A taste of France

Many years ago, a friend gave me a birthday present consisting of three small objects, with a card that read: “What every young woman needs: a car, a taste of France, and a chance at a million.” The car was a toy car. The chance at a million was a lottery ticket. And the taste of France? Chewing gum flavoured with Pernod.

It was the perfect choice. Pernod and all those other anise/liquorice flavours (from fennel to tarragon) really do represent the taste of France to me. I didn’t grow up with them, other than the occasional box of liquorice all-sorts at Christmas (which invariably looked nicer than they tasted) or a long thin twist of red or black liquorice from the general store near the beach we visited in summer.

In France I first encountered the flavour in liquid form, but it wasn’t Pernod. You could buy a concentrated syrup of anise to which you added still or sparkling water, rather like the orange squash or Ribena we used to get in the U.K. To me it seemed a refreshing non-alcoholic drink, and oh-so French.

The alcoholic forms like pastis also required adding water, which accounts for all those colourful water jugs and carafes labelled “Ricard,” that you find in flea markets (some of ours are shown below).

Ricard was an anise-flavoured aperitif developed in the 1930s to rival Pernod (the company that originally manufactured absinthe), and one diluted it to taste at the table. (Ricard and Pernod have since amalgamated to form a single company.)

I also discovered fennel as an adult. My mother never cooked fennel when I was growing up. But after my first taste of fennel in a Toronto restaurant in the early 1990s, I was a convert. I ordered it whenever I saw it on a menu. In a restaurant called Chez Piggy in Kingston, Ontario, I found what I consider the definitive version: braised and silky. After some failed experiments, I found a recipe (shown at the end of this blog) that approximated the Kingston version, which is still my favourite way to eat fennel.

I like tarragon, but it won’t grow in our garden (not in the ground, not in a pot), although I have no trouble growing most other herbs. In our garden, tarragon becomes thin and etiolated and withers to nothing. I have no idea why.

At least I can find fresh or dried tarragon in local markets if I want to make chicken tarragon or tarragon dressing. I can’t say the same for chervil. We may live in a multicultural city where you can find nearly any ingredient from any country, but darned if I can find chervil anywhere. I buy the dried version when I go to France and hoard it carefully. (If you live in Canada and know of a source of chervil, please get in touch.)

Norman is also a fan of anise flavours and was thrilled to discover réglisse (liquorice-flavoured) ice cream at Picard during a hot summer visit to Paris a few years ago. We ate a lot of it on that holiday. (Actually, all the Picard ice creams were delicious.)

You can even buy anise pastilles in beautiful little tins decorated with pictures of a shepherd and a shepherdess gazing fondly at each other. They were first made by Benedictine monks in Burgundy. A company called Les anis de Flavigny still makes them.

All these similar flavours. I thought I should look a little closer and sort them out. I consulted The Visual Food Encyclopedia (a wonderful resource). The book makes a distinction between anise (the leaves and seeds of an aromatic herb, Pimpinella anisum, native to the Mediterranean region) and star anise (the fruit of an evergreen tree, Illicium verum, native to China). Here’s a picture of Mediterranean anise, Pimpinella.

The book tells me that anise can “tone up the heart” (whatever that means), stimulate digestion, and soothe coughs.

Both kinds of anise, as well as chervil, tarragon, and fennel, contain one or both of two chemical compounds that impart that distinctive flavour. One is anethole (as in aneth, the French word for dill, which has a similar flavour) and the other is estragole (as in estragon, or tarragon).

By comparison, liquorice is not a herb, but the root of a plant in the bean family (Glycyrrhiza glabra), native to several areas around the Mediterranean. It also contains anethole.

Anethole is responsible for the way in which pouring water into any liquid version of anise (pastis, ouzo, or absinthe) makes the clear liquid cloudy.

Now that absinthe can once again be sold legally in France, there is a whole ritual associated with it. We once went into a Paris shop that sold absinthe and the shop owner demonstrated it for us. First you need a special flat spoon with slots in it (some of these are very fancy). Here are some from the Wikipedia entry on “absinthiana.”

Put a small amount of absinthe in a glass and balance the spoon on the rim of the glass. Put a sugar cube on the spoon and pour very cold water over the cube and into the glass. Watch the liquid turn a cloudy pale yellow or green (the colour depends on the herbs used in its manufacture).

After being banned in France in 1915, absinthe returned in the early years of the 21st century under alternative names. In 2011, after a legal challenge, absinthe makers regained the right to use the word “absinthe” on their products.

There are several versions of the story about banning absinthe. Most commonly, one hears that the wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) in absinthe contained a hallucinogenic compound called thujone, blamed for all kinds of misbehaviour in absinthe drinkers, up to and including murder. Considering that wormwood is an insecticide, one does wonder what it did to humans, but apparently the concentration of the substance in absinthe was usually quite low.

Other versions say that the problem was simply that absinthe had an extremely high alcohol content and people got much drunker much faster. Still others say that contaminants in cheap versions of absinthe were to blame for hallucinations and the potential for violent behaviour. The absinthe drinker painted by Degas, however, doesn’t look particularly violent. She just seems glum.

But the drink definitely had a dodgy reputation. It was called not only “La Fée Verte” (the Green Fairy) for its colour and the likelihood of absinthe drinking leading to otherworldly sensations, but also “the Charenton omnibus.” Charenton was the site of a mental hospital and the idea was that drinking absinthe would take you straight there. Certainly, notable absinthe drinkers, like the poet Paul Verlaine, shown below with his glass, often behaved strangely. Of course, the volume of alcohol he consumed on a regular basis may have had something to do with that.

Verlaine’s Confessions tell of his struggles with absinthe. In one story, he comes home after a night of heavy drinking, undresses, and climbs quietly into bed, so as not to wake his mother in the next room. In the morning, she comes to rouse him and stares at him oddly. He assures her he hasn’t been drinking, no, not at all. Her response is simply to hand him a small mirror, at which point he realizes he has been sleeping with his top hat on.

What historians do agree on is the fact that the failure of French wine crops in the late 19th century because of the blight caused by the insect phylloxera led to a huge upsurge in absinthe drinking. Some go on to suggest that when the wine industry rebounded, winemakers lobbied hard to have absinthe outlawed so they could regain market share. Others note that there was a war on in 1915; the French needed to focus, and absinthe got in the way. Really, the history is as murky as absinthe with water in it.

Personally, we’re going to stick with fennel, tarragon, chervil, and the occasional pastis when we want that anise flavour. And whenever we make it back to Paris, we’ll head to Picard for their réglisse ice cream.

Here’s a recipe for you to try.

Braised Fennel

1 large fennel bulb or two small ones
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup vegetable stock
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

Remove the fennel stalks. If using a large bulb, cut into eight pieces vertically so that each piece retains a bit of the core to hold it together. Smaller bulbs can be cut in four.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot on medium-high heat. Add the pieces and brown on all sides, at least 5 minutes a side, turning as needed. You may have to do it in two batches to allow each piece to brown. The browner it gets, the better it tastes.

When all the pieces are brown on all sides, put them all in the pot, add the wine, stock, and lemon juice. Turn the heat down to low and simmer, covered, for 25 minutes. If there is a lot of liquid at the end of this time, uncover, turn the heat up and reduce the liquid until it is thick. Season with freshly ground pepper. Serve warm.

