Early one morning

We do not, as a rule, take early-morning walks in Paris. If we do not have a morning appointment, we tend to dawdle over breakfast, reading and chatting and enjoying the view from the windows. Quick showers are not an option: the apartment has a deep bathtub that is an invitation to more reading, or to daydreaming. By the time we are on our way, we are ready for mid-morning coffee or even lunch.

So I do not remember what it was about that June morning that got us out the door at 6:30 a.m. It was not an invitingly sunny day; it had rained overnight and the sky was still grey. We took an umbrella. But something drew us outdoors, where the stallholders were setting up the market on the boulevard.

We passed a snail, heading towards the lettuce stall, clearly hoping for a dropped leaf.

He was quite safe; the boulevard was deserted.

We turned down the rue de la Santé, past the high prison walls on one side and the lower walls of the Lycée Notre Dame de France on the other, with its empêche-pipi in a corner.

A worker for the sanitation department waved at us from his green truck as we walked under the elevated Metro line on the boulevard Saint-Jacques.

From there, we wandered down the rue Ferrus, curious about the archway visible at its far end. As we got nearer it resolved itself into the blue gate of the Centre Hospitalier Sainte-Anne, with a pigeon surveying the scene from the knob on top.

As we stood peering through the gate, the man in the guardhouse invited us to come in and look around.

The interior boulevard drew us into a miniature town.

There were streets and sidewalks and walls and streetlights. I took a photo of one of the lights and only later, as I re-examined the photo, noticed the plaque about the huge German bomb – “obus” – that had fallen here near the end of the First World War.

There were parks and gardens on every side, many with statues.

A war memorial indicated that this was, in fact, a psychiatric hospital.

Eventually we found a plaque that answered some of our questions. In the 15th century, the site had housed a sanitarium for people with contagious diseases, which was given the name of Sainte-Anne in 1650 in honour of its patron Anne of Austria (mother of Louis XIV). It included a farm where the patients could work as they regained their health.

In the 1860s, on the orders of Napoleon III, this hospital-farm was transformed into a psychiatric institution for the treatment of and research into mental illness. Napoleon III asked Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to make it happen, and Haussmann delegated the task to an architect called Charles-Auguste Questel. Another historic panel showed the buildings in his original plan, many of which are still standing.

A motto from Questel was included on the descriptive plaque:

« Il faut penser sans cesse à l’harmonie générale, les détails viendront toujours. »

“One must think continuously of the general harmony, the details will always come.”

The principle seems to have worked well here. A “general harmony” was evident in the arrangement of larger buildings, smaller pavilions, colonnades, paths, gardens, and wooded areas (we later found a website from which we learned that there are more than 1,000 trees on this 14-hectare site).

Granted, it was so early in the day that there was nobody about, but we were struck by the sense of peace and calm as we explored.

Eventually we returned to the front gate and turned left into the rue Cabanis, where we passed an unusual installation: three glass-fronted panels containing wooden boards on which words in distinctive capital letters had been carved. An explanatory panel provided a transcription. Another identified them as the “Plancher de Jeannot.”

They are floorboards, taken from a house in the Béarn region near the Pyrenees, carved by a young man who had returned traumatized from fighting the war in Algeria in 1959 to find that his violent and abusive father had committed suicide. When his mother died in 1971, he withdrew from the world and carved a message into the floor of his room, beginning with the words:

LA RELIGION A INVENTE DES MACHINES A COMMANDER LE CERVEAU DES GENS ET BETES…

“Religion invented machines to control the mind of people and animals…”

He died not long after completing his message, in 1972, aged 33. Two decades later, his sad testimonial was found and conserved by the purchaser of the farm – a retired psychiatric doctor. The boards have been exhibited in museums as examples of “art brut” (outsider or naïve art) – which seems disrespectful to the sufferings of this young man, who was not trying to create art, but to put into words what he saw as the source of his suffering. The boards finally found a home near the Sainte-Anne Hospital, where passersby may draw their own conclusions about what they mean and how they should be considered.

Our final discovery came as we made our way home along the Avenue René Coty. Another hospital, in a beautiful 18th-century building – the Hôpital Rochefoucauld. It was originally intended for aged and ill members of the military and clergy. It is now a geriatric and palliative care hospital.

In stark contrast with the serene white buildings is a small, ugly, much-graffitied hut on the lawn.

What on earth? we wondered. On Google Maps, this blot on the landscape is identified as “Regard XXV de l’aqueduc Medicis.” Wikipedia helpfully provides the alternative name of “Regard de Saux.” All this takes a bit of translation.

In fact, it is a very old and elaborate cover for a shaft allowing maintenance staff access to an underground watermain (what used to be called a “manhole”). “Regard” probably meant it allowed people to go down and take a look. There were 27 of these Regards along the route of the Medici aqueduct from Rungis, which is south of Paris, into the city. The aqueduct dates from 1623 and is still in service, an admirable example of long-lasting municipal infrastructure. The last of the “regards” is a fairly large building beside the Observatoire.

We were home by 8:30 a.m. Our walk through the 14th arrondissement had evoked its history as an area beyond the old city walls filled with convents and monasteries, with their gardens and orchards and tree-lined walkways. A few convents remain, glimpsed through archways or beyond high walls. The many hospitals in this district are their legacy, for hospitality and caring for the sick was once the work of religious establishments.

Two vast convent gardens survive – one behind the Monastère de la Visitation, visible from the rue Boissonade, another behind the Maison Santé des Soeurs Augustines, part of which is just visible from the very end of the Square de Port Royal. We have walked all around the blocks in which these gardens form the centre, hoping for a better view, but have always been disappointed. Perhaps we need to get up earlier in the morning…

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie; photograph of the Plancher de Jeannot from Google Street View.

We wish all our readers a very happy New Year in 2020.

Posted in Paris gardens, Paris history, Paris hospitals, Paris parks, Paris quartiers, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

It never hurts to ask

The Institut de France on the Left Bank of the Seine, near the Pont des Arts, is a familiar sight. We’ve walked past many times, and never thought we’d have occasion to enter it ourselves. But one never knows where research will take one. Just follow the rules. Or not, as the case may be.

Rule # 1: It never hurts to ask.

I had identified an obscure document from a meeting of the Académie des Sciences in 1824 that had a bearing on my research into the work of Charles Barbier. I honestly did not expect that the document would have survived the intervening 195 years, but, on the off-chance, I sent an e-mail from Canada to the Académie archives. A day or so later, I received a cordial reply: Yes, it was there. When would I like to come in and see it?

Rule #2: Be prepared for hurdles.

I asked cautiously about what was required to gain access to their reading room. Oh, it was just a matter of making an appointment and providing a piece of photo identification. This sounded far too easy. I remember the trouble I had gone to secure a reader’s pass at the Bibliothèque St-Geneviève when I was a student. I had to provide several photos and fill in endless forms and I did not get access to the library until several days later.

So I made the appointment for shortly after our arrival in Paris, on the assumption that I would probably need to go back if I could not get access to the archives immediately.

On a sunny April day, Norman and I presented ourselves to the security guard at the front gate. He examined our passports and retained them, and directed us to the innermost of the three courtyards, last entrance on the right, up to the top floor. We crossed the courtyard, admiring the sun dials and fountains, pleased at our progress so far.

The archives occupied a pleasant room under the roof, with views over the courtyard on one side and the rue Mazarine on the other. It wasn’t very large, but then, the number of researchers who sought out this obscure space was probably not large either.

