Are you sitting down?

A few years ago, I bought a folding shopping bag from Monoprix, which I have used regularly ever since. The pattern on it is intended to represent Paris: the Eiffel Tower, the French flag, a person with shopping parcels, a suitcase, a tree, and a bench. Gazing idly at it the other day, it occurred to me that the anonymous designer had avoided some of the worst Paris clichés (such as poodles) and offered a take on Paris that suggested tourism, shopping, and sitting down in the shade. And that got me thinking about benches.

Today, benches are ubiquitous on Paris boulevards and in parks. It was not always so. Before the days of Haussmann, sitting down in the street meant either a chair outside a bar, or making use of a convenient chasse-roue, as we see in this photo by Charles Marville.

Rue Gracieuse (from the rue Daubenton). Paris (Vth arrondissement), 1866. Photograph by Charles Marville (1813-1879). Paris, bibliothèque de l’Hôtel de Ville.

Even gardens were short on benches. The opening pages of Les Promenades de Paris by Adolphe Alphand (c1870) contain a brief illustrated history of gardens going back to the Egyptians, including gardens in Japan and China, and formal gardens from the French and Italian Renaissance. Is anybody sitting down in any of the pictures? No. Ladies and gentlemen drift through the landscape admiring the parterres and the statues and the long vistas, but nobody is seated.

The first picture in Alphand’s book to show anybody sitting down is on page 213, in a view of the Square des Arts et Métiers.

The rest of the book is a high-level how-to for public gardens, with examples drawn from Alphand’s own creations: the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes, the Parc Monceau, and the Buttes-Chaumont, among others. If you want precise instructions for planting a full-grown tree or creating a water system for a fountain, Alphand is your man.

Among the detailed diagrams for everything from pavilions to pissoirs are three for benches that any Paris visitor will recognize: the curvy version with multiple slats (known as the “gondole”), the simple planks held up with metal supports that resemble tree branches (the Buttes-Chaumont model), and the two-sided version usually seen in the boulevards (banc-double).

The designs are usually attributed to Gabriel Davioud, along with the designs of other quintessential elements of street furniture, such as lamp standards and news kiosks. Did Davioud actually draw the designs himself? Or did he simply sign off on designs created by his staff in his capacity as the “chief architect of Paris promenades” under Alphand? Whichever it was, his is the name attached to them.

The three designs are still in evidence today. The gondole shown here is in the Bois de Boulogne, in a spot favoured by the resident cats.

This Buttes-Chaumont model is actually in the Square des Batignolles. This design is part of a trend visible in many parks to imitate wood in metal or concrete.

And this rather grubby banc double is from the boulevard Edgar Quinet, just outside the Cimitière de Montparnasse.

There is also a hybrid model : a single bench made with uprights similar to those of the banc-double. This one is in rue Cardinet, just outside the new Clichy-Batignolles-Martin Luther King park.

According to urbanist Stéphane Malek, the first benches were not just places to rest, but theatre seats that allowed the flâneur to watch the passing parade – and to be seen as well. Malek produced a fairly exhaustive study of public benches for his master’s thesis in 2011, which included maps of the density, location, and even altitude of benches across Paris, created by cartographer Jules Grandin, and displayed on Grandin’s website.

I’m not entirely sure what insight can be gained from that level of detail, but it is impressive, and I say this as someone who has spent a considerable time reading papers by master’s students.

What is more interesting is the social function of benches. An interesting detail comes from an 1898 Baedecker guide (p. 74), which explains that chairs on the boulevards can be rented for 10 centimes, but benches are free.

There is something inherently democratic about a bench. One might sit next to almost anyone (hence the popularity of the park bench as a setting for New Yorker cartoons). Benches also allow for hand-holding, kissing, and all sorts of romantic encounters. Georges Brassens sings about them in “Les Amoureux des Bancs Publics.”

Nowadays, couples are more likely to be studying their portable phones on benches than engaging in romantic dalliance.

Norman and I have a bench that is part of our history together – the one where we had our first picnic in Paris, the day after our arrival, on our first trip to the city together. Some years later, we went back to the Place Constantin Pecqueur in Montmartre. It is a tiny park with a few trees, a statue, and a great many benches. The benches have been moved away from the centre of the park where we sat, so we do not know exactly which one is “ours.” But it would have been one like this.

The range and shape of benches has enlarged over the years, and so have the numbers of places to sit down in public in Paris, from bus stops to the steps of the new Opera. But there is something timeless about the painted green wood, the shady tree nearby (the designer of that Monoprix bag knew that trees and benches often go together) and the feeling that so many others have been here before, kissing, holding hands, picnicking, laughing, crying, chatting, checking their messages, or watching the world pass by.

Text and original photographs by Philippa Campsie. Marville photograph from Paris en Images. Alphand illustrations from Gallica. Final photograph taken in the park just outside the Picpus cemetery.

 

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Avoiding the crowds in Versailles

It may seem impertinent to write about Versailles on Bastille Day, the ultimate Republican holiday, but I am not talking about that Versailles – the royal chateau, now overrun with tourists. I want to talk about the other Versailles – the attractive town with its quiet tree-lined streets and bustling markets. In Versailles, getting off the beaten track is easy, since there is only one beaten track. Everything else is uncrowded and peaceful by comparison.

I went in April, with our friend Mireille, in pursuit of Charles Barbier, the original inventor of point-writing (precursor to Louis Braille). As I mentioned last time, most of what has been written about him is balderdash and I am trying to set the record straight.

Barbier lived in Versailles in the 1820s, and I wanted to learn more about his time there, if possible. I had two addresses for him, and I knew that the Archives communales de Versailles had records of a yearly census that had taken place in the 1820s. That was enough to plan a visit.

