Friday 25 November 2016

Menier's magical chocolate mill

One of the most extraordinary of  industrial buildings, the mill at the former Menier chocolate factory in Noisiel is enchanting. It sits on the river Marne like a fantastical, storybook chocolate factory, extravagantly colourful and elaborately decorative. Who would believe that such a fairytale construction made industrial history?

The mill was one of the first industrial buildings to have an exposed metal frame, created by architect Jules Saunier in 1872. He used puddled iron, considerably less granular and brittle than cast iron and thus better able to take the stresses of supporting a mill full of heavy, vibrating machinery. (Later buildings, of course, would use steel.)

His clients were the Menier family, whose pharmaceutical business really blossomed when they transformed chocolate from a medical product to a popular treat. They had been based in the town of Noisiel, east of Paris, since 1825, making chocolate powder to coat medicines. In 1836 they began manufacturing bars of chocolate; business boomed, and the Noisiel works grew. This mill replaced one built in 1842. 

With the iron framework supporting the structure, the brick and ceramic was as much decorative as functional. And what decoration! There are cocoa trees, initial Ms, polychromatic motifs of all kinds, and a clock tower that's pure Disneyland (apt, since the theme park only is a few stops along the railway line). 

An ornate lamp flanks the pretty glass porch; colourful lettering above offers a history with a touch of fantasy. The 'Noisiel hydraulic factory' is dated 1157 - 1825 - 1872, a rather surprising pedigree explained by the cocoa pod-bestrewn hexagonal tablet above. While the Meniers only arrived in the early 19th century, a twelfth-century charter already mentioned a mill here. (Not, of course, a chocolate mill.)

The rear facade is relatively restrained - but only relatively. 

No functional factory interior could entirely live up to that exterior, but the mill did make an effort. While the Menier chocolate factory was converted to house Nestle's French headquarters in 1996, many original features including machinery have been retained - and it is clear that floors, stairs and windows were impressively ornate.

The mill made history again over a century after it was built, as the first industrial building in France to be listed as a historical monument. However, a final look out of its windows reminds us that the mill is only one part  of the Menier complex - the world's largest chocolate manufactory until 1940. We'll continue our tour later...

The public tours, by Cultival, mark Nestlé's 125th birthday this year. Although they soon finish, the complex usually opens for the annual Journées du Patrimoine (heritage weekend) each September.

Alternatively, see a model of the mill at the Cité de l'Architecture in Paris.  

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Ghost Signs page update

Want to explore the ghost signs on this site? The ghost signs overview page has had a much-needed update: visit for a general introduction, further reading, and indexes by subject matter and location. 

Saturday 5 November 2016

Ghost signs (124): Centaur Cycles, Cambridge

On King Street, Cambridge is a large sign for Centaur Cycles - 'the best the world produces'. A closer look and some careful deciphering reveals the words 'famous since 1876' and, on the bottom line (I think), 'prices being within the reach of all'. 

Centaur had indeed been founded in 1876, in Coventry. It was in 1890 that they developed their lightweight bicycle, the 'King of Scorchers' (sold as the 'Silver King' in the United States). Weighing only 26 lb - just under 12 kg - it would still be a fairly normal weight today. 

A report from the 1908 Stanley Cycle Show, held in Islington's Royal Agricultural Hall, shows that the company continued to produce innovative, lightweight bikes:
Of course, the new "diagonal" frame is the attraction here. It is designed to give all the strength of the old Centaur frame while minimising vertical vibration. Other novelties are the Centaur spring-forks and spring seat-pillar, which agents should make a point of seeing, and recommending to customers who feel vibration. A remarkable machine is the new road racer at £6 10s., weighing, without guards, 27 lbs. On the best quality Centaurs it will be noticed that there are no clips for the pump pegs and brake fittings, these being brazed to the forks and main down tube. The light-weight roadster is a superbly-finished mount, scaling only 2E4 lbs., with guards complete.

The Centaur Company are showing a magnificent specimen of road racer. This has a 3.75in. tread, steel rims and detachable tyres, a front rim brake, fixed wheel, straight (duplex) chain stay, and comes out at 20.5bs., selling at £10 10s. retail. This machine should appeal to agents who have a speedy clientele, and it is supplied with either a horizontal or a sloping down top tube.

For 1909 every Centaur at £7 10s. and over will be fitted with Dunlop tyres. Mr. W. J. Welch, the firm's London manager, told us that he was expecting a very interesting machine from the works, but up to the time of our visit it had not arrived. This is an "all weather" bicycle, enamelled all over, except for a small plated disc on the extreme rear end of the back mudguard, the object of which is to reflect the light from the head-lamps of an overtaking motor car, and indicate the position of the cyclist. This extremely ingenious device is the idea of the rider to whose order this particular machine is built, and who is an active member of one of the hard-riding London clubs. The Centaur Co. do not seem to have lost ground during the three or four years they have been absent from the Show; their designs, finish, and prices are right up-to-date. and agents and public alike are pleased to see the famous old Coventry house again in evidence at the Agricultural Hall.
When Edward Mushing, who had co-founded the business with George Gilbert, died in 1910 the company was taken over by Humber. Although they now produced the bicycles in Stoke-on-Trent, the name lasted a few more years until 1915. (There were also Centaur motorcycles from 1901 to 1914.) 

This sign, then, is at least a century old.