Roullet and Decamps Automatons--A Legend Lives On
Roullet et Decamps, one of the most versatile and creative of all the Paris automaton makers, was in business for more than 120 years. Its remarkable accomplishments began in 1866 with mechanical toys, then musical automatons, and finally, in the first years of the twentieth century, electric automated displays for store windows.
By 1995, when the firm closed its doors for the last time, the craft of the automaton maker was recognized as a cultural asset worthy of preservation. The French government established a state-of-the-art museum in the village of Souillac, a popular tourist destination in France's scenic Dordogne Valley. The Roullet and Decamps collection of antique automatons and electrically-operated automated displays was saved, along with tools, machinery, molds, parts, and materials that were used in the workshops.
Visitors to the museum see many automatons in actual operation, controlled automatically by a computerized system designed to protect the mechanisms from excessive wear. To ensure that they are always in good condition, the museum has retained Klaus Lorenz, an expert restorer (and MBSI member) who studied in the Roullet and Decamps workshops. Recognizing the historic importance of the old molds, patterns, parts, and tools, he helped to save them from the trash bins when the Paris workshops closed. Some of the most interesting and important of these may now be seen in the museum, with posters that explain how they were used.
The Roullet-Decamps history has been documented comprehensively in the outstanding work of Christian Bailly and Sharon Bailly, Automata, The Golden Age 1848 - 1914, (English edition, Sotheby's, London, 1987) at pp. 113-153. When that book was published, Roullet and Decamps was still in business at nos. 17-19 Rue Amelot, in the Marais district of Paris, making electrically-operated automated displays for department store windows and special events.
A summary of the Roullet-Decamps story, in French, may be found on the museum's website (http://www.souillac.net/musee.automate/roullet-decamps.html) The most significant dates and events are:
1866 Jean Roullet, a builder of mechanical devices, opened a workshop in Paris specializing in precision metal work.
1867 One of Roullet's customers came to him with an invention he wanted to market. It was a windup toy figure of a gardener pushing a wheelbarrow. Roullet was able to mass produce the gears and other mechanical parts, at a fraction of the cost of making them by hand. Thus it became possible, for the first time, to make mechanical toys that could be sold at a modest price.
The little figure of the gardener was adopted as the trademark of the Roullet firm. The trademark appears on the cover of the firm's first known catalog (1878), which is reproduced in full in the Bailly book, beginning at page 272. The gardener, as a female figure, is shown at page 279. The same mechanism, and wheelbarrow, were used with several other walking figures, as shown on page 26 of the 1878 catalog (Bailly, p. 298).
The original toy is extremely rare now, but the museum in Souillac has one example on display, a bisque-headed doll lacking its wig, but in its original but well-worn clothing.
1879 Jean Roullet's daughter Henriette married Ernest Henry Decamps, the foreman of the Roullet workshops.
1889 Ernest Decamps was made a partner in the firm, now to be called "Roullet and Decamps." At this time, 50 people worked there, including machinists, clockmakers, sculptors, and dressmakers. All of these were required in order to produce automatons.
1900 The first electric automatons were made, for commercial displays. Also, Ernest Decamps' eldest son Gaston entered the School of Decorative Arts and the Academy of Beaux-Arts. As Gaston became more and more active in the family firm, his talent and ingenuity became apparent in the firm's automatons, both in the quality of the sculpturing and molding of the figures and in the ingenious realism of their movements.
1901 - 1909 Shortly after the turn of the century, Jean Roullet turned over the running of the firm to his daughter and son-in-law. Jean Roullet died in 1907. Ernest Decamps died in 1909 and Henriette continued to run the workshop, with the help of her sons, Gaston and Paul, and her daughter Gilberte. The firm's name became "Veuve Decamps et Fils" ("Widow Decamps and Sons"). Paul, who managed the business side of the enterprise, was killed in World War I. Soon after, Gaston bought out the shares of his mother and sister and became the sole director of the business.
In the years that followed, the company made an impressive array of clockwork automatons, animated electronic displays, and mechanical toys. Its animated window displays won distinguished awards in international exhibitions, and were seen in the finest department stores in Paris, as well as in England and Belgium.
1925 Phalibois, another important Paris automaton maker, ceased to make automatons, and its stock of completed automatons and parts was purchased by Roullet. (It is not unusual now to find mechanical parts made by Phalibois in Roullet and Decamps automatons.)
1963 The firm moved from its original Marais district location at 10 rue du Parc-Royal to the rue Amelot location, where it remained until it closed.
1972 Gaston Decamps died. His daughter Cosette and her husband Georges Bellancourt continued to run the business. Unable to sustain the production of mechanical toys in the face of competition from Asia, the firm turned exclusively to building large automated electric commercial displays.
1995 The business closed. The collection of automatons and electronic displays was disbursed. Most went to the museum in Souillac.
Many Roullet and Decamps automatons are pictured and described in the Bailly book, and in other books and articles, but little information is available about the firm's prolific array of mechanical toys and its automated commercial displays, many of which are as fascinating and ingenious as the better-known mechanical automatons.
Methods of Construction of Automatons
Although the types of automatons produced changed over the course of time, the methods of construction, and the materials used to create the figures, remained essentially unchanged. Of particular interest are the methods of making the heads and bodies. It is of course essential that all parts be both lightweight and strong. To achieve this, the heads are made by pouring a small amount of liquid plaster into a mold, then turning the mold in all directions so that a thin layer of plaster covers the entire interior surface. The mold is separated immediately, and small overlapping pieces of mesh cloth are pressed carefully into the wet plaster. When dry, the material is thin and light, but very strong.