Text by Philippa Campsie; photograph of Richard jugs and ice cream by Philippa Campsie; other photographs from Wikipedia and Gallica. Suggested reading: Phil Baker, The Book of Absinthe: A Cultural History (New York: Grove Press,, 2001).

Posted in Paris flea markets, Paris food, Paris history, Paris popular culture, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

How blind people learned to write: the truth can be told

Exactly 200 years ago, in June 1821, a crucial experiment was taking place in a school on the rue St-Victor in Paris. The school was the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles (the Royal Institution for Blind Youth) and the students were learning to read and write using a system of raised dots in a code that represented letters of the alphabet. No, it wasn’t the system later developed by Louis Braille – although he was among the students who were part of this experiment. The inventor was a man called Charles Barbier (1767–1841).

I’ve mentioned him before, because I have spent some years uncovering his story, and learning that nearly everything written about him to date is either completely wrong or mostly wrong.

The quest started in December 2016, at the museum of the Association Valentin Haüy.

Norman, shown here, was doing research on methods of using Braille and I picked up a book about Louis Braille and started to read it. It described Barbier’s invention of raised dots that could be read by touch. I hadn’t realized that the idea was not Braille’s own. I went to speak to the museum curator, Noëlle Roy.

“What can you tell me about Charles Barbier?”

Noëlle stopped what she was doing and looked at me intently. “Are you interested in him?”

“I think so. Why?”

“We have his papers and letters here. I have catalogued them, but nobody else has ever taken a close look at them. Would you like to see them?”

Previously unexamined correspondence? A history researcher’s form of catnip. When I’d woken up that morning, I’d never heard of Barbier. Now I was longing to read his letters.

Noëlle brought me a large archival box. It contained not only letters, but publications and reports about Barbier’s work. Since our time at the museum was limited, I photographed and photocopied as much as I could to read later and began to piece together the story with additional research.

I made one important discovery at the Louis Braille Museum in Coupvray. This is a small town to the east of Paris, and although it is reachable by commuter train, it feels as if it is deep in the countryside. Norman and I went there on a lovely June day in 2017 with our friend Mireille.

The museum contains a photograph of what is said to be a portrait of Barbier as a young man.* I would love to know where the original is.

The guide, Stéphane Mary, brought out a file of information on Barbier. It contained a very interesting record from the French Ministry of Defence.

Nearly every account of Barbier’s life goes on and on and on about his military background, his rank as captain, his artillery training. Some writers have even suggested he attended the same military academy as Napoleon – Brienne. So I looked at the piece of paper with some interest. Here’s what it told me.

Barbier trained at the artillery academy in Douai, starting in May 1784. He became a second lieutenant in a Besançon regiment in 1785; was promoted to first lieutenant in 1791; and appointed captain on May 18, 1792. He quit the army two days later, May 20. And then, with the Revolution on, he left the country, as so many officers did. His military career took up eight years of his life in total, and he spent two days as a captain. That’s it.

The emphasis on Barbier’s military career accompanies a persistent myth about his invention of raised-point writing – that he developed it for the army, to allow instructions to be written and read in the dark on the battlefield. Some writers have waxed lyrical about Barbier’s grief when good men were killed because they lit a lamp to decipher a message from headquarters.

Balderdash. All of it. Barbier invented raised point type specifically for blind people. He says so in an 1815 book in which he introduced his writing system and explained its potential use by blind people. The book is available on Google Books where anyone can read it, although it seems that nobody has.

So what, exactly, was Barbier’s invention? That 1815 book was in the box that Noëlle showed me, a slim volume with green covers, rather blotched, marked up here and there by its author. I transcribed it (it’s only 33 pages of text with a series of illustrations) and began to understand what Barbier was up to.

In it, Barbier proposes nothing less than an alternative to conventional reading and writing methods for people who have not received the lengthy education necessary to become fully literate. They included blind people, but they weren’t the only intended audience. Barbier was thinking of farmers, artisans, the urban poor, deaf people, all those left behind by the education system of the time.

Barbier points out a problem with the conventional alphabet. A perfect writing system would have one symbol for each sound, no more and no less. But that’s not what we have. Some sounds can be produced with more than one letter (c, k, q) and some sounds can only be indicated with a combination of letters (ch, for example, or ou). Barbier also thought writing was far too hard to master. All those little squiggles that take years to learn. So he came up with a simpler approach.

He created a grid, well, two grids. One contained the letters of the alphabet and the other the 30 sounds of the French language. In other words, he offered a choice between conventional spelling and phonetic spelling. The rows and columns of the grid were numbered, and each letter or sound could be identified by its place in the grid – row 3, column 4, say, or row 5, column 1.

Each number was assigned a simple symbol. And each letter or sound could be represented by a combination of two symbols, one for the column number and one for the row number. Easy-peasy.

The one with raised dots was the easiest of all, because instead of an arbitrary symbol for each number, the column and row number was represented by the number of raised dots. Four vertical dots followed immediately by two vertical dots was row 4, column 2. And when you know the letter or sound that occupies that space, you can read.

Not only did Barbier invent this approach, he designed and fabricated the instruments necessary to make the raised dots – a tablet with grooves into which the dots could be pressed, a punch to make them, and a third tool to keep the dots lined up. These were essential.

He wrote to the Institution Royale des Jeunes Aveugles to describe his system. The director brushed him off. When that director left, the next one was interested, but maddeningly casual. He lost Barbier’s first letter and made appointments he did not keep. But he assigned a senior student to learn the system and teach others.

It worked. In 1821, Barbier’s system was demonstrated in front of the board of directors by two blind students. One was sent into a separate room. The other used the system to transcribe words dictated by one of the directors. Then the first student was sent for and proceeded to read the message correctly.

Yes, the system was clumsy and it did not extend to things like numbers or punctuation, let alone musical notation (music is an important skill for many blind students). But as a proof of concept, it was brilliant, and fired up Louis Braille to develop a neater, more flexible system, also using raised dots, and using the tools Barbier had made.

One further important discovery came in the library of the modern-day Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, which is now located on the Boulevard des Invalides.

Letters written by Barbier to the school are kept there. I was not allowed to photocopy or photograph them, so Mireille and I spent hours transcribing. It was tiring work, and it took me a while to notice something important.

Just as most writers harp on about Barbier’s military career, most repeat the story of an early meeting with Louis Braille at which the young student (barely in his teens) points out defects in the system to its older inventor. They assume the two were at loggerheads and suggest that Barbier resented the young Braille. They play up the young-blind-student-versus-the-experienced-captain for all it’s worth. David and Goliath.

Never happened. Complete fiction. The letters tell the story. Louis Braille first published his own system in 1829 (he later altered and refined it). In 1833, four years later, Barbier hears about it and writes to the school, asking for a copy of the publication. He also asks if the inventor is a student or a teacher because he has never met him. By this time, Braille is a teacher in his twenties. Barbier takes one look at Braille’s system and immediately writes a letter of congratulation to Braille. The two meet several times thereafter, and their letters are invariably friendly.

I remember sitting in the library of the Institut reading that letter from 1833. By this point, I was getting pretty good at reading early 19th-century French handwriting. I turned to Zoubeida Moulfi, the librarian, and said, “Look! Barbier didn’t meet Braille until 1833. They’d never met before then.” She studied the letter and agreed. We stared at each other for a moment.

