Red children and foundling wheels

Some Paris names evoke long-gone places in the city’s past. The name Tuileries now represents a garden, before that a palace with a violent history, and before that, an area where tiles were made. I’ve always found it interesting that the French called a major palace after a tileworks.

Another name that has long fascinated me is that of the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the Marais, which can be translated as the Market of the Red Children – as if one could go there to sell off a red-faced child (perhaps a child having a noisy meltdown). Here is a photo I took of the entrance in 2016.

In fact, the name refers to foundling and orphaned children who were dressed in red to show that they were the beneficiaries of royal charity. The hospice established in 1536 by Marguerite de Valois, sister of King François 1er, was officially called the Enfants de Dieu, because the children came from the Hotel-Dieu, the hospital close to Notre Dame. They were the children of mothers who had died there in childbirth or of illness, or of poor women who gave birth at the hospital and left their infants there to be cared for by the nuns.

About a decade later, another institution was established at the Hôpital de la Trinité (founded in 1201 on the rue St-Denis as a pilgrim hotel outside the old city walls) for orphans who had been born legitimately but who had no relatives to care for them. These children had blue uniforms, and were known as les Enfants Bleus, although the name was not attached to the institution itself.

Very little remains of either establishment. A bit of the former chapel of St. Julien of the Enfant Rouges can be seen in the courtyard behind 90 rue des Archives, near the market (look for the arched but now blocked-in chapel windows).

The Passage de la Trinité at 164 rue St-Denis, recalls the site of that establishment. There is a « pelle » (one of those oar-shaped historical markers) just outside the entrance describing the former hospice.

These two establishments catered mainly to orphans whose mothers or families were known to the caregivers. But there remained another category of needy children – abandoned infants. Every year, hundreds of babies were left at the doors of churches or convents or simply at street corners by women who could not raise them – because the women were too poor, or had too many other children, or who had work that prevented them from caring for a child, or who feared the repercussions of keeping an illegitimate child. A marble statue by an unknown artist, titled simply “Abandonné” represents a child left on a street corner.

For these children, St. Vincent de Paul and the Dames de la Charité (a group of wealthy women who supported charitable endeavours) founded the Hôpital des Enfants Trouvés in 1638. This establishment occupied various different addresses, including buildings on the Île de la Cité and the rue du Faubourg St-Antoine (where the Square Trousseau is today; a pelle marks the spot). In 1772, the Enfants Rouges was amalgamated with this institution. The market kept the name in memory of the children who had once lived in that part of the Marais.

How did these places operate before the Revolution? They were charitable institutions, staffed mainly by nuns and supported by donations. Once an infant was admitted and registered, the nuns’ first order of business was to find a wet nurse, since safe and reliable methods of feeding newborns other than breast milk did not exist at the time. A local woman would do this work at first, until a wet nurse in the countryside could be found. After they had been weaned, the children generally stayed in the countryside with a foster family until they were about six, at which time they returned to Paris, ostensibly to receive an education in one or other of the charitable institutions.

The education they received was mainly religious. They served in the chapels, and the hospices hired them out to walk in funeral processions. According to Rachel Fuchs,

The families of the rich paid the hospitals for the honour and privilege of having the orphans and abandoned children in their funeral parade. It must have been quite a spectacle to see the children from particular institutions all dressed alike in the color of their institution.*

Just imagine all those red and blue children in the procession.

The girls were generally taught some sewing skills and the boys learned some manual tasks. A very few learned to read (because it was such a small proportion, one wonders how those few managed). The children remained the responsibility of the institution until they were 25. At that point, they were on their own. The lucky ones found situations or apprenticeships that suited whatever skills they had acquired; the rest survived as best they could on the street. And these were the ones who survived; many (most?) did not live to the age of 25.

During and after the Revolution, responsibility for orphans and abandoned children was taken over by the government. But that meant that their care was determined by bean counters, who reckoned the costs of staffing, wet nurses, foster families, and living expenses to the nearest centime.

After the Revolution, the red and blue children disappeared. The hospices provided only temporary care for abandoned or orphaned babies for whom foster parents were being arranged, and infirmaries for babies who were ill. Older children were supposed to remain with foster families in the countryside. Although the government now funded the hospices, the staff continued to be drawn from the ranks of religious communities – nuns and some lay helpers.

A group of buildings on the avenue Denfert-Rochereau (at the time called the rue d’Enfer or Hell Street), later known as the Hôpital St-Vincent-de-Paul, became the main centre for the care of these children. It had previously been owned by the religious community called l’Institution de l’Oratoire. The former chapel of the Oratoire – large, drafty, and hard to heat – held about 80 cribs. Since there were usually more than 80 babies there at any given time, doubling up was common. The hospice was chronically understaffed, and despite the best intentions of the staff, the infants received the barest minimum of individual attention.

One interesting provision in French legislation adopted in 1811 was the requirement that each institution in France devoted to the care of abandoned children install a “tour” or foundling wheel. These devices, set in the outside walls of the hospices, operated with a turntable – the baby was placed from the outside into a small cradle and the whole thing swivelled so the baby ended up inside. The person who had placed the child in the tour rang a bell to alert those inside to the baby’s presence. They had existed in various places and in various forms since the Middle Ages, but Napoleon made them mandatory.

This image by Henri Pottin shows the two sides. It’s a sentimental view, and shows both mother and father as the baby is committed to the foundling wheel. But in reality, it was the mothers of the babies who usually acted alone, often late at night, in doing the deed.

The tours d’abandon were controversial. Their supporters saw them as a safe alternative to abandonment in the street, where a child might die of exposure or animal attacks, or to infanticide, which was by no means unknown among desperate parents. Those who opposed the tours felt they encouraged irresponsible behaviour, since a child could be deposited without consequences. The debate raged for decades. During certain periods, the tours were guarded so that it was not possible to deposit a baby anonymously. In the latter half of the 19th century, the tours were gradually dismantled.

According to one Paris blogger, one of these tours remains in the wall of the old St-Vincent-de-Paul hospital, 72 avenue Denfert-Rochereau. You cannot see it from the street, but if you put your arm through the iron railings and aim your cameraphone just right, apparently you can take a picture of it.

In the early years of the 19th century, the government tried to eliminate the distinctions between enfants abandonnés (one or both of the parents were known and had chosen to give the child into care), enfants trouvés (the children were simply “found” and their parents were unidentified), and orphelins (the parents were dead) in favour of calling them all enfants assistés. The building on the rue Denfert-Rochereau was renamed the Hospice des Enfants Assistés. Note that the rose window on the right is the one seen in the illustration of the room where the babies were kept.

In 1849, the care of these children became the responsibility of the Assistance Publique de Paris, which exists to this day. The photograph below by Charles Marville shows its original building on the Île de la Cité, demolished in 1874.

One of the most famous abandoned children in French history was Jean le Rond d’Alembert (shown below), who worked with Diderot on the Encyclopédie. He got his name because his mother, the French writer Claudine Guérin de Tencin, left him on the steps of the church of St-Jean-le-Rond (a now-demolished church on the Ile de la Cité) in 1717. But, as sometimes happened, he was reclaimed. His father was a military officer who was away at the time of his birth and who upon his return, located his son and arranged for his housing and education – without, however, acknowledging his paternity.

A less edifying story is that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had a great deal to say about the upbringing of children, but who forced his mistress to abandon all five of their children to the Enfants-Trouvés in the late 1740s and early 1750s. Their fate is unknown, since Rousseau did not reclaim them.

Many parents clearly hoped to reclaim their children and left them with identifying objects: a thread bracelet or a charm or a bit of paper with a special mark or message. The hospice staff registered these items when a child was admitted and retained them. At certain times in the 19th century (the regulations changed periodically and the anonymity of the tour was not a constant), taking a child to a hospice required the mother and/or father to identify themselves, and some did so willingly, hoping that the separation might be only temporary.

For a small number of mothers or fathers, the dream came true. But these were the exceptions (fewer than 2 percent of children were ever reclaimed). In part, the numbers were kept down because the authorities imposed a set of requirements that included repayment for the expenses incurred by state for the abandoned child.**

Towards the end of the 19th century, the state added education to the children’s upbringing, both at the Hospice des Enfants Assistés and at some special schools (one of which was named in honour of d’Alembert). Some girls were trained as midwives, some boys were trained in printing skills, cabinet making, or horticulture.

By the early 20th century the children were once again kept in Paris rather than sent to the countryside, and dressed in checked uniforms and cloaks (probably not red, though). The sounds of their voices must have carried across the Boulevard Denfert-Rochereau. Here is a photograph of some of them attending a special performance at Christmas in 1940, along with wealthy patrons of the institution.***

Nevertheless, the 19th-century hospices, bad as they were, underheated, underfunded, understaffed, allowed a few children to survive and grow to adulthood. Many ended up in rural areas, living with foster parents and working alongside them. Compared with dying as an infant on a street corner, that is something.

Text and market photo by Philippa Campsie; Marville photograph from http://vergue.com; photograph of the exterior of the Hospice des Enfants Assistés from Université de Paris; photograph of children and of marble statue by André Zucca from Bibliotheques Patrimoniales; other images from Wikimedia Commons.

*Rachel Ginnis Fuchs, Abandoned Children: Foundlings and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France (State University of New York Press, 1984), page 16. This fascinating book is a detailed account of the institutions and the changing regulations mainly from Napoleonic times to the fin-de-siècle. A further book by the same author, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century (Rutgers University Press, 1992), tells the story from the point of view of the mothers. Both books were invaluable in writing this blog post.

**Occasionally, a wealthy benefactor donated money to defray these charges. Other requirements were that the mother had to prove that she was married and in a stable home situation.

***The photograph is by André Zucca, as is the one of the statue of the abandoned baby. It has been said that Zucca collaborated with the Nazis during the Occupation, taking photographs intended to show positive images of the time (this may even have been one of them). This assertion is disputed. Zucca was put on trial after the war, but other than being prevented from working as a journalist again, he was not punished.

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The strange case of the disappearing hotel

Norman recently bought, sight unseen, a shoebox of French postcards from a man in Winnipeg. Among them was a series of images from a Paris hotel called the St-James and Albany. They set me off on a hunt that led to an unexpected conclusion.

