The Rise and Fall of the Visual Telegraph

Sometimes we go looking for blog ideas, and sometimes they come along and tap us persistently on the shoulder. This one did – three times.

First, I spotted an “advertorial” in a 1912 issue of a small American magazine called The Philistine. It was a two-page item on “Napoleon’s Visual Telegraph: The First Long-Distance System” and it was sponsored by American Telephone and Telegraph. The illustration looked vaguely familiar.

A few days later, I was hunting for a postcard in our collection and I ran across this one of “La Tour du Télégraphe” in Montmartre, sitting on top of what appear to be the ruins of a church. But I still wasn’t sure what I was looking at. What was that thing on the tower?

Finally, out of the blue, my stepson Alex sent us a link to an article from The Economist about “the world’s first cyber-attack” featuring this same telegraph system.

When I mentioned this to Norman, he looked thoughtful and went to find a history of telegraphy called The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage as well as Volume IV of the Oxford History of Technology. And so I came to read about Claude Chappe (1763–1805) and the world’s first telegraph system.

Claude Chappe, whose intended career as a member of the clergy was derailed by the French Revolution, became obsessed with finding a way to communicate at a distance. His first effort, with his brother René, used sounds that corresponded to numbers that could be decoded into messages. But he soon realized that visual methods would allow for communications over even longer distances. So he experimented with a large disc painted black on one side and white on the other that could be used to transmit numerical information; if the receiver used a telescope, the information could be detected 16 km away. The brothers demonstrated their invention in 1791, and a friend of theirs suggested the name “télégraphe” – meaning “far writing.”

Still, the process of transmitting numbers with a simple black/white, on/off system and then decoding them into words was cumbersome, and Claude Chappe kept hunting for a better method. He eventually came up with the “optical telegraph,” which consisted of a vertical post on which was mounted a hinged arm, with smaller hinged arms at the two ends. (It is sometimes called a “semaphore” system, which reminds me of my days as a Brownie, when we had to pass a test in semaphore; I was hopeless at it and had to take the test several times before I passed.)

The central arm of Chappe’s visual telegraph could be set in four positions – vertical, horizontal, and at two 45-degree angles – and the two smaller arms could be set in seven different positions, allowing for 98 possible combinations, each of which corresponded to a letter or number. The system also allowed for abbreviations of whole words, to speed up communication.

A clockmaker, Abraham-Louis Bréguet, developed the control mechanism for the device, which was connected by pulleys to the actual transmitter. An operator inside a building could manipulate a scale model, and the pulleys attached to it controlled the full-scale version on the roof of the building.

An early attempt at a demonstration in Paris came to grief when a Revolutionary mob attacked Chappe and demolished his device, believing him to be using it to communicate with the imprisoned Louis XVI.

But in 1793, Chappe was invited by the government of the day (the Convention) to demonstrate his invention, for which three prototype towers were constructed. The first was in Belleville-Ménilmontant, in the northwest of Paris, where there is a prominent hill. The next was 18 km due north in Ecouen, where the chateau commands a panoramic view of the countryside. This is how it looks today.

The third was in Saint-Martin-du-Tertre, another 12 km north-north-west of Ecouen. Saint-Martin-du-Tertre commemorates this event by using an image of the telegraph on its municipal coat of arms.

The experiment was judged a resounding success, and the Convention realized that Chappe’s device could help the central government direct events across France from Paris. The first line of telegraph towers to be completed went north as far as Lille, more than 200 km away. By 1794, it was being used to report on battles with the Austrians and Prussians. A second line connected Paris to Strasbourg to the east – also in the direction of a war zone.

When Napoleon Bonaparte came to power, he wanted even more telegraph lines. A new line went southeast to Dijon, Lyons, and on into Italy. That way, Parisians could get rapid news about his military conquests there. Napoleon even asked Claude’s brother Abraham to plan one that would cross the English Channel, to report on his invasion of England. He got a little ahead of himself there.

But it seemed that the more his idea spread, the more Claude Chappe was beset by rivals, claiming they had had the idea first, or that they had a better idea, or that the clockmaker Bréguet was the real genius behind the invention. In 1805, suffering from depression, he committed suicide by throwing himself into a well at the main Telegraph Administration, which at that time was on the rue de l’Université. He was buried in Vaugirard cemetery, but when it was closed in 1824,* his remains were transferred to Père Lachaise, where a remarkably ugly funerary monument displays his invention.

Claude’s brothers René and Abraham continued to run the system until the 1830s.

Around that time, twin brothers in Bordeaux, François and Louis Blanc, came up with a plan to bribe telegraph operators between Paris and Bordeaux to introduce “typos” (the French use the delightful word coquilles) into messages sent across the system; the coquilles indicated the direction of the Paris stock market each day. This allowed the brothers to beat the Bordeaux market in government bonds. They were eventually caught, and even tried, but since they had not broken an existing law (laws generally lag behind new technology), they were not punished. So the two happily went off to Monte Carlo to run the casino.

The optical telegraph remained in use until 1852, when it was superseded by the electric telegraph system. By then, the network consisted of 556 stations covering more than 4,800 km. The towers were everywhere. In Paris, even St-Sulpice (shown below) and the Louvre had Chappe telegraphs installed on them.

