The BATA Phenomenon

In interwar Czechoslovakia, »BATA« was perhaps the most frequently used word in the Czech language. Founded in 1894 in Zlín – a town with barely 2,800 inhabitants – over the next forty years the Bata footwear empire grew from a workshop producing fifty pairs of slippers a day for the Viennese market into a cosmopolitan corporation that produced a quarter of a million pairs of shoes a day in an industrial city of more than 40,000 people, thus making it a symbol of the economic prosperity of the newly independent country.

František Lýdie Gahura: master plan of Greater Zlín, 1934. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

František Lýdie Gahura: master plan of Greater Zlín, 1934. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

The modern look of its hometown of Zlín and of satellite towns elsewhere in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, as well as the tragic death of founder Tomaš Bata in a plane crash on 12 July 1932, have made the name legendary. It is a legend that survived the company’s nationalization on 27 October 1945 immediately after the Second World War, Zlín’s renaming as Gottwaldov and the Bata company as Svit (both on 1 January 1949), the subsequent “anti-Bata” era of the 1950s, and the conscious spread of disinformation about the Bata phenomenon by the Communist regime all the way up to the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. Despite all these efforts, however, the Communists failed to completely eradicate the respect for and memories of the greatest Czech entrepreneur of the modern era, nor the physical legacy of his activities.

My generation, which grew up in the 1950s, still has childhood memories of the unusual form of the company’s stores in every small town or village, with their light green shop windows and their interiors done in the uniform company style – or the proud white Bata stores with their glass façades in most large towns, from Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary in the west to Uzhhorod and Mukachevo in the country’s eastern “tail” of Subcarpathian Ruthenia. These modern buildings were provocatively built right next to historical structures with medieval, Baroque, Neoclassical, or Art Nouveau edifices. The stores’ interior atmosphere was defined by the rhythm of round pillars spaced exactly 6.15 meters apart, by the light green cardboard shoe boxes meticulously stacked on shelves along the walls, and by the long rows of chrome-tube chairs with canvas seats and backrests that were still there in the late 1950s. By comparison, the industrial garden city, with its checkerboard pattern of little square single-family detached and semi-detached houses surrounded by greenery and built close to the factory grounds, has, despite certain changes, survived to this day.

On the evening before a school trip to Zlín in the spring of 1955, which among other things took us to Bata’s grave in a beautiful forest cemetery, my father remarked laconically: “Tomorrow, you will see America.” The next morning, his prediction came true in the form of the stunning view from the terrace of the former Společenský dům hotel (by then already called the Moskva) over the Dřevnice River Valley, onto the forest of little brick family homes on the hillsides sloping down to the river, and of the factory in the very centre of town. This image nostalgically evoked not the grey reality of the post-Stalinist socialism in which I lived, but rather the bygone era of well-organised capitalist prosperity.

The birth and growth of the Bata factory under the monarchy

Just two years after the company’s founding, siblings Antonín, Tomaš, and Anna Bata began producing light canvas shoes knowns as “Baťovky,” which immediately became very popular. In 1898, the construction of a railway line connecting Zlín with the main Katovice–Vienna line facilitated distribution throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the turn of the century, Tomaš Bata (1876–1832) took on much of the initiative within the company. He moved the factory closer to the city’s train station, and Bata was soon one of the eight largest Czech shoe manufacturers, with 250 employees in 1903. A year later, he and three colleagues travelled to America, where he worked in a factory in Lynn, Massachusetts, even becoming a union leader. Impressed by the unprecedented productivity that he witnessed there, he returned home with stops in Leeds, Leicester, and Germany, and immediately set to building a modern three-story production facility. He took a firm stand against union protests and entirely prevented strikes. After his brother Antonín’s death in 1908, Tomaš took full control of the company and entered the broader European market.

Although Tomaš Bata had begun construction of his private villa with a local builder, upon the advice of his wife Marie (whose father was the head of the Imperial Court Library in Vienna), he hired Jan Kotěra, a professor at the Prague Academy, to complete the work, including the garden and interior. The result was a truly elegant home in the English style. Bata’s discussions with Kotěra on the subjects of housing and on the idea of English and German garden cities led him to hire Kotěra to draft a master plan for the city of Zlín with these goals in mind. His second trip to America in 1913 confirmed his faith in Taylorism and Fordism. And so, just before the outbreak of war, the company managed to increase production to 4,000 pairs of shoes a day, thus strengthening its position in the central European region.

On the day that war was declared, Tomaš Bata travelled to Vienna, where he managed to win a commission for military footwear from the Ministry of War. In so doing, he saved his workers from military service. In addition, he was soon able to use prisoners of war as a source of labour. His company’s expansion was thus guaranteed for the duration of the conflict. He even began to build a retail network, opening eighteen stores by war’s end. And with production of 9,000 pairs of shoes a day, the Bata company was the largest shoe manufacturer in the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire.

František Lýdie Gahura: Bata department store, 1929–30, and market hall, Zlín, 1927. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

František Lýdie Gahura: Bata department store, 1929–30, and market hall, Zlín, 1927. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

František Lýdie Gahura, Le Corbusier, and Bohuslav Fuchs in Zlín, April 1935. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

František Lýdie Gahura, Le Corbusier, and Bohuslav Fuchs in Zlín, April 1935. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

Vladimír Karfík: Headquarters of the Bata company, Zlín, 1937–38. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

Vladimír Karfík: Headquarters of the Bata company, Zlín, 1937–38. Courtesy of Vladimír Šlapeta

The complete article is published in Autumn 2020 issue of Piranesi No. 42-43/Vol. 28.

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