The First Industrial Fair at Brussels

I

You cannot miss it; for the Bruxellois have set it in the very heart of the city, in the beautiful park that spreads a green canopy between the palace and the parliament buildings. At least, the main section of the Fair is there; the machinery division has a separate home in the Palais du Midi, and the rich and romantic colonial display is in the Palais d’Egmont.

This first industrial fair differs from what we commonly understand by the term in more ways than in appearance. Nothing is for sale on the premises; the exhibitor is there only to take orders from sample specimens; for this is a wholesale market of the type of the famous old fairs of Nijni-Novgorod and Leipzig. Belgium’s effort is part of an interesting general movement in Europe toward a return to the great wholesale market, a movement much stimulated by the astonishing success of the Lyons Fair last year. Norway hopes to hold one, as does Milan; Basel is just opening its fourth fair; the temporary buildings of the May Market in Paris are almost completed, while the century-old Leipzig Fair has had a quite unexpected demand for stalls: such a disturbed district as Finland, for instance, has asked for 100 places, Hungary for 100, while Poland seeks no less than 500.

One recurring recompense to one who lived through the German Occupation in Belgium is his wonder and happiness in the amazing accomplishment of Belgium’s courage and apparently inexhaustible effort of to-day, as he sees it against that remembered background of destruction and despair. This particular lovely park of the capital forms one of the black spots in that memory background. Facing, at one end, the palace, from whose dome, usually, the bright national flag flies, announcing that King Albert is at home, and, at the other end, the parliament buildings, its tall elms and pretty ponds and flower-plots are dearly loved by the people, and especially by the city’s children. The Invader drove the children out, barred the high grilled iron gates, set up a few disfiguring barracks under the elms, and used the park spaces as a cavalry exercise ground. To the Bruxellois having daily to pass it, the barred gates and the arrogant officers riding inside were a symbol of their slavery. I have watched black-shawled women reach defiant hands between the iron bars, to scatter a few of the numbered bread-crumbs of hungry winters to the sparrows inside, condemned — they, too — to live under a conqueror.

And to-day I have come swiftly from Ostend across the unbroken 1920 spring garden of the two Flanders, — no garden in the world can be lovelier, — and unexpectedly face to face with a miraculously transformed Brussels Park; for an exquisite miniature city laughed from its green pavilions. About twelve hundred tiny portable houses were tucked away under leafy boughs, beside tulip and azalea plots. And in these little buildings resurrected industrial Belgium was At Home to the world. Incidentally, I learned that the portable houses had been made at Antwerp and sent down to Brussels on canal-barges. Birds were singing, a Belgian soldiers’ band played, and strangely across the music newsboys cried the latest reports of chaos in Berlin. It was all so incredible, as memory set it against the desolate past, so fairylike, so gay, — for the spirit of Belgium, free, is always a laughing spirit, — that one struggled between smiles and tears.

In the Fair City over 1625 firms had arranged their samples, and others were pressing for space. Of these 1200 were Belgian and 425 from outside: from France, Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Holland; a strong representation from Great Britain, and a very limited one from Czecho-Slovakia and other young countries—and from the United States. Though great care had been taken to exclude the Germans, it was rumored that some had slipped in under cover of other nationalities; a common jest in the comic sheets turns on the ease with which the German slips into the coat of the Pole or the Czecho-Slovak. My eye quickly caught such familiar signs as Harrods’, and Lipton’s Tea, and the even more familiar one of the American Express Company, the O’Cedar Mop, Lux, the Monitor Store Company, and the Edison Lamp.