So on a sunny Friday, we endured a crowded RER ride from Les Invalides. We got off at the Rive Gauche station, and headed along Avenue Général de Gaulle. And when everyone else from the train surged left towards the chateau, we kept going towards a residential area. Our way led through the Marché Notre Dame, which was in full swing.

It was tempting to dawdle there, but we carried on and found our first address: No. 4, rue Sainte-Victoire. The building was old enough to be the one that Barbier would have known. It was on a quiet narrow street, and we could see tantalizing glimpses of gardens behind the houses. In fact, I placed my camera on the ground and took a shot underneath a gate (okay, I’m nosy).

We circled the block to see what else might be visible, but the houses kept their secrets.

The second address was just around the corner: No. 95, boulevard de la Reine. Just as this was beginning to seem too easy, I saw something that made my heart sink: No. 91, ancient No. 75.

Zut alors! The street had been renumbered at some point, probably after Barbier’s time. So I snapped away at likely-looking houses in the vicinity, hoping that I could sort out the numbering at the archives.

We were diverted to see that the utility boxes on the boulevard were decorated with illustrations from La Fontaine’s Fables. Barbier used those fables to illustrate some of his alternative forms of writing, including this one of the fox and the grapes.

By this time, we were ready for lunch, so we retraced our steps and had a choice of inviting cafés and bistros on the streets surrounding the market.

The market was closing up as we walked through it after lunch. I spotted a stand selling baskets for 5 euros and picked out one into which I dumped my notebook, my pencil case, my map, and my cardigan (by then unneeded).

Finding the archives proved to be more difficult than we expected. The mailing address I had written down turned out to be the magnificent city hall.

The interior was every bit as grand as the chateau, and we had it all to ourselves.

We asked the man at the desk at the foot of the imposing staircase. No, the archives were in a different building, “over there, across the street,” he said, gesturing vaguely. Since the city hall stands at a large intersection, “across the street” could be interpreted in a number of ways.

We set out in the direction of his gesture and found ourselves walking towards the chateau. We inquired at the Écuries du Roi (the former royal stables). Nobody there had even heard of the Archives communales. We returned to the intersection and tried the other side of the street. We passed an interesting installation made of curving staircases.

We also noticed an amusing trompe-l’oeil in the window of a nearby building.

Finally we spotted a small blue sign, positioned sideways, beside the entrance to a courtyard. Aha!

Some cars were parked in the courtyard, and only after working our way around the periphery did we see another blue sign. It told visitors to go around the corner and through another archway. We found the entrance, with a stairway leading upwards. The archives were on the top floor. Up we toiled, to find a spacious room lined with bookcases, containing large tables and computer monitors.

An archivist showed us how to view the censuses on the computers. Mireille and I sat down beside each other and we each chose a different year to begin with. After a few false starts, we found our man.

The census covered five years of his stay in Versailles, during which time he was living in the boulevard de la Reine.

1824: Barbier is described as a “rentier célibataire” (single man of independent means) aged 61 (he was actually 57), paying 50 francs a year for lodging. Clearly the census takers weren’t fussy about getting ages correct.

1825: Barbier “et sa femme” are living in 2 rooms and paying 60 francs a year. What! All the other records suggest that Barbier never married. And why didn’t they give the woman a name?

1826: Barbier, 62 (he was 59), “et une bonne” (maid) are living in 2 rooms and paying 70 francs a year.

1827: Barbier, 60 (bingo! finally!), “et une bonne” are living in 2 rooms and paying 70 francs a year. Maybe the “wife” of 1825 was actually a maid. Or Barbier had a live-in significant other he was passing off as a maid. How will we ever know when we don’t even have a name to go by?

1828: Barbier is now living alone in one room and paying either 30 or 50 francs a year (the handwriting was not clear). The nameless woman in his life (who might have been a maid or a lover or both) has gone and Barbier has downsized (money troubles?).  At some point in the year following the census, Barbier returned to Paris, and he does not appear in the 1829 census.

That was all. I had been hoping that the census might identify how Barbier described himself in terms of his work (inventor? writer?). I was hoping for a clue to his decision to live in Versailles during those years. And the archivists were unable to help with the question of changed street numbers, so I still don’t know which house on the boulevard de la Reine he lived in.

Ah, well. We had a mercifully uncluttered day in Versailles, a good walk, a good lunch, and found some unexpected information to chew on. As we squeezed ourselves into a train bulging with weary, sweaty tourists, we felt quite smug.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie

Posted in Charles Barbier, Paris history, Paris markets | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Stepping back into the river

Hello again. Rebonjour.

Our sabbatical from blogging lasted a year. We are uncertain about how and how often we will continue, but we did want to say hello to our readers (if you are still there) and post an update.

Over the course of the year, while keeping up with work and family commitments, we pursued our research. Norman continues to study the technology of communications with and among the blind; Philippa is investigating the story of a peculiar early-19th-century inventor called Charles Barbier (don’t  bother looking him up on Wikipedia, because the information there is wildly inaccurate).

We visited Paris earlier this year, arriving a week after the fire at Notre Dame. We did not go to see the site; it seemed more respectful to stay away.

We were also in the city for the annual May Day parade, which passed under the windows of our rented apartment. May Day is France’s Labour Day and the parade celebrates working people and unions.

We saw a few scuffles between marchers and the police (who were present in large numbers), but for the most part, it consisted of a vast mass of people walking, waving flags, sometimes singing, and generally enjoying a day off work in nice weather.

Some wore gilets jaunes, some wore silly costumes. This fellow had both.

There were banners and flags and slogans. Not all were aggressively political; here are two we spotted in the evening after it was all over.

(The one against the tree says “It takes 47 muscles to frown and only 13 to smile” and the one on the ground says, “Sometimes one needs someone smaller than oneself.”)