Paris gave Claude Chappe his due in 1893, on the hundredth anniversary of his successful demonstration, erecting a statue to him, posed in a jaunty attitude, at the intersection of the boulevards Raspail and Saint-Germain.

Alas, the statue was removed during the Second World War and melted down as scrap metal. Paris en Images even has a photograph of it just before it disappeared forever.

However, many Chappe towers are still visible, as I found on French Wikipedia, where an enthusiast has posted a catalogue of the remaining ones, including six that have protected heritage status. A few are even in working order.

The one on my postcard has gone, though. It was on a church called St-Pierre de Montmartre, which stands immediately to the west of Sacré-Coeur. The church had been badly damaged during the Revolution, but in 1794 the ruin was used as the base of an optical telegraph tower that remained until 1840. The church has now been restored. Before the basilica was built, St-Pierre probably had the best view of any church in Paris. A little farther down the Montmartre hill is the rue Chappe, a steep street with a great many stairs, and the Café Chappe at the bottom. We plan to go there on our next visit and raise a glass in his honour.

Other traces of Chappe can be found in Belleville, on the rue du Télégraphe, where a plaque near the cemetery commemorates one of the first towers constructed. Another Chappe tower is part of the ensemble of buildings at 103, rue de Grenelle, which became the headquarters for the telegraph system in the 1840s. A memorial to Chappe has been installed inside the main building entrance. There is even a website devoted to the inventor ( Chappe might be comforted to know that he is not forgotten and nobody now disputes his achievements.

Text by Philippa Campsie, images from Paris en Images, Gallica, Wikipedia, and Google Street View.

*There is still a Vaugirard cemetery in Paris, but it is a different one. Chappe was buried in a cemetery located where the Boulevard Pasteur and the Lycée Buffon are today.



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Gustave Eiffel did not sleep here

On a recent visit to Laywine’s, our favourite pen and stationery store in Toronto, Philippa picked up a desk pad made by the French paper firm Exacompta, and found the following note on the front:

Made in the heart of Paris for over 50 years in a workshop built by Gustave Eiffel, the FAF (feuille à feuille) pad is a practical and highly functional desk pad.

A workshop built by Eiffel? Really? We know the Exacompta building, which sits beside the Canal St-Martin on the Quai de Jemmapes. Here is a picture from Wikimedia. It’s a handsome industrial site, and the fact that the building is still in use for industry in the middle of Paris is astonishing. But Gustave Eiffel…?

Actually, no. Saying Eiffel designed a building in France is like saying “George Washington slept here” in the United States. It impresses people and occasionally it might even be true. But in this case, the architect was one Paul Friésé. We cannot account for the Eiffel myth, but in laying it to rest, we had a chance to consider an unusual building and its history.

The building at 132-134 quai de Jemmapes was commissioned by la Compagnie Parisienne d’air comprimé (the Paris Compressed Air Company). In France, compressed air has a long history as an energy source, but the Quai Jemmapes building was to be a coal-powered thermal electric generating station. This may come as a surprise, because the photo above does not suggest electricity generation, does it?

In the late 19th century, electricity was an exciting new technology and Paris embraced it with enthusiasm. Electricity gave a whole new meaning to the words “City of Light.” At first, a range of private companies generated and sold electrical power. Since the Paris Compressed Air Company already had a reputation for supplying energy, it was quick to venture into this new energy source.

In 1889 the City of Paris gave the company the right to build a thermal electric generating station on the quai de Jemmapes and to supply the eastern part of Paris with electricity. It was a massive project. As a leading industrial architect, Paul Friésé was an obvious choice.

He was a graduate of the École des Beaux Arts whose wide-ranging projects included other electrical stations, such as an enormous generating station near the Gare de Lyon where the RATP offices are now, and several impressive Paris substations that are still standing.

The selection of a canal site made sense. Thermal generation of electricity depends on steam to power the turbines that in turn drive the generators and that means massive amounts of coal to heat water in boilers. The canal St-Martin site has lots of water and its barges could deliver a seemingly endless supply of coal. The picture below was taken from the top of the building in 1920, showing the view northwest; note the many chimneys in this formerly industrial area.

Friésé also had to work within some strict requirements. Given the limited electrical transmission technology of the day, the generating station had to be close to its intended market. And that meant that Friésé’s building had to fit into a tight site in a dense neighbourhood that included the St-Louis Hospital. In this image, also taken from the roof of the station in 1920, you can see the hospital to the left, with its rows of identical dormer windows.

Another limit was on the size of the generators. They were constructed in Belfort by the Société Alsacienne de Constructions Mécaniques (now Alstom) and brought in on trains and enormous wagons, but the need to transport them such a distance limited their size. In this image from Le Génie civil, you get a sense of the scale.

Engineering projects of this era often combined the gigantic with a sense of politeness and attention to appearance and context. Friésé created a building that did not overwhelm the neighbours and yet had a sense of gravity. He won a medal during the 1900 Exposition for this design. This is how the building looked in its heyday. Note that coal is being unloaded from the canal barge in front.

