Peigne en buis Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie à Oyonnax

Combs and plastics

The capital of Plastics Vallée and second city in the department of Ain, Oyonnax lies in a thriving economic area, considered as a major centre of activity for the plastics industry in France and Europe.


Original craftsmanship

At the end of the 18th century, the inhabitants of this enclave valley in Haut-Jura developed wooden comb-making as a subsistence activity in winter, to supplement their agricultural resources. This activity soon boomed and continued into the 19th century, when people began working with horn.
  • Ets Auguste Bonaz Cannelage 1910.9 copie
  • Le Courbage

Open to the world

Very early on, the valley’s inhabitants were open to the outside world as the economy got under way, promoting trade and curiosity. Initially, the practice of peddling enabled people to capitalise on new skills and ideas. In the 19th century, a genuine export trade towards other countries in Europe and other continents took shape. Makers of hair accessories offered their products to the world, and in return the world inspired their manufacturing processes.

  • Peigne en buis Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie à Oyonnax
    Peigne en buis Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie à Oyonnax - HautBugeyTourisme©2014_MarcChatelain
  • Peigne en buis Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie à Oyonnax
    Peigne en buis Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie à Oyonnax - HautBugeyTourisme©2014_MarcChatelain
  • Peigne en buis Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie à Oyonnax
    Peigne en buis Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie à Oyonnax - HautBugeyTourisme©2014_MarcChatelain
  • Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie à Oyonnax
    Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie à Oyonnax - HautBugeyTourisme©2014_MarcChatelain

The plastics boom

In 1878, industrialists in the valley discovered the possibilities of a new material: celluloid, which had just been invented in the United States. So they decided to embark on this new adventure. In 1899, a celluloid production plant called L’Oyonnaxienne was created to provide the raw material needed for the business. In the 1920s, short hair was in fashion so comb manufacturers had to diversify their output, including toys, eyewear, fashion accessories…

New synthetic materials came into being, as did new technical procedures such as injection. At that time, the opportunities and qualities that they provided met the desires and needs awakened in a post-war period where anything seemed possible. In 1936, the use of the injection press made it possible to increase plastic production and quality.

  • Ets Auguste Bonaz Ateliers 1910.23
  • jacquenod_sarsouille_DSC_8775_small

The first plastics centre in Europe

After the Second World War, the scale of demand and the development of plastic materials encouraged the creation of many new businesses. Their skills, creativity and ingenuity found a home in many sectors of the plastics industry, such as conceptualisation, processing, design, decoration, machine manufacturing, mould and tool production, packaging, recycling… They had many areas of application in aeronautics, the automotive industry, robotics, medicine, cosmetics packaging, garden furniture, household items, electronics… But thanks to their history and know-how, they also proved to be pioneers in the field of fashion and luxury. From hair accessories to the eyewear sector, for a century the valley has been harnessing its technical know-how to export high-end products all over the world.

Its success is such that in the early 1980s, the area was named “Plastics Vallée”, bringing together over 600 companies in the plastics sector, along with research and development organisation (Centre Technique industriel de la Plasturgie et des composites) and educational institutions (Lycée Arbez-Carme, INSA).

Plastics Vallée is the number one plastics hub in Europe.

La Grande Vapeur, an exceptional building!

Built in 1905, this “model factory” is a rare example of 20th-century architecture designed to enable an original form of labour organisation.

  • La Grande Vapeur à Oyonnax
    La Grande Vapeur à Oyonnax - HautBugeyTourisme©2014_MarcChatelain

A unique model

At the end of the 19th century, the transition from artisanal production of combs to industrial production was characterised by workers’ specialisation in a single aspect of manufacturing, amongst other things. This led to an increase in the number of home-based, family-owned workshops.

The first factory was created in around 1865 by the Société du Moteur Industriel, which let out workshops to horn workers and sold them the power provided by a steam machine. This led to the factory being commonly known as “La Vapeur” (meaning “steam” in French). In 1904, the Union Électrique, which had built an electricity plant in Saut-Mortier on the Ain four years earlier, decided to build a new factory based on the same principle. It was larger and better suited to the use of a new material: celluloid, which gradually replaced horn. It offered freelance workers known as “pièçards” the opportunity to rent working premises, selling them the new form of power: electricity. The execution of this “model factory” was entrusted to Auguste Chanard (1878-1934), an architect in Saint-Claude who produced the drawings and plans in 1904.

  • La Grande Vapeur à Oyonnax
    La Grande Vapeur à Oyonnax

Innovative architecture

The architecture of this building is a rare example in Rhône-Alpes of an industrial building made from unsurfaced, exposed reinforced concrete.

It is arranged in butterfly wings over two floors, divided into small work booths, all oriented towards a central tower housing the administrative services. Under the ceiling, two shafts powered by an electric motor activated the machines using belts. Each workshop was designed for three chamfering stations and two sanding stations. The various facilities were innovative for the time: water reserves on the roof, a sprinkler in each booth and central heating met the need to avoid the spread of fires, which were frequent when working with celluloid, and to provide improved conditions for the worker.

For prevention purposes, a roof terrace was created with a water reserve connected to each booth by a pipe with a diffuser. The initials of the Union Électrique  were displayed all around the building to mark the separate floors. The central tower shows the new possibilities of architecture with a reinforced concrete floor. At the intersection of the distribution corridors, on the ground floor and the first floor, two semi-circular basins equipped with sinks were used to wash the combs. Concrete was also used for the beams and columns, as well as the staircase window frames. The filling, on the other hand, was done using traditional masonry reinforced with iron tie rods.


20th-century heritage

La Grande Vapeur was very active until 1940, but the war followed by the advent of injecting presses would cause a drop in the production of handmade objects. In 1945, the factory was nationalised and became the property of Électricité de France.  Then, in 1967, E.D.F. sold the abandoned La Grande Vapeur factory to the city of Oyonnax. The latter continued to rent out some 28 booths until 1975, thereby demonstrating the factory’s continuing ability to adapt to new industrial challenges. In 1987, the interior of La Grande Vapeur was added to the Inventaire des Monuments Historiques, France’s inventory of listed buildings, and the exterior was listed in 1988. Work to restore the terraces and outer façades was carried out between 1993 and 2005. This monument earned the Patrimoine du 20 Siècle label awarded to 20th-century heritage buildings.

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Musée du Peigne et de la Plasturgie
88 cours de Verdun – 01100 Oyonnax
Tél. +33 (0)4 74 81 96 82

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