The marchers took about two hours to pass the intersection where we were watching them. Then the police took off their riot gear, piled into vans, and went home, and the men in green came out to clean the streets and tidy up the rubbish and that was that. Life on the boulevard continued.

The preparations for the parade were as interesting as the parade itself. Over the days before the march, everything movable was taken away – chairs were piled up inside cafes; cars, bikes, and scooters were parked on side streets; even the local bottle bank disappeared. Panes of glass were removed from bus shelters along the route. The windows of public buildings were boarded over.

Temporary bus stops were dumped in a heap with some scooters on the pavement behind the police cordon.

The temporary stops were there because the bus routes were in flux. Construction on the RER underneath the boulevard Montparnasse had led to the re-routing of traffic lanes, and buses could no longer stop at the usual places. The same was true of the stops around the Bastille, where traffic is permanently snarled as the circle is reconfigured into a U-shape to allow more space for pedestrians in front of the opera house.

Ceci n’est pas un bus stop. Most Paris bus stops have seating, lighting, shelter, maps, and a place to recharge your mobile phone. Parisians accustomed to a more stylish way of waiting must find the crude replacements deeply dissatisfying.

Meanwhile, the city has rearranged the entire bus system of Paris – the first time since the 1960s. Those handy books filled with details on the routes and the stops and the interchanges are now obsolete.

Of our two local routes, one was extended, one was curtailed. The 91 used to link the Gare Montparnasse with the Bastille; it now goes all the way to the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord. You have to watch your shins because it seems nearly every passenger has a suitcase. The 83 from the Porte d’Ivry no longer crosses the river to the Right Bank.

On the one Saturday we spent in the city, transit was even further disrupted because of the weekly demonstrations. We went with a friend to an exhibit at the Fondation Custodia (a delightful art gallery that even some Paris residents have not yet discovered). The bus that should have taken us there stopped several streets short of our destination and we then had to cross a police cordon. The police officers were helpful and moved the barrier to let us by. We spent a happy afternoon in the gallery, which was filled with visitors, but quiet and peaceful.

Change, destruction, chaos, and flux. In the midst of which one finds oases of tranquillity and space for memory. Paris is not only divided by a river, it is a river. One never steps into the same Paris twice.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie.

 

Posted in History of the blind, Paris civic functions, Paris streets, Paris travel | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

A web of friends and a ceremony in a former corset factory

For many, Paris is the City of Light, grand museums, or extravagant shopping forays. For us, it is the City of Surprises, and now, a city of friends. Several years ago, when we started research on the history of communications technology for the blind, we had no inkling what might lie ahead. We never imagined that our research would lead to new friendships, culminating in an invitation to witness one of them being awarded the French Order of Merit. Let alone that the ceremony would take place in a former corset factory.

The first step on the road to this delightful outcome took place at a Book Arts Fair in Toronto some years ago, where Norman met Martin Howard, a noted collector of antique typewriters. That led to an abiding friendship and to Norman’s growing fascination with Martin’s splendid collection, most of all the Hall Braille-Writer, invented in Illinois in 1892.

Norman was captivated by the elegant design, and also by the way in which this inexpensive device changed the lives of blind people, making it possible for them to communicate quickly in Braille.

Several years ago, as the two of us were leaving for a trip to Paris, Martin suggested we contact a Paris typewriter collector with whom he had corresponded. We did so, and he urged us to visit the museum at the Association Valentin Haüy to see its outstanding and varied collection of Braille writers and other communications devices for the blind. There we met Noëlle Roy, the conservatrice. She patiently answered our many questions and encouraged us to touch and try the machines (this is not a museum where touching the exhibits is forbidden!).

Norman ended up writing a paper about the invention of the Hall Braille-Writer and presented it at an unusual conference in England called “Blind Creations.” Noëlle was there, along with many other French delegates. Following a group lunch, Norman found himself at the table opposite Zina Weygand, the eminent French historian of the blind and a keynote speaker at the conference.

Norman said shyly, “Je ne suis pas très confortable quand je parle français.” Zina replied, “I am not very comfortable when I speak English.” And yet somehow they chatted for 15 minutes and Norman asked how to get a copy of a paper she had written. Zina said, “Bruno will know. Follow me.” She introduced him to Bruno Liessen from Brussels, who assured Norman he would send him the paper.

Bruno also mentioned a knowledgeable collector of artifacts relating to the blind who lived near Paris. He offered to send her Norman’s contact information. The collector turned out to be Mireille Duhen, who was indeed both knowledgeable and helpful, and a volunteer at the Association Valentin Haüy. We have since exchanged countless emails with Mireille, and shared information (you will have seen some of her contributions to this blog) as well as spending time together in Paris and at the Musée Braille in nearby Coupvray, where we met Stéphan Mary, who brought Braille machines out of storage to show us.

Meanwhile, we also got to know Noëlle’s husband, Patrice Roy, who took us on an unforgettable walk in the Marais. And it was on a visit to Noëlle’s and Patrice’s apartment that we got stuck in a tiny elevator. Getting stuck in someone’s elevator turns out to be a rather bonding experience.

And so through a complex web of friendships borne out of research, our love of Paris, and serendipitous events, we found ourselves travelling to Paris to attend the ceremony on June 8, 2018, at which Noëlle, now retired from the museum, would receive the French Order of Merit. Is it any wonder that Norman likes to say, “Planning is what you resort to when chance breaks down”?

We had no idea what to expect at a ceremony in which the Order of Merit is awarded. We had vague visions of formally dressed Academicians, 19th-century rooms with cherubs on the ceiling, mirrors on the walls, and acres of gilt chairs, and speeches in which people used a lot of subjunctives and conditional verbs. Norman wore a jacket and tie on a sultry day to rise to the occasion.

