Nantes was a very active maritime and industrial port in the 19th century. The agri-food industry held prime position among all Nantes' industries. Canning and cookie factories were most common. The 1860s saw the cookie industry take off in France, particularly in Nantes and Bordeaux. The lower prices of sugar and fat meant that the cookie changed from bakery product to patisserie and became a luxury product.
From Small Shop to Large-scale Manufacture
The history of the LU Biscuit Company starts with the arrival of Jean-Romain Lefèvre, a pâtissier from Varennes-en-Argonne, in Nantes in 1846. Jean-Romain was hired to work in a patisserie on Rue Boileau. In 1850, he married Pauline-Isabelle Utile, and the couple decided to buy the patisserie to turn it into a "Manufacturer of Reims cookies and bonbons." To begin with, the business remained modest and cookies were sold directly from the oven on a table in the patisserie's courtyard. Success came very quickly, and the couple opened a second store in 1854, under the business name Lefèvre-Utile. Following this, Jean-Romain received the gold medal at the Nantes Industrial Exhibition in 1822 in recognition of the quality of his cookies. But health problems struck the following year, leaving the company in the hands of his wife and youngest son, Louis Lefèvre-Utile.
At the end of the 19th century, the cookies were sold in bulk. Louis opted for more modern packaging, in metal tins known as "tin box." They served as a mark of quality. Lefèvre-Utile's advertising was entirely founded on the quality of their products. This was backed up by the company winning competitions and being selected for awards. Proud of this recognition, Louis Lefèvre-Utile had them included on the packaging, developing the advertising to catch the consumer's eye.
Sachet emballage LU (1890) by HOUIX-POTTIERChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
The brand identity had already been established in the 1860s by Jean-Romain Lefèvre and Pauline-Isabelle Utile, who chose Pheme, the Ancient Greek personification of fame, to assert the quality of their products and a triumphant spirit. By the end of the 19th century, the packaging had become a means of advertisement.
Boîte « Départ de la pêche » (1902) by LEFEVRE-UTILEChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
Following this, in 1892, the company developed a range of lithographed boxes. The illustrations were mainly inspired by Brittany. Some examples include the Retour de la Péche (Return from Fishing) cookie box dating from 1892, the Régates de la Loire (Loire River Regattas) from 1894 and the Banquet Breton (Breton Feast) from 1902.
A New Factory
Louis thus inherited an organization of 14 workers. Patisserie products were prized by the bourgeoisie, and, to meet ever-increasing demand, in 1881, Louis bought a former spinning factory on the Ile de la Madeleine, across from the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany and near the station. He could thus meet the main challenges facing a cookie factory in the 19th century. Imitating the English model that dominated the market, he modernized production tools by introducing mechanical production methods to the industry and acquired a brand-new English device—a steam engine. The factory regularly expanded to the point that it became a veritable city district.
Boîte « Vues de Nantes » (1901) by Alexis de BROCAChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
Louis Lefèvre-Utile made Nantes an inextricable element of the company's communication. The release of the Vues de Nantes (Views of Nantes) box by Alexis de Broca in 1895 serves as a demonstration. The city of Nantes is constantly present in Louis' cookie universe.
Dessin du découpoir du Petit-Beurre avec son abécédaire (1886) by Louis LEFEVRE-UTILEChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
In 1886, Louis Lefèvre-Utile perfected the recipe and design of what would become his greatest success: the Petit Beurre cookie. He documented the definitive design of the molds for the "Petit-Beurre LU Nantes," but didn't register the shape and brand with the commercial court until April 9, 1888. Thanks to its relatively modest price, this cookie remained out of fashionable circles—its distribution was mostly among the lower classes.
On February 1, 1887, Louis Lefèvre-Utile joined forces with his brother-in-law Ernest Lefièvre and together, they officially founded the Lefèvre-Utile corporation. Ernest handled the management of the company and Louis devoted himself to production. The following year, a fire gutted the factory and Louis seized the opportunity to expand it, building workshops, offices, laboratories, ironworks, shops, storage spaces, stables, and a power station. At the beginning of the 20th century, LU had a catalog of 200 different cookies. LU cookies were sold in France, and exported from 1898 onwards, mainly to the Colonies.
Art in Advertising
Louis Lefèvre-Utile paid particular attention to the aesthetic of the packaging and cookies. He thought that catching the client's eye was the first part of enjoying cookies. He thus involved several artists in designing the brand's advertising.
Boîte à biscuits « Iceberg » (1903) by LEFEVRE-UTILEChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
Boxes depicting specific events, such as the illustration on the box of Iceberg wafers in 1903, inspired by the Antarctic expedition of oceanographer Jean Charcot. That box was designed by Luigi Loir. Many famous artists would go on to collaborate with manufacturers, but Louis Lefèvre-Utile was one of the forerunners. By collaborating with famous artists, he gave the company a modern and definitively innovative image.
Esquisses orginales du Petit-écolier (1897) by Firmin BOUISSETChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
In 1897, he sent his son's sketches to Firmin Bouisset, who turned them into the Petit Écolier (Little Schoolboy), whose image is still found on the cookies of the same name. And in 1905, in the golden age of industry, Lefèvre-Utile brought out the Paille d'Or. The image of this biscuit itself was the only supporting graphic.
Louis called first on local artists, then on artists in Paris and abroad. For example, he collaborated with Alphonse Mucha between 1896 and 1903. In 1903, Mucha created a portrait of Sarah Bernhardt for a LU advertisement. The company's advertisement paintings were true works of art. Inspired by Art Deco, they took the form of posters, mural advertisements painted on building gables, and billboards attached to streetcars or displayed at big events such as world fairs.