Despite Friésé’s achievement, his magnificent generating station had a relatively short productive life. In 1896 the Paris Compressed Air Company started supplying electricity to customers. But the administration of Paris soon decided to have only one company supplying electricity, in this case la Compagnie Parisienne de Distribution d’Électricité (CPDE). In 1910 the Paris Compressed Air Company’s concession was terminated.

There was little else to do but sell the company, and in 1914 it was purchased by the CPDE. What had been one of the most up-to-date electrical generating plants in France was taken out of operation by its new owners, and the massive generators fell silent.

For several decades after that, the site had a chequered career. The chimneys were demolished, as they were no longer needed. The luxury shoe manufacturer Saderne took over some of the space, but suffered a fire in 1917. Saderne went bankrupt in 1927. For a while, the Labor company manufactured workers’ clothing there (such as the once-ubiquitous blue overalls and smocks that so many French workers wore).

Finally, in the 1950s, Clairefontaine bought the site, as well as buildings to the north of the former generating station, and it has been there ever since. The company is now known as Exacompta-Clairfontaine, as many French paper businesses have consolidated (Rhodia notebooks and Mignon cards and G. Lalo stationery are all brands of the same giant paper organization based here).

The former generating station was declared a historic monument in 1992, but the generating machinery has undoubtedly long since disappeared. It is hard to know anything for sure, though, as access is forbidden to outsiders. The best we can do is show a Google Earth overview of the site. In addition to the red-roofed building facing the canal, the ones behind it and on the left are also part of Exacompta.

As for the architect, he died in 1917, during the First World War. He was from Alsace (born in Strasbourg in 1851), and when the First World War broke out, he volunteered to serve, even though he was 63 at that point. He was deployed in the reserve army as a translator. He was wounded in the Battle of the Chemin des Dames, and died shortly thereafter. He is buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery. A book about him is due out from Memogrames next month (November 2017) in honour of the centenary of his death.

Text by Norman Ball, contemporary photographs from Wikimedia, historic photographs from Gallica and Paris en images. Thanks also to Denis Cosnard, whose detailed blog, “Des usines à Paris,” provided helpful information. To see more photographs and an interesting analysis of the building, see the graduation report by Merle van Marissing from TU Delft University, in which the building is re-imagined as a library.

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Exploring an imaginary Paris suburb

Rereading a well-loved children’s book can be risky. Some hold up well – my adult niece is currently enjoying Anne of Green Gables all over again. Others, well, you need to be a child to appreciate them properly.

So I hesitated to re-open The Street Musician (Le Piano à Bretelle) by Paul Berna. I needn’t have worried. The story engaged me once again, and I remembered what it was about it that had so attracted me as a child.

But first, a little background. Paul Berna is the pen-name of Jean Sabran (1908–1994), author of more than 30 children’s books, about half of which have been translated into English. He also wrote adult novels under three other pseudonyms – Bernard Deleuze, Paul Gerrard, and Joel Audrenn. He used different names for different types of books, and avoided using his own name because he did not want to be confused with his brother Guy Sabran, who was also a writer. He was ferociously prolific, especially considering that his career as an author started when he was in his forties.

His “breakout” children’s book appeared in 1955. In French it is called Le cheval sans tête (known in translation as A Hundred Million Francs). It was translated into about 20 languages and reprinted many times. Walt Disney even turned it into a film called The Headless Horse in 1963 (making changes to the story that the author disliked).

A Hundred Million Francs tells the story of a gang of ten children of various ages living in the imaginary working-class suburb of Louvigny-Triage, who stumble across a crime and end up thwarting some ugly villains.

Gaby, Marion, Fernand, Juan, Berthe, Mélie, Zidore, Tatave, Criquet, and Bonbon range in age from about 12 down to about six or seven. They spend their free time together, at large in the streets of Louvigny after school and on weekends. They do have parents, but the parents stay firmly in the background.

Paul Berna, like many other children’s writers, found that in fiction, children need to be on their own, away from their families, to display personality and initiative, which is probably why so many protagonists in children’s fiction, from Anne of Green Gables to Harry Potter, are orphans. He gives his fictional creations great independence – so much so that an earlier book, Vacances en Scooter, published in 1952, about a teenaged boy and his eight-year-old sister who take off together on a scooter, caused a flap. Parents were worried it would encourage other children to do the same thing.

A Hundred Million Francs keeps the children close to home, but courting danger nonetheless. The headless horse is the remains of a rocking horse mounted on a tricycle undercarriage without pedals or brakes, and the children take it in turns to career down a steep hill.

The horse shot down the rue des Petits-Pauvres making the most appalling noise from its three iron wheels. It was wonderful and the cross-roads gave the ride a spice of danger that made it even more glorious. Then, right at the very end, the road made a steep climb, taking the horse and rider on to the bank round the Clos Pecqueux. As you breasted the rise you could see nothing but empty fields stretching grey to the horizon, so that for two seconds you felt as though you were flying. But if you failed to brake with your heels, you were over the crupper and flat on your back.

And that’s a typical adventure before the villains get hold of the horse.

What I love about that passage and many others, is the vividly evoked landscape of a suburb at the edge of the city, where the fields begin. And I love the names in the book – the Rue de Petits-Pauvres, the Clos Pecqueux, the Faubourg-Bacchus (where some of the children live), the inevitable Square de la Libération and rue des Alliés, and the rue de la Vache Noire.