Turns out the story about Braille’s criticism of Barbier’s system was the fabrication of that director of the school who kept avoiding meetings with Barbier, Alexandre-René Pignier. He wrote his account after both Barbier and Braille were dead and unable to set the record straight. He’d been fond of Braille, and had, for some reason, disliked Barbier. So he wrote a story that puts Barbier in the shade and makes Braille sound even more precocious.

Now that I understand what Barbier was trying to do, I wonder about his motives. Why was Charles Barbier so obsessed with alternative forms of writing?**

I have a theory. Barbier himself found writing difficult. He employed a scribe to write his formal business correspondence (his own writing was messy). And he couldn’t spell (which may account for his preference for phonetic spelling). The scribe corrected his spelling of ordinary words, but took Barbier’s version of proper names for granted, and mostly, Barbier misspelled them. For example, Barbier always wrote Pignier’s name as Pégnier (maybe that’s why the man disliked him).

Whatever his reasons, Barbier wanted to make reading and writing easier for everyone. Along the way, he came up with a workable method that allowed blind people to read and, more importantly, to write down their thoughts and ideas and read them again later. Before Barbier, blind students could not take notes or write to other blind people (although a few learned to write for sighted people). This was a huge step forward. With his odd invention (and his donation of hundreds of sets of writing equipment to the school), Barbier opened the path to true literacy for blind people.

Yet Braille is in the Pantheon, and Barbier in an obscure grave in Père Lachaise (he died in 1841). The inscription on the simple slab is so worn down that it’s almost unreadable – except by touch. We paid our respects to him there in 2018 (thanks to Mireille for finding the grave) and I promised I would publish the real story one day.

And I have. On Wednesday, June 16, 2021, Disability Studies Quarterly published my article on Barbier. I have learned far more than I could put in a single article, but at least I have started to set the record straight.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie. Heartfelt thanks to the other members of Team Barbier, Mireille Duhen and Noëlle Roy, who provided translations, transcriptions, suggestions, hospitality, and encouragement every step of the way.

A podcast is now available on the Disability History Association website.

*If you Google Barbier’s name, you will also find an engraving of a different bloke with hair combed forward and very formal attire. That is actually Pierre-François-Hercule, comte de Serre (1776–1824), wearing the regalia of the Order of the Holy Spirit. Charles Barbier’s full name was Nicolas-Marie-Charles Barbier de la Serre and he was never a member of the order. Someone didn’t check carefully (or at all) and mislabelled the image of the comte de Serre.

**That 1815 book includes a whole range of variations on the grid method. Many were intended as simplified writing forms, but he includes some methods that would allow for coded messages (one looks like musical notation, for example) and methods of writing without a pen (which, in the days before fountain pens and ballpoints, required inkpots and other apparatus) for travellers and, yes, the military. But these other forms never caught on.

Posted in Charles Barbier, History of the blind, Paris cemeteries, Paris history, Paris museums | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments


The boulevard Morland is a tree-lined, one-way thoroughfare in the fourth arrondissement. Nothing indicates that the buildings between it and the river occupy what was once an island, or that the street sits atop what was once an arm of the river and a quay. Here was one of Paris’s many now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t islands.

Turgot’s map from the 1730s shows the now-vanished island joined to the Right Bank by a precarious-looking bridge at its western end (the foreground in the image), and an estacade (wooden pier) partly blocking the entry to the arm of the river at the east end.

I couldn’t identify the shapes covering the island until I read in Jacques Hillairet’s Dictionnaire Historique des Rues de Paris that the island was the site of a wood market. Those are huge piles of wood to be used for heating.

The island was not urbanized until it was joined to the Right Bank in the 1840s.* Mind you, at dawn or dusk, as this 18th-century image by Pierre-Antoine Demachy suggests, the huge stacks of wood must have looked like fantastic towers.

Before becoming attached to the Right Bank, the island was known as the Ile Louviers after Charles de Louviers, who owned it in the 15th century. Earlier in its history, according to Paris Ancien et Moderne by Jean Lacroix de Marles (1837), it had been called Ile aux Javeaux (javeau is a sandbar) or Ile aux Meules (haystacks) or Ile aux Ormétiaux (elms).

The multiple names are typical. In researching vanished islands, I discovered that they all had umpteen names. At least three different Paris islands had names that incorporated the word vaches (cows), which suggests what the islands were used for. At least two included the word treilles (vines), suggesting what they looked like.

One of the cow-pasturing islands was just downstream from the Ile Louviers. Before the urbanization of Ile St-Louis in the 17th century, there were two islands – the Ile aux Vaches (island of cows) and the Ile Notre-Dame. Here, they are shown on the Plan Vassalieu, 1609.

Yet according to writers such as Jacques Antoine Dulaure (Histoire physique, civile et morale de Paris, 1823), those two islands had been created from a single island called Ile Notre-Dame, which was bisected by a channel when the wall of Philippe Auguste was built in the 13th century. The single island appears on a few maps, but most of those maps were made long after the division occurred.

(This is the thing about early Paris maps. Popular map databases – including Gallica and Wikipedia – include many maps that purport to show Paris in ancient or medieval times, but were, in fact, created in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on early accounts of the city. They are approximations based on what was known at the time. You can read about one example here.)

Ile Louviers was not the only island to disappear over the years. Further downstream was the long, narrow Ile Maquerelle. Like the Ile St-Louis, it was cobbled together from two or more former islands. In this map showing Paris in the 1550s (this version is an 18th-century copy of a 16th century original), two islands are visible at the bottom of the map (north is to the left and east is at the top of the map). Written accounts suggest that up to five islands originally occupied this area.

Hillairet suggests that the island’s name came from “mal-querelle” (or bad quarrel, that is, the kind that leads to a duel on a largely deserted island). That’s one theory. Maybe Hillairet is being polite. Maquerelle can also mean a madam, in the sense of a woman who runs a brothel (the female version of maquereau, meaning pimp). Who knows what went on there?

By Turgot’s day, the amalgamated island had acquired the less edgy name Ile des Cygnes (swans) after Louis XIV populated it with birds he had received as a gift from the Danish ambassador. Turgot’s map shows it as yet another wood market (clearly a popular use for otherwise unoccupied islands). I suppose the swans had moved on. It only just makes it into Turgot’s huge map in the bottom right-hand corner. This was suburban terrain (I am tempted to call it the sticks).

Hillairet adds the gruesome detail that the bodies of many victims of the massacre of the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, which had been thrown into the Seine, washed ashore here, where the river bends, and were buried on the island. A few decades earlier, it had been the burial site for plague victims from 1544.

Ile Maquerelle/des Cygnes was joined to the Left Bank in the late 18th century. Its western end became part of an expanded Champs de Mars for the Ecole Militaire. The Quai Branly now occupies part of the site.

At least two other vanished islands form the downstream tip of Ile de la Cité. In this historical painting by Fedor Hoffbauer from the 1890s that depicts a much earlier view, the tip of the island is a jumble of low-lying islands, but most maps show only two islands.

The one closer to the Left Bank (which is actually on the right in the image above) was known, among other things, as the Ile aux Juifs (Jews), or the Ile aux Templiers (Knights Templar). These names refer to the execution of people on the site, not to erstwhile inhabitants. Today, there is a plaque about the execution of the last Grand Master of the Templars in the Square du Vert Galant.

