A little shop that we often visit is Tumbleweed on the rue de Turenne. As its name suggests, the owner is American, and the tiny boutique features everything from puzzles to children’s shoes to wonderful bags printed with images of Paris shopfronts.
We bought one of the bags as a gift for a friend. The young woman behind the counter wrapped it for us in paper printed with what at first looked like playing cards. However, a closer look revealed that the images were of odd-looking 19th-century characters, and each card had a question or a bit of dialogue written on it. The shop assistant told us they were “devinettes d’Épinal.”
Devinettes are guessing games or riddles. Each card contains a hidden image, and the question is a prompt to find a face or an animal hidden in the image. Here’s an example. The card says, “Find the rabbit?”
This one is a reproduction of one of the devinettes – we found an inexpensive set in the gift shop at the Musée Jacquemart-André.
In many cases, the solution to the puzzle involves turning the card upside down (what the instructions call “tête-bêche”). Here is one that asks you to find the “Naturaliste.”
Turn it upside down and in the yellow part of the butterfly’s wing, you will find his face.
Or you may need to turn it sideways. This one tells you to look for a child called “Ramollot.”
The child is hiding in the man’s beard.
The original cards were created by a printer called Jean-Charles Pellerin in the town of Épinal in eastern France. His fame as a printer began in 1796, with little woodblock images of famous people – in those days, if you wanted to keep on the right side of the authorities, that meant Napoleon, his family members, and his military leaders. The small pictures were a bit like the hockey cards that Canadian children collect – or used to. (Trade you a Maréchal Ney for a Joseph Bonaparte?)
Pellerin branched out into images from well-known stories, such as Cendrillon (Cinderella) or Don Quichotte (Don Quixote). Rather like “Classic Comics” – remember them? By this point, the cards were being created as lithographs, and hand-coloured.
The devinettes came a bit later – the 19th century was the era of parlour games made possible as printing, especially in colour, became ever cheaper.
The modern set we bought was printed by a company called Marc Vidal, which makes these and other old-fashioned amusements and has a website in both French and hilariously non-idiomatic English (“Marc Vidal… it’s a universe aside which recognize itself at once and is a reference all over the world.” Right.) The devinettes are described as “play of vision on old picture which will amuse the SMALL ones as much as the LARGE ones.” Believe me, it sounds a lot better in French.
Here are a few more devinettes to keep you guessing. The answers are provided at the end of the blog. To keep it simple, I have chosen ones that will not require you to stand on your head.
1. The text reads: “If you haven’t already cooked it, please Monsieur Lustucru, give me back my Minet [my cat].”
“See here, Madame Michel, how could I have taken him, this cat that never leaves you? Look for him: if he is not in your skirts, he is somewhere else, but surely close by.”
2. Lantimèche, Father Lustucru, and Cassandra. Can you find the latter?
3. Find the person who is not smoking.
There is even a cast of characters with names from French slang, most of it dated and obscure.
Lantimèche: apparently this is a word for the lighter of gas lamps, which is sometimes used to mean “thingamajig.”
Lustucru: this means silly or simple and denotes a simpleton.
Ramollot: this was the subject of a series of 19th century stories, and a synonym for a blustery and not-too-bright military type.
And of course, Minet the cat. French cats often seemed to be called Minet, Minou, or Minouche. As for cooking cats, I’ve been told that when rabbits are displayed in French markets, they must be sold with their heads and feet on, because otherwise an unscrupulous butcher might pass off the body of a cat for that of a rabbit. Or perhaps this is an urban legend…?
If we ever get to Épinal, we will visit its Museum of Images, which makes the most of the city’s heritage as a centre of the printing trade and features everything from playing cards to paper dolls. (To see an English brochure of the museum, click here)
Meanwhile, we’re still working our way through the devinettes.
1. The cat is on her head (part of her cap).
2. Cassandra’s profile is visible under the man’s arm (the tail of his coat is her mouth).
3. A profile is visible in the pipe smoke, nose to nose with the smoker.
Text by Philippa Campsie