufacturing process since engraving a copper plate took at least six months and printing the fabric took two months. In one famous instance, the 1790 “Fête de la Federation” by Jean-Baptiste Huet, marking a major event of the French Revolution, Louis XVI appears with a crown on his head at the beginning of the print run, and no crown by its end.
After the French Revolution, Toile de Jouy designs were adapted to the more geometric and sober tastes of the Directoire and Empire periods; many incorporated elements celebrating Napoleon’s victories or imperial symbols in browns, greys and purples.
Oberkampf was married twice: in 1774 to Marie-Louise Petiteau in 1774 (the ceremony was conducted by a Lutheran pastor at the Swedish Embassy in Paris) who died in 1782, and in 1785 to Anne-Michelle Massieu de Clerval (this time the ceremony was conducted by a French Huguenot pastor in the chapel of the Dutch Embassy). Oberkampf’s eight children were baptized in the Protestant church in Jouy-en-Josas and he ensured that the four who survived to adulthood were well established in French Protestant society. His two daughters, Emilie (1794-1856) and Laure (1797- 1879), married two brothers of the prominent Mallet banking family. Emilie, became well known for her numerous charitable activities, particularly as the founder of nursery schools in France, inspired by the English Infant School model. Oberkampf also brought to France his younger brother, Frederic, and five nephews, the sons of his sister Sophie Oberkampf Widmer. The eldest, Samuel Widmer, studied chemistry and proved instrumental to the factory. The youngest, Gottfried, was the family record-keeper.
Following his father’s death in 1815 his only surviving son Emile succeeded him as the head of the company. But tastes had changed and Emile did not have his father’s business acumen. The factory was taken over by Jacques-Juste Barbet in 1822, and finally declared bankruptcy in 1843. The buildings were torn down in 1863.
Today, the Musée de la Toile de Jouy celebrates this incredible heritage with its exhibitions and cultural programs. Housed in the Château de l’Eglantine, it is owned by the municipality of Jouy-en-Josas and supported by a French non-profit, Les Amis du Musée de la Toile de Jouy. In 2017, a group of Oberkampf descendants launched the Toile de Jouy International Foundation to promote Oberkampf’s values of excellence and innovation. The Foundation’s first project is the digitization of the museum’s collection of over 17, 000 samples and watercolors, and 4,000 pieces of cloth and costumes, so that this world heritage can be made accessible to all.