As for the cookies, production focused on an elite brand image. The presentation of the cookie was careful and artistic, intended for a bourgeois clientele. Quality remained the company's guiding principle. The ingredients were meticulously selected by Louis himself. They were local produce: butter, milk and honey from Brittany, eggs from the Vendée, flour from the mills of Nantes, and exotic products such as sugar and vanilla from the colonies and brought directly from the outports of Nantes to the factory.
Ever looking to develop the company further, Louis Lefèvre-Utile took it to the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, for which he commissioned Auguste Bluysen to build a 118-foot (36-meter)-tall tower. Drawing inspiration from lighthouses, this tower became emblematic of the brand, as soon afterward, two towers would be built in Nantes. The idea behind these projects was to show that the company was a lighthouse for the city. Inside the pavilion, ceramics by Eugène Martial Simas decorated the walls in a resolutely Art Deco style.
At the Dawn of the 20th Century
Before World War I, some 500 men and nearly as many women worked at the factory. The men performed the more physically demanding tasks such as kneading, rolling and cutting the dough, and the baking, while the women took care of breaking eggs and packaging the cookies coming out of the oven. Working conditions in the factory were terrible. Day and night, teams worked in shifts to ensure continuous production. The heat and noise made the work arduous, but not as difficult and that in the canning factories or refineries. And while the pay was modest, the company offered social benefits, such as a profit-sharing scheme, free medical care, an emergency fund in case of illness and a retirement bonus. On the other hand, unions were banned. One attempt to unionize saw some 60 factory workers sacked. Being a LU employee was a sought-after position, but was not open to everyone. Hence, recruitment was done by recommendation.
Business in a Time of War
At the outbreak of the World War I, the three main cookie manufacturers in Nantes—LU, Biscuiterie Nantaise (BN), and Biscuiterie de l'Union—were requisitioned to produce bread for military rations. The factories produced hard bread (cookies) made of flour and water. Contracts made with various administrations meant the LU and BN factories stayed open during the conflict. When the armistice was signed, the agreements were terminated, but new contracts were signed with the United States administration to produce sweet cookies.
Distributeur de Petit-Beurre LU (1932) by LEFEVRE-UTILEChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
In the interwar period, the consumption of cookies spread to all levels of society. But LU was in a poor position due to their aging machines, domestic competition, and a long and chaotic handover between Louis Lefèvre-Utile and his son Michel. Furthermore, the 1929 crisis meant the decline of many companies, including LU. The company temporarily shut its doors in 1936, firing 750 workers.
Photographie du pavillon Lefèvre-Utile, vue de l'extérieur, à l'exposition universelle de Paris 1937 (1937) by LEFEVRE-UTILEChâteau des ducs de Bretagne - Musée d'histoire de Nantes
Despite everything, Michel Lefèvre-Utile went to the 1937 Exposition Internationale to exhibit an Art Deco pavilion, aiming to affirm the brand's modernity. The innovative research of Bluysen Jr. in the fields of architecture and graphic art resulted in an original construction, which generated publicity for the Lefèvre-Utile company.
World War II meant a return to the production of bread and cookies (bisquits) for military rations. Louis Lefèvre-Utile died in 1940 and his son Michel took over his place at the head of the factory in partnership with the Lefièvre and Binet families. Louis' death marked a new era in the company's history. Now in charge of the company, Michel improved the distribution network with the introduction of the container. He also put new packaging made of aluminum into circulation. But the lack of raw materials meant halting production of Petit-Beurre cookies first in April 1942, and then for a second time in June 1944. LU persisted in manufacturing products despite everything thanks to the military bread rations. In 1947, the company began receiving state assistance and modernized. A production battle was waged between the largest domestic cookie factories. In 1951, the Petit-Beurre production line was completely automated, the distribution network was improved, and new packaging came into circulation for export. Cookies were no longer a luxury item and LU produced them en masse.
In turn, Michel brought his son, Patrick Lefèvre-Utile, into the company. Patrick took up his grandfather's innovative tradition in the field of advertising and in 1950, introduced color photographs of the product on the packaging. Then, in 1957, he asked Raymond Loewy, creator of the Coca-Cola bottle, to redesign the packaging of the LU Petit-Beurre. The result was a complete change in material, design, and color.
The End of the Family Business
In the early 1960s, in the face of the American products flooding onto the market, Michel Lefèvre-Utile suggested to his friend and counterpart Georges Cossé, head of BN, that they coordinate their industrial and commercial policies. At the end of the sixties, Patrick Lefèvre-Utile became head of the company, replacing his father, Michel. The financial situation at the factory was grim, and it became imperative that he create alliances with other French companies. It is for this reason that, in 1969, LU merged with Brun to become LU-Brun.
This restructuring meant the end of the family business. A few years later, in 1975, LU-Brun was bought to form the Céraliment LU-Brun group. The name changed again in 1978 to Générale Biscuit and in 1987, a new factory was built in La Haye-Fouassière, near Nantes. These products are still sold by retailers today. The company continued to innovate in the field of advertising, with new iconography recalling the brand's beginnings at the end of the 19th century.
The former factory was left abandoned until the 1990s. Starting in 1988, the dispatch building, the front wall that was decorated with the Petit-Beurre, was restored. Ten years later, one of the two LU towers was restored. While LU has become a branch of the group Mondelez International, the former factory has now been converted into a live entertainment venue and is known as the Lieu Unique. Architect Patrick Bouchain sees it as being able to accommodate any type of performance. In 2004, the Nantes History Museum (Musée d'histoire de Nantes) received a significant donation from Lefèvre-Utile, enabling it to dedicate rooms to the agri-food industry and LU in particular.
This exhibition was created by the teams of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany – Nantes History Museum.