Rule #3: Always bring a book.

I filled out a form with details of the documents I wanted. It was probably the least complicated form I have ever seen in France.

Then I settled down to wait. I wasn’t in a rush. We had all day. I delved into my bag for a book. I had barely taken it out when the document was in front of me. So much for that rule.

Rule #4: Research results never resemble your expectations.

The document itself was a surprise. I had expected some sort of multi-page report, but what I saw was a large piece of thick paper, almost like a poster, folded up and inscribed in the tiniest of printing. The title mentioned Persian and Chinese shorthand, but there was no sign or mention of Persian or Chinese in the text or illustrations. Curiouser and curiouser. Now I know why the Académie des Sciences in 1824, having accepted Barbier’s document and agreed to write a report on its contents, never did anything with it. Clearly their members could not make head or tail of Barbier’s peculiar venture into alternative writing forms. Neither could I.

I asked if I could photograph it, expecting to be refused. Mais bien sûr, allez-y. This was starting to feel surreal. All the barriers I had imagined were simply disintegrating. But the best was yet to come.

Rule #5: Always ask for suggestions about further research.

After transcribing the document (not easy with such small writing) and taking several photographs of its strange scripts, we got into conversation with one of the librarians and explained about the search for Barbier’s work. She expressed interest and suggested we make inquiries at the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale.

I was gobsmacked. That Napoleonic-era organization still existed? I knew that Barbier had had dealings with it, but I never dreamed that it was still a functioning entity. Ah yes, just across from the Eglise Saint-Germain, right on the square. It was perhaps a fifteen-minute walk away.

We gathered up our things and set off back through the courtyards, feeling slightly giddy.

Rule #6: Persist.

The building was as described, but what startled us at first was that part of the ground floor had been turned into a restaurant. Two women in fashionable attire and extremely high heels asked us what we wanted. We explained and one gestured to a set of glass doors, beyond which was an ordinary-looking office.

There I poured out my story to a woman behind a desk. She looked thoughtful and asked us to wait while she made a telephone call. This took a little time, but then she told us we were in luck (we knew that already). Although it was the Easter holidays, and the building was undergoing painting and renovations, one of their members, a retired engineer, was working upstairs on an inventory of the Société’s books and documents and would be prepared to help us. She would take us to see him.

We took a short elevator ride, and then crossed a large empty space the size of a ballroom.

A corridor on the other side led to a narrow staircase. We went up to the top floor. There was a strong smell of fresh paint.

Once more we found ourselves in a room under the roof with sloping ceilings. A man sat at a crowded desk, surrounded by piles of books and documents.

I launched into my usual explanation. He made another, even longer phone call to another member of the organization. Then he asked us to follow him to a nearby room. It was essentially the attic of the building, containing shelves of books, now swathed in drop-cloths to protect them from the painters. The books were bound copies of the Bulletin of the Société and they were indexed. There were several index entries for Charles Barbier.

Finding the relevant pages took a little time, and one bound volume seemed to be missing, but we found more than enough to make the trip worthwhile. The helpful man said he would see us back downstairs, but on the way he said he had something to show us.

Rule #7: Pay attention to your surroundings.

In the huge ballroom, he stopped in front of a plaque, which stated that the first public presentation of a moving image by one of the Lumière Brothers had taken place in this room in front of the Société’s members in March 1898. Not long before, we had attended a public lecture about the culture of the spectacle in Paris in which this event had been mentioned, so we were particularly interested and very glad that he had taken the time to show us.

He even turned on the lights in the ballroom, which began to look a bit grander and less abandoned, despite the ugly modern chairs and plastic tables.

It was extraordinary to be standing in this room, the site of events attended by Paris’s leading industrialists and thinkers in the 19th and early 20th century. It was quiet and we seemed miles away from the busy Boulevard St-Germain, which was just beyond the windows.

Eventually we reeled out onto the square and back into the 21st century. We decided to treat ourselves to a good lunch nearby. We celebrated our productive morning and toasted one final rule of research:

Rule #8: Most really interesting discoveries are a matter of serendipity.

Text by Philippa Campsie; opening photograph of Institut exterior from Google street view; all other photos by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball.

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Art Nouveau and Aerodynamics in Auteuil

The southern reaches of the 16th arrondissement might be considered the Wild West of Paris. Auteuil was largely countryside when Haussmann was at work on central Paris, and his ideas about tidy facades that lined up neatly never stood much of a chance here. Art Nouveau, however, with its asymmetrical shapes and writhing decorations, settled down comfortably and took root. So did a unique laboratory created by Gustave Eiffel. One summer’s day, we decided to explore.

Appropriately enough, our walk began as we came out of one of the Metro exits designed by Hector Guimard. Who needs Halloween decorations when you have lights like this?

We passed one of Guimard’s early architectural efforts at 41, rue Chardon Lagache. It was created in 1892–93 for a grocer called Louis Victor Jassedé. It is now hemmed in by other buildings, but once it would have been one of the only houses in this area, with space on all sides. In fact, when it was built, the street was called rue du Point du Jour – the street of the break of day. If that seems an odd name for a western suburb, the legend goes that this area was given the name after an 18th-century duel that took place at dawn.*

I hope Mr. Jassedé liked the house Guimard built for him. We found it a little…incoherent. Guimard seems to have been trying too hard and had too many ideas for a single structure.

Next door, near the entrance to one of those private streets known as “villas,” is a calmer 1907 Guimard construction, the Hotel Deron-Levent, built for a textile merchant. Alas, poor Charles Deron-dit-Levent didn’t have long to enjoy his mansion. He died there in 1911. However, in 1912, Guimard was called upon to design his tombstone for the Auteuil Cemetery, so Mr. Deron got to live in a Guimard structure for eternity.

Another distinctive building in the neighbourhood (not by Guimard) was the Algerian embassy on the rue Boileau, built in 1908 as the Hotel Danois (the name of its original owner). The façade was not altered in any way when the embassy moved in; it has always looked like this.

Gaston George Charles Emmanuel Danois is in some sources listed as a civil engineer and in others as a chemical engineer. He also appears to have owned – or perhaps his family owned – a dry-cleaning company (blanchisserie) in Boulogne-Billancourt. How he came to commission this remarkable residence from the architect Joachim Richard and why he wanted such an unusual design remain mysteries. Like Mr. Deron next door, he died after only a few years in the house, in 1914.

But the main  destination of our walk was farther down the rue Boileau: the Laboratoire Aerodynamique, created by Gustave Eiffel. In the early 20th century, from his perch on top of the tower he designed, Eiffel became interested in meteorology (understandably). Over time, his study of the weather increasingly focused on winds and aerodynamics. He had been conducting research at the base of the Eiffel Tower, but the city wanted that space, so he moved his laboratory to Auteuil in 1912.

We gazed up at the building, desperately curious about what was inside. On a whim, I rang the doorbell. I figured I could at least ask if visits were possible.

After a while, a harried-looking man opened the door. No, he said, we would have inquire at the mairie to arrange a visit. For himself, he was busy right now. But he stepped back into the room to retrieve a pamphlet for us, and we followed him in. We closed the door politely behind us.

The room was set up with displays (there were even little models of streamlined cars), and since it was clearly intended for visitors, we felt a bit bolder.

Well, the man said, yes, we do sometimes give guided tours to groups, but he was very busy that day. I asked if we could take a few photographs. Erm, all right, but we had to understand that he was terribly busy.