Here is the front door of the hotel – what you would see once you entered the courtyard from the street door on the rue St-Honoré. (There is another entrance from the rue de Rivoli.)

It’s a venerable luxury hotel, currently closed for renovations. Its entire contents were sold at auction earlier in 2021.

As the name suggests, there were originally two separate hotels: the Hôtel Saint-James, dating from 1864 and fronting on the rue St-Honoré at no. 211, and the Hôtel d’Albany, opened in 1894 (replacing an older establishment called the Hôtel de Rivoli), facing rue de Rivoli, at no. 202. They joined forces shortly after the Albany opened, before the exposition of 1900 brought an influx of visitors to the city.

What caught my attention was the caption on this postcard showing one of the main public rooms.

The home of the Noailles family! The august and multi-branched family from whom many prominent French politicians and writers have come, has connections to Lafayette, to Proust, and even to my own research on Charles Barbier.* I wanted to know more.

The hôtel particulier that became the Hôtel de Noailles was built in 1687. This is supposed to be an image of the place from the garden side.

I say “supposed to be,” because it reminds me of a real estate advertisement or an artist’s impression of a building that might not have been built as advertised. For one thing, the picture makes the building look as if it stands alone, without neighbours. In fact, there was a convent right next door. And I wonder how the owners found the space on the rue St-Honoré for something this wide – this was the middle of town, close to the Louvre.

It was not built for the Noailles; the family bought it in 1711. A map from 1694 shows that the family already lived in the neighbourhood, on the other (north) side of the rue St-Honoré, and were therefore right on the spot when the previous owner wanted to sell. Note that in this map, north is to the left.

The Turgot map of 1739 shows the extent of the Hotel de Noailles fifty years after its construction. If the original view was accurate, by now the eastern wing has been truncated and the house is hemmed in by other buildings. Still, it has a splendid garden that abuts the manège (a space for equestrian sports and exercises) by the Tuileries Gardens. In this map, north is to the lower right.

That same year, 1739, the fourth duke and duchess de Noailles had a son, Jean-Paul, who would eventually become the fifth duke. As an adult, Jean-Paul reminds me slightly of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, because he had five daughters to marry off (two sons and a sixth daughter all died in infancy). Unlike Mr. Bennet, however, he had money and connections and it seems that there was no shortage of suitors. He also had a calm and sensible wife, Henriette Anne Louise. Here is a lovely picture of her by Elisabeth Vigée-LeBrun.

Henriette Anne Louise de Noailles is described in an essay written in 1869 by Lady Verney, titled “A French Family of the Ancien Régime”:

The duchess was…an earnest, serious woman…devoted to her children’s education and to good works, who led an extremely retired life in the immense Hotel de Noailles, the great gardens of which ran down as far as the Tuileries. One of the daughters relates how, after dining with her at three o’clock, they used to follow her into a large bedroom, the walls hung with crimson silk laced with gold, with an immense bed in the corner. Here they sat for the evening, the duchess, still quite a young woman, in a bergère with her snuff-box, her books, and her knitting needles, the children each trying to sit next to her…**

This must have been a largely unvaried routine, since Henriette’s husband was often away from home, either serving the court at Versailles, or fighting in whatever war was going on at the time.

All five daughters married well: two became comtesses, three became marquises. According to Lady Verney,

The daughters were all disposed of while they were still what we should consider children; the eldest married her cousin, the Vicomte the Noailles, of very advanced Liberal opinions, when only sixteen; and the duchess was hardly spoken to by her husband for a whole year because she refused to accept the proposals of the Marquis de Lafayette, aged fourteen, for her second daughter, aged twelve. He was an orphan, and in possession of a large fortune, and the mother was afraid of trusting her little girl to such uncertain waters. As time went on, however, and she heard much good of the lad, she ended by giving her consent, on condition that the two children, as they were in age, should live in the Hotel de Noailles, and on these conditions, Adrienne, aged fourteen, was married to the young marquis, aged sixteen.

A plaque above the hotel entrance on the rue St-Honoré commemorates the wedding, which took place in the house.

Alas, the eldest daughter, along with her lovely mother and her elderly grandmother, perished on the guillotine in 1794 (they were buried in the mass grave in the Cimitière de Picpus; Lafayette’s grave is in the same cemetery). Lafayette’s wife Adrienne narrowly escaped execution (among other things, her death would have angered the Americans for whom her husband was a hero), but she spent years with him in prison. By all accounts, she was a remarkable woman. There are many portraits of her, but I like this one best, by an unknown artist.

They say that behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes. Adrienne certainly stood behind her husband, but she was more likely to wince in discomfort than to roll her eyes, as her support for Lafayette ruined her health. She died in 1807.

Meanwhile, the family house on the rue St-Honoré had been commandeered by the Revolutionaries in the 1790s and by Napoleon in 1802, who gave it as a residence to his fellow consul at the time, Charles-François Lebrun. Lebrun was busy in Liguria (now part of Italy) and the Netherlands, and may not have spent much time in his newly acquired mansion.

With the restoration of the monarchy, the house was returned to the Noailles family, or at least what was left of the family. The fifth duke had survived, and even remarried, but the house probably held too many memories, and he sold it, perhaps as early as 1814.

A plan shows the house and garden in 1817-18. At this point, the house was no. 335 rue St-Honoré; the street was later renumbered.

“Plan de l’Hôtel de Noailles, rue Saint Honoré, en 1817-1818”. Anonyme. Dessin. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

The buyer was an Englishman, Lord Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, a learned antiquarian, heir to vast fortunes (a predecessor made millions from England’s early canal system), and a noted eccentric. It is said that he dressed up his dogs and had his footmen feed them at the dining table, that he stocked the garden with flightless partridges so that he could shoot them with ease, and that he wore a new pair of shoes every day. Although in his personal habits he was clearly several croissants short of a petit déjeuner, I suspect that some of the stories have gained extra details over time.

Lord Egerton, who not surprisingly never married, died in 1829. His heirs divided up and sold the property. The bottom of the garden went to complete the arcaded rue de Rivoli. In this image of the rue de Rivoli from 1832, there is a break in the row of buildings on the right, which may have been the Noailles/Egerton garden before it was built on to complete the street’s long row of buildings opposite the Tuileries Gardens.

What I find interesting is that at this point, the main house ceased to exist. The Musée Carnavalet contains several drawings showing the demolition of Hotel de Noailles in 1830. Here is one example.

The demolition cleared the way for the rue d’Alger, which today is a block and a half west of the building said to be the former Hôtel de Noailles. I’ve looked at many maps from this period, and clearly the Hotel de Noailles was farther west than the buildings that make up the modern hotel. This Google satellite view shows what is there now.

So is today’s hotel, which bears the plaque about the marriage of Lafayette, really the former Hotel de Noailles?

Probably not. At best, the hotel might include some elements from the demolished building.

It appears that someone simply moved the Lafayette plaque several doors to the east of the demolished house. With the change in the street numbering, the relocation of the plaque may have gone unnoticed.

Whatever its origins, as the Hotels St-James et d’Albany, the place had a storied career in the 20th century. F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed there on his first trip to the city in 1921. It was a home-away-from-home for Molly Brown (the “unsinkable” one). Thomas Mann set part of his strange, unfinished novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, at the hotel. Generations of well-to-do tourists ate their meals in what the postcard says is the former ballroom…

…or took the air in the courtyard garden (note the woman and child at right).

But it is not on the site of the former Hôtel de Noailles. It contains some remnants from the 18th century, but the family’s hôtel particulier is long gone.

One day a new hotel will emerge, shorn of all its old trappings, all bright and shiny and modern. The ghosts of the Noailles, or even of Lord Egerton’s dogs, linger elsewhere.

Text by Philippa Campsie; images from Wikipedia, Gallica, Google Maps, and the Musée Carnavalet.

*One of Charles Barbier’s supporters and a member of the conseil d’administration at the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles was Alexis de Noailles. His mother was the eldest daughter of the fifth duke mentioned here (Lafayette was his uncle by marriage).

**Lady Verney was Florence Nightingale’s sister. Her essay draws on the memoirs of Anne Paule Dominique, the second youngest daughter in the family, who later became the Marquise de Montagu and published a memoir in 1864.

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Asylum

Last month, when I learned that absinthe had been known as the “Charenton omnibus” – Charenton being the site of a famous mental hospital – I became curious about mental institutions in the Paris area. There are many interesting stories associated with them, and here is one.

Before the Revolution, there were three types of mental hospital. First, there were the “hôpitaux généraux” – the Salpetrière for women, the Bicêtre for men. Both institutions remain as general teaching hospitals to this day, both with massive buildings on vast grounds with internal streets. The Salpetrière is in the 13th arrondissement, close to the Gare d’Austerlitz. You can see a bird’s-eye view image of it here.

The Bicêtre is just outside the Periphérique in what is now the commune of Kremlin-Bicêtre. (In case you were wondering, the first part of the commune’s name dates to the 1830s, and commemorates an inn called “Au Sergent de Kremlin,” a hangout favoured by veterans of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.) Here is an image of the huge hospital that dominated the town from the mid-18th century.

It is generous to call these places mental hospitals, for they also served as beggars’ prisons and workhouses, housing a range of people from delinquent youth to poverty-stricken invalids to people with venereal disease to those suffering from mental illness.

Others were founded by the church and operated as charities, which makes them sound more pleasant than they were. Charenton, situated outside Paris just south of the Bois de Vincennes, was one, along with St-Lazare, a former leper hospital in what is now the 10th arrondissement, not far from the Gare de l’Est.

Charenton remains, but now goes by the name of Hôpital Esquirol and the town is called Saint-Maurice (too many negative associations with the name Charenton, perhaps). St-Lazare, after serving for many years as a prison, was demolished in the 1930s. There is now a park, the Square Alban Satragne, where it stood. Here it is during its time as a prison in 1912.

The inmates in these establishments represented much the same mixture as those in the hôpitaux généraux. One writer describes them as “populated by clerics, by mentally diseased people, and by the so-called libertins [a type of political prisoner], sorcerers, abortionists, pornographers, adulterers, spendthrifts, Jansenists, and protestants.”* A merry crew indeed. They do not sound like people with whom the mentally ill could find respite from their troubles.