The former names of the island nearer the Right Bank include Ile à la Gourdaine (a word meaning ferry), Ile de Buci, and Ile aux Bureaux (the last two names represent people associated with the island). Nearby, standing on piles in the water, was the Moulin de la Monnaie (the mill of the Royal Mint), used to mint coins. Hoffbauer includes it in his painting, above, and it is labelled in a map from the 1550s (here again, north is to the left). The mill disappeared when the Pont Neuf was constructed in this spot in the 1570s.

In the years before dredging and embankments, the Seine was prone to the build-up of sand and mud. Islands came and went. One, which sounds like little more than a sandbar, was dignified with the name “Ile du Louvre,” because it was close to the Louvre on the Right Bank, but it disappeared with the creation of the Port St-Nicolas. I have not yet seen a picture of it on a map or illustration.

Other islands also live on only in name. For example, after describing some former islands, Hillairet comments: “Finally, there were other small islands, like… Ile Merdeuse opposite the Palais Bourbon.” Ile Merdeuse? According to the ever-polite Hillairet, the name signified “good for nothing,” because it was too small and too barren to find a use. Or perhaps the name reflects the shouted reaction of someone on a riverboat running up against a buried sandbar.

Ile Merdeuse does not appear on any map that I have seen. Perhaps it’s an urban legend. It reminds me of something I discovered when I was doing some work in a town in southern Ontario. I noticed that the city crest consisted of a bird’s-eye view of the city and the river that flowed through it. The original version included an aeroplane that represented one of the industries on which the city was built (aeroplane manufacturing). But in one badly reproduced iteration, the aeroplane flying over the river became a blob and in a later version, the blob became an island in the river that did not exist. The city has long since changed its crest, but that incident showed me how easy it is to forget what a blob on a map might mean. Now I take nothing for granted. The tendency to copy from what came before rather than verifying matters in person is universal.

Since I cannot find any corroboration for Hillairet’s mention of “Ile Merdeuse,” I am not going to insist that such a place existed. Its ostensible location opposite the Palais Bourbon (now the French National House of Assembly) suggests some leg-pulling.

Another hard-to-pin-down island is the Ile Boute-clou (bouter is to drive and clou is a nail). Hillairet suggests that this was one of the former names for the Ile Louviers. Elsewhere, I have seen the name referred to in connection with a small island near the Quai des Grands Augustins on the Left Bank that was the subject of a tussle between rival monasteries in the 16th century. But again, I have not seen it on any map.

The 19th century saw the disappearance of many islands from the Seine in the interests of improved navigation. The 17th-century map above gives you an idea of the abundance of islands, only a few of which remain. Many that did were industrialized in the 19th and 20th centuries. But that’s another story.

So it seems almost perverse than in the 1820s, a brand-new island was created where none had existed before, called the Ile aux Cygnes (a nod to the now-vanished Island of Swans upstream). It was at first a dike created to protect the port and depots at the Quai de Grenelle. Later, it was strengthened and eventually came to serve as a support for three bridges (road, rail, and metro) and as one of the spaces for pavilions at the 1937 International Exposition.

It also provides a green promenade with a view of the Eiffel Tower. At least, I suppose it does. When I lived in Paris as a student, I was given to understand that some dodgy characters were to be found there and it was best avoided. That was long ago, and is probably no longer the case, but still, I have never visited the island.

As the Seine winds its way to the sea, it passes hundreds more islands. A 2016 exhibit at the Pavilion de l’Arsenal featured stories and images of them. Appropriately enough, the Pavilion is situated on the former Ile Louviers.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Images from Wikipedia and Gallica.

*In her enjoyable book, The Seine: The River that Made Paris, Elaine Sciolino claims that the Ile Louviers housed a theatre, but I think she means that it was used as a staging ground for royal and public entertainments and spectacles over the years.

Posted in Paris bridges, Paris history, Paris maps, Seine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

My mother’s adventure in Paris

This blog is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Rosemary Felicity Campsie, née Orchardson, July 24, 1924 – April 5, 2021. She was a cheerful traveller with great curiosity about the world.

I remember a story my mother told me years ago about a visit to Paris. She was there with her mother and an aunt. They had a car, either borrowed or rented. Mum was at the wheel. She lost her bearings, but seeing a large road up ahead, drove towards it. Just as she turned the corner into the road, the car stalled. Suddenly, the car was surrounded by police officers. Inadvertently, my mother had turned into part of the parade route for a state visit by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands. One of the police officers got into the car and tried to restart it, but without success. To clear the way, the whole group of police officers gathered around, lifted the car onto the sidewalk, and rolled it as far away from the road as they could.

I don’t know what happened after that. Presumably the car restarted and my mother and her companions went on their way. What impressed my mother was the quick and efficient way the policemen moved the car.

Only later did I wonder when this had happened. My mother’s dementia has prevented me from asking her questions for the last three or so years, so I decided to find out for myself.

It wasn’t hard to do. Queen Juliana made a state visit to Paris at the end of May in 1950. You can even see some old newsreels of the occasion online.

Aha. That was the year my mother married. My mother grew up in Vancouver, and her engagement to my father took place there, but most of her relatives, and my father’s, lived in Great Britain, so they married in Hampshire and spent their first year of married life in Scotland. Here is a picture of them taken in Vancouver in about 1949.

I found the record of Mum’s passage to England through a genealogical website. She and her mother Dora travelled tourist class on the Queen Mary from New York at the beginning of April 1950. There were just the two of them, since my grandfather had died when my mother was 10 and my mother was an only child. My mother’s occupation is listed as “Teacher.”

I don’t know what my mother did during the journey, but I do know what Dora did. My grandmother suffered dreadfully from motion sickness and she would have spent most of the time in her cabin lying down. Perhaps she was coaxed out briefly to lie on a chaise longue on the deck, covered with a steamer rug and sipping beef tea, but that would be the extent of her activity. Despite this handicap, she travelled a remarkable amount during her lifetime (she met her husband in Shanghai), but she always had to travel lying down. Here is my mother’s own description of their trip to England in 1938, which started with a train journey across Canada to Montreal:

Mother devised a plan for crossing the country to Montreal which would enable her to lie down all the way. We would travel only at night. Each day we would get off the train and spend the day in whatever place the train stopped in the early morning, climbing onto another train in the evening. The places we stopped were not always tourist attractions! Our first day was spent in Sicamous [known for its mosquito population]… [The next] morning found us in Calgary. So it went, on to Medicine Hat, Regina, Winnipeg, Ignace, Chapleau, Montreal. As far as Mother was concerned, it worked well. As soon as she boarded the train, she went to bed and stayed there until just before we had to get off.

They may have used a similar approach to get to New York in 1950.

The U.K. address listed in the passenger manifest is that of my grandmother’s brother Roland and his family in Bournemouth. So presumably they travelled directly from Southampton to Bournemouth when they arrived. Although the wedding was planned for early September, my mother was required to “establish residency” in the U.K. before getting married.

They would have spent late April and most of May visiting relatives in southern England and London. And in late May, they crossed the Channel. Car ferries were already operating in 1950, so it is possible that Mum was driving a right-hand-drive car when she got to Paris.

Apart from the anecdote in Paris, the only other bit of information I have about that trip is a recently discovered and very blurry photograph of Dora and the aunt who accompanied them, presumably taken by my mother, and labelled: Montreux, 1950. Dora and Marjorie on our European jaunt. So I now know they made it as far as Switzerland. That makes sense. Dora’s grandfather came from Aarau, Switzerland.

