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The Legend of Monsieur Omnès

Print of the Royal Exchange, London, in the late 19th century, with horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrians in front.

The Royal Exchange, between 1890 and 1900. Photographer unknown; Detroit Publishing Company. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Find out more about the print here.

A little before Christmas 2019, I published a blog featuring the above image of the Royal Exchange in London, which is an important location in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. At the time I didn’t notice a tiny detail: one of the horse-drawn vehicles in the center of the frame has an advertisement on it for “Ridge’s Food,” a product that also features centrally in a humorous song from the American Folklife Center’s archive. As I mentioned in my last post, the connection between the photo, the song, and folklore sent me down a rabbit hole, exploring legends, etymology, history, and folksong. In that post, I began by chronicling AFC’s song “Dr. Ridge’s Food.”  In this post, I’ll discuss a legend I’ve known since childhood: a “folk etymology” of the word “bus,” expressed in both English and French folklore.

To back up this bus a bit, the vehicle with the ad on it in the photo above is a nineteenth century horse-drawn bus, the same kind of vehicle for which the word “bus” was created. The legend I’m referring to answered the question of how such “buses” were named. My elementary school French teacher recounted the story that buses originated in France, and that the creator of the first bus service was named Monsieur Omnès. Before such forms of public transportation, urban people who weren’t wealthy enough to own their own carriage or to take a cab had to walk everywhere. Bus lines, allowing ordinary people to get around with ease, were a populist innovation. Punning on this populism, on his own name Omnès, and on the Latin word “omnibus,” which means “for everybody,” the originator of the idea called his vehicles “omnibuses”: they were carriages that anybody could ride. “Bus” is merely an abbreviation of this original French word.

Two double-decker horse-drawn buses. One of them has an ad for "Ridge's Food" on the upper deck.

Detail from the above photo of the Royal Exchange, between 1890 and 1900, showing the “Ridge’s Food” bus. Photographer unknown; Detroit Publishing Company. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Find out more about the print here.

Looking for confirmation of this story, I was interested to find that it is a widespread legend with a kernel of truth. While “bus” is indeed a contraction of “omnibus,” the story of M. Omnès is a bit more difficult to pin down. It exists in oral tradition, in more or less the form my French teacher told me. It’s also sometimes told in more complex forms. For example, in this Notes and Queries column in The Guardian, it’s basically the same story, but “Omnibus” becomes a more grammatically complex pun:

What is the origin of the word ‘bus’?

THE EARLIEST known use of public transport within towns occurred in Nantes in western France in 1827. It was the idea of the enterprising Monsieur Omnès, who coined the name Omnibus as a pun, to indicate both the purpose and the name of the instigator of this service. Since, in Latin, omnibus is the plural form of both the dative and ablative cases of the word omnes (all), omnibus originally meant either ‘for everybody’ (dative) or ‘by Omnès’ (ablative). Later, the word was taken into English, and eventually abbreviated to ‘bus’ in both languages, though in French it first passed through the modification ‘autobus’ with the invention of the internal combustion engine. Incidentally, the word ‘omnibus’ is still used in modern French in a transport context, but it now designates a train which stops at all stations.

John Mitchell, Southampton.

The story of M. Omnès also exists in other variants. For example, many French sources claim that Omnès was not the creator of the bus service, but a hatter whose shop was at one of the bus stops. In this version, the hat shop had a sign stating “Omnès Omnibus,” or “Omnès for Everyone.” This led citizens waiting for the bus to call the bus line itself “Omnibus.” You can find versions of this form of the legend in many places, including on the websites museums like the Musée historique de l’environnement urbain (The Historical Museum of the Urban Environment), as well as in the books and blogs of prominent Parisian author Rodolphe Trouilleux. Here’s my translation of the version from the Musée des transports urbains de France:

After the Restoration, Stanislas Baudry, an army colonel on half pay in Nantes, had a steam-powered flour mill built in Richebourg, on the outskirts of Nantes. It occurred to him to use the hot water that was created as a by-product of his flour mill to supply a bath house. He had the baths built, but no customers came. Baudry realized that his bathing establishment was too far from the center of Nantes. He needed to provide Nantes residents with a means of transport to come to Richebourg. He therefore established a shuttle with a horse-drawn carriage.

The success was immediate, but not where it was expected: although the cars were full when they left Nantes, the baths remained empty. The people of Nantes were using his cars to get around. Without hesitation, Baudry closed his baths and his flour mill and created a network of omnibuses in Nantes.

The name “OMNIBUS” comes from the fact that Baudry’s cars were stationed in Nantes in front of the shop of a hatter named Omnes who, playing on his Latinate surname, had a sign “OMNES OMNIBUS” (literally: “ Omnes, for everyone”). People riding Baudry’s cars got into the habit of saying that they were taking the omnibus. This is how these cars “for all” become omnibuses.

