Nostalgic images of a vanishing city

Photographs of Paris in the snow were big news earlier this month. We are Canadians. As Gilles Vigneault sang of this country, “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” (My country is not a country, it is winter). So our reaction was mainly a lifted eyebrow. We remember a snowy December when buses stopped running because of what Parisians considered treacherous conditions. We’ve dined out in Toronto on that story.

That year, the snow was at most half an inch deep. But in an odd little book, we found an image of a Paris omnibus attempting to make its way through much higher drifts. Now that’s what we call snow.

The book is called Curiosités de Paris by Henri Boutet (1851–1919). We found a battered copy at a flea market a few years ago. It consists of a series of one-page commentaries, mostly on nostalgic themes, with illustrations by the author, some original, some based on the works of other artists. Boutet was an artist known for his engravings and etchings of Paris life, particularly the women of Paris. There is no date on the book, but a mention of automobiles and aeroplanes suggests the early 20th century.

The image above is marked “d’après Férat.” That is, the Russian-born Serge Férat (1881–1958). I found a more detailed and larger version on the cover of Le Monde illustré of 13 December 1879.

The newspaper explains that Férat made the sketch from life the day after a heavy snowfall in 1879, as residents tried to get on with a normal day under abnormal circumstances. It also identifies the location: near the Senate (the Palais du Luxembourg), likely the rue de Tournon.

Boutet seems fond of omnibuses, as they feature in other illustrations. This one, a Boutet original, shows an omnibus in a downpour with a jumble of umbrellas on the upper level.

« Le Boulevard, d’après Ed. [Edmond] Morin » shows an omnibus on a brighter day. A glimpse of the Café Tortoni in the background places the scene in the Boulevard des Italiens. The original was also from Le Monde illustré.

Other illustrations in the book depict quaint customs. We had never heard of the “La Neuvaine de Saint-Etienne-du-Mont” (the Novena of St-Etienne-du-Mont), which takes place in the first half of January at the church near the Pantheon. Boutet calls it “bien peu parisien” and likens it to a church festival in Brittany. Little booths selling religious trinkets would be set up near St-Etienne and the street in front would be thronged with nuns. Novenas consist of a set of special prayers or services on nine consecutive days.* This one is directed to Paris’s patroness, Sainte Geneviève, and according to St-Etienne’s website, these services still take place every January, from the 3rd to the 11th, although there was no mention of booths selling religious paraphernalia.

Sure enough, the larger original was in Le Monde illustré, in 1859.

Another little essay and illustration is devoted to the now-vanished métier of commissionaire. This was a person who was paid to carry out small commissions, such as delivering a message or a parcel. Boutet noted that the commissionnaires had already been replaced by “petit bleus” (telegrams sent through the pneumatic system) and the telephone. One hundred years later, that would change to text messaging.

A few images summon up historic events, such as “Une bombe au d’Harcourt.” The illustration accompanies an essay describing the “old” Quartier Latin that focuses on how things have changed, with merely a brief mention that one of “les obus prussiens” hit the Grand Café d’Harcourt “pendant la guerre” (when Boutet was writing, that meant the Franco-Prussian War).

The café was at 47 boulevard St-Michel, at the corner of the Place de la Sorbonne, and the bomb fell in January 1871. The image, supposedly based on one by “Lix,” is amusing, as the patrons (presumably students) seem only mildly surprised by the explosion, and all but one of the wine glasses are still upright and intact. Once again, I was able to find the original in Le Monde illustré from 1871.**

What strikes me is the way in which artists freely used each other’s works, and also the way in which, in the days before the widespread use of photography in newspapers, armies of artists were employed to depict events in illustrated journals. And not just quick sketches, but large and detailed images, week in, week out.

With these images, Boutet was doing something similar to Eugene Atget with his photographs. Both wanted to capture a world that was disappearing or, in some cases, had already disappeared. One image in Boutet is of the demolition of some old buildings.

The accompanying essay on Demolitions ends this way:

Au loin, un poteau, près d’un tas the gravois, met en évidence la petite lanterne à huile … qui semble être, a l’heure où la nuit commence, la pâle lueur d’une veilleuse au chevet de maisons qui vont bientôt mourir.

In the distance, a pole, near a heap of gravel, holds up a small oil lamp that seems, as the evening draws in, like a nightlight at the bedside of houses that will soon die.

It’s a haunting analogy. Paris is always a city of farewells. Many of the things we have written about in this blog since 2010 have already vanished. There is always something new to take the place of what has gone. But knowing a city means knowing something about its layers, and Boutet describes and depicts a few layers that we had not known about.

Text by Philippa Campsie, illustrations from Boutet’s book and from Gallica.


* Novenas to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, have long been popular and back in the days when newspapers had classified advertisements, one would sometimes see a special prayer published nine days in a row to bring about some particular request.