The wedding took place in Milford-on-Sea on September 2 in All Saints Church, and my mother’s oldest uncle, Jack, walked her down the aisle.

Then the wedding party and the guests strolled to the nearby Milford House Hotel for the reception.

My parents left for their honeymoon in a 1936 Rover, presumably borrowed from one of the many relatives. In this photo, the best man is pretending to push the car. Perhaps the story had got round of Mum’s car troubles in Paris. Perhaps it was the same car.

Mum and Dad spent their honeymoon in a cottage in Pagham, Sussex. Dora visited them there briefly before returning to Canada.

Poor Dora faced the long, queasy journey back to Vancouver on her own, to an empty house. Since her husband’s death, she had depended on her daughter for companionship and support, and now Rosemary was off to a new life. Although she fully supported her daughter, she had nonetheless felt so distressed on the wedding day that she had to be slightly sedated, so she wouldn’t sob through the ceremony and reception. Mum once told me that her mother smiled vaguely and glassily at everyone throughout the occasion.

We revisited Paris as a family in the 1960s (which I have written about before) and the 1970s. And I took a holiday in France with my father once in the 1980s, in a rented car. It was a tiny Opel that stalled frequently, but not, fortunately, on anyone’s parade route.

Text by Philippa Campsie; family photographs; picture of Queen Juliana from YouTube.

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Finding Café Momus

A few weeks ago, we received the following comment from Martin Nelson in England on our blog about Rooftops:

I am a singer, and lived briefly during 1982 in the Palais Royal district, Rue Molière… I had an old 1950 guide book with me – The People’s France – Paris by AH Brodrick – and this told me that … in Rue des Prêtres St Germain l’Auxerrois, was the original Café Momus, celebrated by [Henry] Murger in La Vie de Bohème, and the setting for Act Two of Puccini’s opera La Bohème. In 1982 it was still a café (but no longer Momus) and served the delivery van drivers for La Samaritaine, whose depot adjoined. I told the patron this tale, but it drew a complete blank; he had not heard of the opera, let alone his establishment’s celebrated history. In past times above the cafe, Mr Brodrick also informs me, was the ‘queer dingy little offices of the Journal des Débats which in its day occupied a unique position in European journalism.’ There. I wonder if this will set you off on a hunt…

Well, yes, Martin, it did.

First, I wanted to take a look at the street in question. The earliest image I found was a drawing by the English artist Thomas Boys, which shows the street in about 1820. It looks like a bustling spot. The wall beside Momus, besides advertising its prix fixe menu and billiard tables, mentions “toiles blanches et jaunes,” which suggests a fabric shop in the same building.

On Gallica I found a lovely watercolour of the narrow street by Henri Lévis from the late 1840s, around the time that Henri Murger wrote La Vie de Bohème

Then I went to Google Street View to see what the spot looks like now. Actually, this image is a little older than 2021, because I wanted one that showed La Samaritaine (currently swathed in scaffolding). Note that the buildings on the left side of the street have been cleared away and that only the church buildings remain on that side, making the street much wider than it was.

One thing I could not find anywhere was a view of the cafe’s facade. Of course, it is a very narrow street. All the pictures I found show the end wall only, which at some point lost the upper part that curved outwards.

I also took a virtual walk down the street on Google Street View. The building that juts out on the right (on the wall of which the advertising was once posted and where there is now only a small green sign) is No. 19, and it is at present a hotel. Beyond it, as you walk towards La Samaritaine, is No. 17, the Clinique du Louvre, a private surgical facility with an arched doorway. Beyond that, at No. 15, is a very narrow building (only slightly wider than its front door), and at No. 13 is the Café l’Auxerrois.

Just to orient readers, here is a bird’s-eye view of the street from about 1920. This was after the buildings beside the church had been removed in 1912, but before the expansion of La Samaritaine later in the 1920s, which annexed the easternmost block of the street.

My next thought was to find a copy of Murger’s book. The 1883 English translation I found on Google Books was called The Bohemians of the Latin Quarter. I’m not sure why the translator added the last three words, since the Café Momus and many other locations are not in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank, but on the Right Bank (one of the main characters, Rodolphe, lives in Montmartre, for example). Probably a decision by the publisher’s marketing department.

The café makes its first appearance on page 23, where we learn that Momus is “the god of play and pleasure.” (Actually, Momus is associated with satire. Martin tells me he was the god of mockery, expelled from heaven by Zeus for ridiculing the other gods.) The four main characters in Murger’s stories spend much of their time in this establishment.

Indeed, the café itself is the subject of Chapter XI, in which the proprietor complains to the four friends who frequent his upper floor that they are bad for business. They steal his newspapers, monopolize his backgammon board, use the place as a painting studio complete with models or as a noisy music room, make their own coffee instead of buying it from him, and corrupt the serving staff. All true. A truce is struck in which the bohemians agree to buy their coffee from him. This is quite a concession, because the one thing bohemians do not have is ready money.

Hosting bohemian artists has never been a lucrative enterprise. A non-fiction description of the Café Momus, written in 1862 by Alfred Delvau, in which the real-life characters include Murger himself and his friends, describes their way of saving money. One man would enter and order a coffee. The others would join his table one by one without ordering anything and share one little cup of coffee, four sugar cubes, and the accompanying glass of water.*

These stories remind me of the pre-pandemic days in which writers and freelance workers would settle into a café with a laptop and stay there for hours on end, having bought a single coffee. I always wondered how the proprietors stayed in business. It seemed a recipe for insolvency.

Apparently this was the case in mid-19th-century Paris, for in 1856 the Café Momus went out of business. In a notice from 1845, the place advertises billiards and newspapers among its amenities. Maybe the owners should have focused more on providing food and drink only.

The space then became an art-supply store (Colin, marchand de couleurs, at No. 19). When Charles Marville photographed the street in 1860s, Colin’s advertisement has replaced that of the Café Momus on the wall. There is also a little sign sticking out on the right side of the street that indicates that there was a pawnshop (Pelletier, Mont de Piété) in the building, too.

The art-supply store went out of business in its turn in 1890, around the time that a bust of Henry Murger was being installed in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

What about the other business Brodrick mentioned – the journal? It was time to rummage about in the Annuaire-Almanach du commerce, which lists all the businesses, first alphabetically, then grouped by type, then by address in Paris from 1857 to 1908 (this is a Gallica rabbit hole into which one can disappear for hours at a stretch).

As of the first issue, in 1857, the Journal des Débats is listed as the occupant of No. 17, the space next door to the former café. In 1870, Colin (and Pelletier, the pawnshop owner) are listed at No. 19 and the Journal (as well as Lenormant, a printer) are at No. 17. By 1908, No. 17–19 is the Imprimerie typographique du Journal des Débats, occupying both buildings.

So A. H. Brodrick was not quite right: it seems that the Journal des Débats was at first a next-door neighbour to the café, and later expanded, with its own printing facility, into the space vacated by the former café/art supply store. This conclusion is borne out by Alfred Delvau in 1862. Although the Café Momus had closed by the time Delvau wrote his book about Paris cafés, such was its fame that he devoted an entire chapter to its history, describing it as being “à un parpaing de l’imprimerie du Journal des Débats.”  Un parpaing is a stone block, so I think that means next door.*

Here is a view from the late 19th century showing the façade of No. 17 – you can just see the word “Débats” over the arched doorway (which today forms the entrance to the clinic).