I was starting to feel harried myself, and later I realized that several of the photos I took in haste were out of focus. But as I snapped away, I caught sight of the big central room with the wind tunnel. I pointed. Could we just take a quick look? Just for a moment?

Oh, if we must, he supposed, but he was really extremely busy. We moved towards the huge object, which turned out to be the air intake.

Norman, as a historian of technology, knew enough to ask some knowledgeable questions. In spite of himself, the man told us a bit about how it worked, and pointed to a diagram hanging on the wall.

The purpose of a wind tunnel is to determine how air flows around a particular shape. A stationary object in a wind tunnel behaves as it would if it were flying through the air. Engineers use wind tunnels to test the shapes of aircraft or cars or anything designed to go fast, or to test the performance of stable structures exposed to wind, such as bridges.

Eiffel’s work contributed enormously to early aviation and he continued his research throughout the First World War, publishing a summary of his main findings in 1919, by which time he was 87 years old. When he died four years later, aviation enthusiasts claimed that his contributions to aerodynamics vastly exceeded his contributions to civil engineering. Anybody can build a tower, they implied, but what Eiffel had learned about air flow was of greater importance.

And here we were standing where he did this pioneering work.

But yes, we understood that the fellow who had let us in was dreadfully busy and we really must go. It was lunchtime anyway and we found Le Tunnel Brasserie on the nearby boulevard Exelmans. It seemed to be something of a hangout for the laboratory staff.

We encourage you to explore Auteuil and we note that Eiffel’s laboratory may be open during Jours du Patrimoine in late September. Just don’t ring the doorbell on a working day. They’re awfully busy in there.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball.

*Antoine-François, comte de Coigny, was challenged and killed by Louis-Auguste, Prince de Dombes, on March 4, 1748. The prince was insulted by the count’s having mentioned that the prince’s father was an illegitimate son of Louis XIV. The duel (with swords) took place on the road between Paris and Versailles. There are varying accounts of what the count actually said and what happened that morning.

Posted in Paris architecture, Paris history, Paris quartiers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Postcards: Little windows into a vanished Paris

Many of our blogs begin with a postcard. That is not a coincidence. When we are rummaging through the bins of 1- and 2-euro cards at flea markets, we are drawn to images that make us stop and wonder, “What is that? Where is that? Why is that?”

I can’t remember where or when I bought this particular postcard, postmarked 1904, showing an unusual view of the Seine, but it raised those questions and I decided it was time to put them to rest.

You can see the Pont des Arts in the background and the Louvre on the right bank. In the foreground is a basin with a few barges as well as a row of floating, shuttered structures on the right. A large concrete pier separates two areas of the basin. At the far end of the basin is a series of abutments, connected by what appears to be a metal catwalk. There is also something moored on the far side of the river. I got out my loupe and peered at it closely.

It resolved itself into a small barge connected to the shore by a footbridge, with a two-storey building behind it and steps leading down from the upper quai to the lower embankment. There were signs on the barge and I could just make out the word Guillout on one of them. I could see a person standing on an open area of the barge, perhaps another on the footbridge. Already I had lots of questions.

I found another view, postmarked 1925, this one showing the same scene, but from the other side, so probably taken from the Pont des Arts.

The basin and the concrete pier are there, with a collection of barges between the pier and the embankment and assorted other craft in the basin. Seen from this angle, the abutments have steps cut into them. The shuttered structures are still there, on the left, looking somewhat the worse for wear. The bridge in the background is the Pont Neuf and beyond it on the left is the tower of the Préfecture de Police on the Quai des Orfèvres. In the distant background are the buildings on the east side of the Place St-Michel.

So far, so good. Having zeroed in on the location, I looked for a map. This took some time. Many maps provide exquisite detail of the land part of Paris, but very few showed details of the river. Finally, I found what I wanted in the Atlas municipal des vingt arrondissements de la ville de Paris, in a version dating from 1888 (the Atlas was updated every few years).

The map adds the word “écluse” or lock, and that provided the clue I needed. The lock was apparently known either as the Écluse de la Monnaie (the lock at the Monnaie or Mint – the nearest building on the Left Bank) or, less often, the Écluse du Pont Neuf.

But the map is somewhat inexact. The lock was the narrower part between the embankment and the concrete pier. The series of abutments between the Left Bank and the Ile de la Cité were part of a “barrage” or dam, known as the Barrage de la Monnaie. The whole thing was built in the early 1850s and remained in place until the 1920s.

It was part of a river control system. For centuries, goods entered Paris in bulk on a barge – coal, wood, wine, wheat, hay. But the Seine made an unreliable highway. Occasionally it froze in winter, and at other times the water level sank too low to allow for boats and barges.

Work in the first half of the 19th century on the Seine and its tributaries made the river easier to navigate. Dams and locks were constructed above and below Paris to control the flow. “Canalization” consisted of dredging, building up the banks on either side, and generally making the unruly river behave more like an obedient canal. (That is why the previous postcard has the words “Vers le canal” – this branch of the river had been made into a mini canal.) Meanwhile, new canals were built to bypass sections of the winding river entirely.

The “barrage éclusé” near the Monnaie allowed river traffic going upstream (east) to rise 1 metre during the trip through the city, making the journey easier for barges. Downstream traffic used the wider, unimpeded channel on the far side of the Ile de la Cité.

Finally, I found another postcard, postmarked 1907, clearly identifying the barrage. This image does not show the lock (out of sight on the right), but the much larger basin. Note the floating swimming school on the left, moored against the right bank. And the little pointy-topped structure at the end of the concrete pier.

Now look what happened during the flood of January 1910. This image is from Gallica. The pointy-topped structure is one of the few things poking up through the high water.

The flood was the beginning of the end for the lock and dam. Not only was the barrage damaged, but later efforts to prevent further floods made the lock redundant. The whole thing was finally demolished in 1924.

(By the way, in the flood photograph, what appear to be two spires on the far shore were part of the old Samaritaine department store. The scaffolding is probably from the enlargement of the store around this time. The white floating structure in front is the Bains de la Samaritaine – the Samaritaine baths – which eventually sank completely during the flood, leaving only the rooftop with its fake palm tree above the waves.)

But back to the original photograph. What about those floating, shuttered structures? A comparison with other Seine photographs on Paris en Images shows that they were bateaux-lavoirs – laundry boats – permanently moored beside the Square du Vert Galant at the downstream tip of the Ile de la Cité. Laundresses (lavandières) would bring piles of sheets and other laundry here for washing. There were many such barges up and down the river, but this central one was particularly large. And yes, the sheets were washed in river water (try not to think too hard about that). The shuttered openings could be raised to allow the laundresses direct access to the river.

As for the boat or barge on the far side of the river, I did some more squinting at it and decided that the large sign read “Exquise Goulliout.” A quick Google search explained this odd combination of words. Goulliout was the name of a biscuit manufacturer and exquises were a form of biscuit. It was an advertisement.

Another hunt through our postcard collection turned up a view of the Right Bank in this location with an indecipherable postmark. There are two barges, covered with advertisements, linked to the shore with footbridges, and two boats moored to the barges. The nearer one is filled with men in top hats and women with parasols. They are bateaux-omnibus or river buses and the barges linked to the shore served as the waiting rooms and ticket offices. My 1910 Baedecker indicates that the stop in this location served the Charenton–Auteuil line.

