Learn how the simple farmer became a villain in French popular culture.
If you’re ever in the cereal aisle and see the cylindrical containers with a Quaker on the front, you know exactly what you’re looking at: Quaker Oats oatmeal. But have you ever wondered why a Quaker is good advertising for oats? Americans often associate Quakers with purity, moral uprightness, and modesty, so the founder of Quaker Oats chose a Quaker logo to imply that his product was pure as well. However, while this association works in America, it doesn’t work everywhere.
On May 9, 2023, Andrea Goulet, professor of French and chair of French, Italian, and German Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, visited BYU to present to a group of French professors and students about the shift in 18th-century French perceptions of Quakers.
Goulet began by establishing the 17th-century context of French depictions of Quakers in popular media. At that time, Quakers appeared in books and plays as good, modest, kind people. The Quaker characters in books such as Le jeune Quaker (The young Quaker) are simple farmers taking care of their land. Artists used these characters to reflect an idealized United States. Goulet said, “The good Quaker aligns with a pastoral, almost primitivist version of the young American democracy. It emphasizes honesty and virtue.”
Around the start of the 18th century, however, French attitudes toward the United States, and by extension, Quakers, started to change as a result of the failure of the French Revolution, which caused many to feel disillusioned with democracy. Depictions of Quakers became exotic and strange, even cartoonish. This shift can best be seen in plays from this time period, including Alfred de Vigny’s Chatterton and Adolphe de Leuven’s Les sept péchés capitaux (The seven deadly sins), which poke fun at Quaker manners and customs. Goulet said, “These plays stage a conflict between the waning aristocratic society and the new democratic society.”
By the end of the 19th century, Quakers were regularly depicted as hypocritical pacifists who bought their way out of the army and drank behind closed doors. For example, in Paul Féval’s Jean Diable, the titular character is born in an empty barrel of gin with jagged teeth and a Quaker hat on his head. Goulet said, “Most interesting to me is this caustic caricature, because it pulls together anti-pacificist mockery and anti-American sentiment under the sign of a Quaker hat” (see left). The villainized and otherized Quaker stereotype had become a way for French artists to express their beliefs about America, democracy, and their own unstable society.
Goulet’s study of shifts in French perceptions of Quakers provides valuable lessons about how art, literature, and media shape and reflect societal attitudes and biases. As Goulet reveals, these perceptions aren’t always as straightforward as they appear on an oatmeal box.