What was this “unique” journal?

It began in 1789 as a verbatim record of the debates of the Assemblée Nationale (think Hansard) and evolved into a general political and literary journal. It was published almost daily, usually with four pages of closely printed type. It survived the Revolution, as well as Napoleon (who insisted it call itself the Journal de l’Empire), the Restoration, the Second Empire, the Third Republic, and the better part of two world wars. It continued to operate during the Occupation, which presumably tainted its reputation, because at the Liberation in 1944, it ceased publication.

The next step was to figure out what took its place. This slightly out-of-focus photo from the late 1940s indicates that Nos. 17 and 19 had become a hotel called Le Pays (there is a different hotel at No. 21). Today the hotel at No. 19 is called Le Relais du Louvre. 

If you want to take a closer look at the photograph above, go to this page, and zoom in.

So, Martin, I am compelled to conclude that the café you visited was what is now the Café l’Auxerrois at No. 13, an unpretentious brasserie that I can well imagine might cater to drivers for La Samaritaine, right across the road at that end of the street.

A look at the Annuaire shows that this space was not always a restaurant. Over the years it has served, among other things, as a wallpaper shop and a wine merchant’s premises.

Alas, the brasserie you visited in 1982 was not the inheritor of the illustrious mantle of the Café Momus. But when the Relais du Louvre reopens in May 2021 (it is currently closed because of the pandemic), perhaps you can reserve a room on the first floor. There you will be in the space once occupied by the bohemians.

Text by Philippa Campsie; historic illustrations from Gallica and the Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris; modern illustrations from Google Street View; photo of bust of Henry Murger from Wikipedia.

*Alfred Delvau, Cafés et Cabarets de Paris, Paris : E. Dentu, 1862. Mine is a modern facsimile copy from Maxtor, purchased at one of my favourite Paris bookshops, Pippa.

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The Zone

Our visits to Paris always begin and end with a trip through the outskirts of Paris. The train or taxi from the airport travels through residential and industrial suburbs, passing warehouses, high-rise hotels, office buildings, and large sports facilities. Beside the highway or railway track there are often heavily graffitied walls.

On one memorable occasion, when the highway was blocked by a strike, an enterprising taxi driver took us on small roads through the banlieue, cutting through gas station forecourts, parking lots, and back lanes to avoid the congestion. It was a fascinating journey through a part of the region we would never otherwise have seen up close.

Normally, at least part of the journey takes us along the Boulevard Periphérique, with its signs indicating the various “portes” (gates) – highway exits with names that commemorate vestiges of an older Paris.

A hundred or so years ago, visitors to Paris entered the city through actual gates in actual walls. Here is one typical example, the Porte de Reuilly.

The gates in this 19th-century wall all looked much the same – unlike the distinctive barrières created for the customs wall by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux before the Revolution.

The 19th-century walls and gates remained largely in place until well into the 1920s, although demolition of parts of the wall began shortly after the end of the First World War.

The Enceinte de Thiers, as it was known – after Adolph Thiers, the prime minister who proposed it, rather than the one who actually built it – was a defensive wall constructed in the 1840s, along with a ring of 16 forts outside the wall to provide additional defence. Here’s a map of the completed system from 1852:

The military authorities went about their task with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Small suburban villages like Charonne and Clignancourt were chopped in half by the wall. Fifteen forts bristled from St-Denis in the north round the east and south sides of the city, while a single one guarded the west. Clearly nobody expected anyone to attack from that side.

Not only was the wall itself very wide, but there were buffer areas on either side taking up even more space. Immediately inside was a 150m-wide open area (about 500 ft) known as the “Boulevards des Maréchaux” – those wide boulevards around the circumference of the city, named for military leaders, which later turned out to be the perfect size for modern tramways.

Outside the wall, there was a ditch and beyond that, the military authorities decreed that a 250m-wide (about 820 ft) space be left unbuilt – a “zone non aedificandi” – to allow for a clear range of fire as enemies approached.

(Of course, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, the whole thing proved to be a colossal failure in protecting the city from shelling from a distance. Interestingly, when the French army turned against the Paris Commune, Adolph Thiers was among those besieging the city – from the lightly defended west. So much for military far-sightedness.)

That “zone non aedificandi” already had some buildings on it, from old farmhouses to former hunting lodges. To these were added guinguettes (informal drinking places that operated outside the city’s walls and regulations), ragpickers’ huts, gypsy camps, and eventually, railway yards. Over time, in certain areas, the space became a shantytown. Its inhabitants were known as Zoniers.

In 1912 and 1913, Eugene Atget photographed the Zoniers of Ivry, who favoured horse-drawn caravans for their homes and business premises (minus the horses, of course). The wheels were handy if you had to relocate on short notice.

Here is his photograph of the Porte d’Italie, showing shacks used for collecting and sorting scrap metal.

No, it isn’t pretty. But scrap merchants and ragpickers are a useful part of the recycling economy and they have to work (and live) somewhere near their sources of supply and their customers.

The flea markets at the edge of the city (St-Ouen, Vanves) are an outgrowth of this kind of business. Over the course of the 19th century, people who collected other people’s rubbish were pushed out of the city as municipal garbage collection was established in the 1880s by the Prefect of the Seine, Eugène Poubelle (forever commemorated in the French word for a rubbish bin – poubelle). And those who sold whatever bit and pieces could be sold set up shop in the north and south parts of the Zone.

Here is a picture of an early flea market at St-Ouen. As a friend of mine used to say, “Things were dirt cheap – with the dirt thrown in.”

Some areas supported market and allotment gardens, another appropriate land use near the city.

But some parts of the Zone remained as open ground, even after the wall came down. When I went to look for photographs of the Zone, I found a series of 17 photos held by the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. They were taken after the demolition of the wall. Here is one example.

At first, the photographs seemed to be banal views of a largely empty landscape. At first.

The record attached to the photographs states that they date from 1920–50, but they were clearly taken at the end of that period. The record also did not specify where they had been taken. That omission immediately made me determined to find out. Since certain buildings and objects appeared in several photos, I gathered they were all taken in the same general area. So I peered more closely at the photos for clues. At that point, I began to see all kinds of details.

A tall industrial chimney, a boulangerie/patisserie, a huge and unidentifiable machine, a distant church spire, large houses in the banlieue, lampposts and paved roads, including a tree-lined avenue. 

A few photos showed some small houses in the Zone (one with “chien méchant” written on the gate and another with a prominent electrical connection), so there were inhabitants and businesses. There were several parked cars here and there.

And people. A surprising number of people, a man working in a scrap yard, and some women and possibly children partly hidden in the long grass. Residents of the shacks? People from the nearby apartment blocks taking the air? Hard to tell, really.

What allowed me to identify the location was one of several multi-storey brick buildings in the frame. These were HBMs (habitations bon marche) or affordable apartments. In an excellent and well-illustrated online document about the HBMs of the 1920s and 1930s built around Paris’s circumference, I spotted a window that looked familiar. Sure enough, it was from one of the buildings in the photos. The caption gave the street name, and I was able to place the photos has having been taken near the Porte de Vincennes. The HBMs are still there, but what was once a terrain vague is now the site of an elementary school.