Berna has a gift for evocative descriptions.

The sun was going down quickly. Darkness was covering the town like a flood, drowning the slums of Louvigny-Cambrouse, the sidings, the factories, and the smoky railway tracks where the coloured signal lights sprang up as though by magic and stretched away into the distance. All of a sudden it got colder.

The illustrations, by Richard Kennedy, fit the mood perfectly.

As a child, I also loved the fact that the setting was urban. Although I enjoyed stories about rural life (Anne of Green Gables in particular), I couldn’t identify with them. I grew up in a city. My surroundings consisted of streets and buildings and my pleasures came from public transit and museums and department stores. Rural was for holidays; urban was home. My surroundings weren’t as industrial as Louvigny, but I recognized a familiar landscape.

Berna’s fully realized imaginary town is probably the reason I actually prefer the second novel about the Louvigny gang, The Street Musician (the French version is called Le Piano à Bretelle, which means “The Accordion”). Published in 1956, it is a mystery more than an adventure, and the puzzle at its heart is not so much a crime as a tragedy.

It begins in the Square Théodore-Branque – I’m sure you know it, or somewhere just like it. The gang is restless after the exciting adventure of the headless horse, until Marion (she is not the leader, but she is often the brains of the organization) has an idea:

“Adventures only happen to people who take the trouble to look for them… There’s plenty going on in town: let’s keep our eyes open, take a good look round and I bet within a couple of days we’ll have sniffed out an adventure just as exciting as the one the horse led us into.”

Indeed, by staying alert, the gang notices something strange – a blind accordion player who goes to a different part of town every day, playing a random selection of pieces, but always ending with the same haunting gypsy tune. He even plays in deserted streets where there is no one to hear him or give him a coin. What is more, he is accompanied by a dog who has been deliberately dyed black. Marion knows, because she rescues injured and abandoned dogs, and this was one of hers.

Following the musician requires the gang to go up and down every street in town, to the point at which the reader feels it might be possible to draw a map of Louvigny. One illustration contains the beginnings of such a map. And the mystery hinges on the geography of the town, and the discovery of a road that has been hidden since the war. As a child, I used to draw maps of imaginary towns and cities, so that’s another reason this book appealed to me so much.

As I read it again, I found that the story holds up well, and so do the characters and the setting. In part this may be because Paul Berna put his own childhood into his books – he actually had a headless horse on wheels, and was part of a large family that must have felt like a children’s gang at times. Admittedly, the books are period pieces (especially in light of today’s helicopter parenting), and the language is that of the 1950s, translated into 1950s English in my elderly Puffin editions (yes, I still have the original copies I had when I was eight or so).

But one day I shall read Paul Berna in French. And perhaps one day, I shall find myself in Louvigny, or something just like it, and I’ll know my way around immediately.

Text by Philippa Campsie, book illustrations by Richard Kennedy.

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A walk in the snow led us to Paris

Our first trip to Paris together was only about 20 years ago, but already it seems to belong to the distant past.

It all began with a walk in the snow. We are Canadians of a certain age, so the words “a walk in the snow” have a special meaning. When the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, father of our current Prime Minister, was wrestling with whether or not to run for office again he famously took a walk in the snow on February 28, 1984. During that walk he decided not to run for the prime minister’s office again.

We too had our walk in the snow. During our walk we decided to go to Paris.

It was late March, and it was not snowing when we set out for a stroll in a part of Toronto called Rosedale. We had only recently become a couple and we had a lot to talk about.

Philippa had long been in love with Paris and had studied in France for a year. The only time Norman ever flunked an exam in school was first-term grade-nine French. Nevertheless, Norman was catching the Paris bug. As we walked through the gates of Craigleigh Gardens, snowflakes began to swirl around. Norman turned to Philippa and said, “Why don’t we go to Paris?”

Philippa asked “When?” Norman thought for a moment. “Next week?” Well, that wasn’t possible, but we went in September.

In those pre-web days, finding a hotel was a bit more complicated than it is today. Philippa located a book called Cheap Sleeps in Paris in the Albert Britnell bookshop (which later closed and is now a Starbucks, although the old name is still visible on the facade). She didn’t want to buy the whole book when we needed only one hotel, so she consulted it then and there, memorized the name of a hotel, wrote down a number on her hand (she had a ballpoint pen but no paper), and went home to send a fax.

We travelled on an airline that no longer exists: Canadian Airlines. Those were the days when (a) Norman had lots of air travel points and (b) points actually got you a wonderful deal for next to no money. It was our only trip to Paris in business class. What a way to start a new adventure.

We dressed for the flight with what now seems to be extraordinary formality. Philippa wore a dress with pantyhose and Norman wore a shirt, jacket, and tie.

The Grand Hôtel de Balcons on the rue Casimir Delavigne near the Place de l’Odéon was an excellent choice. It, at least, is still there, with its attractive Art Nouveau woodwork, pretty window boxes, and cosy yellow breakfast room. As soon as we arrived – we took the Metro from the airport – we unpacked and then went for a walk in the neighbourhood. We spotted a restaurant called Le Petit Prince (we think it was on the rue Monsieur le Prince), walked in, and made a reservation for that evening.

