I am no great fan of GPS or satnav systems. They convey a false sense of certainty about one’s location (What do you mean this is Montparnasse? It says Montmartre right here!) and are subject to garbage-in-garbage-out problems (if you want the rue Corot and you type rue Cortot, too bad). Besides, what’s the fun of a map that just shows you what exists now? How about one that shows you the past?
I bought this map and gazeteer for a few Euros at a bouquiniste’s stall. It gives you the city just as it was in 1897, complete with crucial information on “Les Droits du Pechêur” (fishing rights), “Deuils” (mourning – including details on how long you should wear black for the death of, say, a sister-in-law), the duties of a concierge, and the “Arrêté portant réglementaire de la Circulation des Vélocipèdes sur les voies publiques en France” (nine rules for bicyclists). Show me a GPS system with added value like that.
It was the work of Jehlen & Léguillon, Printers, 58 rue Greneta (there’s a decor shop there now), and was subsidized by the advertisements that fill up more than half the space. J&L were at pains to show off their vast range of typefaces, and every line of every ad is different. This is not about tasteful typography, it’s a feast of fonts.
The ads include all kinds of patent remedies for every sort of illness or problem, from brown spots on the skin to cancerous tumours, which can apparently be treated without an operation “par la méthode Alliot-d’Etaves.” What a relief. Every snake oil salesman in town has a pitch in here. But there are also ads for clothing and corsets, food and wine, sewing machines and bicycles, locksmiths, lace repair, and artificial flowers.
The fold-out map in the middle is a printing tour-de-force with an extraordinary level of detail, plus more ads squeezed in – including one for “hommes-sandwichs” available for hire.
The map shows the old walls (l’Enceinte de Thiers) that framed the city and gave rise to the “Portes” around the circumference. You can see the railways and nine main-line stations (of which six survive*) and the Petite Ceinture circling the city, with its stations like beads on a string. Much of this disused railway line survives, and although it is officially off-limits to trespassers, many Parisians enjoy hiking parts of the route and have even set up a Facebook page to share entry points and photographs.
The central market of Les Halles is visible, as well as a wine market (Halles aux Vins) near the Jardin des Plantes (now part of the university).
Street names have changed – many since renamed for 20th-century figures – but the parks and cemeteries are all in place.
As well as schools, churches, hospitals, and administrative buildings, the map legend lists 28 theatres, 19 “concerts” (music halls), a mere 8 museums, 3 panoramas, and of course, le Pôle Nord…
Wait a minute. The North Pole? On the rue de Clichy? It took me some time to figure that out. Apparently it was a skating rink. You can see a lovely poster for it here.
The maps shows the Paris of the Belle Epoque, of Proust’s novels and of Atget’s photographs. These are the street names they knew, the landmarks they saw, and even the company names they would have seen on shop fronts. It’s a window into a vanished world.
Sometimes imagination and memory are the best GPS of all.
*Gare St Lazare, Gare du Nord, Gare de l’Est, Gare de Lyon, Gare d’Austerlitz (then called Gare d’Orléans), Gare Montparnasse. Of the others, the Gare des Invalides is now the Musée d’Orsay, the Gare de Vincennes was demolished to make way for the Opéra Bastille, and the Gare de Sceaux is now part of the RER commuter train network.
Text copyright Philippa Campsie