As for the date of these photographs, the crucial clue was one of the cars parked on the street, much more recent than all the others in view. I learned that the licence plate was of the type introduced in France in 1950, but I couldn’t identify the car itself.

So I turned to Donald Pittenger, who writes the Car Style Critic blog, and within a day, I had my answer. It is a Ford Vedette, c1953. The photos are more recent than I at first realized.

Finally, what struck me was the fact that on the other side of the terrain vague was the banlieue. You could just walk across and into it. This was possible only during the years after the demolition of the wall and before the construction of the Periphérique. Less than a generation.

Those apartment buildings visible on the left, built in 1936, still stand in the Commune of Saint-Mandé. The roof on the right, just visible above the trees, belonged to one of two hospices on the site, of which the Hospice St-Michel remains.

Once again, the engineers – this time, traffic engineers – prevailed, and cut through what might have been some reconnected neighbourhoods, united rather than divided by a strip of green. Once again, Paris was walled in, with only gates to the outer world, but this time the barrier consisted of traffic. Will the Periphérique last as long as the wall it replaced? Only time will tell.

Text by Philippa Campsie; map and photographs from Gallica and the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris. Highway image from Google Street View.

If you would like to see a wide range of paintings and photographs of the walls, the gates, and the Zone, I highly recommend the meticulously documented and exhaustively researched website “Les Fortifs” by Laurent Baziller. The text is in French, but there are hundreds of images to browse through. 

Posted in Paris automotive, Paris civic functions, Paris history, Paris hospitals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments


So many sights in Paris pique our curiosity and lead us to learn things we would not have learned otherwise. This blog post began as we thought about the beauty of Paris’s zinc roofs. One could argue that zinc roofs say “Paris” every bit as much as the Eiffel Tower.

Once, when we were in Paris at Christmastime, we were delighted to see zinc roofs featured in the windows of the Bon Marché department store. The window designers clearly appreciated these very Parisian features.

This display caused many passersby to stop, look, and look again.

Zinc is a relative newcomer to Paris. As with so much of the material world, the metal was known and used for centuries in Europe, India, and China well before it was “scientifically” identified as an element in 1746 (working knowledge often precedes scientific understanding). Only in the early 1700s was zinc on the path to being readily purified and manufactured.

Pure zinc has a bluish-white colour; it is hard and brittle at most temperatures and unsuitable for roofing. However, its properties can be changed by mixing it with other metals, such as tin or titanium, to make a more flexible and workable alloy.

Zinc is a very reactive element. When exposed to air and moisture, it forms a surface that protects the entire exposed sheet. It is even self-healing; if the coating is scratched, the surface can reform so that protection continues.

Longevity is another of zinc’s attractions, although that may be changing somewhat. Parisian restoration architect Patrice Roy told us that “roofs used to be waterproof for a century and a half, but because of acid pollution [today], it takes less time for holes to form [in zinc].”

The soft colour of zinc and its subtle matte finish are other important properties. Paris has many overcast days and zinc roofs take on and reflect the colours of the sky.

The use of zinc for Paris roofs can be traced to the work of a cleric called Jean-Jacques Dony of Liège in the early 19th century (Liège was part of France then; today it is in Belgium). Many clerical positions left ample time to pursue other interests and Abbé Dony used his free time to study chemistry, in particular the smelting of zinc. In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte granted Dony a permit to extract zinc from a mine in Moresnet, roughly 50 km east of Liège. The mine was known as Vieille Montagne.

Five years later, Dony obtained a patent for his method of processing and refining zinc, which was a modification of pre-existing processes rather than a completely new approach.

New technologies often require newsworthy demonstration projects and Abbé Dony hit upon the idea of showing his gratitude to Napoleon by giving him a zinc-lined bath. Napoleon was apparently so thrilled by its light weight and utility that he took it on his campaigns, including his ill-fated invasion of Russia. The bath lasted longer than Napoleon and can still be seen at the Maison de la Metallurgie et de l’Industrie in Liège.

Napoleon was not the only one whose luck ran out. By 1813 Dony was deeply in debt and had to sell his patent and mining rights. He died in poverty in 1819. However, the company grew and prospered to become the largest zinc-producing company in the world. It also led to a rather strange political outcome for Moresnet, where the mine was located. (We’ve included this story at the end of the blog.)

We do not know when or where zinc was first used for roofing and cladding, but the earliest high-profile projects included a zinc roof for the church of St-Barthélémy in Liège followed by one for the Cathedral of St. Paul in the same city.

At that time, most Paris roofs were made of slate, most of it brought from the Loire Valley. Napoleon III and Haussmann changed that in the mid-19th century with the renovation of Paris. New construction on such a massive scale called for faster and more economical roofing construction. Zinc sheets were lighter than slate, less expensive, and easier to install, and they protected buildings from water leakage. They could even be melted down and recycled when buildings were demolished.

In addition, zinc could be used to create curved shapes or sharply angled roofs – opening the way for more elaborate roof designs to suit the tastes of the 19th century and making possible the tiny top-floor apartments to which maids and domestic staff were relegated.

The illustration below is from an early 20th-century trade catalogue from the Société Anonyme des Mines et Fonderies de Zinc de la Vieille-Montagne shows the kinds of shapes that were possible (along with zinc finials and decorative touches). Zinc was also used for drainpipes and eavestroughs.

Roofing was made from a zinc alloy that had been rolled to a specific thickness and cut to size. The catalogue includes an image of the rolling mill with the rollers in the background and stacked sheets of cut zinc on wagons on the left.

However, the new material had to be used carefully and skilfully. It wasn’t a case of plunking it down and waiting for 100 or so years to see how it was faring.

An important feature of zinc roofs are the zinc-covered seams that join the sheets, creating the characteristic stripy look of the roofs. Another image from the trade catalogue shows a cross-section of these standing seams.

Figures 5 and 6 show pieces of zinc bent and butting against a piece of wood. Figures 7 and 8 show the cap that covers the joint to keep rain out. The photo below shows how this type of installation looks on a roof in Paris.

Proper installation is crucial. Each sheet has an unexposed side underneath and here is where things can go wrong and reduce the lifespan of the zinc sheets. This photo shows what that looks like.

As we learned from an online article about the challenges of using zinc, the exposed surface of zinc receives its protective patina through a three-step natural process. First, zinc exposed to oxygen in the air produces a thin layer of zinc oxide, which in the second step reacts with water to form zinc hydroxide. In the third step, the hydroxide reacts with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form a stable long-lasting surface patina of zinc hydroxyl carbonate. The reaction sequence is finished after this third step and the zinc is thereafter protected from the elements.

If the zinc is not properly installed, things can go wrong on the hidden underside. If there is water but no air, the reactions do not go to the third, stable phase. Instead, the unstable or reactive zinc oxide produces zinc hydroxide, which consumes zinc in the process. So long as there is water present, the process will continue to eat away at the back of the metal to produce what is called “white rust” and eventually it will eat through the zinc sheet. As we see in the photo above, the zinc simply flakes away.

In 2014, Paris began the process for recognizing zinc roofing on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Why “intangible”? It is not the zinc roofs themselves that need protection, but the techniques and knowledge of the Parisian roofers who work year-round to create, maintain, and repair the roofs of Paris and those in other parts of France. Zinc workers are getting on in years and it is hard to find apprentices to continue the work and traditions.