Finally, there were smaller establishments called “maisons de santé.” Perhaps a dozen or so of these existed in Paris before the Revolution, and many more were out in the surrounding countryside. Some were run by doctors, others by entrepreneurs, because fees could be charged. Wealthy families were prepared to pay handsomely to have an embarrassing relative put safely out of sight.

One of these maisons became notorious during the Revolution for charging very high fees indeed. It was called the Maison Belhomme or Pension Belhomme. It was founded on the rue de Charonne (in what is now the 11th arrondissement) by a cabinetmaker called Jacques Belhomme. He branched out into this new venture in 1768 after discovering that taking care of people with developmental disabilities or mental illness could be surprisingly profitable. He bought the former Hotel de Ventadour and set himself up in business.

The place really did function as a mental hospital at first. It was here that Philippe Pinel, one of the earliest physicians to advocate for the humane treatment of the mentally ill, got his start. He went on to work at the Salpetrière, where he famously did away with the chains that bound the mental patients there and instituted – imagine this – non-violent forms of treatment. Here is a famous painting by Tony Robert-Fleury of his breakthrough, unshackling the chains of the unfortunate inmates at the Salpetrière.

Meanwhile, on the rue de Charonne, Belhomme’s establishment continued to flourish. When the Revolution broke out, Jacques Belhomme was a figure of some authority in his neighbourhood, and realized that his maison de santé might be put to even better – and more profitable – use.

In 1793, a new law required that residents of the city obtain a Certificate of Good Citizenship from what was known as the Vigilance Committee established in each quartier. Failure to obtain such a certificate could mean being hauled before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and from there it was just a short trip in a tumbril to the guillotine.

Belhomme spied both a business opportunity and a loophole. The business opportunity was the growing demand for prison accommodations. The existing prisons were full, and buildings such as the Luxembourg Palace and various convents and abbeys (by now emptied of their regular inhabitants) had been pressed into service. But the Tribunal still demanded that more and more people be locked up. Mental institutions were filling up with prisoners.

As for the loophole, it was this: it was possible to delay one’s appearance before the Tribunal if one were declared too sick or infirm to appear.

Belhomme decided to kill deux oiseaux with un caillou. His maison de santé became a prison-cum-asylum for those willing to pay to be declared unfit to stand trial. There was no shortage of customers.

The initial fee, once one had established contact with those empowered to make the negotiations, could be as high as six thousand livres… Upon payment of this sum, one was pronounced too “sick” to stand trial, transferred out of whatever disagreeable prison one happened to be in, and committed to Jacques Belhomme’s remarkable maison de santé.**

The establishment offered comfortable quarters and spacious gardens. The food was merely adequate, but one could always order out. Belhomme even expanded his operation into a neighbouring house, the Hotel de Colbert-Chabanais (shown here), to meet the demand.

For a few months, it was a popular place to be.

Visitors from the outside world were not only permitted but encouraged. Every evening a long line of carriages waited in front of the gates, and the sounds of laughter and music drifted into the street until the early morning hours… [Meanwhile] the accusations made against Belhomme’s prisoners became mysteriously misplaced by intermediaries in the busy offices of the public prosecutor.**

There was, however, one catch. You had to keep paying the bills each month. They included gratuities for the staff, wine merchants’ bills, and other extras. The inmates had once been affluent, but many had been reduced to penury during the Revolution. Income-producing lands and houses full of treasures had been confiscated. Relatives had been executed. Belhomme was sympathetic, but he made no exceptions. If you did not find some way to pay him, he simply declared that you were now fit to stand trial and released you to the Revolutionary Tribunal. And the Tribunal very rarely showed mercy, as the Duchesse de Châtelet fatally discovered after she failed to pay Belhomme’s bill.

Eventually, like so many others, Belhomme himself was denounced and his premises were inspected by members of the Comité de Sûreté Général. They were appalled to find that the regular patients – the sans-culottes, the citoyens – had been relegated to cramped, insanitary quarters at the top of the house while the aristocrats occupied the spacious quarters below. Belhomme was arrested, convicted of misappropriation of public funds, and sentenced to six years in fetters. He served a mere nine months in the Saint-Pélagie prison before being released on appeal.

While he was imprisoneed, Belhomme’s wife managed the maison de santé, but she died a few years later. At the age of 61, Belhomme married a 16-year-old, who bore him four children. Meanwhile, his establishment continued to take in a mix of patients and political prisoners.

Under the [First] Empire, the Belhomme pension once again served in its double role as a place of healing and a prison, preserving the ambiguity and confusion between the mentally ill and the opponents of the regime in power, [and] making the medical supervisor assume the role sometimes of an ally and advocate, sometimes of a jailkeeper, and sometimes of an accomplice in patients’ escape.***

In the photograph below, the building with the balcony across the front is the Hotel Colbert-Chabanais and the shadowy archway just beyond it leads into the courtyard and the other buildings.

After Jacques Belhomme’s death in 1824, his eldest son, Jacques-Etienne, who had studied with Pinel and written a thesis on the care and treatment of mentally handicapped individuals, and who went on to become a pioneer in the treatment of mental illness in children, assumed the directorship.

The maison de santé survived into the 1950s under a series of different directors, and acquired a solid reputation as a treatment centre.

The buildings on the rue de Charonne are gone now, demolished in the 1970s and replaced with a line of modern apartment blocks, but the gardens remain, complete with a two-storey pavilion that now serves as a social club for seniors, run by the City of Paris. Here is a photograph showing the pre-Revolutionary buildings on the site that have survived.

The story of Jacques Belhomme and his maison de santé has been told and retold by academic historians, but one of the more colourful versions, which I have quoted here, was written by Stanley Loomis, published posthumously in the magazine Horizon in 1974. The title he chose was “Vacation Hints: Where to Go in Case of a Reign of Terror.” The sort of thing one feels one should clip and file away, just in case.

Text by Philippa Campsie, image of the Hotel de Chabanais from Images d’Art, views of the rue de Charonne and front gate from Paris Parcours Revolution, all other images from Wikimedia Commons.

*Erwin H. Ackernecht, “Political Prisoners in French Mental Institutions before 1789, during the Revolution, and under Napoleon I,” Medical History 19:3 (1975), 250–255.

**Stanley Loomis, “Vacation Hints: Where to Go in Case of a Reign of Terror,” Horizon 16:1 (Winter 1974), 80–83.

***Olivier Walusinski and Denis Tiberghien, “Jacques-Etienne Belhomme (1800–1880): Pionnier de la pédopsychiatrie et aliéniste oublié, » Annales Médico-Psychologiques 174 (2016) : 615–623 (my translation).

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A taste of France

Many years ago, a friend gave me a birthday present consisting of three small objects, with a card that read: “What every young woman needs: a car, a taste of France, and a chance at a million.” The car was a toy car. The chance at a million was a lottery ticket. And the taste of France? Chewing gum flavoured with Pernod.

It was the perfect choice. Pernod and all those other anise/liquorice flavours (from fennel to tarragon) really do represent the taste of France to me. I didn’t grow up with them, other than the occasional box of liquorice all-sorts at Christmas (which invariably looked nicer than they tasted) or a long thin twist of red or black liquorice from the general store near the beach we visited in summer.

In France I first encountered the flavour in liquid form, but it wasn’t Pernod. You could buy a concentrated syrup of anise to which you added still or sparkling water, rather like the orange squash or Ribena we used to get in the U.K. To me it seemed a refreshing non-alcoholic drink, and oh-so French.

The alcoholic forms like pastis also required adding water, which accounts for all those colourful water jugs and carafes labelled “Ricard,” that you find in flea markets (some of ours are shown below).

Ricard was an anise-flavoured aperitif developed in the 1930s to rival Pernod (the company that originally manufactured absinthe), and one diluted it to taste at the table. (Ricard and Pernod have since amalgamated to form a single company.)

I also discovered fennel as an adult. My mother never cooked fennel when I was growing up. But after my first taste of fennel in a Toronto restaurant in the early 1990s, I was a convert. I ordered it whenever I saw it on a menu. In a restaurant called Chez Piggy in Kingston, Ontario, I found what I consider the definitive version: braised and silky. After some failed experiments, I found a recipe (shown at the end of this blog) that approximated the Kingston version, which is still my favourite way to eat fennel.

I like tarragon, but it won’t grow in our garden (not in the ground, not in a pot), although I have no trouble growing most other herbs. In our garden, tarragon becomes thin and etiolated and withers to nothing. I have no idea why.

At least I can find fresh or dried tarragon in local markets if I want to make chicken tarragon or tarragon dressing. I can’t say the same for chervil. We may live in a multicultural city where you can find nearly any ingredient from any country, but darned if I can find chervil anywhere. I buy the dried version when I go to France and hoard it carefully. (If you live in Canada and know of a source of chervil, please get in touch.)

Norman is also a fan of anise flavours and was thrilled to discover réglisse (liquorice-flavoured) ice cream at Picard during a hot summer visit to Paris a few years ago. We ate a lot of it on that holiday. (Actually, all the Picard ice creams were delicious.)

You can even buy anise pastilles in beautiful little tins decorated with pictures of a shepherd and a shepherdess gazing fondly at each other. They were first made by Benedictine monks in Burgundy. A company called Les anis de Flavigny still makes them.

All these similar flavours. I thought I should look a little closer and sort them out. I consulted The Visual Food Encyclopedia (a wonderful resource). The book makes a distinction between anise (the leaves and seeds of an aromatic herb, Pimpinella anisum, native to the Mediterranean region) and star anise (the fruit of an evergreen tree, Illicium verum, native to China). Here’s a picture of Mediterranean anise, Pimpinella.

The book tells me that anise can “tone up the heart” (whatever that means), stimulate digestion, and soothe coughs.

Both kinds of anise, as well as chervil, tarragon, and fennel, contain one or both of two chemical compounds that impart that distinctive flavour. One is anethole (as in aneth, the French word for dill, which has a similar flavour) and the other is estragole (as in estragon, or tarragon).