** The artist’s name is not actually “Lix.” The newspaper credits A. Daudenarde (probably Louis Joseph Amédée Daudenarde), who based it on an original sketch by M. Sahib, and Sahib turns out to be a pseudonym for one Louis Ernest Lesage… Boutet was apparently a little casual in his credits.

Posted in Paris art, Paris nostalgia, Paris popular culture, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Update to A City Street, A Lamppost

I finally heard back from the Roger-Viollet agency with the name of the photographer: Roger Berson. I was not able to find out much about him, but stay tuned. His name led me to the original shot, taken in August 1944, during the liberation of Paris. Had I found it earlier, I could have saved myself some trouble, but would have missed an enjoyable adventure. The shot is much wider that I realized – notice the hats in the window on the left and the name of the shop that at first eluded me.

World War II. Liberation of Paris. F.F.I. with a gun, at the corner of the rue Ramey and the rue de Clignancourt. Paris (XVIIIth arrondissement), August 1944. Photograph by Roger Berson.

So I should dispel any impression that Roger-Viollet does not respond to inquiries, although the response is not rapid. And I can draw your attention to a key detail that I had overlooked – the man in the foreground is carrying a rifle.

Philippa Campsie

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A city street, a lamppost

It was the photograph that caught my eye from a high shelf in a bookshop. A street with a lamppost and the corner of a building; two men walking in opposite directions. It was only later that I registered the title: A Country Road, A Tree. Odd, I thought. That’s not countryside and there is no tree.*

I made a note of the title and got the book from the library. Jo Baker’s fictionalized account of Samuel Beckett’s war years in France is well-written and held my attention at a difficult time as I moved my mother to a long-term-care home. I recommend it unreservedly, but this is not a book review. It’s that cover photograph I want to talk about.

I should specify that I was reading the Canadian edition. The U.S. edition uses the same photograph, but not quite the same way. The U.K. edition and European editions use different photographs.

The acknowledgements credit the Roger Viollet / Image Works agency, but do not identify the photographer, only a colourist (meaning that the original image was black and white). There is no date. Searches of the Roger-Viollet and Paris en Images websites came up blank, and an email inquiry to the agency went unanswered.

After a certain amount of squinting at the blurry street sign at the top of the photograph, I decided it had to be rue Ramey, in the 18th. After stroll down rue Ramey on Google Street View, I found the building. It’s at the very bottom (the south end of the street), at the corner of rue Ramey and rue de Clignancourt. The lamppost is long gone and the building has seen better days.

The building has two facades and two addresses – 2, rue Ramey and 51, rue de Clignancourt. Thanks to a marvellous website listing construction permits for the city of Paris from 1836 to 1939, I found that the original structure dates from at least 1877, the work of one Ferdinand Bal.

The photograph on the book shows the ground floor of the building modified, a bit crudely, to look like an Art Deco facade. Horizontal lines, cylindrical columns, stylish lettering, and an opening on to the corner, with letters spelling out the name of the enterprise, sitting on a curving ledge facing the intersection, only just visible end-on in the photo.

The photograph on the Canadian edition is cropped so that only the letters “UET” are visible on the left, but the U.S. edition shows more of the building and its surroundings, and we can see “UGUET.” Muguet? (Lily of the valley.) But it might be a last name, given to a business: Auguet, Buguet, Duguet, Fuguet, Huguet…?

Gallica to the rescue. Typing in the two addresses led to a small advertisement for les Magasins Au Muguet in the newspaper L’Intransigeant in 1935. It was a dress-shop and part of a chain  with 35 branches. Several clothing shops had occupied that address: at the turn of the century it was called Pelissier, and in 1921 it was called Au Chic de Paris.

At the time the photograph was taken, the Art Deco modifications were getting tired and dirty and the front window was empty. This was a wartime photo, chosen because the book is set during the war. There are no vehicles visible: another clue.

The Canadian version, which has been cropped, has the effect of a bird’s-eye image or a modern photograph taken by a drone. The U.S. version, which is not so tightly cropped, shows that it was taken from the balcony of the building across the rue Ramey, which is fairly narrow. The pavement underneath the photographer is visible.

That is not all. Look at the lamppost with its crown on top. The base is squared off. Lampposts in Paris come in endless variations: six-sided versions, cylindrical versions, flared versions. Single lamps, double, quadruple.

The original is gone today, replaced by a tall modern version, but I found a similar base on a traffic light farther down the rue Ramey, at the intersection with rue de Custine.

But what is that cylindrical object halfway up the lamppost on the book cover? Some sort of signal to pedestrians or cars? There are clearly marked crossings (passages cloutés) in two directions. I consulted our friend Mireille, who suggested it might be a clock and directed me to this photograph.

