In 2019 we are celebrating the 180th birth anniversary of Gustav Vichy, the prominent automaton-maker
Gustav Vichy is certainly the most striking example of the prodigious achievements of nineteen-century automaton-makers. Having begun as a simple mechanic and clock-maker, by the end of his life he had become extremely prosperous, and had won many distinctions. Above all, he had earned the respect of his colleagues and contemporaries.
Vichy’s automata were strikingly true-to-life. By the perfection of their mechanisms and of their movements, his automata were superior. They were distinguished by the flexibility and precision of their gestures as well as by the good taste of their costumes and the felicitous choice of their accessories.
By 1891, the Vichy firm had become so well-known the journal La Nature selected it as an example of contemporary manufacture.
Vichy produced multifarious automata, comic automata were the most popular, many automata were reflecting genre subjects and were inspired by a painting or by current events.
Vichy was a member of the Admissions Committees of the 1893 Chicago Exhibition, the 1894-95 Hobart Exhibition, the 1898 Omaha Exhibition, and the Paris Exhibition of 1900.
He was awarded the ‘Palmes Academiques’, in 1894, and became President of the Chambre Syndicale des Fabricants de Jouets et Jeux – having been three times Vice-President – 1893. In 1900, he was a candidate for the Legion d’Honneur.
Gustav Vichy was a remarkable man, young at heart, who kept up with the times and enthusiastically took advantage of modern technical progress. He was the first of the leading automaton-makers to have a telephone, in 1897. By 1895, Vichy offered advertising automata of many different sizes. In the first years of the 20th century, he went even further in his pursuit of modernity. A notice in one of Vichy’s catalogues, undated but very likely from between 1900 and 1904, bears witness to the firm’s evolution:
My firm, the oldest in Paris, has won the highest awards at the Great Exhibitions, and among these the Grand Prix at the 1900 Exhibition, which was the only prize given for mechanical toys and advertising automata.
We supply the large pieces used for advertising by the well-known department stores: Bon Marche, Louvre, Samaritaine, Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, Place Clichy, etc. and various commercial establishments. I name all these important firms as a testimonial for my work. Should a customer, after having asked for my catalogue, not find what he desires, he only has to submit an idea to me, or ask my advice, for any sort of advertising piece.
Having more than twenty-five years of experience, I am in a position to furnish excellent results in terms of composition and especially in terms of price, as my modern electrical equipment allows me to construct an automaton mechanically so to speak, whereas formerly everything had to be done entirely by hand, which resulted in high prices.
Nowadays the automaton is often used for advertising purposes. Consequently, I had to find the means of producing better and more cheaply. I believe I have been successful; you may judge for yourself by consulting my price list and terms of sale, which are found on the last page.
All the pieces that appear in my catalogue function by clockwork mechanisms from seven to eight minutes approximately. I advise those who have electricity, if they desire there advertising to be effective, to make use of it to their automata. This modern and practical system does away with the necessity of winding mechanisms and saves time.
For those who do not have electricity, I have a small hot-air motor which fulfills the same purpose as electricity. It is very easy to put into use, heated by an alcohol lamp or by gas, absolutely without danger. I can adapt either of these systems to any of the pieces appearing in my catalogue for the same price… “
Ref.: Jules Delbruck, in Rapports de l’Exposition Universelle de 1867;
Christin Bailly, Automata. The Golden Age 1848-1914. London Philip Wilson Publishers Ltd. First published in 1987.