By comparison, liquorice is not a herb, but the root of a plant in the bean family (Glycyrrhiza glabra), native to several areas around the Mediterranean. It also contains anethole.

Anethole is responsible for the way in which pouring water into any liquid version of anise (pastis, ouzo, or absinthe) makes the clear liquid cloudy.

Now that absinthe can once again be sold legally in France, there is a whole ritual associated with it. We once went into a Paris shop that sold absinthe and the shop owner demonstrated it for us. First you need a special flat spoon with slots in it (some of these are very fancy). Here are some from the Wikipedia entry on “absinthiana.”

Put a small amount of absinthe in a glass and balance the spoon on the rim of the glass. Put a sugar cube on the spoon and pour very cold water over the cube and into the glass. Watch the liquid turn a cloudy pale yellow or green (the colour depends on the herbs used in its manufacture).

After being banned in France in 1915, absinthe returned in the early years of the 21st century under alternative names. In 2011, after a legal challenge, absinthe makers regained the right to use the word “absinthe” on their products.

There are several versions of the story about banning absinthe. Most commonly, one hears that the wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) in absinthe contained a hallucinogenic compound called thujone, blamed for all kinds of misbehaviour in absinthe drinkers, up to and including murder. Considering that wormwood is an insecticide, one does wonder what it did to humans, but apparently the concentration of the substance in absinthe was usually quite low.

Other versions say that the problem was simply that absinthe had an extremely high alcohol content and people got much drunker much faster. Still others say that contaminants in cheap versions of absinthe were to blame for hallucinations and the potential for violent behaviour. The absinthe drinker painted by Degas, however, doesn’t look particularly violent. She just seems glum.

But the drink definitely had a dodgy reputation. It was called not only “La Fée Verte” (the Green Fairy) for its colour and the likelihood of absinthe drinking leading to otherworldly sensations, but also “the Charenton omnibus.” Charenton was the site of a mental hospital and the idea was that drinking absinthe would take you straight there. Certainly, notable absinthe drinkers, like the poet Paul Verlaine, shown below with his glass, often behaved strangely. Of course, the volume of alcohol he consumed on a regular basis may have had something to do with that.

Verlaine’s Confessions tell of his struggles with absinthe. In one story, he comes home after a night of heavy drinking, undresses, and climbs quietly into bed, so as not to wake his mother in the next room. In the morning, she comes to rouse him and stares at him oddly. He assures her he hasn’t been drinking, no, not at all. Her response is simply to hand him a small mirror, at which point he realizes he has been sleeping with his top hat on.

What historians do agree on is the fact that the failure of French wine crops in the late 19th century because of the blight caused by the insect phylloxera led to a huge upsurge in absinthe drinking. Some go on to suggest that when the wine industry rebounded, winemakers lobbied hard to have absinthe outlawed so they could regain market share. Others note that there was a war on in 1915; the French needed to focus, and absinthe got in the way. Really, the history is as murky as absinthe with water in it.

Personally, we’re going to stick with fennel, tarragon, chervil, and the occasional pastis when we want that anise flavour. And whenever we make it back to Paris, we’ll head to Picard for their réglisse ice cream.

Here’s a recipe for you to try.

Braised Fennel

1 large fennel bulb or two small ones
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Remove the fennel stalks. If using a large bulb, cut into eight pieces vertically so that each piece retains a bit of the core to hold it together. Smaller bulbs can be cut in four.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot on medium-high heat. Add the pieces and brown on all sides, at least 5 minutes a side, turning as needed. You may have to do it in two batches to allow each piece to brown. The browner it gets, the better it tastes.

When all the pieces are brown on all sides, put them all in the pot, add the wine, stock, and lemon juice. Turn the heat down to low and simmer, covered, for 25 minutes. If there is a lot of liquid at the end of this time, uncover, turn the heat up and reduce the liquid until it is thick. Season with freshly ground pepper. Serve warm.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photograph of Richard jugs and ice cream by Philippa Campsie; other photographs from Wikipedia and Gallica. Suggested reading: Phil Baker, The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History (New York: Grove Press,, 2001).

Posted in Paris flea markets, Paris food, Paris history, Paris popular culture, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

How blind people learned to write: the truth can be told

Exactly 200 years ago, in June 1821, a crucial experiment was taking place in a school on the rue St-Victor in Paris. The school was the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (the Royal Institution for Blind Youth) and the students were learning to read and write using a system of raised dots in a code that represented letters of the alphabet. No, it wasn’t the system later developed by Louis Braille – although he was among the students who were part of this experiment. The inventor was a man called Charles Barbier (1767–1841).

I’ve mentioned him before, because I have spent some years uncovering his story, and learning that nearly everything written about him to date is either completely wrong or mostly wrong.

The quest started in December 2016, at the museum of the Association Valentin Haüy.

Norman, shown here, was doing research on methods of using Braille and I picked up a book about Louis Braille and started to read it. It described Barbier’s invention of raised dots that could be read by touch. I hadn’t realized that the idea was not Braille’s own. I went to speak to the museum curator, Noëlle Roy.

“What can you tell me about Charles Barbier?”

Noëlle stopped what she was doing and looked at me intently. “Are you interested in him?”

“I think so. Why?”

“We have his papers and letters here. I have catalogued them, but nobody else has ever taken a close look at them. Would you like to see them?”

Previously unexamined correspondence? A history researcher’s form of catnip. When I’d woken up that morning, I’d never heard of Barbier. Now I was longing to read his letters.

Noëlle brought me a large archival box. It contained not only letters, but publications and reports about Barbier’s work. Since our time at the museum was limited, I photographed and photocopied as much as I could to read later and began to piece together the story with additional research.

I made one important discovery at the Louis Braille Museum in Coupvray. This is a small town to the east of Paris, and although it is reachable by commuter train, it feels as if it is deep in the countryside. Norman and I went there on a lovely June day in 2017 with our friend Mireille.

The museum contains a photograph of what is said to be a portrait of Barbier as a young man.* I would love to know where the original is.

The guide, Stéphane Mary, brought out a file of information on Barbier. It contained a very interesting record from the French Ministry of Defence.

Nearly every account of Barbier’s life goes on and on and on about his military background, his rank as captain, his artillery training. Some writers have even suggested he attended the same military academy as Napoleon – Brienne. So I looked at the piece of paper with some interest. Here’s what it told me.

Barbier trained at the artillery academy in Douai, starting in May 1784. He became a second lieutenant in a Besançon regiment in 1785; was promoted to first lieutenant in 1791; and appointed captain on May 18, 1792. He quit the army two days later, May 20. And then, with the Revolution on, he left the country, as so many officers did. His military career took up eight years of his life in total, and he spent two days as a captain. That’s it.

The emphasis on Barbier’s military career accompanies a persistent myth about his invention of raised-point writing – that he developed it for the army, to allow instructions to be written and read in the dark on the battlefield. Some writers have waxed lyrical about Barbier’s grief when good men were killed because they lit a lamp to decipher a message from headquarters.

Balderdash. All of it. Barbier invented raised point type specifically for blind people. He says so in an 1815 book in which he introduced his writing system and explained its potential use by blind people. The book is available on Google Books where anyone can read it, although it seems that nobody has.

So what, exactly, was Barbier’s invention? That 1815 book was in the box that Noëlle showed me, a slim volume with green covers, rather blotched, marked up here and there by its author. I transcribed it (it’s only 33 pages of text with a series of illustrations) and began to understand what Barbier was up to.

In it, Barbier proposes nothing less than an alternative to conventional reading and writing methods for people who have not received the lengthy education necessary to become fully literate. They included blind people, but they weren’t the only intended audience. Barbier was thinking of farmers, artisans, the urban poor, deaf people, all those left behind by the education system of the time.

Barbier points out a problem with the conventional alphabet. A perfect writing system would have one symbol for each sound, no more and no less. But that’s not what we have. Some sounds can be produced with more than one letter (c, k, q) and some sounds can only be indicated with a combination of letters (ch, for example, or ou). Barbier also thought writing was far too hard to master. All those little squiggles that take years to learn. So he came up with a simpler approach.

He created a grid, well, two grids. One contained the letters of the alphabet and the other the 30 sounds of the French language. In other words, he offered a choice between conventional spelling and phonetic spelling. The rows and columns of the grid were numbered, and each letter or sound could be identified by its place in the grid – row 3, column 4, say, or row 5, column 1.

Each number was assigned a simple symbol. And each letter or sound could be represented by a combination of two symbols, one for the column number and one for the row number. Easy-peasy.

The one with raised dots was the easiest of all, because instead of an arbitrary symbol for each number, the column and row number was represented by the number of raised dots. Four vertical dots followed immediately by two vertical dots was row 4, column 2. And when you know the letter or sound that occupies that space, you can read.

Not only did Barbier invent this approach, he designed and fabricated the instruments necessary to make the raised dots – a tablet with grooves into which the dots could be pressed, a punch to make them, and a third tool to keep the dots lined up. These were essential.

He wrote to the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles to describe his system. The director brushed him off. When that director left, the next one was interested, but maddeningly casual. He lost Barbier’s first letter and made appointments he did not keep. But he assigned a senior student to learn the system and teach others.

It worked. In 1821, Barbier’s system was demonstrated in front of the board of directors by two blind students. One was sent into a separate room. The other used the system to transcribe words dictated by one of the directors. Then the first student was sent for and proceeded to read the message correctly.

Yes, the system was clumsy and it did not extend to things like numbers or punctuation, let alone musical notation (music is an important skill for many blind students). But as a proof of concept, it was brilliant, and fired up Louis Braille to develop a neater, more flexible system, also using raised dots, and using the tools Barbier had made.

One further important discovery came in the library of the modern-day Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, which is now located on the Boulevard des Invalides.

Letters written by Barbier to the school are kept there. I was not allowed to photocopy or photograph them, so Mireille and I spent hours transcribing. It was tiring work, and it took me a while to notice something important.

Just as most writers harp on about Barbier’s military career, most repeat the story of an early meeting with Louis Braille at which the young student (barely in his teens) points out defects in the system to its older inventor. They assume the two were at loggerheads and suggest that Barbier resented the young Braille. They play up the young-blind-student-versus-the-experienced-captain for all it’s worth. David and Goliath.