In the end, the answer came from an organization called Mémoire de l’Electricité, du Gaz et de l’Eclairage (MEGE).  I had read about this organization on a blog by someone called Sandrine, who had visited the tiny museum on the Journées du Patrimoine in September 2017. The organization is run by retired electricians and other workers who have maintained Paris’s street lighting over the years.

I sent an e-mail to MEGE on a Saturday evening and had my answer by Sunday morning:

L’objet que l’on peut observer sur le cliché que vous nous avez fait parvenir est un arrêt d’autobus (voir les photos jointes). Votre photographie a été prise pendant l’occupation car les vitres de la lanterne sont masqués par des plaques métalliques (défense anti-aérienne). La question que l’on peut se poser est ” pourquoi un arrêt de bus dans un virage entre deux passages cloutés ? “

The object visible on the image you sent is a bus stop (see the attached photos). The photograph was taken during the occupation because the glass on the lamp is masked by metallic plates (blackout requirements). The question one must ask oneself is “What is a bus stop doing on a curve between two pedestrian crossings?”

Good question, and I do not know the answer. Today, the No. 85 bus serves these streets, but because of a one-way system, the nearest stop is on the far side of the rue de Clignancourt.

The message from MEGE was accompanied by two photos of bus stops on lampposts, including this wonderfully moody one of a rainy day.

Sandrine’s blog provided another detail. This is a translation of what she wrote after her visit to the MEGE museum.

Savez-vous pourquoi les feux et lampadaires sont peints en marron à Paris ? …. Avant la seconde guerre mondiale, nos beaux lampadaires et feux de signalisation étaient en cuivre, laissé nu. Mais en 1940, quand la France a perdu la guerre, l’entreprise chargée de l’éclairage public de Paris a eu peur que les allemands ne piquent le cuivre. Ils ont donc lancé des travaux d’urgence pour peindre (avec la première peinture qui leur est tombée sous la main) tous les réverbères et feux de signalisation en cuivre avant l’arrivée des allemands. Nos éclairages peints en marron sont ensuite devenus typiques de la ville de Paris, et on les a gardés. 

Do you know why traffic lights and lampposts are painted brown in Paris? Before the Second World War, our lamps and traffic lights were in copper, left unpainted. But in 1940, when France lost the war, the enterprise responsible for public lighting in Paris was afraid that the Germans would steal the copper. It launched an emergency project to paint (using the first paint that came to hand) all the copper lampposts and traffic signals before the Germans arrived. Our brown-painted lighting has since been typical of the city of Paris and has remained.

There is another, smaller piece of street furniture that also puzzled Mireille and me. The foreshortened perspective made us wonder at first if it was a fire hydrant. But we decided it was probably a boîte aux lettres. It struck me as unusual, since most letter boxes in Paris are set into walls. The base is also surprisingly massive for the small top, although that is probably protection against carriage wheels.

I found an earlier postcard with what appears to be the same object. The man standing nearby shows that these boxes were quite tall: one would have to reach up to insert mail. However, I could find nothing exactly like it in images from the Musée de la Poste, so perhaps it had another purpose.

What else is there? A manhole. The fan design of the cobblestones. And two men, walking in opposite directions. One wears a beret and a short jacket; the other a dark jacket, open-necked shirt, and no hat. The weather is likely coolish, but not cold. It’s a grey day, because there are no shadows.

I also found another view of the intersection, and immediately recognized the huge building looming in the background – the Dufayel department store. Aha, I thought, I have been here before.

I pondered why the photograph on the book cover had struck me so forcibly. And then I read the following by a man who was a teenager at the time of the Occupation, quoted in When Paris Went Dark by Ronald C. Rosbottom (2014):

The silence caught you by the throat, made sadness press into your thoughts. The houses had grown too tall, the streets too wide. People were separated from each other by spaces that were too big. Even the air which flowed down the empty streets was furtive and kept its secrets.**

The teenager who wrote this, Jacques Lusseyran, was blind. He was writing about how the streets felt to him. But the unknown photographer on the balcony across the street had caught an image of this emptiness, this space filled with secrets.

I found one other detail to add to my knowledge of this particular corner in Paris during the Second World War. On August 21, 1942, two former residents of the building at 51, rue de Clignancourt (the same building as 2, rue Ramey), had been sent from a transit camp in Beaune-la-Rolande to Auschwitz. They were part of a large convoy of children deported without their parents on that date. Joseph Epstein was 11 and his brother Marcel was 6.***


Text by Philippa Campsie; images from Google Street view and Mémoire des rues: Paris 18e arrondissement, Frédérique Bousquel, Parimagine, 2006


* The book is a fictionalized description of the experiences of Samuel Beckett during the war years; the title comes from the stage direction at the beginning of his play Waiting for Godot.