Finally, I examined the two-storey structure beyond the boat. I realized it was on what used to be called the “Quai du Louvre” (most of which is now called the Quai François Mitterand). I did a search for that name on Paris en Images and lo and behold, at the very bottom, I saw a photograph by Charles Marville: the Bureau des voitures à voie ferrée Vincennes-Sèvres.

Bureau des voitures à voie ferrée Vincennes-Sèvres, quai du Louvre. Menuiserie. Paris (Ier arr.), entre 1858 et 1878. Photographie de Charles Marville (1813-1879). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

Voitures à voie ferré” (vehicles on iron rails) I take to be trams. This service linked the centre of Paris with the eastern (Vincennes) and western (Sèvres) suburbs. On Wikipedia, I found the same image labelled, “Bureau d’Omnibus de la Compagnie Générale, quai du Louvre.”

This is the view from the upper level of the quay; the lower part is invisible. But the original photograph showed steps going down to the lower level, so this would have been an interchange between the trams and the river buses. Makes sense.

Having satisfied my curiosity about the original postcard, I searched for other images of the locks and barrage. I think my favourite is this one from Gallica, showing the abutments being used as springboards for a women’s swimming competition in 1913. It also gives a sense of scale for the dam. It’s larger than it seemed in the first postcard.

I also found an oil painting of the lock, dated 1907, by Marie-Gabriel Biessy, showing the locks in the evening with the lights from the Pont Neuf sparkling on the water.

So now, if you happen to see an image like this…

…you will know what you are looking at. You’re welcome.

And if you have a mysterious Paris postcard or photograph image you cannot place, I’m willing to have a go at identifying it.

For more stories inspired by postcards, see “A palace of commerce and a 1904 rendez-vous,” “The postcard collector,” or “Postcards of a working river.”

Text by Philippa Campsie. Map from Portail des bibliothèques municipales spécialisées. Postcards from our collection. Photographs from Gallica and Paris en Images. Painting from Artnet.

Posted in Paris bridges, Paris maps, Paris postcards, Paris travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

The ugliest building in Paris

In the last blog, I mentioned Gabriel Davioud, who is credited with designing some of the classic street furniture of Paris. I wanted to know more about him. That proved to be a challenge. The ordinarily helpful Gallica offered 25 images of his creations, from monuments to theatres to an over-the-top lamp standard he created for the 1867 Exposition. But no articles, no books, no biography.

Eventually, I tracked down an exhibition catalogue published in 1982 by the mairies of the 16th and 19th arrondissements, called Davioud: Architecte de Paris. There were no copies in Toronto, but I was able to get one through inter-library loan. It begins:

Parisians do not know Davioud… And yet of all the architects who have shaped modern Paris, the city we see every day, Gabriel Davioud (1824–1881), who was born and died in Paris, is the one who contributed most strongly to give us an image of the capital so familiar we cannot imagine that it could be different.

« Les parisiens ne connaissent pas Davioud… Et pourtant de tous les architectes qui ont modelé le Paris moderne, celui que nous contemplons tous les jours, Gabriel Davioud (1824–1881), né et mort à Paris, est celui qui a le plus puissamment contribué à nous donner de la capitale une image tellement familière que nous n’imaginons pas qu’elle eût pu être différent. »

Well put, I thought. Then I looked at the frontispiece, his portrait, with the words “M. Davioud, Architecte du Palais du Trocadéro” underneath.

Really? That monstrosity?

Before I inflict the full horror on you, I will give you the view from a distance, in a postcard dated 1904 we found in a flea market. The writer has used the arch of the Eiffel Tower to shape an invitation to lunch to some friends. (I hope they made it.)

The beastly thing was built for the 1878 exposition. Davioud died three years later, perhaps of embarrassment.

The next view shows the vast wings extending to either side, with,visible on the left, one of the pavilions that terminated these extensions.

Here’s a closer view, slightly off-centre because of what appear to be repairs to the Iéna bridge, which links the site to the Champ de Mars.

The middle part is a very large theatre, in case you are wondering. The book contains a cutaway view. The auditorium housed an enormous pipe organ, and Charles-Marie Widor played at its inauguration.

Looking at it in all its awfulness, I have questions. What was there before? How did it get its name? (The current occupant of the site is called the Palais de Chaillot.) What on earth was Davioud trying to accomplish? And what happened to it in the end?

First, the history of the site. Until the mid-19th century, this was the far western edge of the city, with a customs barrier where the wall met the river. There had been a convent here at one point, but it was destroyed during the Revolution.

Napoleon Bonaparte envisioned a massive palace here, even bigger and better than Versailles, which he was going to call the Palais du Roi de Rome. (The King of Rome was Bonaparte’s son, who reigned for about two weeks as Napoleon II.) He had plans drawn up by Charles Percier et Pierre Fontaine. Construction started in 1811, but petered out when the Empire crumbled in 1814–1815. Here’s a view of how it would have looked.

Note the curving colonnades, possibly inspired by the curved colonnades in front of St. Peter’s in Rome. That idea persisted in what came later.

A decade went by. The monarchy was restored. And in 1823, there was something to celebrate – a French military victory at the Trocadéro Fort in Spain, near Cadiz. The French had gone there to liberate King Ferdinand VII, who had been imprisoned for refusing to accept a constitution. The French attack was successful, the king was freed, and absolute monarchy was re-established in Spain.

Bad cause, good victory. And the French needed a victory to make themselves feel better after the defeat of Waterloo. National rejoicing ensued. In 1826, a military jamboree, complete with a temporary Arc de Triomphe (the permanent one was still under construction), was held on the Chaillot heights to celebrate the triumph of Trocadéro. And that pretty much explains the name.

Further plans for the hill came and went. One included an obelisk as a permanent memorial of the Battle of Trocadéro (why an obelisk? you may well ask, and I have no answer), surrounded by some Mediterranean-looking houses, at least one of which was to serve as a military barracks. That went nowhere, but the artist’s renderings were interesting.

More decades went by. A bird’s-eye view map from about 1850 shows open land with some trees and a residential area nearby.

For the 1867 exposition, the land was cleared to create an open area on a slope offering views across the river to the exposition grounds. Then in 1876, the powers-that-be decided to extend the 1878 exposition site across the river from the Champ de Mars, and a competition was held for a building to crown the Chaillot hill. Davioud and another architect called Jules Bourdais jointly won the competition and collaborated on the plans.

According to a modern French description it is “a Moorish, neo-Byzantine palace”  (« un palais mauresque néo-byzantin »). I think that is architecture-speak for something designed by a committee. Maybe Davioud and Bourdais didn’t get on.

The book I borrowed quotes critical assessments for and against. My favourite is from Marcel Proust, and appears in “The Prisoner,” part of A la Recherche de Temps Perdu:

As a monument, it’s pretty ugly, don’t you think? (« Comme monument c’est assez moche, n’est-ce pas? »)

Some writers tried to find something nice to say. Others gave up.

Charles Blanc : What appreciably redeems the obesity of the palace in the centre is the height of the two towers on either side. Ce qui rachète sensiblement l’obésité du palais au centre du plan, c’est la hauteur des deux tours dont il est flanqué»)

Jules Simon: I admit that the rotunda is perhaps a little vulgar.  J’avoue que cette rotonde est peut-être un peu vulgaire. »)

Joris-Karl Huysmans : It’s a mess of platitude and pastiche. (« C’est le gâchis dans la platitude et le pastiche»)

Construction of the building revealed, as it does so often in Paris, quarries underneath the Chaillot hill. Making a virtue of necessity, the builders shored them up and opened them to the public. Oddly, this subterranean area was known as the Aquarium du Trocadéro.