Never happened. Complete fiction. The letters tell the story. Louis Braille first published his own system in 1829 (he later altered and refined it). In 1833, four years later, Barbier hears about it and writes to the school, asking for a copy of the publication. He also asks if the inventor is a student or a teacher because he has never met him. By this time, Braille is a teacher in his twenties. Barbier takes one look at Braille’s system and immediately writes a letter of congratulation to Braille. The two meet several times thereafter, and their letters are invariably friendly.

I remember sitting in the library of the Institut reading that letter from 1833. By this point, I was getting pretty good at reading early 19th-century French handwriting. I turned to Zoubeida Moulfi, the librarian, and said, “Look! Barbier didn’t meet Braille until 1833. They’d never met before then.” She studied the letter and agreed. We stared at each other for a moment.

Turns out the story about Braille’s criticism of Barbier’s system was the fabrication of that director of the school who kept avoiding meetings with Barbier, Alexandre-René Pignier. He wrote his account after both Barbier and Braille were dead and unable to set the record straight. He’d been fond of Braille, and had, for some reason, disliked Barbier. So he wrote a story that puts Barbier in the shade and makes Braille sound even more precocious.

Now that I understand what Barbier was trying to do, I wonder about his motives. Why was Charles Barbier so obsessed with alternative forms of writing?**

I have a theory. Barbier himself found writing difficult. He employed a scribe to write his formal business correspondence (his own writing was messy). And he couldn’t spell (which may account for his preference for phonetic spelling). The scribe corrected his spelling of ordinary words, but took Barbier’s version of proper names for granted, and mostly, Barbier misspelled them. For example, Barbier always wrote Pignier’s name as Pégnier (maybe that’s why the man disliked him).

Whatever his reasons, Barbier wanted to make reading and writing easier for everyone. Along the way, he came up with a workable method that allowed blind people to read and, more importantly, to write down their thoughts and ideas and read them again later. Before Barbier, blind students could not take notes or write to other blind people (although a few learned to write for sighted people). This was a huge step forward. With his odd invention (and his donation of hundreds of sets of writing equipment to the school), Barbier opened the path to true literacy for blind people.

Yet Braille is in the Pantheon, and Barbier in an obscure grave in Père Lachaise (he died in 1841). The inscription on the simple slab is so worn down that it’s almost unreadable – except by touch. We paid our respects to him there in 2018 (thanks to Mireille for finding the grave) and I promised I would publish the real story one day.

And I have. On Wednesday, June 16, 2021, Disability Studies Quarterly published my article on Barbier. I have learned far more than I could put in a single article, but at least I have started to set the record straight.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie. Heartfelt thanks to the other members of Team Barbier, Mireille Duhen and Noëlle Roy, who provided translations, transcriptions, suggestions, hospitality, and encouragement every step of the way.

A podcast is now available on the Disability History Association website.

*If you Google Barbier’s name, you will also find an engraving of a different bloke with hair combed forward and very formal attire. That is actually Pierre-François-Hercule, comte de Serre (1776–1824), wearing the regalia of the Order of the Holy Spirit. Charles Barbier’s full name was Nicolas-Marie-Charles Barbier de la Serre and he was never a member of the order. Someone didn’t check carefully (or at all) and mislabelled the image of the comte de Serre.

**That 1815 book includes a whole range of variations on the grid method. Many were intended as simplified writing forms, but he includes some methods that would allow for coded messages (one looks like musical notation, for example) and methods of writing without a pen (which, in the days before fountain pens and ballpoints, required inkpots and other apparatus) for travellers and, yes, the military. But these other forms never caught on.

Posted in Charles Barbier, History of the blind, Paris cemeteries, Paris history, Paris museums | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

Islands

The boulevard Morland is a tree-lined, one-way thoroughfare in the fourth arrondissement. Nothing indicates that the buildings between it and the river occupy what was once an island, or that the street sits atop what was once an arm of the river and a quay. Here was one of Paris’s many now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t islands.

Turgot’s map from the 1730s shows the now-vanished island joined to the Right Bank by a precarious-looking bridge at its western end (the foreground in the image), and an estacade (wooden pier) partly blocking the entry to the arm of the river at the east end.

I couldn’t identify the shapes covering the island until I read in Jacques Hillairet’s Dictionnaire Historique des Rues de Paris that the island was the site of a wood market. Those are huge piles of wood to be used for heating.

The island was not urbanized until it was joined to the Right Bank in the 1840s.* Mind you, at dawn or dusk, as this 18th-century image by Pierre-Antoine Demachy suggests, the huge stacks of wood must have looked like fantastic towers.

Before becoming attached to the Right Bank, the island was known as the Ile Louviers after Charles de Louviers, who owned it in the 15th century. Earlier in its history, according to Paris Ancien et Moderne by Jean Lacroix de Marles (1837), it had been called Ile aux Javeaux (javeau is a sandbar) or Ile aux Meules (haystacks) or Ile aux Ormétiaux (elms).

The multiple names are typical. In researching vanished islands, I discovered that they all had umpteen names. At least three different Paris islands had names that incorporated the word vaches (cows), which suggests what the islands were used for. At least two included the word treilles (vines), suggesting what they looked like.

One of the cow-pasturing islands was just downstream from the Ile Louviers. Before the urbanization of Ile St-Louis in the 17th century, there were two islands – the Ile aux Vaches (island of cows) and the Ile Notre-Dame. Here, they are shown on the Plan Vassalieu, 1609.

Yet according to writers such as Jacques Antoine Dulaure (Histoire physique, civile et morale de Paris, 1823), those two islands had been created from a single island called Ile Notre-Dame, which was bisected by a channel when the wall of Philippe Auguste was built in the 13th century. The single island appears on a few maps, but most of those maps were made long after the division occurred.

(This is the thing about early Paris maps. Popular map databases – including Gallica and Wikipedia – include many maps that purport to show Paris in ancient or medieval times, but were, in fact, created in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on early accounts of the city. They are approximations based on what was known at the time. You can read about one example here.)

Ile Louviers was not the only island to disappear over the years. Further downstream was the long, narrow Ile Maquerelle. Like the Ile St-Louis, it was cobbled together from two or more former islands. In this map showing Paris in the 1550s (this version is an 18th-century copy of a 16th century original), two islands are visible at the bottom of the map (north is to the left and east is at the top of the map). Written accounts suggest that up to five islands originally occupied this area.

Hillairet suggests that the island’s name came from “mal-querelle” (or bad quarrel, that is, the kind that leads to a duel on a largely deserted island). That’s one theory. Maybe Hillairet is being polite. Maquerelle can also mean a madam, in the sense of a woman who runs a brothel (the female version of maquereau, meaning pimp). Who knows what went on there?

By Turgot’s day, the amalgamated island had acquired the less edgy name Ile des Cygnes (swans) after Louis XIV populated it with birds he had received as a gift from the Danish ambassador. Turgot’s map shows it as yet another wood market (clearly a popular use for otherwise unoccupied islands). I suppose the swans had moved on. It only just makes it into Turgot’s huge map in the bottom right-hand corner. This was suburban terrain (I am tempted to call it the sticks).

Hillairet adds the gruesome detail that the bodies of many victims of the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, which had been thrown into the Seine, washed ashore here, where the river bends, and were buried on the island. A few decades earlier, it had been the burial site for plague victims from 1544.

Ile Maquerelle/des Cygnes was joined to the Left Bank in the late 18th century. Its western end became part of an expanded Champs de Mars for the Ecole Militaire. The Quai Branly now occupies part of the site.

At least two other vanished islands form the downstream tip of Ile de la Cité. In this historical painting by Fedor Hoffbauer from the 1890s that depicts a much earlier view, the tip of the island is a jumble of low-lying islands, but most maps show only two islands.

The one closer to the Left Bank (which is actually on the right in the image above) was known, among other things, as the Ile aux Juifs (Jews), or the Ile aux Templiers (Knights Templar). These names refer to the execution of people on the site, not to erstwhile inhabitants. Today, there is a plaque about the execution of the last Grand Master of the Templars in the Square du Vert Galant.

The former names of the island nearer the Right Bank include Ile à la Gourdaine (a word meaning ferry), Ile de Buci, and Ile aux Bureaux (the last two names represent people associated with the island). Nearby, standing on piles in the water, was the Moulin de la Monnaie (the mill of the Royal Mint), used to mint coins. Hoffbauer includes it in his painting, above, and it is labelled in a map from the 1550s (here again, north is to the left). The mill disappeared when the Pont Neuf was constructed in this spot in the 1570s.

In the years before dredging and embankments, the Seine was prone to the build-up of sand and mud. Islands came and went. One, which sounds like little more than a sandbar, was dignified with the name “Ile du Louvre,” because it was close to the Louvre on the Right Bank, but it disappeared with the creation of the Port St-Nicolas. I have not yet seen a picture of it on a map or illustration.

Other islands also live on only in name. For example, after describing some former islands, Hillairet comments: “Finally, there were other small islands, like… Ile Merdeuse opposite the Palais Bourbon.” Ile Merdeuse? According to the ever-polite Hillairet, the name signified “good for nothing,” because it was too small and too barren to find a use. Or perhaps the name reflects the shouted reaction of someone on a riverboat running up against a buried sandbar.

Ile Merdeuse does not appear on any map that I have seen. Perhaps it’s an urban legend. It reminds me of something I discovered when I was doing some work in a town in southern Ontario. I noticed that the city crest consisted of a bird’s-eye view of the city and the river that flowed through it. The original version included an aeroplane that represented one of the industries on which the city was built (aeroplane manufacturing). But in one badly reproduced iteration, the aeroplane flying over the river became a blob and in a later version, the blob became an island in the river that did not exist. The city has long since changed its crest, but that incident showed me how easy it is to forget what a blob on a map might mean. Now I take nothing for granted. The tendency to copy from what came before rather than verifying matters in person is universal.

Since I cannot find any corroboration for Hillairet’s mention of “Ile Merdeuse,” I am not going to insist that such a place existed. Its ostensible location opposite the Palais Bourbon (now the French National House of Assembly) suggests some leg-pulling.

