Jean-Baptiste Andre Godin (1817–88)

Jean-Baptiste Godin was a successful entrepreneur whose name is familiar to every Frenchman as a manufacture of cast-iron stoves and enamelled bathtubs. He was also the builder of a workpeople`s colony that remains as one of Europe`s outstanding monuments to 19th century socialist idealism.

Godin was born in Esqueheries (Aisne), the son of a locksmith, and began to work in an iron foundry at an early age. In 1834, like ambitious craftsmen in many European countries, he went on the tramp, seeking to gain experience by plying his trade alongside skilled workers in other towns. He returned to Esqueheries in 1837 to establish a foundry making heating stoves, which quickly prospered. In 1846 he moved his business to Guise in order to take advantage of that town`s railway facilities. His foundry prospered and at its peak in the first decade of the 20th century employed more than two thousand workers.

Godin was a disciple of the utopian socialist thinker Charles Fourier (1772-1837) and provided financial support in 1855 for another of Fourier`s followers, Victor Prosper Considerant (1808-93) in an attempt to establish a socialist colony for Frenchmen, Swiss and Belgians at Reunion, Texas. The colony was unsuccessful, and its land was absorbed into the city of Dallas in 1860.

Its failure led Godin in 1859 to establish the Familistere (or Phalanstere), a satellite town for his ironworkers on the edge of Guise. It took the form of four large 4-storey buildings made up of apartments of a high standard for their time, accessed from galleries running around rectangular glass-covered courtyards, conceived as places of fraternal gathering. The familistere was well provided with play areas and nurseries for children, shops, a library, a swimming pool and a communal restaurant. The range of buildings was completed about 1880 when 1,200 people were living there. The settlement suffered some damage during the First World War which was made good, but the foundry business, for many decades owned by the workers, was sold to Le Creusot, and the housing was privatised. The buildings have been afforded official protection, and European Community money has been granted for their restoration.

Godin wrote several books on the principles that inspired him, including Solutions Sociales (1871) and Mutualite Sociale (1880). He is commemorated in a small museum at Guise and by a statue that stands outside the familistere.