Anyway, for about sixty more years, the Trocadéro palace squatted on the Chaillot hill and glowered across at two more expositions, in 1889 and 1901. The jaunty name, its most endearing feature, was borrowed for picture palaces, dance halls, restaurants, and nightclubs in England, Australia, and the United States.

Finally, the organizers of the 1937 exposition decided that the obese rotunda and the towers had to go. The current building is a reworking of what was left (the two smaller structures that remained on either side of the rotunda, the building’s basement, and the curved colonnades) in an Art Deco style.*

The Palais de Chaillot is now the home of one of our favourite galleries: the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, where we have seen amazing exhibits ranging from detailed model buildings and landscapes made from cut-out paper to an exhibition focusing on the links between urban architecture and bandes dessinés (comic strips).

Meanwhile, an ornate window frame and an arched doorway from the old toad remain like garden gnomes in the grounds to this day.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Postcards from our collection; map, aquarium, and exposition images from Gallica; images of unbuilt projects and the vestiges in the gardens from Wikipédia.

*One of the architects involved was Jacques Carlu, known in Toronto for his design of the Eaton auditorium on College Street, now an event space called The Carlu.

Further reading: Délégation à l’Action Artistique de la Ville de Paris, Gabriel Davioud: Architecte de Paris, Mairies Annexes des XVIe and XIXe Arrondissements, 1981–1982.

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Are you sitting down?

A few years ago, I bought a folding shopping bag from Monoprix, which I have used regularly ever since. The pattern on it is intended to represent Paris: the Eiffel Tower, the French flag, a person with shopping parcels, a suitcase, a tree, and a bench. Gazing idly at it the other day, it occurred to me that the anonymous designer had avoided some of the worst Paris clichés (such as poodles) and offered a take on Paris that suggested tourism, shopping, and sitting down in the shade. And that got me thinking about benches.

Today, benches are ubiquitous on Paris boulevards and in parks. It was not always so. Before the days of Haussmann, sitting down in the street meant either a chair outside a bar, or making use of a convenient chasse-roue, as we see in this photo by Charles Marville.

Rue Gracieuse (from the rue Daubenton). Paris (Vth arrondissement), 1866. Photograph by Charles Marville (1813-1879). Paris, bibliothèque de l’Hôtel de Ville.

Even gardens were short on benches. The opening pages of Les Promenades de Paris by Adolphe Alphand (c1870) contain a brief illustrated history of gardens going back to the Egyptians, including gardens in Japan and China, and formal gardens from the French and Italian Renaissance. Is anybody sitting down in any of the pictures? No. Ladies and gentlemen drift through the landscape admiring the parterres and the statues and the long vistas, but nobody is seated.

The first picture in Alphand’s book to show anybody sitting down is on page 213, in a view of the Square des Arts et Métiers.

The rest of the book is a high-level how-to for public gardens, with examples drawn from Alphand’s own creations: the Bois de Boulogne, the Bois de Vincennes, the Parc Monceau, and the Buttes-Chaumont, among others. If you want precise instructions for planting a full-grown tree or creating a water system for a fountain, Alphand is your man.

Among the detailed diagrams for everything from pavilions to pissoirs are three for benches that any Paris visitor will recognize: the curvy version with multiple slats (known as the “gondole”), the simple planks held up with metal supports that resemble tree branches (the Buttes-Chaumont model), and the two-sided version usually seen in the boulevards (banc-double).

The designs are usually attributed to Gabriel Davioud, along with the designs of other quintessential elements of street furniture, such as lamp standards and news kiosks. Did Davioud actually draw the designs himself? Or did he simply sign off on designs created by his staff in his capacity as the “chief architect of Paris promenades” under Alphand? Whichever it was, his is the name attached to them.

The three designs are still in evidence today. The gondole shown here is in the Bois de Boulogne, in a spot favoured by the resident cats.

This Buttes-Chaumont model is actually in the Square des Batignolles. This design is part of a trend visible in many parks to imitate wood in metal or concrete.

And this rather grubby banc double is from the boulevard Edgar Quinet, just outside the Cimitière de Montparnasse.

There is also a hybrid model : a single bench made with uprights similar to those of the banc-double. This one is in rue Cardinet, just outside the new Clichy-Batignolles-Martin Luther King park.

According to urbanist Stéphane Malek, the first benches were not just places to rest, but theatre seats that allowed the flâneur to watch the passing parade – and to be seen as well. Malek produced a fairly exhaustive study of public benches for his master’s thesis in 2011, which included maps of the density, location, and even altitude of benches across Paris, created by cartographer Jules Grandin, and displayed on Grandin’s website.

I’m not entirely sure what insight can be gained from that level of detail, but it is impressive, and I say this as someone who has spent a considerable time reading papers by master’s students.

What is more interesting is the social function of benches. An interesting detail comes from an 1898 Baedecker guide (p. 74), which explains that chairs on the boulevards can be rented for 10 centimes, but benches are free.

There is something inherently democratic about a bench. One might sit next to almost anyone (hence the popularity of the park bench as a setting for New Yorker cartoons). Benches also allow for hand-holding, kissing, and all sorts of romantic encounters. Georges Brassens sings about them in “Les Amoureux des Bancs Publics.”

Nowadays, couples are more likely to be studying their portable phones on benches than engaging in romantic dalliance.

Norman and I have a bench that is part of our history together – the one where we had our first picnic in Paris, the day after our arrival, on our first trip to the city together. Some years later, we went back to the Place Constantin Pecqueur in Montmartre. It is a tiny park with a few trees, a statue, and a great many benches. The benches have been moved away from the centre of the park where we sat, so we do not know exactly which one is “ours.” But it would have been one like this.

The range and shape of benches has enlarged over the years, and so have the numbers of places to sit down in public in Paris, from bus stops to the steps of the new Opera. But there is something timeless about the painted green wood, the shady tree nearby (the designer of that Monoprix bag knew that trees and benches often go together) and the feeling that so many others have been here before, kissing, holding hands, picnicking, laughing, crying, chatting, checking their messages, or watching the world pass by.

Text and original photographs by Philippa Campsie. Marville photograph from Paris en Images. Alphand illustrations from Gallica. Final photograph taken in the park just outside the Picpus cemetery.

 

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Avoiding the crowds in Versailles

It may seem impertinent to write about Versailles on Bastille Day, the ultimate Republican holiday, but I am not talking about that Versailles – the royal chateau, now overrun with tourists. I want to talk about the other Versailles – the attractive town with its quiet tree-lined streets and bustling markets. In Versailles, getting off the beaten track is easy, since there is only one beaten track. Everything else is uncrowded and peaceful by comparison.

I went in April, with our friend Mireille, in pursuit of Charles Barbier, the original inventor of point-writing (precursor to Louis Braille). As I mentioned last time, most of what has been written about him is balderdash and I am trying to set the record straight.

Barbier lived in Versailles in the 1820s, and I wanted to learn more about his time there, if possible. I had two addresses for him, and I knew that the Archives communales de Versailles had records of a yearly census that had taken place in the 1820s. That was enough to plan a visit.

So on a sunny Friday, we endured a crowded RER ride from Les Invalides. We got off at the Rive Gauche station, and headed along Avenue Général de Gaulle. And when everyone else from the train surged left towards the chateau, we kept going towards a residential area. Our way led through the Marché Notre Dame, which was in full swing.

