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15 July 1840: Jean-Baptiste Godin, a red-hot industrialist

This week, we present a close-up of the life and work of an exceptional industrialist and exceptional man. A story which doesn’t just warm the heart… 



Jean-Baptiste André Godin was born on the 26th of January 1817 in Esquéhéries in Aisne. While the north of France is famous for its mines, this son of Picardy was born even more particularly under the sign of metalwork, his father being a locksmith. However, if there was a key which was particularly attractive to the young Jean-Baptiste, it seems to have been the one to the great outdoors. He left school at 11 to turn unsurprisingly to… metalwork, before going on a tour of France at just 17.

After returning to his home town, he got married and founded a heating appliance construction workshop. It was thus that on the 15th of July 1840 he obtained a manufacturing patent for a cast iron coal stove which was to make him rich and famous.



In 1846, he thus transferred his foundry and his domestic appliance factory to Guise, still in Aisne, before opening a new branch in the suburbs of Brussels in 1854.

Although his preferred field was metallurgy, the economic theories of his time by no means left him cold. He was thus attracted in 1842, after reading an article published in a local newspaper, to the theories of Charles Fourier, a French philosopher and leading light of what was to become socialism. Attracted by the revolutionary idea of redistributing wealth to workers, he decided to offer his own workers a level of comfort previously reserved for the bourgeoisie.

In Guise, in 1859, he thus launched the construction of what was to become the “Familistère”, the ancestor of today’s production cooperatives. He facilitated the housing of his employees via what he called the “Social Palace”, which grouped together modern homes equipped with central heating, water, gas lighting, etc. He also provided them with various social benefits, such as health insurance and pensions, set up services such as a crèche, a wash house and a swimming pool, and gave them free access to education and culture via schools, evening classes, a theater, etc. Whether they were part of the management or workers, everyone had access to exactly the same benefits.

Whether by chance or as a consequence, the business then developed considerably, eventually employing as many as 1,500 people. 



Logically enough, Jean-Baptiste Godin, who was to be made a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1882, took up politics and was elected as deputy for Aisne from 1871 to 1876, a period during which he defended the social ideas dear to his heart. And it was also quite logical that after his death at the age of 70, on the 15th of January 1888, he was buried in the garden of his dear Familistère. This complex, listed as a heritage site in 1991, is now open to visitors but is still used for housing today.

His company, meanwhile, continued after his death and is still today a big name in high-tech heating appliances and cookers. 


"Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems to last an hour. Sit next to a pretty girl for an hour and it seems to last a minute. That’s relativity." – Albert Einstein


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