Paris is a billboard

Viewed through the long lens of time, 19th-century photos of advertising broadsides glued to the sides of buildings seem so charming, so urban, so Parisian. But what if it were your wall, or you were the printer whose fine work was being mangled and pasted over? You might have felt differently. Here is the rue Simon le Franc, photographed by Eugène Atget.


Contrast that hodgepodge with this magnificent Paris advertising landmark: the Morris column. This is another Atget photograph, taken at the Place Denfert Rochereau.


Two ways of displaying posters. What is the connection?

During the first half of the 19th century, Paris was in a period of intense commercialization. Whether for residents or travellers, Paris offered a range of cultural, artistic, and literary venues, along with extensive shopping for luxury goods. It was also becoming overrun with advertising on all manner of surfaces. The late 1850s saw the complaint that “advertising pursues you everywhere” and the situation was getting worse. It was as if Paris advertisers had collectively decided that “it if doesn’t move, plaster it with posters.”

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Paris was not alone in facing this scourge. As great European cities such as Paris, London, Berlin, and Rome grew, they grappled with new problems, beyond those of providing water, transportation, and housing. With a more literate population, cheaper paper, and a near-endless supply of businesses needing to advertise their wares and services, posters proliferated. And if one covered or obscured another, so be it.

In Berlin a printer by the name of Ernst Litfass grew tired of seeing his fine work obscured by those of others in what seemed to be unregulated spaces. He obtained a concession for advertising columns on which he controlled what was posted and charged for space.

Not surprisingly, the idea took hold in Paris, when in 1868 Gabriel Morris, a Parisian printer of event advertising posters, formed La Société Fermière des Colonnes-Affiches and received a concession to create and rent out poster space. He opted for a fanciful design with an onion-inspired dome and frilly frieze to top off the green-painted column.


Taken about 1870, this photograph by Eugene Atget shows one of the new Morris columns near the entrance to the Bal Bullier, 33 avenue de l’Observatoire. Among other events, it is advertising a performance of Cendrillon (Cinderella) at the Cirque d’Hiver. Placed near one entertainment venue, it was intended to attract the attention of those who might visit another. Advertisers wanted visibility, and placement near popular attractions was an important consideration in location. Hence, the ubiquity of the columns on the Grands Boulevards.


In the 1898 photograph above, also by Atget, a column on boulevard Saint-Michel is also a space to sell flowers. This photo also reveals another aspect of the columns. In addition to posting images, the Morris Columns also had interior space suitable for storage of street-cleaning equipment or even tools for posting more broadsides.


Another Atget photo, this one taken on the Boulevard de Clichy in 1900, shows another link between Morris columns and flower vendors. Here again we see the storage area, which has become larger. (These interior storage areas inspired myths that one could hide inside or that the columns concealed secret stairs into the Paris catacombs.)

Either the Morris columns created a prototype for other forms of street furniture, or it was derived from one. Here is a booth that was probably used for dispatching the hackney cabs seen in the background. It has glass rather than advertisements, but the form is similar.


In researching this blog, I found accounts that suggested Morris columns were used only for text ads and only for cultural events, such as theatre or musical performances and concerts. And that they were mainly found on the boulevards of the Right Bank. But the images I found in our own postcard collection belie such categorical statements.

There are no fewer than five columns visible in this image of the Pantheon on the Left Bank, advertising Byrrh and a type of candle called Bougie de Clichy, among other things.


The postcard of the boulevard des Italiens shown below shows a Morris column advertising a type of face powder (veloutine) by Ch. [Charles] Faÿ, a perfumier on the rue de la Paix. The notation on the postcard indicates that the advertiser may have used the postcard as a secondary form of publicity.

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Finally, this view of the Paris floods of 1910 shows a Morris column near the Gare Saint-Lazare holding its ground, with what are clearly illustrated ads. The one in the middle with the dark background is an advertisement for Cacao [cocoa] Blooker (the picture shows a Dutch girl with a white apron holding a tin of the stuff).

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The Morris columns joined other items of street furniture such as flower stalls, magazine kiosks, Wallace fountains, and Vespasiennes (urinals – of which more in a later blog), to create the distinctive look of Paris streets. They helped define the city. However, the Morris columns did not stem the flood of posting advertising on whatever surfaces one could find.