** Rosbottom, page xxxi to xxxii; the source is Jacques Lusseyran, Et la lumière fut [And there was light], 1953.

*** French Children of the Holocaust: A Memorial, Serge Klarsfeld, editor, NYU Press, 1996.

Posted in Paris books, Paris civic functions, Paris postcards, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Starry starry night

I am writing this on Sunday, December 24, and all I can think about is Vincent Van Gogh. Until recently, I had not realized that he’d cut off his ear on December 23 (which in 1888 was also a Sunday), and been discovered and taken to the hospital in Arles on the morning of December 24. Christmas Day would have passed for him in a blur of pain.

Of course, Christmas in 1888 in France was not the sentimentalized orgy of family togetherness we are told to expect these days, but I can’t help wondering about the timing of this event. Vincent was lonely and his housemate of only two months was not working out. Paul Gaugin, who had been staying with Van Gogh, beat a hasty retreat to Paris on Christmas Day in the company of Vincent’s brother Theo, who had made a rushed trip to see his brother, spending less than 12 hours in Arles.

By December 31, Van Gogh was feeling better, but he was still in hospital. During his stay, he painted the high-ceilinged ward that he shared with other patients, as well as a view of the cloister with its bare winter trees and evergreen bushes.

Although the paintings look fairly peaceful, for part of his time in hospital, Van Gogh was isolated in a small hut or cabanon, where he was strapped down on a bed, all freedoms removed, which must have traumatized him.

Vincent was not allowed out until January 4, 1889, and then only for a short visit to his house on the Place Lamartine.

On January 7, he moved back into the house and started to work again. In the painting below, the Yellow House occupies the centre of the picture and has green shutters.

The Yellow House is gone now. It was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1944 intended to knock out railway bridges in Arles. The house that stood behind it and the railway bridge, both visible in Van Gogh’s picture, remain. (It seems the bombs fell short of at least some of their targets.)

If you look carefully, you can just make out the back of a lozenge-shaped “Tabac” sign projecting from the angle of the building, just above the parking machine. Interesting.

In February 1889, as Vincent was trying recover and re-establish some peace of mind, thirty local people presented a petition to the mayor of Arles, claiming that Van Gogh was dangerous and should not be allowed to continue living in his house. According to Bernadette Murphy, a careful researcher who investigated this event, the petition was likely the work of one Bernard Soulè, the agent for the Yellow House, who had taken advantage of Vincent’s stay in hospital to sign a rental contract for the place with a tobacconist. He needed to get Van Gogh out of there, and persuaded friends and associates to sign a petition claiming that Vincent was a menace to women and children.

Van Gogh ended up leaving Arles in May 1889 for the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in St-Rémy, where he remained for about a year, painting about 150 canvases, including Starry Night and Irises.

Another thing I did not know about Van Gogh until recently was how amazingly compressed his working life as an artist was. He expressed no desire to be an artist as a child, and as a young man he gave up work in a firm of art dealers to try his vocation as a teacher first, then as a missionary. He began painting only in 1881, when he was in his late twenties.

After that, he worked for a while in Paris, living with his brother Theo at 54 rue Lepic, where he repeatedly drew and painted the view from the window. More recent buildings have now filled in the view to the horizon, but in those days he could see a long way and would not have felt too closed in.

The move to Arles in February 1888 was intended partly as an economy measure, since it would be much cheaper to live there than in Paris, and partly as a way to focus on his painting in a quieter place, since he found Paris too hectic. At first he lived and worked in a hotel in Arles, then he rented part of the Yellow House as a studio, and finally he moved in fully to live and work there.

Paul Gaugin joined him in October 1888; for Gaugin it was also a way to save money, as well as an opportunity to improve his health in a warmer climate. For Van Gogh, the prospect of another artist to talk to and share ideas with was welcome, even though he barely knew Gaugin. What could possibly go wrong? And it worked, sort of, for a while, before the two clashed, culminating in Vincent’s violent outburst on December 23.

After about a year spent in the asylum at St-Rémy and a brief return to Paris, Van Gogh moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in May 1890. He died there in July of that year from a gunshot wound, most likely self-inflicted. His last days are evoked in a recent film, Loving Vincent, which magically recreates his paintings as animated sequences.

One image from the film that struck me was that of the church in Auvers. I realized that I had grown up looking at that picture.

When I was little, my father, who worked in publishing, received a Christmas gift from a printing company consisting of half a dozen prints of well-known paintings. He had four of them framed.* The Church at Auvers by Van Gogh hung above his desk. In the evenings, as I lay in bed, I could look across the hall, and if his study door was open and the light was on, I could see Van Gogh’s painting of the church. The wiggly roof lines seemed odd, and it looked as if the tower was about to fall over, but then, I was at the age when many grown-up things seem odd, and you accept them without necessarily understanding them. Seeing that church again in the film took me back to nights curled up in my bed in my parent’s home, looking at the little figure forever hurrying up the hill, probably late for mass.

