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,


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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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.

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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.

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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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