But this is France. Never assume. The venue turned out to be a renovated former corset factory in the 10th arrondissement near the Canal St-Martin, now used for digital enterprises, and we sat on modern chairs in a light-filled space that rose up three floors to an iron and glass ceiling. The picture below was taken before the rest of the audience arrived.

Some of the men wore jackets and ties, but most of the audience was dressed casually. Mireille was there, along with some people we had met at the conference in England, and Zina Weygand presented the award.

Unlike Canadian professional conferences, with which we are all too familiar, there were no extended preliminary warm-ups to the main event. We have come to dread conference talks in which someone introduces at tedious length the person who then introduces the keynote speaker. On this occasion, there were only two speeches, both of them interesting and to the point.

Zina Weygand gave the opening speech, in which she explained why Noëlle Roy, former conservatrice of the museum and library at the Association Valentin Haüy, had been granted this honour.

Zina was frank. She was funny. She addressed Noëlle as “tu” and gave us a short but pithy biography of her colleague (we hadn’t known Noëlle had grown up in Africa, when her father’s work as an engineer took the family to Algeria and the Ivory Coast, nor about her early career in psychology, a field chosen by her father). Zina made connections at each step with Noëlle’s work for the Association Valentin Haüy.

Zina explained that Noëlle had embarked on a new career after the birth of her son and daughter, studying art history and attending the prestigious school of museology at the École du Louvre. And she noted candidly that for Noëlle, working in the museum of a school for the blind, where visual aesthetics were not at the centre of the collection, was at first disconcerting, given her training and interest in art history.

Zina was also forthright about the short-sighted decision of the Association Valentin Haüy not to replace Noëlle when she retired, which means that this unique museum is no longer regularly open to the public. The French were in the forefront of educating the blind in the 18th century, and until 2017, part of Noëlle’s job was to introduce visitors, researchers, and students to this history by introducing them to the Association’s unparalleled collections and explaining their value. Alas, nobody does this important work now, and we are not alone in thinking that Paris is the poorer for the loss.

Zina ended her talk with the words, « Au nom du Président de la République et en vertu des pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous faisons Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite » (in the name of the president of the Republic and by the powers conferred on us, we name you Chevalier of the National Order of Merit) and pinned the medal and its blue ribbon on Noelle’s lapel.

Noëlle’s gracious response was to thank, individually and in detail, those in attendance (to our amazement, we were included), and also to talk about the distinctive setting for the ceremony. Apparently, the recipient of an Order of Merit can choose where and how to receive the award, and is responsible for the arrangements. Noëlle had made an interesting and unusual choice in the former factory.

It was once a corset factory, that of Auguste Claverie. Noëlle alluded humorously to the importance of corsetry in enhancing the female figure, but went on to explain that 19th-century advances in body-shaping technology turned out to be crucial when it came to bandaging and supporting bodies damaged in the First World War. The connection to disability was appropriate, since the First World War was also the occasion for advances in the treatment of the blind, but that was not the reason for Noëlle’s choice.

Today, the former factory is home to Cap Digital, an information technology research hub that, among other things, is pioneering technologies that help the blind. One, for example, is an app called Panda Guide that uses video and image analysis to describe a space in words to a blind person so that he or she can navigate the space. What a perfect venue for such an event.

Noëlle also mentioned that although the Claverie corset brand is no more, the Claverie corset shop is still a going concern at 234, rue du Faubourg St-Martin. A few days later, we went to take a look. It was early afternoon and we had not known that the shop closes for lunch from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., but we took an enjoyable walk along the Canal (past a building we have written about before) while we waited for it to reopen. It was worth the wait. Other than the lingerie available for sale, the interior is much the same as it was 100 years ago. (Alas, there was scaffolding all over the façade, but the front is also largely unchanged.) One would not have thought that such an interior could survive into the 21st century.

As you read this, we are on our way home to Canada, after an extraordinary vacation in which we spent time with friends, learned more about communications with and among the blind, and gained a little more insight into this city that we will never fully understand, but will always appreciate for the surprises and gifts we receive and the friends we make as we explore it year after year.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball. Photograph of Noëlle Roy by Patrice Roy.

After eight years of blogging and 200 posts, we have decided to take a short sabbatical. Over the next few months, we need to focus on some other writing projects, as well as a family wedding. We will return in 2019 with more stories of our favourite city.

 

Posted in History of the blind, Paris architecture | Tagged , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Les petits bleus

Elderly guidebooks let you visit Paris in the past. We have three. Two date from 1927 – Muirhead’s Paris and its Environs (Blue Guides), and the Express Guide to Paris and Environs (Publications Anglo-Américaines) – and one from 1950: Nagel’s Paris (Blue Guides). We bought them mainly for their maps, which are not only charming, but helpful in locating streets or buildings that have since vanished.

The guidebooks also describe services that have disappeared – the Petite Ceinture railway, river steamers (bateaux-omnibus), the central tramway network, public baths, subscription libraries for foreigners, and télégrammes pneumatiques. The guidebooks recommend the latter, also known as cartes-télégrammes, pneus, or petits bleus, for rapid communications within Paris.

Pneus were cheaper than conventional telegrams, particularly if the message was long, because the sender did not pay by the word, but by weight (60 centimes for 7 grams in 1927; about 45 old francs for the same weight in 1950). The sender could hand-write a message and deposit it in a special box at a post office; it would arrive at its destination one or two hours later.

Paris’s pneumatic telegraph system started in 1866, connecting the Bourse (stock exchange) with a telegraph office in the Grand Hotel (the one near the Opéra with Café de la Paix on the ground floor), about 800 metres away. Stock exchanges depend on quick communications and fortunes can be made by those who are first to receive crucial information.