For years, I didn’t know the story of the man who painted it, let alone how he spent Christmas in 1888. But after learning a bit more about him, “Now I think I know what you tried to say to me…”

Meilleurs voeux à tous nos lecteurs et bonne année.

Text by Philippa Campsie, images from Wikipedia and Google maps; quotation from Don Maclean’s song “Starry Starry Night.”

I highly recommend Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story (2016) by Bernadette Murphy, a fascinating account of meticulous historical detective work into Van Gogh’s time in Arles. I also recommend the movie Loving Vincent, which is still in cinemas.

*The other pictures were Carnival Evening by Henri Rousseau, which hung in my parent’s bedroom, a ballerina by Degas, which hung in my sister’s room, and the Seine at La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat (also painted in 1888), which was in my room.

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The Auld Alliance

On November 8, 2015, I posted a blog about my great-uncles who died in the First World War: Raymond Hummel, who died in 1916 and is buried in France (shown on the left, below); and John Lonsdale Sieber, known as Jack, who fought in France and German East Africa, died in 1917, and is buried in what is now Tanzania.

During my research into their lives and deaths, I made contact with Jack’s school, Perth Academy in Scotland, which honours former students and staff who fell in the First World War on the 100th anniversary of each death. This project is known as “Flowers of the Forest,” the name of the traditional Scottish bagpipe lament played at funerals, and was launched by a retired teacher from the school, Dave Dykes.

In 2015 I resolved to be at Perth Academy in October 2017, along with as many members of my family as possible, to pay tribute to my great-uncle Jack Sieber. In the end, there were nine of us there on the day: Norman and I, my sister Alison and niece Alex, my cousin Jane and her son Andrew, and my cousin Ian with his wife Yvonne and her daughter Amanda. Ours is a small and scattered family and nine of us in the same place at the same time is quite an accomplishment.

The event actually took place 100 years and one week after John’s death, because the preceding week the school had been on its annual “tattie-hawking” holiday. As Dave Dykes explained, “Schools in this part of Scotland traditionally have a holiday in October so that the children can help with the potato harvest. In Scots, tattie hawking means lifting or harvesting the potatoes or tatties.”

The day began for us at St. Ninian’s Cathedral, the Episcopalian church my great-uncle’s family attended, which also has a war memorial on which he is mentioned.

When my niece asked about the difference between the layout of an Episcopalian church and that of a typical Church of Scotland building, the cathedral guide promptly walked us down the road and asked someone at a nearby Scots kirk to open up and allow us in. As we walked into the church, the man pointed to several plaques with the names of war dead on them – plaques from churches that were now closed, which had been brought to this surviving church. I wonder how many war memorials are lost when churches close.

We then visited the Black Watch Museum in Balhousie Castle. We were there because my grandfather, Alexander Campsie, who survived the Great War, served in the Black Watch. (After the war, he became a military chaplain with the Royal Navy.)

The Black Watch also commemorate their fallen in the First World War and my sister and I found ourselves placing crosses for two of the three men who were honoured that day. What you see is a fence into which individual crosses have been placed. This is just the Black Watch, just three years into a four-year war.

The cross I placed had the name Thomas Birch. I later looked him up. He came from a desperately poor family in Perth, spent time in reform school, and died from a gunshot wound in the Perth Hospital at the age of 19. It’s possible that he died as the result of a training accident. Not an illustrious career, but he signed up and he served, like all those commemorated.

The tour of the museum was led by a knowledgeable young man who focused his talk on events and objects that would be meaningful to those who might otherwise be unmoved by military history. As we came out of the museum, the sky cleared and the sun came out, and the rest of our week in Scotland seemed to be bathed in sunshine – not a common experience in autumn.

We had lunch together as a family and went to the school in the late afternoon. Perth Academy is a modern building on the outskirts of the city, not the building that my great-uncle would have known. And not just my great-uncle – both my grandparents on my father’s side attended the school, and a great-aunt taught there. Only recently have I realized what an important role the school played in the life of my father’s family.

The old school was on the edge of the downtown area, part of an elegant terrace facing a park called the North Inch.

The school’s war memorial was mounted on the façade (you can see the place it occupied between the ground-floor windows), but when the school moved, the memorial went with it, and is now in the assembly hall of the new building, where the ceremony took place.

The students read out a short biography of Jack Sieber and the history teacher who oversees the Flowers of the Forest project, Laura Hobson, read the letter sent by Jack’s commanding officer to his wife. My cousin Jane had brought “the King’s Penny” – the inscribed copper disk sent to the relatives of the fallen – to be part of the small display set up on a table in front of the war memorial.

Jane and I later talked about how we remembered seeing it for years at our grandmother’s house and not really taking in what it was or what it meant. Our grandmother always kept it brightly polished. She grieved for her only brother for a very long time.