Photo of the Grand Opera in Paris with pedestrians and vehicles in front. In the left foreground is a double-decker omnibus with passengers on both decks. The photo is titled: Grand Opera, the largest theatre in the world, cost six million dollars, Paris, France / photographed and published by B.W. Kilburn. Detail from a stereo card. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

There’s a double decker omnibus visible in this photo from Paris, 1896. The photo is titled: Grand Opera, the largest theatre in the world, cost six million dollars, Paris, France / photographed and published by B.W. Kilburn. Detail from a stereo card. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. See the archival scan here! //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s23947

As we see from the text above, in versions of the story in which Omnès was not the creator of the bus route but a hatter near one of the stations, the ownership of the bus line is usually ascribed to Stanislas Baudry, a retired army colonel in the nineteenth century who really did begin bus routes in several French cities. As the story above accurately states, he started his first route in Nantes in 1826, to bring people from the center of the city to a public bath he owned on the outskirts of town. Two years later, Baudry moved to Paris, and began bus services in the French capital. Baudry’s role in the creation of bus services is well known and worth highlighting, so the legend of Monsieur Omnès’s hat shop is usually told as an interesting sidelight to this real history of transportation.

As we can see, the tale of M. Omnès gains a sense of veracity by being connected in the telling to true facts about Baudry and buses, but I doubt it’s true, for several reasons. One reason to doubt the Omnès legend is that, despite its being repeated on hundreds of websites, I’ve never seen anyone provide evidence of the existence of such a hat shop or of its connection to the bus line. I would think, given how popular this legend has become, and given the fact that many versions describe the exact location of the bus stop, that someone at some point would turn up a contemporary reference to the shop. But I’ve never seen one.

Horse buses made a reappearance in Washington D.C. during World War II, when gasoline rationing led to a ban on motorized buses being used for sightseeing. Sightseeing by horse bus became a contribution to the war effort; hence, “Victory Sightseeing.” The side of the bus includes the words “Starting Point 101 B Street” “Front” “Library.” At that time, Independence Ave. SE was still B Street, so this indicates the bus began in front of the building where I’m typing this blog! This is a composite of two 1942 Office of War Information photos which bore the title “Transportation. Sight-seeing bus. Faced with a ban on motor buses for sightseeing purposes, Jimmy Grace obtained a horse-drawn bus which makes daily trips to the points of interest of the nation’s capital. See the first photo here. See the second photo here.

The second reason to doubt the legend of M. Omnès is that it exists in mutually exclusive variants–only one version can be true, but there’s no better evidence for any of the variants. In addition to versions in which he founds the bus line himself, and versions in which he is a hatter, we find other roles for M. Omnès. In the earliest versions of the legend that I can find, which date to the late 1870s, Omnès is a grocer, not a hatter. His sign is generally well-known to the City’s inhabitants, but not particularly near the bus line. The general fame of Omnès’s sign provides the impetus for a friend of Baudry’s to recommend the name “omnibus” for the bus service because it conveys the idea that anyone can ride the new vehicles. In other words, this first version of the Omnès legend to be documented is a different story which shares a few details with the tale of the hatter Omnès. Here’s a version from Notes and Queries, June 7, 1879:

A certain M. Baudry established in 1827 hot baths in a suburb of Nantes. As customers did not come in sufficient numbers, he resolved as the best means for attracting them to send at fixed hours a long car to the centre of the town. This car was known at first as the ‘voiture des bains de Richebourg’; but a friend of Baudry’s suggested as a shorter and more convenient designation the word ‘omnibus,’ which had already obtained a certain vogue, because a grocer of the town named Omnès had had painted over his shop entrance the words ‘Omnès Omnibus.’ Baudry established shortly after lines of omnibuses at Bordeaux and Paris, but the rigorous winter of 1829, which rendered the streets very difficult and forage very dear, caused him to die of grief. The omnibus however survived both the bad winter and its founder.

In some versions of the “grocer” tale, including a November 24, 1930 story from the London newspaper The Sphere (p. 25), the city where M. Omnès sells groceries is Nancy (in Meurthe-et-Moselle) rather than Nantes (in Loire-Atlantique). If the legend circulated only in written form, it’s unlikely “Nantes” would become “Nancy,” so this provides evidence that the “grocer” variant of the legend was circulating orally, generating variants as people misheard or changed details.

The existence in both oral and written tradition of such mutually exclusive stories as the grocer and hatter variants doesn’t mean that none of them can be true, but it does call into question what the evidence ever was for either of the basic stories. Both tales feature a commercial sign bearing the phrase ”Omnès Omnibus,” but I’ve never found any reference to such a sign that’s not attempting to explain the words “omnibus” and “bus.” In other words, there’s no evidence for the sign independent of its role in this legend.