It was tempting to dawdle there, but we carried on and found our first address: No. 4, rue Sainte-Victoire. The building was old enough to be the one that Barbier would have known. It was on a quiet narrow street, and we could see tantalizing glimpses of gardens behind the houses. In fact, I placed my camera on the ground and took a shot underneath a gate (okay, I’m nosy).

We circled the block to see what else might be visible, but the houses kept their secrets.

The second address was just around the corner: No. 95, boulevard de la Reine. Just as this was beginning to seem too easy, I saw something that made my heart sink: No. 91, ancient No. 75.

Zut alors! The street had been renumbered at some point, probably after Barbier’s time. So I snapped away at likely-looking houses in the vicinity, hoping that I could sort out the numbering at the archives.

We were diverted to see that the utility boxes on the boulevard were decorated with illustrations from La Fontaine’s Fables. Barbier used those fables to illustrate some of his alternative forms of writing, including this one of the fox and the grapes.

By this time, we were ready for lunch, so we retraced our steps and had a choice of inviting cafés and bistros on the streets surrounding the market.

The market was closing up as we walked through it after lunch. I spotted a stand selling baskets for 5 euros and picked out one into which I dumped my notebook, my pencil case, my map, and my cardigan (by then unneeded).

Finding the archives proved to be more difficult than we expected. The mailing address I had written down turned out to be the magnificent city hall.

The interior was every bit as grand as the chateau, and we had it all to ourselves.

We asked the man at the desk at the foot of the imposing staircase. No, the archives were in a different building, “over there, across the street,” he said, gesturing vaguely. Since the city hall stands at a large intersection, “across the street” could be interpreted in a number of ways.

We set out in the direction of his gesture and found ourselves walking towards the chateau. We inquired at the Écuries du Roi (the former royal stables). Nobody there had even heard of the Archives communales. We returned to the intersection and tried the other side of the street. We passed an interesting installation made of curving staircases.

We also noticed an amusing trompe-l’oeil in the window of a nearby building.

Finally we spotted a small blue sign, positioned sideways, beside the entrance to a courtyard. Aha!

Some cars were parked in the courtyard, and only after working our way around the periphery did we see another blue sign. It told visitors to go around the corner and through another archway. We found the entrance, with a stairway leading upwards. The archives were on the top floor. Up we toiled, to find a spacious room lined with bookcases, containing large tables and computer monitors.

An archivist showed us how to view the censuses on the computers. Mireille and I sat down beside each other and we each chose a different year to begin with. After a few false starts, we found our man.

The census covered five years of his stay in Versailles, during which time he was living in the boulevard de la Reine.

1824: Barbier is described as a “rentier célibataire” (single man of independent means) aged 61 (he was actually 57), paying 50 francs a year for lodging. Clearly the census takers weren’t fussy about getting ages correct.

1825: Barbier “et sa femme” are living in 2 rooms and paying 60 francs a year. What! All the other records suggest that Barbier never married. And why didn’t they give the woman a name?

1826: Barbier, 62 (he was 59), “et une bonne” (maid) are living in 2 rooms and paying 70 francs a year.

1827: Barbier, 60 (bingo! finally!), “et une bonne” are living in 2 rooms and paying 70 francs a year. Maybe the “wife” of 1825 was actually a maid. Or Barbier had a live-in significant other he was passing off as a maid. How will we ever know when we don’t even have a name to go by?

1828: Barbier is now living alone in one room and paying either 30 or 50 francs a year (the handwriting was not clear). The nameless woman in his life (who might have been a maid or a lover or both) has gone and Barbier has downsized (money troubles?).  At some point in the year following the census, Barbier returned to Paris, and he does not appear in the 1829 census.

That was all. I had been hoping that the census might identify how Barbier described himself in terms of his work (inventor? writer?). I was hoping for a clue to his decision to live in Versailles during those years. And the archivists were unable to help with the question of changed street numbers, so I still don’t know which house on the boulevard de la Reine he lived in.

Ah, well. We had a mercifully uncluttered day in Versailles, a good walk, a good lunch, and found some unexpected information to chew on. As we squeezed ourselves into a train bulging with weary, sweaty tourists, we felt quite smug.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie

Posted in Charles Barbier, Paris history, Paris markets | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Stepping back into the river

Hello again. Rebonjour.

Our sabbatical from blogging lasted a year. We are uncertain about how and how often we will continue, but we did want to say hello to our readers (if you are still there) and post an update.

Over the course of the year, while keeping up with work and family commitments, we pursued our research. Norman continues to study the technology of communications with and among the blind; Philippa is investigating the story of a peculiar early-19th-century inventor called Charles Barbier (don’t  bother looking him up on Wikipedia, because the information there is wildly inaccurate).

We visited Paris earlier this year, arriving a week after the fire at Notre Dame. We did not go to see the site; it seemed more respectful to stay away.

We were also in the city for the annual May Day parade, which passed under the windows of our rented apartment. May Day is France’s Labour Day and the parade celebrates working people and unions.

We saw a few scuffles between marchers and the police (who were present in large numbers), but for the most part, it consisted of a vast mass of people walking, waving flags, sometimes singing, and generally enjoying a day off work in nice weather.

Some wore gilets jaunes, some wore silly costumes. This fellow had both.

There were banners and flags and slogans. Not all were aggressively political; here are two we spotted in the evening after it was all over.

(The one against the tree says “It takes 47 muscles to frown and only 13 to smile” and the one on the ground says, “Sometimes one needs someone smaller than oneself.”)

The marchers took about two hours to pass the intersection where we were watching them. Then the police took off their riot gear, piled into vans, and went home, and the men in green came out to clean the streets and tidy up the rubbish and that was that. Life on the boulevard continued.

The preparations for the parade were as interesting as the parade itself. Over the days before the march, everything movable was taken away – chairs were piled up inside cafes; cars, bikes, and scooters were parked on side streets; even the local bottle bank disappeared. Panes of glass were removed from bus shelters along the route. The windows of public buildings were boarded over.

Temporary bus stops were dumped in a heap with some scooters on the pavement behind the police cordon.

The temporary stops were there because the bus routes were in flux. Construction on the RER underneath the boulevard Montparnasse had led to the re-routing of traffic lanes, and buses could no longer stop at the usual places. The same was true of the stops around the Bastille, where traffic is permanently snarled as the circle is reconfigured into a U-shape to allow more space for pedestrians in front of the opera house.

Ceci n’est pas un bus stop. Most Paris bus stops have seating, lighting, shelter, maps, and a place to recharge your mobile phone. Parisians accustomed to a more stylish way of waiting must find the crude replacements deeply dissatisfying.

Meanwhile, the city has rearranged the entire bus system of Paris – the first time since the 1960s. Those handy books filled with details on the routes and the stops and the interchanges are now obsolete.

Of our two local routes, one was extended, one was curtailed. The 91 used to link the Gare Montparnasse with the Bastille; it now goes all the way to the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord. You have to watch your shins because it seems nearly every passenger has a suitcase. The 83 from the Porte d’Ivry no longer crosses the river to the Right Bank.

On the one Saturday we spent in the city, transit was even further disrupted because of the weekly demonstrations. We went with a friend to an exhibit at the Fondation Custodia (a delightful art gallery that even some Paris residents have not yet discovered). The bus that should have taken us there stopped several streets short of our destination and we then had to cross a police cordon. The police officers were helpful and moved the barrier to let us by. We spent a happy afternoon in the gallery, which was filled with visitors, but quiet and peaceful.

