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Barcelona: The “Catalan Manchester”

19 March, 2015

“Barcelona: City of Factories” / Albertí

Catalan Fashion Industry I / III – Historian Mercè Tatjer takes us on a trip to one of southern Europe’s most important industrial cities of the early 20th century – Barcelona.


There are 440,000 people in the city of Barcelona working in the industrial sector today and nearly two million in the services sector. Respectively, they represent 14% and 60% of the active population, according to 2014 figures from the Catalan Institute for Statistics, Idescat. Back in 1977, however, it was a completely different story. Industry then accounted for 45% of jobs in the Barcelona area, while services covered 42%, says University of Barcelona researcher Isaac Marrero Guillamón.

The increasing importance of tertiary industry to the city’s economy and the subsequent rise in the services sector began in the 1960s, when Barcelona’s factories began to move onto the industrial estates of nearby towns. This was also when all trace of the city’s sobriquet of the “Catalan Manchester” was lost.

At the start of the 20th century, Barcelona was a city of chimneys and factories. It supplied a market in the midst of transformation, where the purchase of basic living goods was slowly but surely giving way to the demand for symbolic consumer items such as fashion. Tracing the history of some of these factories well into the 21st century “is an acknowledgement of the city’s industrial past and also the enterprising nature of its citizens, which is still alive and well today,” says historian Mercè Tatjer.

After more than 33 years on the trail of Barcelona’s production sector, Tatjer’s book “Barcelona ciutat de fàbriques” (“Barcelona: City of Factories”) published by Albertí, takes an in-depth look at the conversion of the city’s economic system from an industrial powerhouse in the last century to today’s service-driven economy.

Tatjer’s work focuses on 100 industrial firms from the city, classified into nine different sectors. In this report we look at the factories that were part of the fashion sector. The historian provides a very long list, including some of the most iconic names of Barcelona industry from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Bruno Cuadros, El Diluvio, El Guante de Oro, Casa Vilardell, Perfumerías Font i Cia., Myrurgia, Renaud i Germain, Puig, Can Ricart, Can Batlló, Volart, Pius Rubert Laporta and Can Parera. These names were associated with manufacturers of woven fabrics, soaps and essences, parasols and perfumes, and their factories were located in the heart of the Eixample, near the Sagrada Família or in the middle of Ciutat Vella. “Barcelona was one large factory. They didn’t have the regulations we have now and took advantage of all areas of the city. That would be unimaginable today,” says the historian and professor at the University of Barcelona.

The Volart mantilla factory, which continues to make lacework today, set up in the inner city, along with Casa Vilardell, in Via Laietena, where it produced and warehoused knitwear. “Bruno Cuadros was also in the downtown area,” says Tatjer, “and he commissioned the architect Josep Vilaseca to fix up the building his store was housed in on Rambla de Barcelona. The oriental trend had a strong influence on Vilaseca’s work at the time, in 1875. He gave the building the look we can still see today, with the dragon and umbrella on the façade”.

Casa Bruno Cuadros specialised in parasols, the leading fashion accessory of the day, as well as oriental products such as real Japanese pearls. The factory was in the Raval neighbourhood. “We haven’t been able to find the remains of the original building but we know from checking the records that it was next to Sant Agustí Church”. After following a number of trails, Tatjer discovered previously unknown remains of other industrial complexes in the centre of the city.

Relocation within the city

Starting in the 1960s, for many reasons including a better location close to basic transport infrastructures such as the railway and port, Poblenou became the hub of the city’s industry. “That was where Can Ricart began and where it still is today! This was one of the first steam-powered factories in Barcelona and a pioneer of mechanical printing. The design of its building was also commissioned to an emblematic academic architect,” Tatjer says, referring to Josep Oriol Benadet.

Tatjer, who has worked on numerous studies and reports for the preservation of Barcelona’s unique industrial complex of Can Ricart, likes to mention another of the companies in the Poblenou area: La Pius Rubert Laporta. This is an exception among the many industries that have disappeared. Dedicated to the manufacture of parasols since 1854, it still does the same work today. “It started out producing in the Raval and the rise in popularity of parasols made it the largest manufacturer of these items on the market. It turned out 60,000 parasols a year and was one of the first companies to use radio jingles to advertise the brand,” she says.

Despite the unquestionable weight of textile factories, Tatjer says that the production of perfume and soap enjoyed an age of splendour in Barcelona at the turn of the 20th century. “The Renaud i Germain factory was close to the Barça stadium. He was a Frenchman with expertise in the perfume sector and was active here through to the mid-20th century, when the business closed. We know from records of the time that the company had problems with its essence suppliers and turned to flower-growing in the Maresme area,” she says.

Of course, Myrurgia and Puig also feature heavily in Tatjer’s book, because “there are very few factories that are still around today, performing the same activity.” Indeed, Myrurgia was bought by Puig in the year 2000, but until then had continued to make the perfume and soap it had been producing since the mid-19th century. “The first references to Myrurgia show that it started out as an importer and distributor of chemical products. It released its first cologne on the market in 1916. It was Esteve Monegal who promoted the construction of the building which we can still see part of in carrer Mallorca. It is an example of the best architecture from the start of rationalism and fortunately a part of it has been conserved,” Tatjer says. The book also reveals that Esteve Monegal led an important chapter in the family firm by updating its image and promoting a range of perfumes designed by some of the leading artists of the day. “Eduard Jané and René Magritte both worked on the firm’s image. It was also common for these firms to draw on graphic designers and illustrators as part of their team. However, although we still have the advertisements, we don’t know the names of many of them”. The powerful textile sector in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had a major repercussion on the field of advertising, which was then in its infancy. As Tatjer says, “the city saw the growth of the graphic design and publishing industries which were used by the textile, accessory and perfume companies”. However, this chapter of Barcelona’s industrial history will be the subject of a different report.

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