The Fair Committee has grouped industries under 120 classes from the point of view of their value and importance. One should spend much of his time in visiting those classes installed in the machinery and colonial palaces — and indeed the crowd is always compact about the diamond and copper and ivory and gum and rubber displays of the Congo companies. But one is tempted always to leave them, to return to the exhibits of the miniature city under the trees. There one finds the glass and silk and chemicals and porcelains and linens and lace, the wool and leather and iron-work, the horticultural and other products, for which Belgium is so well-known to the world. On the whole, the stands most difficult to approach because of the constant crowds before them are those displaying building materials,—whether tiles, or slate shingles, or marbles, or brick, or wood, — or household appliances of any sort; and undoubtedly the highest point of interest in the ent ire Fair has been a charming little whxte-and-green portable house, built of concrete sections, which the inventor claims can be set up for fifty francs less per square metre than the price paid by the government for the temporary wooden houses it is placing in the devastated areas. I have seen the wooden houses, and they do not bear comparison in appearance and comfort with this attractive whiteand-green cottage, with its pretty window-boxes and brick entry and fireplace, its water-pipe system and convenient kitchen arrangement. The Fair is to continue a fortnight, and by the end of the first, week the concrete portable house firm had received orders from the north of France alone amounting to three hundred million francs! Thus, in the midst of all the appearance of industrial reestablishment and success, one cannot escape the fact that just below this appearance is the still tremendous and poignant problem of Dixmude, Nieuport, and Ypres.

I looked down the textile avenue, past the green branches and stands, off across the city, where the great Palace of Justice closed the long vista, and from the main parkway to the King’s Palace, where the flag floated. In the middle of this way stood the victory statue, the Brabançonne,—which I had seen set up in the Place de Ville on the day of Liberation,—with forget-me-not beds about its feet; all about me clustered the tiny houses. We in the United States do not know this kind of picture. I cannot imagine any committee of American men thinking it possible to accomplish such an extensive and comprehensive exhibition plan in miniature. The note here is restraint rather than repetition, most careful selection of specimens, meticulous care in arrangement. The little houses are daintily curtained and gayly painted, often with quaint insignia, as well as with bright advertising slogans. Each morning, as I go by, women are about with pails and brushes, polishing windows and doorsteps, on the lookout for a possible dust blur anywhere. They brush off the washing-machine exhibit set up beside an embowered statue of Apollo with such cleverness that Apollo is in no wise offended.

When the wagons and little carts, some of them again drawn by dogs, unload their exhibit pieces, they furnish another contrast with American method. Belgian workmen handle each article as if it were fragile and precious. Each workman seems to have a feeling of responsibility, not only to his employer, but to the object he handles. The more one travels about Belgium watching its people at work, the more one must be impressed, not only by their love of work for the work’s sake, but by their respect for what it produces. These qualities are in a large degree the secret of Belgium’s resurrection. Her work-song sounds from the soil to the skies.

Perhaps one hears it most clearly in Flanders, where men and women and children, and their animals in close comradeship, are early and late in the fields. Indeed, all along the Flanders way, he who runs may read. This April, under a continuous bower of pear-bloom, the low-sloping red-tiled farm cottages shone like jewels on the plotted plains, where the gold mustardbeds alternated with the claret-brown of freshly turned soil and the emerald of grain-plots. The rudest temporary hut has wall-flowers and mignonette beside the freshly scrubbed doorway, beneath the gayly painted lintel. Every living thing is at work, digging or planting or cutting or building or embellishing, or packing his chicorée and potatoes for export.

The work-song is loud and strong in the smoking Liége and Hainault regions, which have sent their metal and coal and quarry and chemical products to the Fair. The individual Belgian, in every district, asks you for little more than the freedom to go about his work. He says, substantially, ‘What the government proposes to do about this particular tomb of a factory, or cemetery of a village, is not my primary concern. I shall not wait to find out. Only let the government keep out of my way and not bother me with its red tape and regulations.’ And he sets about his reconstruction job.

Yesterday I came back from Furnes, where in the early morning lace-women balanced their cushions on odd planks or bars in the ruined fields, and began busily shifting their bobbins. Along the immortal Ypres-Menin way I saw men in the late dusk still sorting the bricks of a débris-heap, or trying to lay the tiles of a roof. And this morning, in the southwest, the director of one of the most important glass-factories in the country told me of the way his men (on the eight-hour schedule) linger at their work, eager to add something here or there if they can. All of which is just a glimpse behind the scenes of the sparkling Fair village in Brussels.

