What are the "Red Books" and what can they tell us about the Paris Bon Marché fire 1915

Blog Post created by maryelizabethwoodruff Employee on Jan 12, 2016

The British Fire Prevention Committee, founded in 1897, was established with the goal "to direct attention to the urgent need for increased protection of life and property from fire by the adoption of preventative measures." Another objective of the committee was "to publish from time to time papers specially prepared for the Committee, together with records, extracts, and translations." Reports and records prepared include essays such as What is Fire Protection or updates on construction methods: "Fire-Resisting" Floors used in London, or reports on key fires.   The papers and records were published in pamphlets with red covers, and are more commonly known as the Red Books.


Red Book, no. 202, published one hundred years ago, covered a report on the fire at the Bon Marché (Annexe) in Paris, that occurred on November 22, 1915. At that time, the Bon Marché was a grand department store in the heart of Paris.   It was known for the collections of art and antique furniture offered for sale in the department store in addition to house goods, garden tools, toys, and gloves - they were known throughout the world for their gloves. A 1912 issue of Business, a magazine for office store and factory, stated that they sold more than one million pairs of gloves per year.


The annex of the Bon Marché was a large building, constructed in 1899 with a stone facade and an interior of metal work.   Interior walls were constructed of brick and of wood and plaster.  The interior floors formed galleries surrounding two central halls.   The roof consisted of framed metal work with a large portion of the roof over the central halls that was glazed. The Annex was connected to the main building via an underground passage.


Inside the annex there were basements and sub-basements for receiving and storage. The ground floor contained tapestries, china and works of art. Upper floors contained furnishing materials, carpets, furniture, bedding, and stocks of linen.   As part of the war effort the 5th and 6th floors had been converted from store use and used respectively as a temporary 130 bed hospital for wounded soldiers, and hospital administrative area. Prior to the devastating fire, there had been concerns of the open nature of the building, and precautions were made to enclose staircases and lifts leading to the hospital occupied areas.


The fire broke out near midnight the night of November 22nd, 1915. It started in the sub-basement and was contained for several hours to the basement levels. Fortunately, the evacuation of patients from the 5th floor hospital was conducted quickly and effectively. Although the fire was initially contained to the basement areas, smoke spread quickly throughout the building. After several hours, the fire spread throughout the building. By 8:00 am, the fire was under control, having been confined to the annex and not spreading to other buildings in the neighborhood.   There was no loss of life but the damage to the building and the goods was estimated at the time to be more than five million dollars.  The image above depicts the wreckage of the roof over the smaller of the two halls.


6a00d8351b9f3453ef01b7c805d438970b-100wi.jpgThe introduction to this report includes a forward comparing building regulations in London and Paris and is a valuable tool for historic building code researchers.


The Charles S. Morgan Technical library supports the research activities and maintains the archive of NFPA. We have a collection of the Red Books from The British Fire Prevention Committee as well as other materials on historic fires. Learn more about the Library and Archives, our resources, and services.