Many steps are required to build the body (cartonnage) of an automaton figure. First, the figure is sculpted in clay. A plaster mold (a negative) is made, and then cut into pieces, to facilitate removal of the parts after they are molded. Next, the parts are reassembled, and the cartonnage is created by a painstaking process of gluing on small pieces of absorbent paper until it is several layers thick. To achieve the precise shape and surface desired, papers of varying thickness are used, the different thicknesses being identified by the color of the paper. The result is a lightweight material that is very strong It is lighter and thinner than papier maché (papinage), and easier to work with.
Once the cartonnage is finished, the work begins on installing the plates and fittings that will support the mechanism. This requires a high degree of skill and experience, as does the final step, the fitting of the costume.
A Roullet-Decamps Specialty: Mechanical Toys
The 1878 catalog includes dozens of toy animals of all kinds: bears, dogs, cats, rabbits, monkeys, farmyard and circus animals, etc. Some play drums or stringed instruments; others walk, turn somersaults, and do other tricks. Some are rare now, such as a giraffe that moves its head and neck realistically and a peacock that struts and spreads its tail, while turning its head proudly from side to side. The cats, rabbits, and bears are covered in rabbit fur or leather, while the peacock wears real peacock feathers. The bodies are constructed of metal plates stamped from dies made by hand in the Decamps workshops. These toys are not musical, but many of them utter realistic animal sounds. All of them are remarkably life-like, and fascinating to watch in operation.
The sounds made by the toy animals are produced by small bellows devices that Roullet purchased from Germany. All these devices look very much alike, except for the contour of a thin curved wire that serves as a kind of cam follower to regulate the operation of the bellows. (See photo?)
Automated Scenes and "Window Stoppers"
The electrically-operated automated figures and displays produced by Roullet-Decamps were built on order for commercial clients, not for sale to the general public as toys. They were intended for store windows, and do not have musical movements.
Just as earlier automatons often depicted popular entertainers and reflected the culture of their time, the electrical figures and scenes are interesting historical artifacts of customs and events of the early twentieth century. One of the earliest and most famous depicted Admiral Peary arriving at the North Pole. Gaston Decamps proposed the idea to the Bon Marche department store in 1909. It attracted huge crowds.
Only a few of these window display scenes have survived. After use, most were dismantled for the parts, which were reused. The museum in Souillac has several that were spared this fate. One of the most impressive is a life size trio of jazz band musicians--a pianist, a violinist, and a drummer, made by Gaston Decamps in the 1920s. Each is a realistic portrait of a famous African-American jazz musician of the time. The music is provided by a recording, but the facial expressions and body movements of the three figures are so realistic one could almost believe they are alive. This work of art not only illustrates the extraordinary range of Gaston Decamps' creative talents, it also stands as graphic evidence of the popularity of African-American jazz musicians in Europe at a time when they were generally unrecognized in their own country.
An interesting technical artifact of the times can be seen in operation in the museum. It is a figure of a man holding an electric light bulb that lights and then relights after he has tapped it on a hard surface. He stands by a sign that says "Some say that lamps with metal filaments are fragile." The sign rotates when the bulb relights, to explain that the viewer has just witnessed proof to the contrary.
Some of the electrically operated automated figures and scenes made by Roullet-Decamps were designed to attract and entertain crowds; others advertised a specific product or service. Some automated figures stood inside a store window and tapped loudly on the glass to attract the passers-by. The Souillac museum has several examples. One is a figure of a smiling inebriate with one arm around a lamppost, and the other holding a bottle, who taps on the window with the toe of his shoe.
Large, complicated automated scenes operated electrically were popular attractions in Europe and America in the first part of the 20th century. Appearing in store windows to celebrate important events, they drew large crowds to the Galeries Lafayette, Bon Marche, Samaritaine, Le Printemps, and other well-known department stores in Paris and other cities. Each year in December, when the newest Christmas windows appeared, the sidewalks around the stores were so crowded it was almost impossible to move.
After the death of Gaston Decamps, the tradition was carried on under the direction of Cosette Bellancourt, who helped design many highly imaginative automated scenes that continued to draw crowds, especially at Christmastime. The loss of the artistic genius of Gaston Decamps was noticeable, however, as the figures depicted took on more of a cartoon character aspect, comical but simpler and less realistic in appearance. Some of the most popular and charming of these scenes have been recreated and may be seen in a museum called "Automates Avenue" in Falaise, France, a tourist destination in Normandy.
The Museum of Automates in Souillac has several of Gaston Decamps' original creations, in addition to the Jazz Band mentioned above. One of the most appealing of the large automated scenes depicts a Paris Metro station, with a variety of amusing characters on the platform. As a train is entering the station, several live geese have escaped from a basket carried by a woman on the platform. A disheveled and highly indignant goose is stumbling along in the middle of the tracks, waving one wing in the direction of the train and glaring at the conductor, who stops the train just in time, and backs it out of the station so that it can enter and start the action again.
Roullet-Decamps was not the only automaton maker to build these displays, but the artistic quality and mechanical ingenuity of its creations won many awards, and its successes continued long after its competitors had dropped out of the field.
"Automates de Vitrine" (store window automated scenes), direct descendants of the mechanical automatons that are so prized by collectors today, were an important part of life in Paris and other cities for many decades. The tradition survives, although feebly, in some large department stores today. Its future seems uncertain.
All who appreciate and value the art of the automaton maker should be grateful to those who had the vision and wisdom to save the wonderful Roullet and Decamps collection and preserve it for present and future generations..