In the image below, taken in 1920, the street artist in Montmartre is the centre of attention, but one cannot help but notice the background. Note the name Dufayel at the top of the wall. He was a department store owner who also ran a successful advertising business; once you start to look for his name in old photos, you will see it over and over again.


In another photo, this one taken by Louis Vert in 1900, the scene is dominated by a street merchant pushing a hand cart heavily laden with her wares. Notice the assorted advertisements posted on the wall behind her.


Even the government added to the visual chaos on the walls, although at least it framed and labelled its administrative notices. The Louis Vert photograph below shows a soup seller at Les Halles in front of some official posters.


Mind you, the government did try to manage the mess, with a law passed in 1881. Undoubtedly many of you have seen versions of the following admonition.


Of course, this is France. You, the government, may make your rules; we, the people, will obey them as and when we see fit. This attitude is captured in an official sign warning “Defense d’Afficher” (Post No Bills), to which a modern wag has added a paper sign “D’Accord” (Okay).

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The official “Défense d’Afficher” signs are found mostly on civic buildings, institutions, and schools. Interestingly enough, the law passed on that much-commemorated day of 29 July 1881 concerned freedom of the press; the bit about posters is just a small clause in a much longer piece of legislation.

But elsewhere, it was still a free-for-all. Atget’s photograph of the back of Saint-Germain-des-Prés church viewed from rue de l’Abbaye aptly summarizes Paris about 1900. The machine to the left is a horse-drawn mechanical street-sweeper in a city that prided itself on clean streets and sidewalks. Yet the wall is plastered with advertising posters and to the right of the street-sweeping machine a man is putting up yet another poster.


And despite what I said earlier, advertising was not restricted to things that stood still. Even the little Ferris wheel at an 1898 fun fair at les Invalides had its advertising posters for a coffee substitute. Advertising went up and money changed hands. It was an enduring tradition.


Text by Norman Ball, original photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie, historic images from Paris en Images.


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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9 Responses to Paris is a billboard

  1. joannyr says:

    Thank you for postings these great photographs and the history behind them,,,

  2. Susan Walter says:

    And the cycle is still turning. This year legislation to prevent the cluttering up of roadsides with billboards was introduced and if the mayor of Grenoble has his way, even the giant JCDecaux are in trouble. Originally restaurants, hotels and other services for travellers were allowed to put up advertising signs on the roads into small towns, but the supermarkets spoiled it for everyone by putting up twice as many and with ridiculously unachievable ‘time to destination’. Consequently a consumer group has lobbied until the law was changed and these signs are all now banned. Whether they will be removed or not is another matter. Some communes have though. The law probably got through because realistically the state cannot afford to outlaw JCDecaux because effectively they subsidise the public transport system.

    • marc piel says:

      Curiously Grenoble is where JCDecaux first made his obnoxious breakthrough that imposed itself on the french countryside.

  3. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    Fantastic 19th century photos!

    I REALLY don’t like advertising, but you said it yourself – with a more literate population, cheaper paper, and thousands of businesses needing to advertise their goods, posters proliferated in public spaces. I was thinking of this in relation to cabarets. The owners couldn’t advertise their shows on tv, radio, the internet or newspapers. But even if pedestrians were illiterate, they still recognised cancan dancers when they saw them on a poster. Some of those posters seemed like works of art in their own right.

  4. Tim Hollins says:

    Hi Norman and Philippa, I just want to say how much I enjoy all your posts. You are accumulating a wonderful historical tapestry of how Paris came to be as it is, and all the distinctive elements that make it so. Much appreciated.

  5. Ken Bowes says:

    Great instalment. Fascinating to learn that posting on anything that does not move is by no means new!

  6. victualling says:

    Fascinating post. How I love Atget’s photographs!

  7. Richard Ewen says:

    I always thought the United States was the advertisement scourge of the world, but seeing these old photographs seems to say that the French were too but are much better at stopping it. As always, a very interesting article. Thank you.

  8. Pingback: Vespasiennes: Does a Roman Emperor Deserve This? | Parisian Fields

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