Another hard-to-pin-down island is the Ile Boute-clou (bouter is to drive and clou is a nail). Hillairet suggests that this was one of the former names for the Ile Louviers. Elsewhere, I have seen the name referred to in connection with a small island near the Quai des Grands Augustins on the Left Bank that was the subject of a tussle between rival monasteries in the 16th century. But again, I have not seen it on any map.

The 19th century saw the disappearance of many islands from the Seine in the interests of improved navigation. The 17th-century map above gives you an idea of the abundance of islands, only a few of which remain. Many that did were industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries. But that’s another story.

So it seems almost perverse than in the 1820s, a brand-new island was created where none had existed before, called the Ile aux Cygnes (a nod to the now-vanished Island of Swans upstream). It was at first a dike created to protect the port and depots at the Quai de Grenelle. Later, it was strengthened and eventually came to serve as a support for three bridges (road, rail, and metro) and as one of the spaces for pavilions at the 1937 International Exposition.

It also provides a green promenade with a view of the Eiffel Tower. At least, I suppose it does. When I lived in Paris as a student, I was given to understand that some dodgy characters were to be found there and it was best avoided. That was long ago, and is probably no longer the case, but still, I have never visited the island.

As the Seine winds its way to the sea, it passes hundreds more islands. A 2016 exhibit at the Pavilion de l’Arsenal featured stories and images of them. Appropriately enough, the Pavilion is situated on the former Ile Louviers.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Images from Wikipedia and Gallica.

*In her enjoyable book, The Seine: The River that Made Paris, Elaine Sciolino claims that the Ile Louviers housed a theatre, but I think she means that it was used as a staging ground for royal and public entertainments and spectacles over the years.

Posted in Paris bridges, Paris history, Paris maps, Seine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

My mother’s adventure in Paris

This blog is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Rosemary Felicity Campsie, née Orchardson, July 24, 1924 – April 5, 2021. She was a cheerful traveller with great curiosity about the world.

I remember a story my mother told me years ago about a visit to Paris. She was there with her mother and an aunt. They had a car, either borrowed or rented. Mum was at the wheel. She lost her bearings, but seeing a large road up ahead, drove towards it. Just as she turned the corner into the road, the car stalled. Suddenly, the car was surrounded by police officers. Inadvertently, my mother had turned into part of the parade route for a state visit by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. One of the police officers got into the car and tried to restart it, but without success. To clear the way, the whole group of police officers gathered around, lifted the car onto the sidewalk, and rolled it as far away from the road as they could.

I don’t know what happened after that. Presumably the car restarted and my mother and her companions went on their way. What impressed my mother was the quick and efficient way the policemen moved the car.

Only later did I wonder when this had happened. My mother’s dementia has prevented me from asking her questions for the last three or so years, so I decided to find out for myself.

It wasn’t hard to do. Queen Juliana made a state visit to Paris at the end of May in 1950. You can even see some old newsreels of the occasion online.

Aha. That was the year my mother married. My mother grew up in Vancouver, and her engagement to my father took place there, but most of her relatives, and my father’s, lived in Great Britain, so they married in Hampshire and spent their first year of married life in Scotland. Here is a picture of them taken in Vancouver in about 1949.

I found the record of Mum’s passage to England through a genealogical website. She and her mother Dora travelled tourist class on the Queen Mary from New York at the beginning of April 1950. There were just the two of them, since my grandfather had died when my mother was 10 and my mother was an only child. My mother’s occupation is listed as “Teacher.”

I don’t know what my mother did during the journey, but I do know what Dora did. My grandmother suffered dreadfully from motion sickness and she would have spent most of the time in her cabin lying down. Perhaps she was coaxed out briefly to lie on a chaise longue on the deck, covered with a steamer rug and sipping beef tea, but that would be the extent of her activity. Despite this handicap, she travelled a remarkable amount during her lifetime (she met her husband in Shanghai), but she always had to travel lying down. Here is my mother’s own description of their trip to England in 1938, which started with a train journey across Canada to Montreal:

Mother devised a plan for crossing the country to Montreal which would enable her to lie down all the way. We would travel only at night. Each day we would get off the train and spend the day in whatever place the train stopped in the early morning, climbing onto another train in the evening. The places we stopped were not always tourist attractions! Our first day was spent in Sicamous [known for its mosquito population]… [The next] morning found us in Calgary. So it went, on to Medicine Hat, Regina, Winnipeg, Ignace, Chapleau, Montreal. As far as Mother was concerned, it worked well. As soon as she boarded the train, she went to bed and stayed there until just before we had to get off.

They may have used a similar approach to get to New York in 1950.

The U.K. address listed in the passenger manifest is that of my grandmother’s brother Roland and his family in Bournemouth. So presumably they travelled directly from Southampton to Bournemouth when they arrived. Although the wedding was planned for early September, my mother was required to “establish residency” in the U.K. before getting married.

They would have spent late April and most of May visiting relatives in southern England and London. And in late May, they crossed the Channel. Car ferries were already operating in 1950, so it is possible that Mum was driving a right-hand-drive car when she got to Paris.

Apart from the anecdote in Paris, the only other bit of information I have about that trip is a recently discovered and very blurry photograph of Dora and the aunt who accompanied them, presumably taken by my mother, and labelled: Montreux, 1950. Dora and Marjorie on our European jaunt. So I now know they made it as far as Switzerland. That makes sense. Dora’s grandfather came from Aarau, Switzerland.

The wedding took place in Milford-on-Sea on September 2 in All Saints Church, and my mother’s oldest uncle, Jack, walked her down the aisle.

Then the wedding party and the guests strolled to the nearby Milford House Hotel for the reception.

My parents left for their honeymoon in a 1936 Rover, presumably borrowed from one of the many relatives. In this photo, the best man is pretending to push the car. Perhaps the story had got round of Mum’s car troubles in Paris. Perhaps it was the same car.

Mum and Dad spent their honeymoon in a cottage in Pagham, Sussex. Dora visited them there briefly before returning to Canada.

Poor Dora faced the long, queasy journey back to Vancouver on her own, to an empty house. Since her husband’s death, she had depended on her daughter for companionship and support, and now Rosemary was off to a new life. Although she fully supported her daughter, she had nonetheless felt so distressed on the wedding day that she had to be slightly sedated, so she wouldn’t sob through the ceremony and reception. Mum once told me that her mother smiled vaguely and glassily at everyone throughout the occasion.

We revisited Paris as a family in the 1960s (which I have written about before) and the 1970s. And I took a holiday in France with my father once in the 1980s, in a rented car. It was a tiny Opel that stalled frequently, but not, fortunately, on anyone’s parade route.

Text by Philippa Campsie; family photographs; picture of Queen Juliana from YouTube.

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Finding Café Momus

A few weeks ago, we received the following comment from Martin Nelson in England on our blog about Rooftops:

I am a singer, and lived briefly during 1982 in the Palais Royal district, Rue Molière… I had an old 1950 guide book with me – The People’s France – Paris by AH Brodrick – and this told me that … in Rue des Prêtres St Germain l’Auxerrois, was the original Café Momus, celebrated by [Henry] Murger in La Vie de Bohème, and the setting for Act Two of Puccini’s opera La Bohème. In 1982 it was still a café (but no longer Momus) and served the delivery van drivers for La Samaritaine, whose depot adjoined. I told the patron this tale, but it drew a complete blank; he had not heard of the opera, let alone his establishment’s celebrated history. In past times above the cafe, Mr Brodrick also informs me, was the ‘queer dingy little offices of the Journal des Débats which in its day occupied a unique position in European journalism.’ There. I wonder if this will set you off on a hunt…

Well, yes, Martin, it did.

First, I wanted to take a look at the street in question. The earliest image I found was a drawing by the English artist Thomas Boys, which shows the street in about 1820. It looks like a bustling spot. The wall beside Momus, besides advertising its prix fixe menu and billiard tables, mentions “toiles blanches et jaunes,” which suggests a fabric shop in the same building.

On Gallica I found a lovely watercolour of the narrow street by Henri Lévis from the late 1840s, around the time that Henri Murger wrote La Vie de Bohème

Then I went to Google Street View to see what the spot looks like now. Actually, this image is a little older than 2021, because I wanted one that showed La Samaritaine (currently swathed in scaffolding). Note that the buildings on the left side of the street have been cleared away and that only the church buildings remain on that side, making the street much wider than it was.

One thing I could not find anywhere was a view of the cafe’s facade. Of course, it is a very narrow street. All the pictures I found show the end wall only, which at some point lost the upper part that curved outwards.

I also took a virtual walk down the street on Google Street View. The building that juts out on the right (on the wall of which the advertising was once posted and where there is now only a small green sign) is No. 19, and it is at present a hotel. Beyond it, as you walk towards La Samaritaine, is No. 17, the Clinique du Louvre, a private surgical facility with an arched doorway. Beyond that, at No. 15, is a very narrow building (only slightly wider than its front door), and at No. 13 is the Café l’Auxerrois.

Just to orient readers, here is a bird’s-eye view of the street from about 1920. This was after the buildings beside the church had been removed in 1912, but before the expansion of La Samaritaine later in the 1920s, which annexed the easternmost block of the street.

My next thought was to find a copy of Murger’s book. The 1883 English translation I found on Google Books was called The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter. I’m not sure why the translator added the last three words, since the Café Momus and many other locations are not in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank, but on the Right Bank (one of the main characters, Rodolphe, lives in Montmartre, for example). Probably a decision by the publisher’s marketing department.

The café makes its first appearance on page 23, where we learn that Momus is “the god of play and pleasure.” (Actually, Momus is associated with satire. Martin tells me he was the god of mockery, expelled from heaven by Zeus for ridiculing the other gods.) The four main characters in Murger’s stories spend much of their time in this establishment.

Indeed, the café itself is the subject of Chapter XI, in which the proprietor complains to the four friends who frequent his upper floor that they are bad for business. They steal his newspapers, monopolize his backgammon board, use the place as a painting studio complete with models or as a noisy music room, make their own coffee instead of buying it from him, and corrupt the serving staff. All true. A truce is struck in which the bohemians agree to buy their coffee from him. This is quite a concession, because the one thing bohemians do not have is ready money.