After the short commemoration ceremony, there was an evening of food and entertainment called “Stovies, Songs,  and Stories.” Stovies are a traditional form of stew made with meat, potatoes, and vegetables, often served with oatcakes. Apparently there are as many recipes as there are Scottish cooks. These ones were good. There was Scottish shortbread to follow.

The band played, there was a piper, we all sang, the head girl and head boy read poems and letters, and there were presentations showing all the men and one woman from the school who gave their lives, as well as photographs from the students’ annual visits to the war cemeteries in France. I presented the library with copies of two Canadian books about the war (Vimy by Tim Cook and The Wars, a novel by Timothy Findley) as a thank-you for the welcome we had received.

Later, I found myself talking to some teachers, and one asked me if I visit Scotland often. I explained that as a child, we came to Scotland nearly every year to visit my grandmother in a village called Gifford (shown below).

It’s a pretty place, but rather quiet. I remember playing croquet in the minister’s garden, borrowing Miss Whitsun’s ancient clanky bicycle, or walking in the surrounding countryside, with occasional visits to Haddington, a small town with an enticing sweet shop. My cousins lived in Motherwell, an industrial town near Glasgow that seemed wildly exciting by comparison (there was a cinema). My grandmother died just before I graduated from university, my cousins scattered to different places, and somehow I never saw much reason to go back to Scotland. But I do now, and I will.

I chose the title “The Auld Alliance” for this blog because it is the name for a 13th-century agreement between the Scots and the French (against the English, of course), and the name of a pub in Paris on the rue François Miron in the Marais, the only link to Paris I could think of. Perhaps we will venture in on our next visit.

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs by Philippa Campsie, Dave Dykes, or from the Perth Academy Flowers of the Forest Twitter feed. Our thanks to Dave Dykes, Laura Hobson, and the student members of the Flowers of the Forest project for a warm welcome and a memorable occasion.

Posted in World War I | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Rise and Fall of the Visual Telegraph

Sometimes we go looking for blog ideas, and sometimes they come along and tap us persistently on the shoulder. This one did – three times.

First, I spotted an “advertorial” in a 1912 issue of a small American magazine called The Philistine. It was a two-page item on “Napoleon’s Visual Telegraph: The First Long-Distance System” and it was sponsored by American Telephone and Telegraph. The illustration looked vaguely familiar.

A few days later, I was hunting for a postcard in our collection and I ran across this one of “La Tour du Télégraphe” in Montmartre, sitting on top of what appear to be the ruins of a church. But I still wasn’t sure what I was looking at. What was that thing on the tower?

Finally, out of the blue, my stepson Alex sent us a link to an article from The Economist about “the world’s first cyber-attack” featuring this same telegraph system.

When I mentioned this to Norman, he looked thoughtful and went to find a history of telegraphy called The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage as well as Volume IV of the Oxford History of Technology. And so I came to read about Claude Chappe (1763–1805) and the world’s first telegraph system.

Claude Chappe, whose intended career as a member of the clergy was derailed by the French Revolution, became obsessed with finding a way to communicate at a distance. His first effort, with his brother René, used sounds that corresponded to numbers that could be decoded into messages. But he soon realized that visual methods would allow for communications over even longer distances. So he experimented with a large disc painted black on one side and white on the other that could be used to transmit numerical information; if the receiver used a telescope, the information could be detected 16 km away. The brothers demonstrated their invention in 1791, and a friend of theirs suggested the name “télégraphe” – meaning “far writing.”

Still, the process of transmitting numbers with a simple black/white, on/off system and then decoding them into words was cumbersome, and Claude Chappe kept hunting for a better method. He eventually came up with the “optical telegraph,” which consisted of a vertical post on which was mounted a hinged arm, with smaller hinged arms at the two ends. (It is sometimes called a “semaphore” system, which reminds me of my days as a Brownie, when we had to pass a test in semaphore; I was hopeless at it and had to take the test several times before I passed.)

The central arm of Chappe’s visual telegraph could be set in four positions – vertical, horizontal, and at two 45-degree angles – and the two smaller arms could be set in seven different positions, allowing for 98 possible combinations, each of which corresponded to a letter or number. The system also allowed for abbreviations of whole words, to speed up communication.

A clockmaker, Abraham-Louis Bréguet, developed the control mechanism for the device, which was connected by pulleys to the actual transmitter. An operator inside a building could manipulate a scale model, and the pulleys attached to it controlled the full-scale version on the roof of the building.

An early attempt at a demonstration in Paris came to grief when a Revolutionary mob attacked Chappe and demolished his device, believing him to be using it to communicate with the imprisoned Louis XVI.