Change, destruction, chaos, and flux. In the midst of which one finds oases of tranquillity and space for memory. Paris is not only divided by a river, it is a river. One never steps into the same Paris twice.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie.

 

Posted in History of the blind, Paris civic functions, Paris streets, Paris travel | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

A web of friends and a ceremony in a former corset factory

For many, Paris is the City of Light, grand museums, or extravagant shopping forays. For us, it is the City of Surprises, and now, a city of friends. Several years ago, when we started research on the history of communications technology for the blind, we had no inkling what might lie ahead. We never imagined that our research would lead to new friendships, culminating in an invitation to witness one of them being awarded the French Order of Merit. Let alone that the ceremony would take place in a former corset factory.

The first step on the road to this delightful outcome took place at a Book Arts Fair in Toronto some years ago, where Norman met Martin Howard, a noted collector of antique typewriters. That led to an abiding friendship and to Norman’s growing fascination with Martin’s splendid collection, most of all the Hall Braille-Writer, invented in Illinois in 1892.

Norman was captivated by the elegant design, and also by the way in which this inexpensive device changed the lives of blind people, making it possible for them to communicate quickly in Braille.

Several years ago, as the two of us were leaving for a trip to Paris, Martin suggested we contact a Paris typewriter collector with whom he had corresponded. We did so, and he urged us to visit the museum at the Association Valentin Haüy to see its outstanding and varied collection of Braille writers and other communications devices for the blind. There we met Noëlle Roy, the conservatrice. She patiently answered our many questions and encouraged us to touch and try the machines (this is not a museum where touching the exhibits is forbidden!).

Norman ended up writing a paper about the invention of the Hall Braille-Writer and presented it at an unusual conference in England called “Blind Creations.” Noëlle was there, along with many other French delegates. Following a group lunch, Norman found himself at the table opposite Zina Weygand, the eminent French historian of the blind and a keynote speaker at the conference.

Norman said shyly, “Je ne suis pas très confortable quand je parle français.” Zina replied, “I am not very comfortable when I speak English.” And yet somehow they chatted for 15 minutes and Norman asked how to get a copy of a paper she had written. Zina said, “Bruno will know. Follow me.” She introduced him to Bruno Liessen from Brussels, who assured Norman he would send him the paper.

Bruno also mentioned a knowledgeable collector of artifacts relating to the blind who lived near Paris. He offered to send her Norman’s contact information. The collector turned out to be Mireille Duhen, who was indeed both knowledgeable and helpful, and a volunteer at the Association Valentin Haüy. We have since exchanged countless emails with Mireille, and shared information (you will have seen some of her contributions to this blog) as well as spending time together in Paris and at the Musée Braille in nearby Coupvray, where we met Stéphan Mary, who brought Braille machines out of storage to show us.

Meanwhile, we also got to know Noëlle’s husband, Patrice Roy, who took us on an unforgettable walk in the Marais. And it was on a visit to Noëlle’s and Patrice’s apartment that we got stuck in a tiny elevator. Getting stuck in someone’s elevator turns out to be a rather bonding experience.

And so through a complex web of friendships borne out of research, our love of Paris, and serendipitous events, we found ourselves travelling to Paris to attend the ceremony on June 8, 2018, at which Noëlle, now retired from the museum, would receive the French Order of Merit. Is it any wonder that Norman likes to say, “Planning is what you resort to when chance breaks down”?

We had no idea what to expect at a ceremony in which the Order of Merit is awarded. We had vague visions of formally dressed Academicians, 19th-century rooms with cherubs on the ceiling, mirrors on the walls, and acres of gilt chairs, and speeches in which people used a lot of subjunctives and conditional verbs. Norman wore a jacket and tie on a sultry day to rise to the occasion.

But this is France. Never assume. The venue turned out to be a renovated former corset factory in the 10th arrondissement near the Canal St-Martin, now used for digital enterprises, and we sat on modern chairs in a light-filled space that rose up three floors to an iron and glass ceiling. The picture below was taken before the rest of the audience arrived.

Some of the men wore jackets and ties, but most of the audience was dressed casually. Mireille was there, along with some people we had met at the conference in England, and Zina Weygand presented the award.

Unlike Canadian professional conferences, with which we are all too familiar, there were no extended preliminary warm-ups to the main event. We have come to dread conference talks in which someone introduces at tedious length the person who then introduces the keynote speaker. On this occasion, there were only two speeches, both of them interesting and to the point.

Zina Weygand gave the opening speech, in which she explained why Noëlle Roy, former conservatrice of the museum and library at the Association Valentin Haüy, had been granted this honour.

Zina was frank. She was funny. She addressed Noëlle as “tu” and gave us a short but pithy biography of her colleague (we hadn’t known Noëlle had grown up in Africa, when her father’s work as an engineer took the family to Algeria and the Ivory Coast, nor about her early career in psychology, a field chosen by her father). Zina made connections at each step with Noëlle’s work for the Association Valentin Haüy.

Zina explained that Noëlle had embarked on a new career after the birth of her son and daughter, studying art history and attending the prestigious school of museology at the École du Louvre. And she noted candidly that for Noëlle, working in the museum of a school for the blind, where visual aesthetics were not at the centre of the collection, was at first disconcerting, given her training and interest in art history.

Zina was also forthright about the short-sighted decision of the Association Valentin Haüy not to replace Noëlle when she retired, which means that this unique museum is no longer regularly open to the public. The French were in the forefront of educating the blind in the 18th century, and until 2017, part of Noëlle’s job was to introduce visitors, researchers, and students to this history by introducing them to the Association’s unparalleled collections and explaining their value. Alas, nobody does this important work now, and we are not alone in thinking that Paris is the poorer for the loss.

Zina ended her talk with the words, « Au nom du Président de la République et en vertu des pouvoirs qui nous sont conférés, nous vous faisons Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite » (in the name of the president of the Republic and by the powers conferred on us, we name you Chevalier of the National Order of Merit) and pinned the medal and its blue ribbon on Noelle’s lapel.

Noëlle’s gracious response was to thank, individually and in detail, those in attendance (to our amazement, we were included), and also to talk about the distinctive setting for the ceremony. Apparently, the recipient of an Order of Merit can choose where and how to receive the award, and is responsible for the arrangements. Noëlle had made an interesting and unusual choice in the former factory.

It was once a corset factory, that of Auguste Claverie. Noëlle alluded humorously to the importance of corsetry in enhancing the female figure, but went on to explain that 19th-century advances in body-shaping technology turned out to be crucial when it came to bandaging and supporting bodies damaged in the First World War. The connection to disability was appropriate, since the First World War was also the occasion for advances in the treatment of the blind, but that was not the reason for Noëlle’s choice.

Today, the former factory is home to Cap Digital, an information technology research hub that, among other things, is pioneering technologies that help the blind. One, for example, is an app called Panda Guide that uses video and image analysis to describe a space in words to a blind person so that he or she can navigate the space. What a perfect venue for such an event.

Noëlle also mentioned that although the Claverie corset brand is no more, the Claverie corset shop is still a going concern at 234, rue du Faubourg St-Martin. A few days later, we went to take a look. It was early afternoon and we had not known that the shop closes for lunch from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., but we took an enjoyable walk along the Canal (past a building we have written about before) while we waited for it to reopen. It was worth the wait. Other than the lingerie available for sale, the interior is much the same as it was 100 years ago. (Alas, there was scaffolding all over the façade, but the front is also largely unchanged.) One would not have thought that such an interior could survive into the 21st century.