There is still a Paris restaurant called “Le Petit Prince de Paris,” which is in the 5th arrondissement, but it is not the same. The one we remember has gone. Unlike its namesake, which is all red velvet and plush, the interior was spare and a soft blue, decorated with illustrations from the St-Exupéry books, along with models and mobiles featuring the Little Prince’s aeroplane. Other than a grapefruit sorbet that finished the meal, neither of us can remember what exactly we ate, only that it seemed to be the most delicious meal either of us could remember and the service made us feel welcome and respected.

The following day, we wandered through the street market on the rue de Buci, buying a baguette, St-Nectaire cheese, and pears. Then we took the Metro to Montmartre and got out at Lamarck-Caulaincourt. Not far away we found a little square with a statue of a man and a woman leaning in towards each other, dedicated to the artist Steinlen.

We stopped and ate our picnic on one of the benches.

We have since revisited the site several times, once in the snow.

The streets of Montmartre seemed almost deserted in the early Sunday afternoon. We made our way towards rue Cavallotti. Norman had read in a (now defunct) design magazine about a group of shop owners on that street who had invited artists to decorate their shutters to prevent graffiti. We wanted to go there on a Sunday when the shops were closed and the shutters were down.

We were not disappointed. The top two images below are photographs we took that day, with Norman’s camera, on film. Alas, the murals are mostly gone now and the graffiti has returned, as Google street view shows in the bottom two images.

But that day we spent a happy time looking at the painted shutters before wandering on to the Cimitière de Montmartre. Again, it seemed as if the rest of the world had taken a nap and the two of us had the place practically to ourselves.

On Monday morning, we headed to the Place d’Opéra and American Express, to cash our travellers’ cheques. As one did in those days. When we walked around the Opéra building, which was undergoing renovations, we saw a sign for visits backstage. This had not been an option when Philippa lived in Paris and she was thrilled to explore les coulisses. There was also a display of costumes in the grand stairway at the front.

We spent most of the week walking. We did not ascend the Eiffel Tower or take a boat on the river or enter the Louvre. In fact, we did not go to a single museum all week. The weather was cool and there were sprinklings of rain, but we did not want to go indoors except for meals and sleeping. There was too much to see on the endlessly fascinating streets and in the peaceful parks. Perhaps this is why the city didn’t seem as crowded as we had expected. We weren’t hitting the big tourist draws.

Looking in our photograph album, we are surprised at the small number of images from that trip. Perhaps three dozen. We were too busy looking at and experiencing the city firsthand. And of course, with film, each time one pressed the shutter button one could hear the faint ring of a cash register, and we were being economical. We did buy postcards. We even went to the post office for stamps so we could send some to family and friends. (Actually, we still do and always have.)

After our first-night extravaganza, we ate in places recommended by Cheap Eats in Paris. Some were tiny little holes in the wall that we might not otherwise have noticed. All were good.

Norman kept marvelling at how clean things were. One of the photos he took from our balcony was of a city employee sweeping the street with the green plastic replacement for what were originally twig brooms. (Does anyone know where we can buy one? We seriously covet them.) Norman, who is a historian of technology and once edited a book on public works, kept stopping to examine street cleaning equipment and the water system for cleaning the gutters. He eventually wrote about that system in a blog that has become our most popular post ever.

Because of his interests, Philippa started to notice things she had never noticed before. She had long been familiar with the “Défense d’afficher – Loi du 29 juillet 1881” signs, but she had never noticed the “Gaz à tous les étages” that Norman now pointed out.

Norman also has a strong interest in design and it seemed the shop windows were filled with things he had seen in design magazines or read about in a history of design or technology. We spent an afternoon going in and out of the boutiques in the Palais Royal, which included some up-to-the-minute decor, and some elegant but timeless spaces that seemed to have been unchanged since the 18th century.

But even everyday shops were a revelation. Everywhere we looked, the attention to detail and presentation were astounding. We lingered over corner store outdoor displays where fruit and vegetables were beautifully stacked, where colours seemed to be carefully chosen.

And it wouldn’t be a visit to Paris without Norman being distracted by the great variety of cars and motorcycles. He remembers walking on the Champs Elysées, hearing a wondrous mechanical roar, looking for the source of the sound and proclaiming, “I love it, but I don’t know what it is.” Hope springs eternal and he thinks it will come back so he can get another look. So we just have to keep going to Paris.

Philippa was more familiar with the city, and wanted to show Norman some of the things she remembered, such as the Faculté de Medicine near the hotel, where she once sat on a hard bench for two back-to-back two-hour university lectures. The city held many memories.

But that visit was the start of new memories and new experiences. This month marks the seventh anniversary of “Parisian Fields,” and we still enjoy the way the blog allows us to re-experience favourite moments and follow up on questions that arise as we walk along Paris streets.

We have even walked in the snow in Paris, on a night when the buses had gone home to the garage to escape the un-Parisian conditions. We walked along the boulevard in the snowy night without complaining. That was on a December trip many years later. But we were still as excited as on our first trip to Paris together.


Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie; 2017 street images from Google Street View.

We would be delighted to hear from readers about their own experiences of visits to Paris in the days before the Internet, selfies, love locks, mobile phones, and Airbnb.

Posted in Paris automotive, Paris civic functions, Paris hotels, Paris nostalgia | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

Get thee to a library

On our last two trips to Paris, much of our time was spent in library research. Here is a picture that our friend Mireille took of us in the library of the Association Valentin Haüy.

It consists of one large room with books and documents on three sides in tall glass-fronted cabinets with wooden cupboards underneath, also filled with boxes of documents. The fourth wall is all windows, which open on to a quiet side street. Even in June’s heat, it was reasonably cool there.

As you can see, we are using a variety of printed and archival materials. These are not available digitally. You have to go there and look at them yourself. It is a unique collection, focused on the education of the blind, including a range of associated subjects, from linguistics to technology to fiction. We met two other researchers during our visit. One was studying the autobiographies of blind people, and the other researching the history of sounds.

We enjoyed our weekday routine of library work in the morning, lunch in the canteen, more reading, transcribing, and photographing in the afternoon, and home again with plenty of time to pick up some fresh food for dinner. We would recommend the place to you, but we cannot. The library, along with the associated museum, closed when the conservatrice responsible for both retired at the end of June. The Association is looking into ways to offer continued access to researchers, but the future of the museum and library is by no means certain.

In an earlier blog, we talked about the gradual loss of Paris bookshops. What about libraries? The much-anticipated reopening of the Labrouste reading room in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France Richelieu complex suggests that libraries are prized. But although they may seem stable, specialized libraries and archives can close quite suddenly. For example, we were told that the archives of the Quinze-Vingts (the refuge for indigent blind people founded in the 13th century, now an eye hospital) is no longer maintained or accessible.

Given the fragility of so much documentation, we were delighted at one point to find a tiny survivor of what was once a network of Parisian lending libraries.

Norman was hunting for a book that he needed for his research, and Mireille suggested we try the library of Les Amis de l’Instruction on the rue de Turenne in the 3rd arrondissement. It was open on Saturday afternoons only. Wisely, she added that even if they didn’t have the book, it would be well worth the journey there. She was right.

We nearly missed the place, with its modest sign.

Notice the words “prêt à domicile.” This was a lending library – Paris’s first.

When we found the right door, we walked through and straight into the 19th century. Two friendly volunteers ushered us into the main room, with its central table and book-lined walls.

One volunteer checked the card catalogue for the book we wanted. It wasn’t there, but at this point, we didn’t mind a bit.

They showed us around the warren of small rooms on two levels lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

The library occupies part of a much older building, which dates from the 1650s, known as the hotel de Gourges for Armand Jacques de Gourges, marquis de Vayres. He bought it in 1707, but lost the building (and his own head) during the Revolution, at which point, the house became public property. It is still owned by the City of Paris.

The library’s founder was a lithographer called Jean-Baptiste Girard, who had spent time in prison for the crime of belonging to a labour union and taking part in a demonstration. In 1861, he and a group of like-minded workers created a new type of institution: a private lending library open to all – women included.

Library users paid a membership fee (about 50 centimes a month) that gave them the right to participate in the running of the place. The library maintained a list of requests, to allow members to suggest acquisitions. Although this seems a benign sort of venture, in the 1860s, it was quite subversive. At a time when labour unions were suppressed, self-organization of this sort was frowned upon by the authorities, who would have preferred literate members of the working classes to read only materials approved by the ruling classes.

The original register of members from the time of its founding shows that its adherents included not just workers, but architects and lawyers, artists and students, and people from other parts of the city, such as Auguste Rodin. Clearly there was a demand for this kind of open access to books.

And the idea spread. At one point there were 14 of these libraries spread across the city, and one in the suburb of Asnières, offering books, lectures, and even excursions.

The books we saw all date from before 1940, when the network of lending libraries started a slow decline. Gradually, all except this one closed down. Many of the libraries that closed offered their books to the remaining library in the rue de Turenne, which accepted as many non-duplicates as possible, cramming them into every available space.

Yet quaint and anachronistic as it may sound, the library is not a time capsule. At one point, we rounded a corner to find a desk with a computer on it.

Les Amis de l’Instruction also maintain an extensive website, which includes access to taped versions of monthly talks held in the downstairs room, many of which are on the history of the city (if you are around in September 2017, there will be one on the lost river of the Bièvre). You can view old catalogues, listing books in various branches of the sciences, as well as history, geography, literature, and commerce. There are even links to free online copies of some of the 19th-century books in the collection.

Before we left, one of the volunteers took Norman’s e-mail address and offered to follow up with a friend who might know the whereabouts of the book we sought. The place is well named: its members really are the friends of instruction and knowledge. We wandered back out into the rue de Turenne, marvelling that such a fragile entity had survived for more than 150 years, hoping it would be there again on our next visit.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie; opening photograph by Mireille Duhen.