Hosting bohemian artists has never been a lucrative enterprise. A non-fiction description of the Café Momus, written in 1862 by Alfred Delvau, in which the real-life characters include Murger himself and his friends, describes their way of saving money. One man would enter and order a coffee. The others would join his table one by one without ordering anything and share one little cup of coffee, four sugar cubes, and the accompanying glass of water.*

These stories remind me of the pre-pandemic days in which writers and freelance workers would settle into a café with a laptop and stay there for hours on end, having bought a single coffee. I always wondered how the proprietors stayed in business. It seemed a recipe for insolvency.

Apparently this was the case in mid-19th-century Paris, for in 1856 the Café Momus went out of business. In a notice from 1845, the place advertises billiards and newspapers among its amenities. Maybe the owners should have focused more on providing food and drink only.

The space then became an art-supply store (Colin, marchand de couleurs, at No. 19). When Charles Marville photographed the street in 1860s, Colin’s advertisement has replaced that of the Café Momus on the wall. There is also a little sign sticking out on the right side of the street that indicates that there was a pawnshop (Pelletier, Mont de Piété) in the building, too.

The art-supply store went out of business in its turn in 1890, around the time that a bust of Henry Murger was being installed in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

What about the other business Brodrick mentioned – the journal? It was time to rummage about in the Annuaire-Almanach du commerce, which lists all the businesses, first alphabetically, then grouped by type, then by address in Paris from 1857 to 1908 (this is a Gallica rabbit hole into which one can disappear for hours at a stretch).

As of the first issue, in 1857, the Journal des Débats is listed as the occupant of No. 17, the space next door to the former café. In 1870, Colin (and Pelletier, the pawnshop owner) are listed at No. 19 and the Journal (as well as Lenormant, a printer) are at No. 17. By 1908, No. 17–19 is the Imprimerie typographique du Journal des Débats, occupying both buildings.

So A. H. Brodrick was not quite right: it seems that the Journal des Débats was at first a next-door neighbour to the café, and later expanded, with its own printing facility, into the space vacated by the former café/art supply store. This conclusion is borne out by Alfred Delvau in 1862. Although the Café Momus had closed by the time Delvau wrote his book about Paris cafés, such was its fame that he devoted an entire chapter to its history, describing it as being “à un parpaing de l’imprimerie du Journal des Débats.”  Un parpaing is a stone block, so I think that means next door.*

Here is a view from the late 19th century showing the façade of No. 17 – you can just see the word “Débats” over the arched doorway (which today forms the entrance to the clinic).

What was this “unique” journal?

It began in 1789 as a verbatim record of the debates of the Assemblée Nationale (think Hansard) and evolved into a general political and literary journal. It was published almost daily, usually with four pages of closely printed type. It survived the Revolution, as well as Napoleon (who insisted it call itself the Journal de l’Empire), the Restoration, the Second Empire, the Third Republic, and the better part of two world wars. It continued to operate during the Occupation, which presumably tainted its reputation, because at the Liberation in 1944, it ceased publication.

The next step was to figure out what took its place. This slightly out-of-focus photo from the late 1940s indicates that Nos. 17 and 19 had become a hotel called Le Pays (there is a different hotel at No. 21). Today the hotel at No. 19 is called Le Relais du Louvre. 

If you want to take a closer look at the photograph above, go to this page, and zoom in.

So, Martin, I am compelled to conclude that the café you visited was what is now the Café l’Auxerrois at No. 13, an unpretentious brasserie that I can well imagine might cater to drivers for La Samaritaine, right across the road at that end of the street.

A look at the Annuaire shows that this space was not always a restaurant. Over the years it has served, among other things, as a wallpaper shop and a wine merchant’s premises.

Alas, the brasserie you visited in 1982 was not the inheritor of the illustrious mantle of the Café Momus. But when the Relais du Louvre reopens in May 2021 (it is currently closed because of the pandemic), perhaps you can reserve a room on the first floor. There you will be in the space once occupied by the bohemians.

Text by Philippa Campsie; historic illustrations from Gallica and the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris; modern illustrations from Google Street View; photo of bust of Henry Murger from Wikipedia.

*Alfred Delvau, Cafés et Cabarets de Paris, Paris : E. Dentu, 1862. Mine is a modern facsimile copy from Maxtor, purchased at one of my favourite Paris bookshops, Pippa.

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The Zone

Our visits to Paris always begin and end with a trip through the outskirts of Paris. The train or taxi from the airport travels through residential and industrial suburbs, passing warehouses, high-rise hotels, office buildings, and large sports facilities. Beside the highway or railway track there are often heavily graffitied walls.

On one memorable occasion, when the highway was blocked by a strike, an enterprising taxi driver took us on small roads through the banlieue, cutting through gas station forecourts, parking lots, and back lanes to avoid the congestion. It was a fascinating journey through a part of the region we would never otherwise have seen up close.

Normally, at least part of the journey takes us along the Boulevard Periphérique, with its signs indicating the various “portes” (gates) – highway exits with names that commemorate vestiges of an older Paris.

A hundred or so years ago, visitors to Paris entered the city through actual gates in actual walls. Here is one typical example, the Porte de Reuilly.

The gates in this 19th-century wall all looked much the same – unlike the distinctive barrières created for the customs wall by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux before the Revolution.

The 19th-century walls and gates remained largely in place until well into the 1920s, although demolition of parts of the wall began shortly after the end of the First World War.

The Enceinte de Thiers, as it was known – after Adolph Thiers, the prime minister who proposed it, rather than the one who actually built it – was a defensive wall constructed in the 1840s, along with a ring of 16 forts outside the wall to provide additional defence. Here’s a map of the completed system from 1852:

The military authorities went about their task with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Small suburban villages like Charonne and Clignancourt were chopped in half by the wall. Fifteen forts bristled from St-Denis in the north round the east and south sides of the city, while a single one guarded the west. Clearly nobody expected anyone to attack from that side.

Not only was the wall itself very wide, but there were buffer areas on either side taking up even more space. Immediately inside was a 150m-wide open area (about 500 ft) known as the “Boulevards des Maréchaux” – those wide boulevards around the circumference of the city, named for military leaders, which later turned out to be the perfect size for modern tramways.

Outside the wall, there was a ditch and beyond that, the military authorities decreed that a 250m-wide (about 820 ft) space be left unbuilt – a “zone non aedificandi” – to allow for a clear range of fire as enemies approached.

(Of course, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, the whole thing proved to be a colossal failure in protecting the city from shelling from a distance. Interestingly, when the French army turned against the Paris Commune, Adolph Thiers was among those besieging the city – from the lightly defended west. So much for military far-sightedness.)

That “zone non aedificandi” already had some buildings on it, from old farmhouses to former hunting lodges. To these were added guinguettes (informal drinking places that operated outside the city’s walls and regulations), ragpickers’ huts, gypsy camps, and eventually, railway yards. Over time, in certain areas, the space became a shantytown. Its inhabitants were known as Zoniers.

In 1912 and 1913, Eugene Atget photographed the Zoniers of Ivry, who favoured horse-drawn caravans for their homes and business premises (minus the horses, of course). The wheels were handy if you had to relocate on short notice.

Here is his photograph of the Porte d’Italie, showing shacks used for collecting and sorting scrap metal.

No, it isn’t pretty. But scrap merchants and ragpickers are a useful part of the recycling economy and they have to work (and live) somewhere near their sources of supply and their customers.

The flea markets at the edge of the city (St-Ouen, Vanves) are an outgrowth of this kind of business. Over the course of the 19th century, people who collected other people’s rubbish were pushed out of the city as municipal garbage collection was established in the 1880s by the Prefect of the Seine, Eugène Poubelle (forever commemorated in the French word for a rubbish bin – poubelle). And those who sold whatever bit and pieces could be sold set up shop in the north and south parts of the Zone.

Here is a picture of an early flea market at St-Ouen. As a friend of mine used to say, “Things were dirt cheap – with the dirt thrown in.”

Some areas supported market and allotment gardens, another appropriate land use near the city.

But some parts of the Zone remained as open ground, even after the wall came down. When I went to look for photographs of the Zone, I found a series of 17 photos held by the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. They were taken after the demolition of the wall. Here is one example.

At first, the photographs seemed to be banal views of a largely empty landscape. At first.

The record attached to the photographs states that they date from 1920–50, but they were clearly taken at the end of that period. The record also did not specify where they had been taken. That omission immediately made me determined to find out. Since certain buildings and objects appeared in several photos, I gathered they were all taken in the same general area. So I peered more closely at the photos for clues. At that point, I began to see all kinds of details.

A tall industrial chimney, a boulangerie/patisserie, a huge and unidentifiable machine, a distant church spire, large houses in the banlieue, lampposts and paved roads, including a tree-lined avenue. 

A few photos showed some small houses in the Zone (one with “chien méchant” written on the gate and another with a prominent electrical connection), so there were inhabitants and businesses. There were several parked cars here and there.

And people. A surprising number of people, a man working in a scrap yard, and some women and possibly children partly hidden in the long grass. Residents of the shacks? People from the nearby apartment blocks taking the air? Hard to tell, really.

What allowed me to identify the location was one of several multi-storey brick buildings in the frame. These were HBMs (habitations bon marche) or affordable apartments. In an excellent and well-illustrated online document about the HBMs of the 1920s and 1930s built around Paris’s circumference, I spotted a window that looked familiar. Sure enough, it was from one of the buildings in the photos. The caption gave the street name, and I was able to place the photos has having been taken near the Porte de Vincennes. The HBMs are still there, but what was once a terrain vague is now the site of an elementary school.

As for the date of these photographs, the crucial clue was one of the cars parked on the street, much more recent than all the others in view. I learned that the licence plate was of the type introduced in France in 1950, but I couldn’t identify the car itself.

So I turned to Donald Pittenger, who writes the Car Style Critic blog, and within a day, I had my answer. It is a Ford Vedette, c1953. The photos are more recent than I at first realized.