The pneumatic message system differed from the pneumatic clock system we described in an earlier blog. The clocks needed an unobstructed stream of air emitted at regular intervals to push a lever that moved the workings of the clock. With the pneumatic mail system, a canister obstructed the stream of air in the airtight tube. The canister was sucked or pushed along by the difference in air pressure on either side of it.

How did it work? From early childhood we learn to use differences in air pressure. Consider the pea-shooter (which children are probably now forbidden to use). The pea is in a tube, the child blows into the tube. The air pressure behind the pea is greater than that in front of it and the pea hurtles out of the pea-shooter.

Or consider drinking with a straw. You put the straw in your mouth and close your lips about it to create a seal. The liquid comes up the straw. By sucking in you have lowered the air pressure in the straw – that is, created a partial vacuum – and the higher air pressure on the surface of the liquid in the glass forces the liquid up the straw. It is all about creating a difference in air pressure and then putting it to work.

The 19th century was a period  of gloriously inventive technology and many people explored how to use compressed air and pneumatic systems. An Englishman, George Medhurst, experimented with pneumatic transport, and in 1810 invented a pneumatic railway. A Scot, William Murdoch, is credited with inventing the pneumatic dispatch tube. The system used positive air pressure to push a capsule several inches in diameter along a tube.

In 1853 the technology came into practical use in London with a 1.5-inch diameter, 220-yard pneumatic tube joining the Central station and the Stock Exchange station of the  Electric and International Telegraph Company in London. Berlin followed in 1865 and Paris in 1866.

A year after its inauguration, the Paris system consisted of a one-way circular route with a single tube running from the Bourse to the telegraph offices on rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, then to the rue de Rivoli, then across the river to the rue des Saints-Peres, from there to the Central Telegraph Office on the rue de Grenelle, then back to the rue Boissy d’Anglas on the right bank, and finally back to the Grand Hotel. After 1888, the tubes were doubled, so the system did not have to be just one-way.

The main conduit was an airtight tube with sealable hatches. Messages were carried in cylinders that could be opened at one end to insert the papers. The earliest messages were telegrams arriving at telegraph offices; later, letters or postcards could be used. The illustration below, from The Engineer, 18 December 1891, shows the London system.

Cylinders could be made of metal, wood or (in the 20th century) plastic. Slightly smaller in diameter than the tube, at either end they had protective bumpers as well as buffering material around the circumference to prevent air from blowing by.

In the Paris system, air pressure at the rear of the canister pushed it on its journey from a central station; it returned when vacuum pressure at the front pulled it back. This push-pull system meant that a single station on the network could provide the power for both sending and retrieving canisters.

When the canister arrived at its destination, a worker would open a door in the tube, remove the canister, and close the door to reseal the tube. To send another canister on its way, the worker would open another door, insert the canister, and close the door. Off the canister went, moved either by pressure or vacuum.

The Paris system grew over time and according to Douglas Self, whose website is a feast of information on retro technology, in 1874, “Trains of canisters departed every quarter of an hour from Rue de Grenelle, covering the 1500m to the next bureau (Rue Boissy-d’Anglas) in 90 seconds. The canister carrying messages for local distribution was removed, another carrying messaged handed in at that bureau was added, and the train sent off to the next destination, Grand-Hotel. From there it proceeded to La Bourse, Place Theatre-Français and Rue des Saint-Peres. It finally returned to Rue de Grenelle, having taken 12 minutes on its round trip. Each train was composed of ten canisters, together weighing about four kilograms. Under either vacuum or pressure of about 10 psi the train had an average speed of 1 kilometre in 60 seconds,” or 60 kilometers per hour.

The final part of the message system used older technology: messenger boys on foot or on bicycles to deliver the letters or telegrams to their destination. This illustration is from Mon Dimanche, 17 mai 1903.

Gradually, more and more pneumatic stations were added. As with the clock system, the tubes ran through the sewers. They were iron, with an internal diameter of 65 mm, joined with stepped flanges to prevent air leakage. As much as possible, the tubes were laid in straight lines; any curves had a radius between 5 and 20 metres. The tighter the curve, the greater the probability that a cylinder would jam.

The system covered 467 km at its height in the 1930s. In areas where noisy equipment was not permitted, water power from city mains generated both pressure and vacuum in the stations. In less sensitive areas, steam-engine-powered equipment was used.

The network, shown in this 1926 map from Gallica, had two main hubs: the Bourse on the right bank, and the central telegraph office on the left (the same building we described in the blog about the Chappe telegraph system).

The black dots are the power houses, the single circles are telegraph offices that sent and received messages, and the double circles had both message offices and power equipment.

With the exception of a line to Neuilly, the system operated within the old walls of the city (also shown on the map).

Before 1898, senders had to use the official petit bleu stationery, which was sealed and perforated on three sides: the sender sealed it up and the recipient tore along the perforations to open the message. They were rather like airmail forms, also blue, which we remember using up to about the 1980s.

Later, one could write an ordinary letter and send it through the same system. This video clip from the movie Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses) by François Truffaut shows a regular letter going through the system.

The citywide pneumatic system continued into the early 1980s, and smaller pneumatic systems are still used in hospitals, major libraries, and other large  institutions and businesses, in Paris and elsewhere.

Paris’s city network lasted a long time, probably because until late in the 20th century, individual landline telephones were unreliable and hard to obtain in France (people waited months for installation). Now, with text messaging, petits bleus seem impossibly quaint, although rather romantic.

Text by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie, with thanks to Mireille Duhen for finding the video and other sources of information.

