French advertising postcards (I’ll drink to that)

With our flat only steps away from the Garden of the Champs Elysées near Avenue Gabriel, it was inevitable that we would meet. How could I resist colour so wonderfully lurid in a science-fiction/absinthe sort of way? My eyes didn’t know which curve to follow in this 1930s futuristic vision of a streamlined locomotive.

The front of the card reads:

24 views of the future
Number 12. The express train of the 21st century, a completely streamlined locomotive.
(What were the other 23 visions of the future? Can anyone help me here?)

One the back of the card, one word jumped out from the others.

Byrrh was new to us. Finding out about it was the start of a voyage of discovery. At the postcard market, I had stumbled upon a French classic, a card designed to advertise a wine-based aperitif trademarked in 1873. Founded by the brothers Pallade and Simon Violet, the company is still producing Byrrh in Thuir near Perpignan in the Pyrenées-Orientales.

The late 1890s were the heyday of alcohol-based health products, patent medicines, restoratives, and tonics of all sorts. Byrrh started as a health drink sold at pharmacies, but came into its own as a red-wine-and-quinine-based aperitif. The name Byrrh is now associated with an astounding legacy of compelling advertising art.

Byrrh was so successful that when the company needed its own railway depot, Messrs. Violet Frères called on none other than Gustave Eiffel’s engineering firm for the design. The stunning depot still stands, but is no longer used for trains. Nonetheless the company, now part of Pernod Ricard S.A., thrives and hosts approximately 60,000 visitors per year. One day, Philippa and I will be part of that number.

But taste is what counts. After finding the postcard and reading about a “ghost sign” for Byrrh on one of our favourite Paris blogs, Invisible Paris, we decided we needed to carry out our own taste test. We tracked down a bottle (a dusty one, which had clearly been on the shelf for some time) in the Monoprix on the Champs Elysées.

We came home and poured it out into small glasses. After some experimentation, we discovered that we preferred it chilled with ice and a slice of lemon. It also seemed to taste best when consumed sitting in the open air on the balcony. In the name of scientific gustatory accuracy, we can report that subsequent tests (with minor variations) yielded identical results.

Alas, we cannot buy Byrrh in Ontario from our government-run monopoly (the Liquor Control Board of Ontario). So we now have one more reason to go back to Paris.

But I should return to the postcard. There is more to it than the drink it advertises.

The arresting image on the front was in the spirit of the streamlined locomotives designed by Henry Dreyfuss and French-born American industrial designer Raymond Loewy. Curiously, the unstreamlined dual headlights, which seem distinctly automotive, reminded me of the bug-eyed Austin Healey Sprites of the late 1950s.

In its own way, the back of the card is as interesting as the front.

In the 1930s and 1940s, aerodynamic design was all the rage. Byrrh built on this interest with a fine piece of non-technical writing on the importance of aerodynamics and streamlining. The text points out (and I translate) that “at a speed of 80 to 90 kilometres per hour [48 to 54 mph],” two-thirds of the fuel burned in the engine of a modern vehicle is used to “fight air resistance and the last third of fuel is all that is needed to keep it rolling.” It adds that aerodynamic applications include not just planes and cars, but also transatlantic ships such as the Normandie and locomotives such as the French state railway system’s Pacific locomotive. After the Pacific had been given what then passed for a streamlined cladding, it “used 100 horsepower less at 120 kilometres per hour.”

The card explains that reducing air resistance “translates into an important savings in the cost of coal, which is going to inspire a transformation in the exterior of locomotives so that in the near future, they will have a new look such as that our image has tried to show.” This radical transformation of high-speed locomotives certainly came to pass.

The Pacific locomotive, known as Pacific 231,* although it looked nothing like the vision on the card, was apparently legendary in its day. Indeed, in 1923 a young French-born composer of Swiss parentage gave the locomotive a rare honour: a permanent home in musical history. Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) loved locomotives with a passion. “For me, they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.” He expressed his love in his Symphonic Movement No. 1, more commonly known as “Pacific 231.” It was meant to evoke the feelings, sound and movement of steam locomotives.

You can hear the music and see the locomotive in an award-winning film on YouTube. In 1949 French filmmaker Jean Mitry won the Prix du Festival at Cannes for his Pacific 231, a short cinematographic essay (rather than a documentary) in which Honneger’s music accompanies evocative shots of a Pacific 231 journey. Take a look; it is almost hypnotic.

As for the ocean liner mentioned on the card, I had heard of the SS Normandie, which set out on its maiden voyage on 29 May 1935. However, I had always regarded it as an example of luxury travel and was surprised to learn it was a leader in energy efficiency. The novel hull designed by Vladimir Yourkevitch needed far less power—and fuel—than other massive liners travelling at the same speed.

To get back to the card behind these wanderings, the ultimate message is that even though “everything changes, everything progresses,” if we already have perfection, we need not change. The manufacturers hasten to assure us that “BYRRH alone cannot get better, for this tonic wine with quinquina is perfect.”

It is a brilliant piece of advertising image and copy. It starts with a strong contemporary interest—streamlining—gives the reader good information, and follows through with the message: Byrrh is beyond the need for change.

And so I sit at my desk in Toronto and reflect on a postcard from an outdoor market, a 19th-century drink, and a 20th-century ship and locomotive. How curious. But perhaps I should also reflect on Paris itself, where these things seem to happen to me. I tend to notice details, which become richer upon reflection, making one reflect on what one already knows and inspiring one to learn more.

My French is still abysmal, I seem to be lost half the time, I misunderstand much of what I am told or hear, and yet I love it. For me, Paris offers a confusing richness that is half destination and half starting point.

Oh and by the way, did anyone notice the fleeting appearance of a Byrrh poster in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris?

Text by Norman Ball

*From my train-loving industrial designer friend Ken I learned that the 231 referred to the number and purpose of the axles on the locomotive. He writes “starting from the front, there are two axles in the guide truck, the subassembly that helps guide the locomotive into curves. Then the 3 axles for the 3 sets of driving wheels; they’re almost always pretty big. Following that, the Pacific type has a single trailing truck (one axle) that helps hold up the back end.” Each axle has two wheels, and in the American system, which counts wheels rather than axles, the European Pacific 231 becomes the Pacific 462. Train buffs will appreciate a video clip showing the members of l’Association Pacific Vapeur Club, who lovingly maintain and operate a Pacific 231.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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3 Responses to French advertising postcards (I’ll drink to that)

  1. Pingback: The Paris Blog: Paris, France Expat Tips & Resources »Blog Archive » The Future, Via the Past

  2. Phil Beard says:

    Another brilliant post and many thanks for the link to the Jean Mitry film – a superb montage of image and music. As for Byrrh, it used to be ubiquitous, often seen in vintage postcards of street scenes and on ghost signs – I saw one in Vannes not long ago.

  3. Pingback: Renault assembly line worker designs world’s fastest ocean liner | Parisian Fields

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