La Bibliothèque des Amis de l’Instruction is at 54 rue de Turenne, 3rd arrondissement, Métro Chemin Vert or Saint-Paul. It is open Saturdays from 3 to 6 p.m. or by appointment. Telephone or e-mail


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Coming to terms with the heat in Paris

We weren’t expecting Paris to be sizzling in early June. We’d emerged from a cold, wet Toronto spring, armed with suitcases full of cardigans and long-sleeved shirts, only to plunge into high summer. Isn’t Paris supposed to be intolerably hot only in August? We once endured a steamy August in Paris and had sworn never to repeat the experience.

Air-conditioning is gradually becoming more common in shops, restaurants, and hotels in Paris (look for the signs saying climatisé), but it is still quite rare in private apartments. We had rented a flat from an acquaintance and we asked her if the place contained an electric fan. She sounded baffled and explained that it was simply a matter of airing the place out in the morning, then closing the windows and curtains during the day, and reopening them at night.

We complied, but the first night was still too sweaty, so the next day we bought a fan at a local droguerie. For the next three weeks, it cooled (or at least moved) the air in the bedroom at night, and we slept more comfortably. (Norman loves the word droguerie, which to him means where you go to buy things for home drudgery. On various visits we have bought a boy-scout-style can opener, shoelaces, lightbulbs, a fly swatter, cleaning products, and a collapsible clothes-drying stand.)

We soon realized that coping with the heat was going to require a strategy, and a fairly old-fashioned one. Walk slowly, on the shady side of the street. Wear 100% cotton or linen (we bought linen shirts at Alain Figaret and the Bazar de l’Hotel de Ville). Drink lots of cool liquids (Badoit, Orangina, Sancerre).

Seek out green spaces and benches. Take frequent cool baths (the bathtub in the flat is huge, deep, and surrounded by dark varnished parquet for reasons that escape us, but we appreciated it enormously).

We feasted on cold food – salads made with frilly lettuce from the nearby street market, gazpacho sold in small containers at Carrefour, goat’s cheese on baguette, and lots of fruit (notably cherries and apricots).

We discovered the ice creams and sorbets at the nearby Picard frozen food emporium: réglisse became Norman’s favourite and raspberry with litchi was Philippa’s. In fact, Norman has decided that gazpacho and licorice ice cream are possibly his two favourite foods in the world.

Despite our efforts, we still had to endure some stifling bus rides and humid Metro journeys, but on the whole, we managed. Paris is a city of windows that open and thick walls that help regulate interior temperatures. We lingered in museums with gardens: the Musée de la Vie Romantique and the Musée de Montmartre both offer green retreats with cool refreshments.

We also became more aware of other people’s efforts to keep cool. We loved the Star Wars effect of this outdoor fan at a sidewalk café; the obverse of the heaters café owners use in cold weather that sometimes make dining outside actually too hot in winter.

We gained a new appreciation of shutters and awnings (about which we have already written). And we have decided that we need to rethink how we deal with heat in our home in Toronto. Ask us in six months what has changed.

Given our new obsession with ventilation, we suddenly became aware of a feature of many Paris buildings that is so common that nobody notices it: the grilles underneath the windows at street level.

In an earlier blog, we mentioned these panels, most of which provide ventilation to the sous-sols (basements), although a few once provided air for cupboards built into the space below the windows that kept foodstuffs fresh in the years before refrigeration.

As always happens, once you become aware of something that was previously an unremarked bit of the scenery, you begin to spot the many variations on a theme (this also happened when we first became aware of chasse-roues/boute-roues).

We began to photograph these ventilation panels. Warning: do not try this yourself unless you do not mind getting stared at. Passersby look at you, then look at what your camera is pointing at, and then look back at you with an odd expression on their faces. Why are you interested in that? Here are a few examples from what became a large collection.

Some are ornate or fanciful. Some are mundane and functional. Some date from the 19th century; others are more recent. The older ones may have been around at the time of the Paris flood of 1910 and contributed to the flooding of basements and subterranean spaces.

In a few cases, we were able to peer in. Mostly the immediate interior was full of rubbish. Sometimes the spaces behind seemed to drop down to infinite depths.

What lurks down there? Whatever it is, it is cool and wet and does not fear the heat. And, having survived a Paris heatwave, neither do we.

Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie

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Borders, boundaries, and snails

Toronto has recently completed a Ward Boundary Review, its first since, oh, 2000. City councillors were concerned that some wards had far more voters than others. Population was growing downtown and declining in the inner suburbs. After 17 years, Something Had to Be Done.

How about 157 years? That’s how long Paris’s arrondissements have been in place. Population is declining in the centre and growing around the edges. The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, also feels that Something Needs to be Done.

But before considering what that might be, let’s look at the previous arrangements of the city, working our way back in time.

The current shape and configuration of Paris dates from January 1, 1860, when the City annexed a series of surrounding villages and established 20 arrondissements. The numbering started in the centre and spiralled out from there. Previously, the city had been smaller and had had only 12 arrondissements.

Why the spiral arrangement? The story goes that the well-to-do inhabitants of the villages to the west, Passy and Auteuil, which were to be incorporated into the new city, found out the plan for numbering would put them in a new 13th arrondissement. This was simply not acceptable. Not for reasons associated with “unlucky 13,” but because of a common expression: “se marier à la mairie du 13e” (getting married in the 13th). When there were only 12 arrondissements, this reference to a non-existent arrondissement meant living together without marriage. Horreur! The mayor of Passy suggested the spiral (escargot) arrangement, and the idea prevailed. The number 13 was safely transferred to the less-well-off southeast sector.