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The postcard collector

To her employers and patients, she was known as Nurse Pirie. But to Norman, she was simply Grandma Stevens. She lived with Grandpa Stevens in a house that his Grandpa had built, near enough to Norman’s family home in Hamilton, Ontario, that Norman could ride over on his bicycle. Which he often did.

Norman long ago told me that his Grandma Stevens had gone to boarding school in France at some point and had worked as a private nurse for an aristocratic French family with an ailing child. He said she had told his mother that she thought it unkind of her family to send her off on her own as a schoolgirl when she didn’t speak a word of French. Norman felt that the Pirie family was proud of its Huguenot heritage and had wanted Elsie to experience living in France and learn the language. She clearly learned enough to go back and work in France.

Norman has a picture of her as a young woman, taken by a professional photographer in Lille. Was that where she had studied, or worked? There was no indication. I wondered about her – where did she live? who did she work for? why had her family sent her alone to France? – but assumed I would never find out. There were no documents. Norman’s grandparents had burned their personal correspondence not long after they married; it was regarded as confidential and not for posterity.

But a few days ago, I opened a box that has been sitting in our basement since Norman’s mother died in 2002. It was labelled “Norman – Family Photographs.” Along with dozens of packages of family snaps from the 1960s and 1970s, it contained hundreds of postcards from the turn of the last century. Grandma Stevens collected postcards!

Some were brief exchanges between family members, much like today’s text messages – “I’ll be on the evening train that gets in at 7. Can you meet me?” – and some were miniature letters. Some simply said, “Here’s another one for your collection.” Some had no messages and had been saved for their images only. A few were in albums. Many were from France.

So one evening, Norman and I spread them out over the dining room table and began to sort them into groups. It took hours. Details were patchy – someone had soaked off many of the stamps and thereby removed the postmark. Few writers bothered to include the date in the message, and hardly anyone included a last name, because these were exchanges between friends and relatives. Maud and Ruth and Louie and Freddy felt no need to identify themselves beyond a single name.

Postcards do not tell a consistent or logical story, but we now know a lot more than we did.

Elsie Mabel Stevens, née Pirie, was born in Plumstead, near Woolwich, in 1887, the eldest child and only daughter of George Pirie, a Scottish-born engineer and fitter who worked at the Royal Gun Factories associated with Woolwich Arsenal. Her mother, Jessie, was a nurse and probably a midwife, and Elsie had three younger brothers.

The earliest postcard we found was awarded to Elsie for “punctual and regular attendance” at Bloomfield Road school in 1899: the picture is of two people admiring a waterfall after having taken what appears to be an improbably dangerous route over the rocks. Perhaps awards like these gave little Elsie the taste for collecting postcards.

After that, the next postcards date from 1905, when Elsie turned 18, and continue to 1913, the year she went to Canada to marry her sweetheart, William Stevens, who was homesteading in Saskatchewan. One group dated from her training as a nurse in 1908 and 1909; they were addressed to her at the Cottage Hospital in Aldershot and at the West Ham Infirmary in Leytonstone.

In 1910 and 1911, she seems to have remained in Plumstead, working locally. Then in 1912, she returned to France.

Identifying the aristocratic family was easy. Her parents sent her postcards c/o the Comtesse de Bondy at 13, boulevard des Invalides, Paris, or at the Château de la Motte aux Bois, Hazebrouck. There were several images of the château in Elsie’s collection, and plenty of Alpine scenes, particularly around St-Gervais-les-Bains. There were also pictures of a Château de Maubranches in Moulins-sur-Yèvre.

There was even a picture of the Comtesse de Bondy herself, in an Alpine setting, with someone called the Marquise de Loys (the Comtesse is the confident-looking woman on the right). This was one of several postcards created from personal photographs.

On a French website called Geneanet, I found Édouard Marie Robert Taillepied de Bondy and his wife Émilie Charlotte Marie Loys de la Grange. She was born in 1886, so she was just a year older than Elsie, and she had two sons: Olivier (the sickly child, who was born in 1911 and died when he was only 26) and Jacques, born in 1913, after Elsie left.

Elsie seems to have worked for the family for less than a year. The last few postcards from 1912 are from Bourges, not far from the Chateau de Maubranches. Elsie apparently worked there in the Hotel Dieu (a hospital run by nuns) before she left France.

When she returned to England, the nurse who replaced her in the de Bondy household sent her a postcard from Cambo, a resort near the Pyrenees.

Dear Nurse,

Thank you for your letter… The last I saw of your box and parcel was on the railway station at “St Gaultier” but I understand the railway company here will not take them to England unless someone is going with them. What became of them after we left I cannot say… I’m more than sorry I ever came to France and often wish I had returned the first month. I hope to return early in March. I must now save to return as it costs FF100 to Paris from here. I would bring your luggage with me if I were coming soon.

Trusting you will be happy in Canada and that your wish may be granted. M. le Comte in my idea very bad state of consumption. If you saw the Comte you would not know him – all skin and bones. Baby is well.

Yours sincerely,

Nellie

The Countess gave birth to her second son in Cambo in January 1913. And the Count de Bondy died the following year, 1914, at St-Gaultier. I wonder why Nellie regretted her decision to come to France. Perhaps she was homesick.

In amongst the postcards we even found Elsie’s train ticket home. The date in December 1912 is stamped with perforations right through the ticket.

So far, so good. But I was intrigued by a set of postcards sent to England from France. Several came from someone signing herself “Auntie Nell” in writing to Elsie and “Nell” in writing to her parents (not the same as Nellie the replacement nurse), as well as someone called Jessie (the same name but clearly not the same person as Elsie’s mother), a Helen Nys, a Léon and Marguerite, and a Hippolyte something-or-other. Some were in French, some in English. They all dated from before 1912. Were they people she had met while attending school in France?