It was rewarding to go further behind the scenes in an attempt to get a closer view of the general industrial situation illustrated by exhibit spedmens in Brussels. And I have, as a result of my visits to the focal points of industry, a respectable dossier of facts and figures. They were given life and intense interest by talks with such leaders of Belgian industry and banking as M. Eloy and M. Allard, and by the friendliness of engineers and directors. But it would be futile to set down in detail figures which, happily, are continually changing. The most satisfactory thing one can do, after all, unless one’s interest is specialized and technical, is to try to find out how far, in general terms, Belgium has advanced on the road of recovery, something of the momentum with which she is advancing, and above all, to take account of the precious racial trait or quality that makes her inspiring forward march possible.

II

Belgium is, of course, one of the most highly industrialized tracts in the world: the 1910 census showed 40 per cent of the population engaged in industrial pursuits, whereas in Germany, widely reputed for its industries, only 22 1/2 per cent, and in France 23 1/2 per cent, of the population is thus engaged.

But it is important to bear in mind that the greater part of Belgian industry consists in the transformation and manufacture of raw products, and that since the Germans requisitioned the entire reserve of stocks, all attempts to rehabilitate industry have been at the mercy of a crippled transportation and an unfavorable exchange.

Europe’s morning prayer to-day is, ‘Give us our coal, our daily coal.’ And in Belgium, as elsewhere, coal is at the base of all production. As to coal, she is very fortunate in one respect, and unfortunate in another. Before the war the mines yielded twenty-two million tons yearly, some of which was exported; but on the other hand, it was necessary always to import coal, chiefly for coke, from Westphalia. To-day Belgium’s coal production is completely back on a pre-war basis — indeed, the present production is 103 per cent of the pre-war production. But Belgium always imported a certain needed amount from Germany, especially of cokemaking coal. And so, while she now is producing nearly enough coal to use as coal, she most seriously lacks coal for coke for her factories. The great blast furnaces at Thy-le-Château, for instance, are ready to operate, but they stand idle for want of coke. The solution rests with the increase of coal importations from Germany or elsewhere. If there were sufficient coke, the steel output would soon be doubled.

But, despite the coke famine, there have been marvelous accomplishments in the metallurgic field, which depends, too, on the importation of iron ore from the Grand Duchy and Lorraine; for Belgium has no iron mines on her own territory. We all know of the systematic destruction of the steel plants, of the ruins of such important works as the Cockerill, Ongrée, and Angleur establishments near Liége; of La Providence and others in the Charleroi district. They have had to push ahead literally foot by foot in their débriscovered areas, while they fought to regain their outside connections for import and export. M. Eloy told me that he believes that, despite the fact that they were three fourths destroyed, La Providence works at Marchienne may attain a normal production by the end of this year. Marieheye will be producing one fourth of its normal output by July, and Ongrée probably as much. On the whole, this major industry may be said to have recovered between one fourth and one third of its pre-war capacity.

But while the great production plants are still seriously crippled by the difAcuities of coke importation and of the reconstruction of their plants, the petite metallurgie, or the factories making up smaller steel products, such as nails, wire, and the like, are going on excellently: they are turning out about two thirds of their pre-war production. The locomotive works at. Liége are now functioning, and, to cite only one example, the Fetre de Feze manufactory of tools expects to be quite reëstablished by July. These smaller metal industries show up particularly well at the Fair.

After having looked down through the Occupation years on the dead plains where Mons and Charleroi lie, it has been thrilling this April, as soon as I had crossed the coal-deposit frontier at Manége, to look down on the clustered smoking chimneys of the Hainault basin, and on the coal-mine dump-hills on which the Belgians are encouraging delicate birch forests to take root. The Germans left the chimneys of Belgium standing, doubtless in the hope of one day possessing them, while they destroyed those in Northern France. It was good, too, to see the coal-carts again drawn by horses or donkeys instead of by the human animal. At La Providence steel mills, one finds the dramatic proximity of utter ruin and throbbing activity, fresh ore from Lorraine being dumped beside a group of workmen still battling to clear away twisted iron and fallen walls, with the new steel skeleton of a great hall, made on the premises, etched against the satin sky.