But in 1793, Chappe was invited by the government of the day (the Convention) to demonstrate his invention, for which three prototype towers were constructed. The first was in Belleville-Ménilmontant, in the northwest of Paris, where there is a prominent hill. The next was 18 km due north in Ecouen, where the chateau commands a panoramic view of the countryside. This is how it looks today.

The third was in Saint-Martin-du-Tertre, another 12 km north-north-west of Ecouen. Saint-Martin-du-Tertre commemorates this event by using an image of the telegraph on its municipal coat of arms.

The experiment was judged a resounding success, and the Convention realized that Chappe’s device could help the central government direct events across France from Paris. The first line of telegraph towers to be completed went north as far as Lille, more than 200 km away. By 1794, it was being used to report on battles with the Austrians and Prussians. A second line connected Paris to Strasbourg to the east – also in the direction of a war zone.

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he wanted even more telegraph lines. A new line went southeast to Dijon, Lyons, and on into Italy. That way, Parisians could get rapid news about his military conquests there. Napoleon even asked Claude’s brother Abraham to plan one that would cross the English Channel, to report on his invasion of England. He got a little ahead of himself there.

But it seemed that the more his idea spread, the more Claude Chappe was beset by rivals, claiming they had had the idea first, or that they had a better idea, or that the clockmaker Bréguet was the real genius behind the invention. In 1805, suffering from depression, he committed suicide by throwing himself into a well at the main Telegraph Administration, which at that time was on the rue de l’Université. He was buried in Vaugirard cemetery, but when it was closed in 1824,* his remains were transferred to Père Lachaise, where a remarkably ugly funerary monument displays his invention.

Claude’s brothers René and Abraham continued to run the system until the 1830s.

Around that time, twin brothers in Bordeaux, François and Louis Blanc, came up with a plan to bribe telegraph operators between Paris and Bordeaux to introduce “typos” (the French use the delightful word coquilles) into messages sent across the system; the coquilles indicated the direction of the Paris stock market each day. This allowed the brothers to beat the Bordeaux market in government bonds. They were eventually caught, and even tried, but since they had not broken an existing law (laws generally lag behind new technology), they were not punished. So the two happily went off to Monte Carlo to run the casino.

The optical telegraph remained in use until 1852, when it was superseded by the electric telegraph system. By then, the network consisted of 556 stations covering more than 4,800 km. The towers were everywhere. In Paris, even St-Sulpice (shown below) and the Louvre had Chappe telegraphs installed on them.

Paris gave Claude Chappe his due in 1893, on the hundredth anniversary of his successful demonstration, erecting a statue to him, posed in a jaunty attitude, at the intersection of the boulevards Raspail and Saint-Germain.

Alas, the statue was removed during the Second World War and melted down as scrap metal. Paris en Images even has a photograph of it just before it disappeared forever.

However, many Chappe towers are still visible, as I found on French Wikipedia, where an enthusiast has posted a catalogue of the remaining ones, including six that have protected heritage status. A few are even in working order.

The one on my postcard has gone, though. It was on a church called St-Pierre de Montmartre, which stands immediately to the west of Sacré-Coeur. The church had been badly damaged during the Revolution, but in 1794 the ruin was used as the base of an optical telegraph tower that remained until 1840. The church has now been restored. Before the basilica was built, St-Pierre probably had the best view of any church in Paris. A little farther down the Montmartre hill is the rue Chappe, a steep street with a great many stairs, and the Café Chappe at the bottom. We plan to go there on our next visit and raise a glass in his honour.

Other traces of Chappe can be found in Belleville, on the rue du Télégraphe, where a plaque near the cemetery commemorates one of the first towers constructed. Another Chappe tower is part of the ensemble of buildings at 103, rue de Grenelle, which became the headquarters for the telegraph system in the 1840s. A memorial to Chappe has been installed inside the main building entrance. There is even a website devoted to the inventor ( Chappe might be comforted to know that he is not forgotten and nobody now disputes his achievements.

Text by Philippa Campsie, images from Paris en Images, Gallica, Wikipedia, and Google Street View.

*There is still a Vaugirard cemetery in Paris, but it is a different one. Chappe was buried in a cemetery located where the Boulevard Pasteur and the Lycée Buffon are today.



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Gustave Eiffel did not sleep here

On a recent visit to Laywine’s, our favourite pen and stationery store in Toronto, Philippa picked up a desk pad made by the French paper firm Exacompta, and found the following note on the front:

Made in the heart of Paris for over 50 years in a workshop built by Gustave Eiffel, the FAF (feuille à feuille) pad is a practical and highly functional desk pad.

A workshop built by Eiffel? Really? We know the Exacompta building, which sits beside the Canal St-Martin on the Quai de Jemmapes. Here is a picture from Wikimedia. It’s a handsome industrial site, and the fact that the building is still in use for industry in the middle of Paris is astonishing. But Gustave Eiffel…?