Finally, what struck me was the fact that on the other side of the terrain vague was the banlieue. You could just walk across and into it. This was possible only during the years after the demolition of the wall and before the construction of the Periphérique. Less than a generation.

Those apartment buildings visible on the left, built in 1936, still stand in the Commune of Saint-Mandé. The roof on the right, just visible above the trees, belonged to one of two hospices on the site, of which the Hospice St-Michel remains.

Once again, the engineers – this time, traffic engineers – prevailed, and cut through what might have been some reconnected neighbourhoods, united rather than divided by a strip of green. Once again, Paris was walled in, with only gates to the outer world, but this time the barrier consisted of traffic. Will the Periphérique last as long as the wall it replaced? Only time will tell.

Text by Philippa Campsie; map and photographs from Gallica and the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. Highway image from Google Street View.

If you would like to see a wide range of paintings and photographs of the walls, the gates, and the Zone, I highly recommend the meticulously documented and exhaustively researched website “Les Fortifs” by Laurent Baziller. The text is in French, but there are hundreds of images to browse through. 

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Zinc

So many sights in Paris pique our curiosity and lead us to learn things we would not have learned otherwise. This blog post began as we thought about the beauty of Paris’s zinc roofs. One could argue that zinc roofs say “Paris” every bit as much as the Eiffel Tower.

Once, when we were in Paris at Christmastime, we were delighted to see zinc roofs featured in the windows of the Bon Marché department store. The window designers clearly appreciated these very Parisian features.

This display caused many passersby to stop, look, and look again.

Zinc is a relative newcomer to Paris. As with so much of the material world, the metal was known and used for centuries in Europe, India, and China well before it was “scientifically” identified as an element in 1746 (working knowledge often precedes scientific understanding). Only in the early 1700s was zinc on the path to being readily purified and manufactured.

Pure zinc has a bluish-white colour; it is hard and brittle at most temperatures and unsuitable for roofing. However, its properties can be changed by mixing it with other metals, such as tin or titanium, to make a more flexible and workable alloy.

Zinc is a very reactive element. When exposed to air and moisture, it forms a surface that protects the entire exposed sheet. It is even self-healing; if the coating is scratched, the surface can reform so that protection continues.

Longevity is another of zinc’s attractions, although that may be changing somewhat. Parisian restoration architect Patrice Roy told us that “roofs used to be waterproof for a century and a half, but because of acid pollution [today], it takes less time for holes to form [in zinc].”

The soft colour of zinc and its subtle matte finish are other important properties. Paris has many overcast days and zinc roofs take on and reflect the colours of the sky.

The use of zinc for Paris roofs can be traced to the work of a cleric called Jean-Jacques Dony of Liège in the early 19th century (Liège was part of France then; today it is in Belgium). Many clerical positions left ample time to pursue other interests and Abbé Dony used his free time to study chemistry, in particular the smelting of zinc. In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte granted Dony a permit to extract zinc from a mine in Moresnet, roughly 50 km east of Liège. The mine was known as Vieille Montagne.

Five years later, Dony obtained a patent for his method of processing and refining zinc, which was a modification of pre-existing processes rather than a completely new approach.

New technologies often require newsworthy demonstration projects and Abbé Dony hit upon the idea of showing his gratitude to Napoleon by giving him a zinc-lined bath. Napoleon was apparently so thrilled by its light weight and utility that he took it on his campaigns, including his ill-fated invasion of Russia. The bath lasted longer than Napoleon and can still be seen at the Maison de la Metallurgie et de l’Industrie in Liège.

Napoleon was not the only one whose luck ran out. By 1813 Dony was deeply in debt and had to sell his patent and mining rights. He died in poverty in 1819. However, the company grew and prospered to become the largest zinc-producing company in the world. It also led to a rather strange political outcome for Moresnet, where the mine was located. (We’ve included this story at the end of the blog.)

We do not know when or where zinc was first used for roofing and cladding, but the earliest high-profile projects included a zinc roof for the church of St-Barthélémy in Liège followed by one for the Cathedral of St. Paul in the same city.

At that time, most Paris roofs were made of slate, most of it brought from the Loire Valley. Napoleon III and Haussmann changed that in the mid-19th century with the renovation of Paris. New construction on such a massive scale called for faster and more economical roofing construction. Zinc sheets were lighter than slate, less expensive, and easier to install, and they protected buildings from water leakage. They could even be melted down and recycled when buildings were demolished.

In addition, zinc could be used to create curved shapes or sharply angled roofs – opening the way for more elaborate roof designs to suit the tastes of the 19th century and making possible the tiny top-floor apartments to which maids and domestic staff were relegated.

The illustration below is from an early 20th-century trade catalogue from the Société Anonyme des Mines et Fonderies de Zinc de la Vieille-Montagne shows the kinds of shapes that were possible (along with zinc finials and decorative touches). Zinc was also used for drainpipes and eavestroughs.

Roofing was made from a zinc alloy that had been rolled to a specific thickness and cut to size. The catalogue includes an image of the rolling mill with the rollers in the background and stacked sheets of cut zinc on wagons on the left.

However, the new material had to be used carefully and skilfully. It wasn’t a case of plunking it down and waiting for 100 or so years to see how it was faring.

An important feature of zinc roofs are the zinc-covered seams that join the sheets, creating the characteristic stripy look of the roofs. Another image from the trade catalogue shows a cross-section of these standing seams.

Figures 5 and 6 show pieces of zinc bent and butting against a piece of wood. Figures 7 and 8 show the cap that covers the joint to keep rain out. The photo below shows how this type of installation looks on a roof in Paris.

Proper installation is crucial. Each sheet has an unexposed side underneath and here is where things can go wrong and reduce the lifespan of the zinc sheets. This photo shows what that looks like.

As we learned from an online article about the challenges of using zinc, the exposed surface of zinc receives its protective patina through a three-step natural process. First, zinc exposed to oxygen in the air produces a thin layer of zinc oxide, which in the second step reacts with water to form zinc hydroxide. In the third step, the hydroxide reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form a stable long-lasting surface patina of zinc hydroxyl carbonate. The reaction sequence is finished after this third step and the zinc is thereafter protected from the elements.

If the zinc is not properly installed, things can go wrong on the hidden underside. If there is water but no air, the reactions do not go to the third, stable phase. Instead, the unstable or reactive zinc oxide produces zinc hydroxide, which consumes zinc in the process. So long as there is water present, the process will continue to eat away at the back of the metal to produce what is called “white rust” and eventually it will eat through the zinc sheet. As we see in the photo above, the zinc simply flakes away.

In 2014, Paris began the process for recognizing zinc roofing on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Why “intangible”? It is not the zinc roofs themselves that need protection, but the techniques and knowledge of the Parisian roofers who work year-round to create, maintain, and repair the roofs of Paris and those in other parts of France. Zinc workers are getting on in years and it is hard to find apprentices to continue the work and traditions.

Of course, roofs are not the only use of zinc to be seen in Paris. Traditionally, many bistros had zinc-covered bars, although these have mostly been replaced by stainless steel, since red wine reacts badly with zinc. This one had a label: Les étains de Lyon (Lyon stainless steel).

You can also see galvanized railings with their characteristic surface crystals. Galvanizing is a zinc coating created by dipping metal in a bath of molten zinc, withdrawing it and allowing it to cool. As it cools one can see the formation of zinc crystals of various sizes. The faster the cooling, the smaller the crystals.

Zinc can even be used in organ pipes – some of the recitals we have heard in Paris churches may have been made possible in part by the presence of zinc.

Early 2021 finds us all in the same storm – Covid-19 – although we are in different boats. While we cannot yet plan our next trip to Paris, Covid-19 has given us time to think about what Paris means to us, and we realize now that the soft grey, stripy roofs of the city are an important part of the city’s beauty.

Blog text and photographs by Norman Ball; image of “white rust” from Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, originally posted on BuldingEnclosureOnline.com; trade catalogue images from Bibliothèques specialisées Paris.

 

A little epilogue about Moresnet.

In this map of the province of Liège from the early 19th century, created during the short period in which this area was part of France, you will see Liège to the west, on the River Meuse, and Moresnet at the very far east, near the orange border. On the other side of the border was Limbourg, one of the patchwork of duchies, counties, and principalities that at the time occupied the area to the east.

Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 led to a grand re-drawing of the map of Europe. Liège became part of the Netherlands. And nearby Moresnet, with its productive zinc mine, found itself on the border between the Netherlands and the German Confederation, coveted by both countries.

The delegates at the Congress of Vienna seemingly couldn’t make up their collective minds and created a tiny territory called “Neutral Moresnet” surrounding the mine property, to be jointly administered by the Dutch and the Germans. (When Belgium was formed in 1830, the Belgians got to participate, too.) Yet the currency and the legal framework remained French: the franc and the Code Napoléon.

This map shows Neutral Moresnet. It was less than 2 km wide at its widest and less than 5 km from north to south, in all about 3.5 square km. At the time of its creation, the place was home to fewer than 300 people.

The population swelled to about 3,000 as the mine expanded. In 1837, the Société des Mines et Fonderies de Zinc de la Vieille-Montagne was formed; not only did it manage the mine, but it ran schools, a hospital, and company shops (just like the old one-company mining towns of Canada).

All went well until 1885, when the mine was exhausted (other mining towns have faced this dilemma, too). Various money-making schemes were tried. A separate postal service, issuing its own stamps (hey, it worked in San Marino!), was, ahem, stamped out by the Belgian and German authorities. A casino opened in 1903, but also did not meet with official approval. Several gin distilleries operated. There were public festivals to attract tourists. This image from Le Monde Illustré, 4 January 1908, shows the members of La Société de Carnaval de Moresnet. They look like jolly fellows.

But the most original idea, launched in 1908, was to make the little territory into the centre of the study and use of Esperanto, the proposed universal language invented in the 1880s. The territory was to be called Amikejo, that is, “place of friendship.” The residents studied the language, hoping to provide an example for others. But with the loss of the mine, the territory’s raison d’être had evaporated. The Germans occupied the little territory and at the end of the First World War, with the Treaty of Versailles, it became part of Belgium.

Text by Philippa Campsie, maps and newspaper image from Gallica.

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