The pre-1860 arrangement of 12 arrondissements in the smaller city is visible on this map from 1809. You can follow the link and zoom in to see remarkable detail.

A simplified version from French Wikipedia shows the component quartiers.

The 12 arrondissements were numbered west to east, 1 to 8 on the right bank, 9 in the middle, and 10 to 12 on the left bank. The configurations are downright peculiar. Arrondissements 3 and 5 consist of two discontiguous chunks (there’s a story there, no doubt, and the word “gerrymandering” comes to mind). No. 6 is in a sort of dogleg shape. Nos. 1, 8, and 10 are huge. All around the edge were the walls and the “barrières.” These were pre-Revolutionary customs houses where officials collected tax on goods entering Paris.

This configuration dates from the Revolution, when the Republican authorities were remaking everything from the city to the calendars: the law creating the new organization was passed on 19 vendémiaire in Year 4 (11 October 1795), but the organization of the city into 48 sections was originally done in 1790. The new sections were given traditional names at first:

But as the Revolution wore on, many were renamed to remove all traces of royalty and the church. Who in the 1790s wanted to live in a section named for Place Louis XIV? It became, first, the Section du Mail in 1792 and then the Section Guillaume-Tell in 1793 (chosen because William Tell had a reputation for opposing tyrants). The Faubourg St-Denis became the Faubourg-du-Nord and the section Ile-St-Louis became the Section de la Fraternité. And in a what-were-we-thinking moment, the Section Mauconseil became the Section Bon Conseil (meaning “good advice”). There were so many name changes (a few districts went through three or four names in the early 1790s) that one wonders how anybody found their way around town.

To add to the confusion, houses were numbered. Earlier attempts to do this had foundered when aristocrats refused to assign anything so banal as a house number to their mansions. But in 1790, the revolutionary government was in a position to insist and the aristocrats were, ahem, otherwise engaged. However, the task was assigned to leaders in each of the 48 sections, and not surprisingly, each one went about it differently. The mess was not sorted out until 1805, when a law established a numbering system to be used uniformly throughout the city.

(By that time, most of the Revolutionary names were gone and many of the historic names had been re-established, as the French Wikipedia map indicated.)

Going farther back in time, what preceded the revolutionary sections were the quartiers of the Ancien Régime. Interestingly enough, there were 20 of them in the 18th century, although spread over a much smaller area than today. This 1705 map from Gallica shows them all. (Again, best to follow the link so you can zoom in and look around – the detail is amazing.)

A list in the bottom left-hand corner helpfully indicates the origin of the 20 quartiers. Four date from time immemorial (“dont le temps est incertain”), another four were added when Philippe Auguste expanded the city in 1211, eight more were added by Charles VI in 1383, one was added in 1642, and finally three more in 1702.

Those four original central quartiers – Quartier de la Cité, Quartier de St-Jacques de la Boucherie, Quartier St-Avoye, et Quartier de la Grève – lie underneath the many overlays of other systems. The Ile de la Cité is now divided into two (one part in the 1st arrondissement; the other in the 4th), the Tour St-Jacques is all that remains of the former church of St-Jacques de la Boucherie, the Quartier St-Avoye has kept its name and is part of the 3rd arrondissement, and the Quartier de la Grève is the area around the Hotel de Ville and St-Gervais.

And now the mayor thinks it’s time for change. In 2015, she opened up the possibility of completely redrawing the map to reflect the ever-decreasing populations in the small arrondissements in the centre, and the much bigger populations of the large outer arrondissements, which were still partly rural and sparsely populated in 1860 and have now filled in. It was a controversial idea, to say the least.

A complete redrawing seems to have been ruled out – so far. On 16 February 2017, the Assemblée Nationale passed a bill consolidating the first four arrondissements (the oldest part of the city) into one electoral district of more than 100,000 inhabitants; this is less than half the population of the 15th arrondissement, for example, but more than twice that of the 6th or the 8th. So much for electoral parity. The four will remain as separate postal districts (whew, no need to reprint the letterhead), but many municipal services will be consolidated. There will be one arrondissement mayor for the consolidated area, to be elected in 2020.

I wonder – in which mairie will the new mayor take up office? And what will happen to the other three mairies? (The Hotel de Ville insists that other civic uses will be found for them all.) The oldest is that of the second arrondissement, on the rue de la Banque, which dates from 1848 (it began life as the mairie of the former third arrondissement). The other three opened in the 1860s and have always served in their current functions. My vote would go either for the 1st, which has a lovely rose window…

…or the 3rd, which has a handsome courtyard and faces a park.

Between now and the municipal election in 2020, there are many decisions to be made. The mayor has planned for consultations (conférences citoyennes) with the inhabitants of the four arrondissements. Some unhappy legislators who did not approve of the change are vowing to continue the fight, depending on the outcome of upcoming legislative elections. On to the future or back to the past? Parisians will decide.

Text by Philippa Campsie, images from Gallica and Wikipedia.

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