Actually, no. Saying Eiffel designed a building in France is like saying “George Washington slept here” in the United States. It impresses people and occasionally it might even be true. But in this case, the architect was one Paul Friésé. We cannot account for the Eiffel myth, but in laying it to rest, we had a chance to consider an unusual building and its history.

The building at 132-134 quai de Jemmapes was commissioned by la Compagnie Parisienne d’air comprimé (the Paris Compressed Air Company). In France, compressed air has a long history as an energy source, but the Quai Jemmapes building was to be a coal-powered thermal electric generating station. This may come as a surprise, because the photo above does not suggest electricity generation, does it?

In the late 19th century, electricity was an exciting new technology and Paris embraced it with enthusiasm. Electricity gave a whole new meaning to the words “City of Light.” At first, a range of private companies generated and sold electrical power. Since the Paris Compressed Air Company already had a reputation for supplying energy, it was quick to venture into this new energy source.

In 1889 the City of Paris gave the company the right to build a thermal electric generating station on the quai de Jemmapes and to supply the eastern part of Paris with electricity. It was a massive project. As a leading industrial architect, Paul Friésé was an obvious choice.

He was a graduate of the École des Beaux Arts whose wide-ranging projects included other electrical stations, such as an enormous generating station near the Gare de Lyon where the RATP offices are now, and several impressive Paris substations that are still standing.

The selection of a canal site made sense. Thermal generation of electricity depends on steam to power the turbines that in turn drive the generators and that means massive amounts of coal to heat water in boilers. The canal St-Martin site has lots of water and its barges could deliver a seemingly endless supply of coal. The picture below was taken from the top of the building in 1920, showing the view northwest; note the many chimneys in this formerly industrial area.

Friésé also had to work within some strict requirements. Given the limited electrical transmission technology of the day, the generating station had to be close to its intended market. And that meant that Friésé’s building had to fit into a tight site in a dense neighbourhood that included the St-Louis Hospital. In this image, also taken from the roof of the station in 1920, you can see the hospital to the left, with its rows of identical dormer windows.

Another limit was on the size of the generators. They were constructed in Belfort by the Société Alsacienne de Constructions Mécaniques (now Alstom) and brought in on trains and enormous wagons, but the need to transport them such a distance limited their size. In this image from Le Génie civil, you get a sense of the scale.

Engineering projects of this era often combined the gigantic with a sense of politeness and attention to appearance and context. Friésé created a building that did not overwhelm the neighbours and yet had a sense of gravity. He won a medal during the 1900 Exposition for this design. This is how the building looked in its heyday. Note that coal is being unloaded from the canal barge in front.

Despite Friésé’s achievement, his magnificent generating station had a relatively short productive life. In 1896 the Paris Compressed Air Company started supplying electricity to customers. But the administration of Paris soon decided to have only one company supplying electricity, in this case la Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d’Électricité (CPDE). In 1910 the Paris Compressed Air Company’s concession was terminated.

There was little else to do but sell the company, and in 1914 it was purchased by the CPDE. What had been one of the most up-to-date electrical generating plants in France was taken out of operation by its new owners, and the massive generators fell silent.

For several decades after that, the site had a chequered career. The chimneys were demolished, as they were no longer needed. The luxury shoe manufacturer Saderne took over some of the space, but suffered a fire in 1917. Saderne went bankrupt in 1927. For a while, the Labor company manufactured workers’ clothing there (such as the once-ubiquitous blue overalls and smocks that so many French workers wore).

Finally, in the 1950s, Clairefontaine bought the site, as well as buildings to the north of the former generating station, and it has been there ever since. The company is now known as Exacompta-Clairfontaine, as many French paper businesses have consolidated (Rhodia notebooks and Mignon cards and G. Lalo stationery are all brands of the same giant paper organization based here).

The former generating station was declared a historic monument in 1992, but the generating machinery has undoubtedly long since disappeared. It is hard to know anything for sure, though, as access is forbidden to outsiders. The best we can do is show a Google Earth overview of the site. In addition to the red-roofed building facing the canal, the ones behind it and on the left are also part of Exacompta.

As for the architect, he died in 1917, during the First World War. He was from Alsace (born in Strasbourg in 1851), and when the First World War broke out, he volunteered to serve, even though he was 63 at that point. He was deployed in the reserve army as a translator. He was wounded in the Battle of the Chemin des Dames, and died shortly thereafter. He is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery. A book about him is due out from Memogrames next month (November 2017) in honour of the centenary of his death.

Text by Norman Ball, contemporary photographs from Wikimedia, historic photographs from Gallica and Paris en images. Thanks also to Denis Cosnard, whose detailed blog, “Des usines à Paris,” provided helpful information. To see more photographs and an interesting analysis of the building, see the graduation report by Merle van Marissing from TU Delft University, in which the building is re-imagined as a library.

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