It’s also true that “Omnes-Omnibus” was a famous phrase in Nantes for other reasons in the early 19th century, but none of the legends about the word “omnibus” mentions this. In January 1789, in one of the first actions of the French Revolution, several clashes occurred between law students and the servants of aristocrats in Rennes; at stake were reforms being considered by the government of Brittany. As the fighting began, the students sent emissaries to neighboring cities; the emissary to Nantes used the alias “Omnes-Omnibus.” A story in circulation at the time suggested that his surname was really Omnès and that he had been given the nickname “Omnes-Omnibus” after rescuing two people from drowning. The speech given by “Omnes-Omnibus” in Nantes not only convinced the students of Nantes to enter into common cause with those of Rennes, it was published as an influential pamphlet, Discours prononcé a l’hôtel de la bourse, dans l’Assemblée des jeunes gens de Nantes, par M. Omnes-Omnibus, député des jeunes gens de Rennes, le 28 jan. 1789.  (See this article by Nicolas Déplanches for more on this event.)

1828 line drawing of an omnibus drawn by two horses with a coachman in a top hat carrying a whip. On the side of the bus are the words Entreprise Générale des Omnibus

This illustration of an 1828 bus in Paris is from a Parisian map. The “Entreprise Générale des Omnibus” was Stanislas Baudry’s company. See the full map at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

How might this have influenced the omnibus? In 1789, Stanislas Baudry was 12 years old and lived in the Nantes area, and he spent much of his life around Nantes. It’s almost certain he was familiar with the speech of “Omnes-Omnibus.” If there was a shop with a sign that said “Omnès Omnibus” in Nantes in 1826, it too was almost certainly inspired at least in part by this important moment in local history. Yet this is never mentioned in any version of the legend that I’ve seen.  This suggests that the legend was created when the speech of ”Omnes-Omnibus” was largely out of living memory, and indeed we first see it in literature in the late 1870s, about 90 years after the events of 1789. If the story had been in continual circulation since the 1820s, we might expect to see a reference to the previous importance of the phrase “Omnes-Omnibus.”

My final reason for doubting the tale of M. Omnès is that a simpler explanation for the word “omnibus” was provided in 1892 by the son of Stanislas Baudry’s accountant. Writing to the Bulletin de la Société archéologique de Nantes, M. Dagault recalled that Baudry had originally painted the buses white and called the bus service “Les Dames Blanches,” or “The White Ladies.” He explained that this was clever marketing, as there was a currently popular opera with that title giving the phrase a “universal vogue” at the time. At a meeting at Baudry’s offices, however, several people complained that the name “white ladies” was confusing since the main point of the buses was to be open to men, women, and children of any social class. Dagault’s father, the firm’s accountant, suggested naming the buses “voitures omnibus,” “carriages for everybody.” To bolster this story, the younger Dagault had a letter from one of the other men present at the meeting confirming his father’s role in suggesting the name “omnibus,” and a sign showing that in the 1820s the bus line’s office called itself “Bureau des Voitures Dames Blanches Dites Omnibus,” which means “Office of the White Lady Carriages Called Omnibus.”

1828 line drawing of an omnibus drawn by two horses with a coachman in a top hat carrying a whip. On the side of the bus are the words "Entreprise Générale des Dames Blanches"

This illustration of an 1828 bus in Paris is from a Parisian map.  See the full map at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Note the bus company is called “Entreprise Générale des Dames Blanches,” the same name with which Baudry founded his Nantes bus service, according to his accountant’s son. Baudry’s Paris service was “Entreprise Générale des Omnibus.”  According to the Conseil General de Loire-Atlantique, the Dames Blanches company in Paris was founded by another man from Nantes, Edme Fouquet. It seems Fouquet took over the name abandoned by Baudry–an example of the fierce competition in the omnibus market at the time! After Baudry’s death, the Dames Blanches company remained in operation until the end of the 19th century.

The documents Dagault provided to the Society were not reproduced in the journal, so I can’t comment on their authenticity. But they seem to have been accepted by the society, and Dagault had little reason to lie about them. They bolster the general contours of his story, and suggest that the name “omnibus” was a creation of the company itself, rather than of the general public reacting to a hatter’s sign. Dagault’s story does not directly contradict the version of the tale in which Omnès is a grocer with a generally well-known sign; his father could have been inspired by such a sign when he suggested the word “omnibus.” But again, I’ve never seen any direct evidence that such a sign existed, such as a contemporary picture or reference.

