On the first day of our first shared trip to Paris, signs such as this made me realize we were walking through history. We had bought the makings of a picnic lunch, which we ate on a park bench. We wandered about Montmartre and one of us spotted a now-familiar blue-and-white sign.
Cities and progress often go hand-in-hand. Paris is filled with majestic signs of progress. Think of the Eiffel Tower, the Wallace fountains, the Louvre, the historic grand department stores such as Le Bon Marché and arcades that showed the world how to shop, or the many bridges that have turned the river into an art gallery of civil engineering and construction.
But for people who lived in the flats of Paris, this sign indicates a more immediate kind of progress. “Gas on all floors.” Gas for cooking and lighting, perhaps even heating. If you hadn’t had such a luxury before, this was important.
We have since seen many variants of this type of sign, the most common touting both “Eau et gaz à tous les étages.” Gas and running water.
But we have only seen one sign such as this. Perhaps one of our readers could help us find another where less of the writing has disappeared. The sign proudly proclaims this is a Healthy House (Maison Salubre). The next line tells us why it is so healthy. “Tout à l’égout.” All the floors are hooked up to the sewers. Indoor plumbing had arrived; no need for chamber pots; the so-called night soil disappeared instantly. This, along with water and gas, announced real progress.
Indeed, simply having standard signs of any kinds was at one time an important innovation. Street numbering was introduced during last years of the 18th century, when France still used the Revolutionary calendar. Not everybody was in favour of the idea. Some people thought it was a precursor to new forms of taxation. Others objected to the fact that everyone had a number. Liberté, égalité, and fraternité was all very well, but the wealthy objected to having the same type of identifier as poor households. The numbers were put up at night in order to attract as little attention as possible, but this led to all kinds of errors. The blue-and-white enamel versions for streets and numbers were introduced in the 1840s.
Street signs represent layers of history. The name of Charlemagne conjures up powerful images of history long gone. But even before it was rue Charlemagne, it was rue des Prestres. As the language evolved, the letter “s” sometimes disappeared to be replaced by a circumflex accent and Prestres became Prêtres or priests. At some point, Charlemagne’s name displaced that of priests. Perhaps it occurred during a period of anti-clericalism. But then, why change rue Percée, a street named to mark an opening in a wall, to Prévôt (Provost), which can stand for a clerical office? There is a story there, but I don’t (yet) know what it is.
Official statements of name changes are relatively common. Unofficial reminders of what went before are less common. Is this a real name, or a personal comment about a former inhabitant of the street?
And some signs suggest that another name would be more appropriate, or that more thought should be given to the rights of children. Did this sign appear only here or was it put up more widely?
Other signs speak to us of different slices of Paris history. It was a chilly November day when Philippa drew my attention to a small but important sign and explained it marked the water level of the great flood of January 1910. At that time, I had not even heard about the flood. Since then, I have learned a great deal more and read whole books on the subject.
Many modern signs announce other kinds of social standards. Cities succeed only because people cooperate voluntarily in upholding certain norms. But sometimes we need reminders of how to behave in areas we share with many others. It is a nice dog but….
And we know your dog loves children, but sometimes children want to be alone, even when the dog is on a leash.
Sometimes signs confirm other impressions. On an April day, it was more than the warm sun that reminded us of a trip we had both made to Malta to speak at a conference. Some of the enclosed balconies on the street reminded us of those in the streets of Valetta and as we talked about Malta (where Philippa’s father was born), this is what we stumbled upon.
A little corner of the Mediterranean on the streets of Paris. Perhaps there is another story there, too.
Signs help us peer into the past, glimpse the daily life of others, and anchor our thoughts and experiences. They are documents I study.
Text and photographs by Norman Ball.