As you read this, we are on our way home to Canada, after an extraordinary vacation in which we spent time with friends, learned more about communications with and among the blind, and gained a little more insight into this city that we will never fully understand, but will always appreciate for the surprises and gifts we receive and the friends we make as we explore it year after year.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball. Photograph of Noëlle Roy by Patrice Roy.

After eight years of blogging and 200 posts, we have decided to take a short sabbatical. Over the next few months, we need to focus on some other writing projects, as well as a family wedding. We will return in 2019 with more stories of our favourite city.

 

Posted in History of the blind, Paris architecture | Tagged , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Les petits bleus

Elderly guidebooks let you visit Paris in the past. We have three. Two date from 1927 – Muirhead’s Paris and its Environs (Blue Guides), and the Express Guide to Paris and Environs (Publications Anglo-Américaines) – and one from 1950: Nagel’s Paris (Blue Guides). We bought them mainly for their maps, which are not only charming, but helpful in locating streets or buildings that have since vanished.

The guidebooks also describe services that have disappeared – the Petite Ceinture railway, river steamers (bateaux-omnibus), the central tramway network, public baths, subscription libraries for foreigners, and télégrammes pneumatiques. The guidebooks recommend the latter, also known as cartes-télégrammes, pneus, or petits bleus, for rapid communications within Paris.

Pneus were cheaper than conventional telegrams, particularly if the message was long, because the sender did not pay by the word, but by weight (60 centimes for 7 grams in 1927; about 45 old francs for the same weight in 1950). The sender could hand-write a message and deposit it in a special box at a post office; it would arrive at its destination one or two hours later.

Paris’s pneumatic telegraph system started in 1866, connecting the Bourse (stock exchange) with a telegraph office in the Grand Hotel (the one near the Opéra with Café de la Paix on the ground floor), about 800 metres away. Stock exchanges depend on quick communications and fortunes can be made by those who are first to receive crucial information.

The pneumatic message system differed from the pneumatic clock system we described in an earlier blog. The clocks needed an unobstructed stream of air emitted at regular intervals to push a lever that moved the workings of the clock. With the pneumatic mail system, a canister obstructed the stream of air in the airtight tube. The canister was sucked or pushed along by the difference in air pressure on either side of it.

How did it work? From early childhood we learn to use differences in air pressure. Consider the pea-shooter (which children are probably now forbidden to use). The pea is in a tube, the child blows into the tube. The air pressure behind the pea is greater than that in front of it and the pea hurtles out of the pea-shooter.

Or consider drinking with a straw. You put the straw in your mouth and close your lips about it to create a seal. The liquid comes up the straw. By sucking in you have lowered the air pressure in the straw – that is, created a partial vacuum – and the higher air pressure on the surface of the liquid in the glass forces the liquid up the straw. It is all about creating a difference in air pressure and then putting it to work.

The 19th century was a period  of gloriously inventive technology and many people explored how to use compressed air and pneumatic systems. An Englishman, George Medhurst, experimented with pneumatic transport, and in 1810 invented a pneumatic railway. A Scot, William Murdoch, is credited with inventing the pneumatic dispatch tube. The system used positive air pressure to push a capsule several inches in diameter along a tube.

In 1853 the technology came into practical use in London with a 1.5-inch diameter, 220-yard pneumatic tube joining the Central station and the Stock Exchange station of the  Electric and International Telegraph Company in London. Berlin followed in 1865 and Paris in 1866.

A year after its inauguration, the Paris system consisted of a one-way circular route with a single tube running from the Bourse to the telegraph offices on rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, then to the rue de Rivoli, then across the river to the rue des Saints-Peres, from there to the Central Telegraph Office on the rue de Grenelle, then back to the rue Boissy d’Anglas on the right bank, and finally back to the Grand Hotel. After 1888, the tubes were doubled, so the system did not have to be just one-way.

The main conduit was an airtight tube with sealable hatches. Messages were carried in cylinders that could be opened at one end to insert the papers. The earliest messages were telegrams arriving at telegraph offices; later, letters or postcards could be used. The illustration below, from The Engineer, 18 December 1891, shows the London system.

Cylinders could be made of metal, wood or (in the 20th century) plastic. Slightly smaller in diameter than the tube, at either end they had protective bumpers as well as buffering material around the circumference to prevent air from blowing by.

In the Paris system, air pressure at the rear of the canister pushed it on its journey from a central station; it returned when vacuum pressure at the front pulled it back. This push-pull system meant that a single station on the network could provide the power for both sending and retrieving canisters.

When the canister arrived at its destination, a worker would open a door in the tube, remove the canister, and close the door to reseal the tube. To send another canister on its way, the worker would open another door, insert the canister, and close the door. Off the canister went, moved either by pressure or vacuum.

The Paris system grew over time and according to Douglas Self, whose website is a feast of information on retro technology, in 1874, “Trains of canisters departed every quarter of an hour from Rue de Grenelle, covering the 1500m to the next bureau (Rue Boissy-d’Anglas) in 90 seconds. The canister carrying messages for local distribution was removed, another carrying messaged handed in at that bureau was added, and the train sent off to the next destination, Grand-Hotel. From there it proceeded to La Bourse, Place Theatre-Français and Rue des Saint-Peres. It finally returned to Rue de Grenelle, having taken 12 minutes on its round trip. Each train was composed of ten canisters, together weighing about four kilograms. Under either vacuum or pressure of about 10 psi the train had an average speed of 1 kilometre in 60 seconds,” or 60 kilometers per hour.

The final part of the message system used older technology: messenger boys on foot or on bicycles to deliver the letters or telegrams to their destination. This illustration is from Mon Dimanche, 17 mai 1903.

Gradually, more and more pneumatic stations were added. As with the clock system, the tubes ran through the sewers. They were iron, with an internal diameter of 65 mm, joined with stepped flanges to prevent air leakage. As much as possible, the tubes were laid in straight lines; any curves had a radius between 5 and 20 metres. The tighter the curve, the greater the probability that a cylinder would jam.

The system covered 467 km at its height in the 1930s. In areas where noisy equipment was not permitted, water power from city mains generated both pressure and vacuum in the stations. In less sensitive areas, steam-engine-powered equipment was used.

The network, shown in this 1926 map from Gallica, had two main hubs: the Bourse on the right bank, and the central telegraph office on the left (the same building we described in the blog about the Chappe telegraph system).

The black dots are the power houses, the single circles are telegraph offices that sent and received messages, and the double circles had both message offices and power equipment.

With the exception of a line to Neuilly, the system operated within the old walls of the city (also shown on the map).

Before 1898, senders had to use the official petit bleu stationery, which was sealed and perforated on three sides: the sender sealed it up and the recipient tore along the perforations to open the message. They were rather like airmail forms, also blue, which we remember using up to about the 1980s.

Later, one could write an ordinary letter and send it through the same system. This video clip from the movie Baisers Volés (Stolen Kisses) by François Truffaut shows a regular letter going through the system.

The citywide pneumatic system continued into the early 1980s, and smaller pneumatic systems are still used in hospitals, major libraries, and other large  institutions and businesses, in Paris and elsewhere.

Paris’s city network lasted a long time, probably because until late in the 20th century, individual landline telephones were unreliable and hard to obtain in France (people waited months for installation). Now, with text messaging, petits bleus seem impossibly quaint, although rather romantic.

Text by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie, with thanks to Mireille Duhen for finding the video and other sources of information.

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