So, was Omnès an entrepreneur who was extremely clever at Latin declensions, and who founded a largely forgotten bus line?  Or, was Stanislas Baudry, whose bus line is well known, somehow inspired by the phrase ”Omnès Omnibus?” If the latter, was the original M. Omnès a grocer with a famous sign, a hatter with a sign at the bus stop, or the revolutionary whose speech united the young Bretons in 1789? Or, as Daugault claimed, was Baudry inspired simply by the idea of “carriages for everybody,” “voitures omnibus” in French and Latin, without reference to anyone named Omnès?

We may never know for sure, but it’s pretty clear that the name “omnibus” was first applied to a public carriage in Nantes by Baudry’s company. From there it spread to other cities and other countries. Which brings us back to our photograph of London. How did the omnibus come to England, and how did English get the word “bus?”

Sepia photo showing a man dressed in a suit sitting in an armchair.

This photo of George Shillibeer appeared in newspapers in the 1860s. It is in the public domain.

According to many sources, including a recent article by Mark Jurd in The Carriage Journal, the Nantes and Paris bus lines where “omnibus” was coined had a close connection to the creation of bus services in London like the one in our picture. As I already mentioned, Stanislas Baudry, seeing the success of his bus line in Nantes, created a similar route in Paris in 1828. In doing so, he commissioned a Paris-based English coachbuilder named George Shillibeer to design a superior carriage. Following the success of his design, Shillibeer recognized the potential of bus services in major cities. He returned to England and began his own service in London, carrying the name “omnibus” with him.

Evidence from folklore and popular culture shows that, early on, Shillibeer’s buses were known both as “Shillibeers” and as “omnis.” For example, an 1833 broadside song comparing the virtues of the Shillibeer omnibus to a proposed London-Greenwich railway noted:

His elegant omnis, which now throng the road,
Up and down every hour most constantly load;
Across all the three bridges how gaily appear,
The Original Omnibus–George Shillibeer.

These pleasure and comfort with safety combine,
They will neither blow up nor explode like a mine:
Those who ride on a rail road might half die with fear,–
You can come to no harm in the safe Shillibeer.

How exceedingly elegant fitted, inside,
With mahogany polished–soft cushions–beside
Bright brass ventilators at each end appear,
The latest improvement in the new Shillibeer.

However, at about the same time, the abbreviation “bus” also emerged.  Another song, dated 1835, purports to be “Shillibeer’s Address to the Ladies and Gentlemen of the Borough of Greenwich,” as put into verse by “his Laureat the Poet.” It includes an early example of the word “bus,” here spelled “buss”:

To his Patrons at Greenwich thus Shillibeer writes
Or at least to his Laureat the Poet indites–:
“To my numerous Friends my best thanks to express,
The next time you send the Gazette to the press.

In the first place, inform them how much I desire
To merit the honour to which I aspire,
Their favourite to be–that each ‘Buss’ on the road,
Though by rivals preceded and follow’d, may load.

So that’s how the English language got the word “bus,” as documented on song broadsides. But how did advertisements get on buses? Baudry and Shillibeer, along with other early bus entrepreneurs, found that the public transportation business was difficult. Although the service was potentially very popular, it was also expensive to run. Buses required horses to operate, and a fleet of horses required significant land on which to graze, or else other accommodations for feeding and housing them. The carriages themselves were also very expensive to build. Meanwhile, the income from fares was limited. It was hard to verify how many people had ridden the bus, making it easy for conductors to steal a share of the fares. The business was highly dependent on weather and other factors. Finally, it was an unregulated industry, and competition was fierce and often dishonest, with upstart bus companies disguising their vehicles to look like their more established competition. As Rodolphe Trouilleux points out, Stanislas Baudry went bankrupt in an attempt to secure land to feed and house his fleet of horses, and was driven to despair and suicide. George Shillibeer, according to the London Transport Museum, was forced out of business and became a funeral director.

Ten adults and a baby are packed into the interior of an omnibus. At the front door, a young woman with an umbrella and two men in top hats seek to enter.

“Omnibus Life in London” is an 1859 painting by W.M. Egley. In the same year he finished it, it was published as a print in the Illustrated London News. This print reproduction is in the public domain.

Clearly, entrepreneurs in the bus business needed ways to make money other than fares, and advertising provided a solution. By placing ads inside buses, they delivered the advertiser a captive audience of commuters. We can see such early bus ads in the interior of the bus depicted in an 1859 painting by W.M. Egley, above.

By placing ads on the outside of buses, on the other hand, omnibus companies transformed their buses into moving billboards. People were thus exposed to a product’s ads just by walking down the street. Many of us who live in cities still see such bus ads all the time. In some cases, we can even see early bus ads over a century later, in photos that captured life in cities like London…as we can, for example, on the “Ridge’s Food” bus.

 

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