In close neighborhood with the steel plants of Hainault, are the glass factories for which Belgium has long been famous, and in which she covers all the varieties of production between the basic common window-glass of such a plant as Mariemont, and the plate and mirror glass of Roux, and, finally, the ‘articles de luxe’ made in the Val Saint Lambert near Liége, with their countless exquisite forms of brilliant crystal, unsurpassed in any country. On the whole, this important glass industry has regained a 60 per cent production. Here again the one hundred per cent return is chiefly a question of coal. For Belgium finds all the necessary sand in her own rich quarries, which, though ruthlessly used by the Germans, especially in the porphyry sections, are rapidly regaining a normal position. I spent some time in the Mariemont works. From the circle of human beings moving back and forth before the white-flamed furnace mouths, swinging and blowing the long cylinders into shape, past those who cool and carry and spread and polish them, I came to those who finally pack the clear sheets between straw in the wooden cases marked Alexandria or Mexico or China or Canada. In every working group was revealed one of the primal secrets of Belgium’s industrial success: it is the attention to minute detail and finish.

The plate and mirror works at Roux have been in operation since February, 1919. Aside from their exports to us, they have other American connections. They set up the first American oven in Belgium. And the Director, M. Jean Jean, had on the day of my visit, just completed arrangements for the purchase of American coal, which, he said, he could buy cheaper there than in England. At the Charleroi works at Roux, in contrast with Mariemont, everything that can be is accomplished by machinery. The director told me that his greatest personal pleasure in the reestablishment of his plant was in finding that his men, —there are 1250,— who had been enforcedly idle for over four years, had taken hold again with no apparent loss of skill, and with a spirit that admitted no slacking anywhere. Of their product 90 per cent is exported, of which 60 per cent goes to England and the United States.

One is tempted to go farther and farther away from the little park city in Brussels. There are the various textile industries: the linen looms of Courtrai, still very seriously crippled because of the lack of imported flax; the woolen mills of Verviers, in better condition, since they have been getting wool from England, and during the last three months have been exporting the woven fabrics; and, of greater interest still, since the United States is one of their best patrons, the artificial silk factories of Toubise and Oburg and Alost, where a silk substitute is produced from woodpulp or cotton-powder or rice-straw. In 1914 Belgium produced one fourth of the world-output of this ‘ silk,’ selling in a year as much as 140,000,000 francs’ worth. With these industries, recovery is not a question of coal, but of necessary ether and alcohol. On the Fair grounds I heard that a Belgian company is about to erect an important artificial-silk factory in the United States.

One might go farther and farther, even to the lovely valley of Oudenarde, and Knokke with its brick and tile and ceramics factories, which have not only already furnished roofs for the destroyed sections about it, but are exporting to Northern France; or way off north, to the chemical works of the Campine — everywhere one would find the same inspiring progress and faith in an ultimate complete victory. Industry as a whole is employing 76 per cent of its 1914 personnel, and in the coal and transport departments more than its 1914 numbers. Belgium’s total exports for January and February of this year were equal to one half the entire exports of 1919, among the most important of these being textiles and glass.

The April report of the Echo de la Bourse on the activity of the port of Antwerp further illustrates what is back of the Fair at Brussels. During the first three months of 1920,1876 ships, aggregating 2,252,217 tons, put into port. In 1914, there were 1748 ships aggregating 3,498,425 tons. In view of the present Scheldt controversy, it is interesting to notice that the report for Rotterdam entries during the first quarter of 1920 reads 773 ships, of 889,987 tons.

One of my most vivid memories of desolation is of the Antwerp docks at the close of 1916. Not a human step broke the silence of the long landingplatforms, grass grew between the paving-stones, not a boat lay at anchor, but off in the distance a single giant canalboat poured a stream of golden wheat, the life-blood of Belgium and Northern France, into the ‘Commission for Relief’ smaller barges below by its side. This week I revisited the docks, now a forest of funnels and masts, a teeming sea-world of barge and ship and schooner, with the wharves heaped with wares from the corners of the earth.

Belgium has been bound for four and a half years, but nothing can hold her now she is free. Through Antwerp she reaches her hand to accept from and to give to all the world. These are days when we need encouragement. Well, we can find it if we will, in Belgium, in what the gay little Fair represents. Belgium kindled our spirit during the war; then we heard her stern chant of courage and endurance, and the wall to die, if honor or duty demanded. Today we can hear, if we listen, her passionate work-song, the song of her will to do and to do well.