I kept returning to look at one from Nell to Mr and Mrs Pirie, sent in 1909. It shows an unremarkable train station at a place called Croix-Wasquehal. The message says, “Do you remember this station?” So the station had some meaning for the Pirie family. But what?

Today, Croix is part of the Lille metropolitan area in the north of France, close to the border with Belgium. It is right next to a town called Roubaix, also now part of Lille. There were two other postcards from Croix and eight postcards from Roubaix (five from Nell; three from Jessie). On one, Nell gave an address in the rue des Bouvines, Roubaix.

Did Elsie have an Aunt Nell? And if so, was she visiting France when she sent the card or did she live there? I rummaged about on ancestry.com, but could find no evidence of aunts and uncles. I could trace back several generations of Piries, and several generations on her mother’s side, too, but that was all.

I was hunting in the wrong place. I finally fetched up on a site called Filae, a French version of ancestry.com. You can search the site for free, and it lets you see up to eight documents (census records, birth and marriage documents) before it starts charging you.

On a whim, I tried “Jessie Pirie.” Bingo! I yelped for Norman. Yes, she was George Pirie’s sister, and she had been born in Croix!

“Nell” turned out to be Hélène Pirie, another sister. A third sister, Mary, had married a Jules Nys and had a daughter Hélène. Marguerite (Margaret) had married someone called Léon. Hippolyte Scotet had married another sister who had been given the English name Jemima, in honour of a relative; the French couldn’t cope with that, and she shows up in the records as Germina or Jimmia. Altogether George Pirie had seven sisters and one brother, all but one born in Croix.

Apparently, George Pirie’s father moved with his wife, son, and daughter from Scotland to France in the mid-1860s, settled in Croix, and went on to father a large family there. Most likely, he worked at a textile factory in Croix owned by a fellow Scot, Sir Isaac Holden. He was just one of many Scottish and English people who lived and worked in Croix. Some came from the very same town in Renfrew, Scotland.

Only his eldest son George went back to the U.K.; the rest of George’s sisters and his only brother remained in France and married French people. Those cards were from Elsie’s relatives: aunts, uncles, and cousins.

When she went to school in France, Elsie may not have known the language, but she was not surrounded by strangers. She had a large family in the Lille area, and they kept in touch with her and her parents. But it seems that Elsie never mentioned them to her children and grandchildren, and Norman (and his own siblings) had no idea that somewhere in France, they must now have a sizable number of third cousins. Some may still be in Roubaix or Croix. Perhaps we will meet them one day.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs and postcards from the collection of Elsie Mabel Stevens.

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A question of time

What do you remember most vividly about your first visit to Paris? For me, more than 20 years ago, it was the astounding range of merchandise in shops and galleries, the parks, and the cleanliness of the city.

For a visitor in 1881, it was the clocks. He marvelled “that the clocks throughout their hotels were, what is unusual with hotel clocks, keeping accurate time.” He was also astounded to find “numerous clocks standing on graceful light iron pillars in the squares, at the corners of streets, and in other conspicuous positions about the city.” Parisians lingered by these public clocks to set their watches. The one shown below stood in front of the Church of la Madeleine.

That visitor was a French-born but London-based civil and electrical engineer called Jules Albert Berly, editor and publisher of J.A. Berly’s Universal Electrical Directory and Advertiser. He had travelled to Paris for the 1881 Exposition Internationale de l’Électricité, the world’s first international electrical exhibition. But to his amazement, these remarkable timekeepers were neither powered nor regulated by electricity.

He presented a paper in London and published an article in the 14 January 1882 issue of American Architect and Building News to spread the word about “The Distribution of Time by a System of Pneumatic Clocks.” Interestingly, he does not talk of telling time but of distributing time, as if it were a commodity such as water or gas.

The Parisian system was a model of elegant design and technology. The air came from compressed air pumps and was sent through wrought iron pipes and then on to lead pipes or rubber tubes to the clocks. Every minute, a 20-second pulse of compressed air entered the clock. The system worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, without interruption.

Pneumatic clock. Photograph published in “Excelsior,” June 14, 1916. (Note the unusual sign about not abusing animals.)

The key mechanism in each clock – not something found in conventional spring and weight clocks – was a small bellows. In Berly’s words:

Every minute the pressure of the air raises the bellows, and a rod attached to the upper bellows-head actuates a lever which engages with a wheel provided with 60 teeth, which is rigidly secured to the minute hand arbor or shaft. The wheel rotates the distance of one tooth every minute, and a weighted pawl on the other side of the dial checks the movement.

If one watched closely, the minute hand did not move steadily as is the case with most clocks today. It moved once a minute in a single jump. The hour hand was rotated by means of the usual dial wheels. A chime could be activated by a second bellows.

Pneumatic clocks came in a range of designs to fit into any decor. Alternatively, conventional clocks could be retrofitted with the bellows mechanism. Since buildings were not designed for compressed air distribution, these retrofits required pipes or tubes running along interior walls to connect the clocks to the central system. An 1880 article in Scientific American suggested that the lines leading to the clocks could be “colored the same as the wall paper or woodwork of the room, so as not to be easily perceptible.”

Coal-fired steam engines powered the air compressors from a central plant. Because the Seine floods periodically, the equipment was placed higher than the expected flood levels.

Compressed air from the plant left at a pressure of 15 to 45 pounds per square inch (about 1 to 3 atmospheres) for storage in a high-pressure air tank. From there it travelled through a pressure regulator to a low-pressure storage tank or accumulator. Its release was controlled by a distributing clock, shown below. The driving weights were lifted by compressed air to keep the clock running and on time.

