In the foreground of the picture we see a woman occupied in preparing a cot. Let us make our bow to her as we pass. She is the senior employee of the Nursery, good Madame Roger, whose intimate friends call her affectionately the “universal mother.” Three generations of young “Familistèrians” have been cared for, fondled and washed by her clever hands.
We greet Madam Roger here on a tour of the Familistère, or “Social Palace”, a large, multi-purpose housing complex built in the French town of Guise by the industrialist and social innovator Jean-Baptiste Godin (1817-1888). Godin and his works are the much-admired subjects of Twenty-eight Years of Co-partnership at Guise, the second edition of Aneurin Williams' English translation of Le Familistère illustré, resultats de vingt ans d'association, 1880-1900 by Dallet, Fabre and Prudhommeaux.
Williams was a Liberal politician, and his translation is introduced by his fellow Member of Parliament, the working class, trade unionist Thomas Burt, and published jointly by Garden City Press (of Letchworth, a “garden city” designed by social reformer Ebenezer Howard) and the Labour Co-partnership Association, an “educational, advisory, and propagandist body”. It's clear that Godin's activism piqued the interest of a certain, socialist-minded section of British politics. And deservedly so: a decade after the 1840 establishment of his cast-iron cooking stove business, Godin began developing the idea of “a co-operative association of labour, capital, and ability”. His reason, that
Godin appears to have been remarkably, tangibly successful in these aims. By 1861 the first housing for workers was occupied, with more to follow. The full extent of the Familistère was a site of eighteen acres, containing the foundry itself; three large residential blocks for twelve hundred workers (who included women) and family members, arranged along galleries around a glass-roofed courtyard; a nursery and school; a theatre, garden allotments and cellars; a communal laundry and swimming pool; and the economats block housing shops offering near-cost-priced food. An article for Harper's Magazine in 1872 describes the site in detail, showing on the “General Plan” shops, fountains on every story, halls for general education, and a bakery, a café, and a casino.
Godin was not content to stop at construction; in 1880 he converted the community into a co-operative society, owned and directed by the workers who lived there. In all of this community-building, Godin was strongly influenced by other socialist and utopian thinkers of his era. He was a keen follower of Charles Fourier, with his plans for a phalanstery-dwelling, utopian community, and was also interested in the projects of the English educational reformer Robert Owen, who had followed improvements to his factory town at New Lanark, Scotland, with the establishment of an experimental community at New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825-7. Godin also invested (to the tune of a third of his fortune, states Williams) in Victor Considerant's short-lived colony of La Reunion, Texas, between 1855 and 1857. In the high-quality construction and the consideration of residents' needs, one might also compare the Familistère to British factory towns also built during the 1890s, such as the Cadbury family's Bournville or the Lever Brothers' Port Sunlight, although these projects had none of Godin's socialist ideals.
After fighting in the Franco-Prussian War and serving as a deputé during the 1870s, Godin died in 1888, but the community proved perhaps surprisingly durable. It was not until the 1950s that saucepan manufacturers Le Creuset bought out the foundry, and the co-operative association for La Familistère was only dissolved in 1968. The buildings themselves suffered some decay, but in 1991 were classified as a monument historique, and today the site is thriving, a renovated, tourist-friendly destination. One can still wander the gardens and read on Godin's mausoleum his carved exhortation, with which the admiring Williams closes Twenty-eight Years of Co-partnership at Guise,