La Samaritaine: The Story Behind the Legend

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La Samaritaine: The Story Behind the Legend
La Samaritaine, the ensemble of department store buildings which looms over the Seine’s Right Bank, was once considered one of the architectural delights of Paris, yet it recently stood vacant for over 16 years. A troublesome white elephant, expensive to maintain, yet impossible to dispose of, La Samaritaine is a historically protected building, regarded as an architectural monument for its use of Art Nouveau and Art Deco designs. La Samaritaine is once again in the news with its infamous redesign. But the story of La Samaritaine begins with Ernest Cognacq. Ernest Cognacq. © The Musée Ernest Cognac in Île de Ré The ruinous death of Ernest Cognacq’s father forced the 12-year-old Ernest to leave school and earn a living peddling novelties between La Rochelle and Bordeaux. Three years later, he sought his fortune in the great department stores of Paris. The adolescent failed at his first roles at the Au Louvre shop and Aux Quatre Fils Aymon, and retreated back to his Île de Ré home. He returned to Paris in 1856 at the age of 17 where he was a successful employee at La Nouvelle Héloïse. There Cognac met Marie-Louise Jaÿ, a sales girl in the lingerie department, who would one day become his wife. Marie-Louise would move on to Le Bon Marché where she earned the distinction of being the first female salesperson in its clothing department. Cognacq attempted to set up on his own shop on Rue Turbigo in 1867: Au Petit Bénéfice. He swiftly went bankrupt and could be seen hawking his wares under the second arch the Pont-Neuf, near the former site of the city’s first mechanized pump, the Pompe de la Samaritaine. Under swags of red Turkish cloth, Cognacq sold linens on old, upturned crates. Marie-Louise Jay by Jeanne-Madeleine Favier (1863-1904) – Musée Cognac-Jay Paris La Samaritaine. © Wikipedia commons By the age of 30, Cognacq had enough saved to rent a small shopfront from a local café owner. On the corner of the Rue du Pont-Neuf and the Rue de la Monnaie, Cognacq once again named his venture Au Petit Bénéfice. This time, his business was successful. He took on two employees in 1871; one of which was Marie-Louise Jaÿ, whom he married the following year. Marie-Louise, who had developed her business acumen as a buyer for Bon Marché, helped Ernest develop his business. An active partner, Marie-Louise’s inventiveness complemented Ernest’s innovative approach to business. With Marie-Louise’s 20,000-franc dowry, and the 5,000 francs Ernest managed to save, the business prospered. The shop renamed La Samaritaine became instantly popular with Parisians. The Industrial Revolution had spiked mass production and mass consumption. The raison d’être of Ernest Cognacq’s enterprise was to sell a large quantity of merchandise to a large quantity of buyers, at a lower price than ever before. Customers flocked in. Some of the Cognacq-Jaÿ’s innovations included haggle-proof prices which were clearly marked, and giving the customers the opportunity try on clothes before buying them. Daily promotions attracted the crowds in hope of the “deal of the day.”

Lead photo credit : La Samaritaine © Pierre Camateros SA 3.0 wiki commons

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A freelance writer and amateur historian, Hazel knew she wanted to focus on the lives of French artists and femme fatales after an epiphany at the Musée d'Orsay. A life-long learner, she is a recent graduate of Art History from the University of Toronto. Now she is searching for a real-life art history mystery to solve.


  • David Mulligan
    2021-07-15 07:58:00
    David Mulligan
    Am so glad that this store has reopened, It is one of Paris' treasures. I can not wait to go inside once again. Thank you for this very interesting article.