 

An automatic timing mechanism opened a valve to release a 20-second pulse of air every minute and then the valve closed for 40 seconds. The 20-second-on, 40-second-off cycle was repeated every minute. The pulse of air travelled to every receiving clock, be it in a private home or office or in a street or public building, and advanced the minute hand by one minute. The air travelled through a system of pipes, many of which ran through the Paris sewer system. There were two distributing clocks, so that if one malfunctioned, an electric alarm sounded and a workman could pull a lever and bring the other clock online to control the flow of air.

As described in the July 10, 1880, issue of Scientific American, from which the illustration above is taken, the main air lines were made of wrought iron about 1-1/16-inch diameter. To direct air to a clock, the main line was tapped and a stopcock and 3/5-inch lead pipe was attached. Inside the dwelling or building, lead or rubber tubes 1/8 inch in diameter were attached to the lead pipe. These went to individual clocks.

Pneumatic clocks quickly became popular. The spread of a new technology is often helped immensely by key adopters. And in a city known for luxury, Le Meurice Hotel stood at the pinnacle of luxury accommodation.

In the 18th century, French postmaster Charles-Augustin Meurice realized that the growing number of English tourists visiting the continent wanted the comforts and conveniences they expected at home. He opened the Hotel Meurice in Calais in 1771 followed in 1815 by the Hotel Meurice in Paris. Located since 1835 on the Rue de Rivoli near the Tuileries Palace, it stood out for quality, convenience, and refinement.

In 1880, the Hotel Meurice installed 148 pneumatic clocks, a service for which it paid 56 pounds sterling a year, the same amount it paid each year for its water supply. Accurate clocks were a status symbol and the Hotel Meurice was an early adopter. The Hotel Meurice had electric lights by 1891 and telephones followed a few years later.

Although Paris showcased the technology, it was not a French invention. In the 1870s, compressed air was an emerging technology used in mines, tunnelling, and factory equipment. J.A. Berly traced French attempts to make compressed air clocks back to 1864 and other sources mention various attempts in the 1870s.

However, the breakthrough came in Vienna, with the inauguration on 23 February 1877 of the first public service for the distribution of time by compressed air. Carl Albert Mayrhofer of Vienna invented the system and in addition to French, U.K. and Belgian patents took out U.S. patent 215,381 in 1877, “to keep a number of clocks in regular and isochronous motion by pneumatic power.”

Mayrhofer’s American patent was assigned to Victor Popp and Ernest Resch (misspelled Resgh on the patent), also of Vienna. Inventors are not always the best people to bring ideas to commercial fruition and Popp and Resch appear to have created the working system and undertaken its commercialization. In the 1878 Paris Exhibition their system received a silver medal.

Their proof-of-concept work was done in Vienna. A small number of publicly accessible clocks worked for a year and the technology was improved so the minute hand moved every minute rather than every two minutes. However, when in 1880 they petitioned the Viennese municipal authorities, they were refused the 50-year monopoly they sought. The Viennese Pneumatic Clock Company ended its operations.

Meanwhile, on 1 August 1877 the Compagnie Générale des Horloges Pneumatiques had been formed to deploy the Système Popp-Resch in Paris. In November 1878 the company received permission to lay up to 10 km of pipes in the sewers of the first and second arrondissements, connected to a central compressed air plant at 7, rue Ste-Anne (there was also a showroom at that location, shown below).

The following month the company obtained permission to deliver pneumatic time to private dwellings. The big moment came on 15 March 1880, with the inauguration of the public service, including four clocks (some with multiple dials) on lampposts on the grand boulevards.

By the end of 1881, the sewers were carrying nearly 32 km of pipes and 750 houses with a total of 4,000 clocks depended on the pneumatic system. And this was only in the first and second arrondissements.

On 9 July 1881 Paris awarded La Compagnie générale des Horloges pneumatiques a contract with a 50-year monopoly from 1 July 1881 to 30 June 1931. Under the terms of the agreement, the company would extend coverage arrondissement by arrondissement, until by the end of 1886 the entire city of Paris would have pneumatic clock service.

Much was made of the fact that the city was to be fitted with clocks as a public service; this included clocks at cab stations and kiosks, street clocks mounted on lampposts, the clocks of the Hotel de Ville and all the arrondissement mairies, and clocks in police courts and police stations, municipal barracks, theatres, schools, markets, parks and squares, churches, and even slaughterhouses.

Les Abattoirs [slaughterhouses] de la Villette. Paris, vers 1900.

The city of Paris paid for these services. The cost depended on the size of the clock. The payment schedule was on a sliding scale decreasing every five years for the first 25 years of the contract and for the remaining 25 years of the 50-year contract there was to be no charge. At the same time, the agreement specified annual payment from the company to the city for installing its pipes in the sewers.

The civic officials of Paris made an excellent choice when they opted for the compressed air system. Although electric clocks were feasible at the time and potentially more accurate, they would have been much more expensive. J.A. Berly regarded the electrically regulated clock as “more a delicate scientific instrument than a practical apparatus for the rough-and-ready purposes of ordinary life… pneumatic clocks are not regulated to fractions of a second, but, after all, nobody ever wants to keep appointments by fractions of a second, and trains have not arrived at that pitch of punctuality that it is necessary to calculate by seconds whether one can catch a train.”

The clocks served Paris exceptionally well until the great flood of 1910, when the Seine rose high enough to flood the compressed air plant and on 21 January 1910 at 10:53 a.m., the thousands of clocks on the system stopped. However, the system was repaired and pneumatic clocks remained a feature of the city until 1927, when the service was discontinued.

Seine flood. Rue de Rivoli near the Saint-Jacques Tower. Stopped pneumatic clock. Paris, 1910. Photograph by Albert Harlingue (1879-1963). Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.

Text by Norman Ball; illustrations from Paris en images, Wikipedia, and Scientific American.

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