Of course, roofs are not the only use of zinc to be seen in Paris. Traditionally, many bistros had zinc-covered bars, although these have mostly been replaced by stainless steel, since red wine reacts badly with zinc. This one had a label: Les étains de Lyon (Lyon stainless steel).

You can also see galvanized railings with their characteristic surface crystals. Galvanizing is a zinc coating created by dipping metal in a bath of molten zinc, withdrawing it and allowing it to cool. As it cools one can see the formation of zinc crystals of various sizes. The faster the cooling, the smaller the crystals.

Zinc can even be used in organ pipes – some of the recitals we have heard in Paris churches may have been made possible in part by the presence of zinc.

Early 2021 finds us all in the same storm – Covid-19 – although we are in different boats. While we cannot yet plan our next trip to Paris, Covid-19 has given us time to think about what Paris means to us, and we realize now that the soft grey, stripy roofs of the city are an important part of the city’s beauty.

Blog text and photographs by Norman Ball; image of “white rust” from Simpson Gumpertz & Heger, originally posted on BuldingEnclosureOnline.com; trade catalogue images from Bibliothèques specialisées Paris.


A little epilogue about Moresnet.

In this map of the province of Liège from the early 19th century, created during the short period in which this area was part of France, you will see Liège to the west, on the River Meuse, and Moresnet at the very far east, near the orange border. On the other side of the border was Limbourg, one of the patchwork of duchies, counties, and principalities that at the time occupied the area to the east.

Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 led to a grand re-drawing of the map of Europe. Liège became part of the Netherlands. And nearby Moresnet, with its productive zinc mine, found itself on the border between the Netherlands and the German Confederation, coveted by both countries.

The delegates at the Congress of Vienna seemingly couldn’t make up their collective minds and created a tiny territory called “Neutral Moresnet” surrounding the mine property, to be jointly administered by the Dutch and the Germans. (When Belgium was formed in 1830, the Belgians got to participate, too.) Yet the currency and the legal framework remained French: the franc and the Code Napoléon.

This map shows Neutral Moresnet. It was less than 2 km wide at its widest and less than 5 km from north to south, in all about 3.5 square km. At the time of its creation, the place was home to fewer than 300 people.

The population swelled to about 3,000 as the mine expanded. In 1837, the Société des Mines et Fonderies de Zinc de la Vieille-Montagne was formed; not only did it manage the mine, but it ran schools, a hospital, and company shops (just like the old one-company mining towns of Canada).

All went well until 1885, when the mine was exhausted (other mining towns have faced this dilemma, too). Various money-making schemes were tried. A separate postal service, issuing its own stamps (hey, it worked in San Marino!), was, ahem, stamped out by the Belgian and German authorities. A casino opened in 1903, but also did not meet with official approval. Several gin distilleries operated. There were public festivals to attract tourists. This image from Le Monde Illustré, 4 January 1908, shows the members of La Société de Carnaval de Moresnet. They look like jolly fellows.

But the most original idea, launched in 1908, was to make the little territory into the centre of the study and use of Esperanto, the proposed universal language invented in the 1880s. The territory was to be called Amikejo, that is, “place of friendship.” The residents studied the language, hoping to provide an example for others. But with the loss of the mine, the territory’s raison d’être had evaporated. The Germans occupied the little territory and at the end of the First World War, with the Treaty of Versailles, it became part of Belgium.

Text by Philippa Campsie, maps and newspaper image from Gallica.

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Twenty questions

A happy Saint-Sylvestre to you all! A few of you may wonder what that means, but in France, New Year’s Eve is often called by the name of the saint whose day falls on December 31.

That fact got us thinking about similar “code words” in French that you pick up in passing or from newspapers and magazines. Such as the fact that “l’Hexagone” is a nickname for France, which is hexagon-shaped. Or that Paris is sometimes known as “Paname,” which may have something to do with Parisians’ fondness for Panama hats back in the day (opinions on the origins of the term differ). Or that Charles de Gaulle airport is also known as Roissy, after the commune in which much of it is located. And the Centre Pompidou is sometimes called Beaubourg after the neighbourhood it largely displaced.

The French also use code words in talking about government ministries. Newspapers often refer to the ministry’s location (like saying Whitehall when you mean the British civil service or the Pentagon when you mean the U.S. Department of Defense). In Paris, it’s the Quai d’Orsay for foreign affairs (shown below) or Bercy for finance and economic affairs, among many other examples. The technical term for this kind of substitution is metonymy – replacing a specific name with a related word.

The French also love initialisms and acronyms. Paris is full of them, from TGV to SAMU to CROUS. The first is a high-speed train, the second is a medical emergency services organization, the third is a student residence and/or restaurant.

Thinking about code words gave us the idea to put together 20 questions for Paris lovers. Something for those sluggish days after Christmas when newspapers often publish quizzes and huge crosswords. We’d also like to challenge readers to suggest questions of your own in the comments section, particularly questions that you’ve scratched your own heads over at some point.

Answers are at the bottom of the blog.

1. Two more examples of metonymy: which ministries are known by their locations in (1) the Place Beauvau and (2) the rue de Varenne?

2. Why did the rooster (coq) become one of the symbols of France?

3. Marie Curie is one of only five women interred in the Pantheon, but she was not the first. Who was?

4. The Arc de Triomphe at the head of the Champs-Elysées is not the only triumphal archway in Paris. How many others are there, and where are they?

5. This sketch by Edouard Manet show a fiacre. How did the horse-drawn cab get that name?

6. Which brilliant 19th-century composer in Paris was forced by her parents to marry a businessman 25 years her senior who disliked music, but later returned to composing with the encouragement of a friend, who eventually became her lover?

7. How did the former department store La Samaritaine get its name?

8. Between 1898 and 1902, a Paris church was constructed using structural iron and steel in an industrial style similar to that used for the buildings at the Exposition of 1900 or for railway stations. What is the church called and where is it?

9. Which writer who was dying in Paris said, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do”? Where was the room with the dire wallpaper?

10. Here’s a test for long-time readers of this blog. What is the object shown below? How was it used? Who developed it? Where could you see one now?

11. And another one for long-time readers. What is a chasse-roue? Where would you find one?

12. Where is the part of the city once known as the Point du Jour (Break of Day)? How did it get that name?

13. What taxidermist on the rue du Bac offers such things as stuffed zebras and preserved scorpions for sale?

14. In this postcard, you will see the name “Dufayel.” What is it advertising?

15. Which is the widest street in Paris (hint: even wider than the Champs-Elysées)?

16. What do the three Metro stations Arsenal (line 5), Champ de Mars (line 8), and Croix-Rouge (line 10) have in common?

17. This is a question once posed by a reader. Where was the original boutique of Rose Bertin, dressmaker to Marie-Antoinette (shown below in a portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun) and other grand ladies before the Revolution? What was it called?

18. Where are the Chevaux de Marly? Where were they before they were placed in their current location? And where were they before that?

19. If you were playing a word game such as Scattergories (Jeu du Baccalauréat) and you had to come up with a Paris street name for every letter of the alphabet, is there a Paris street name beginning with X?

20. In August 1976, a filmmaker mounted a camera on the front of his sports car and drove at full throttle through the nearly empty streets of Paris at dawn, from the Porte Dauphine to Sacré-Coeur, creating an exciting eight-minute film in a single take. Who was the filmmaker, and what was the name of the short film that resulted?


1. The Place Beauvau stands for the Ministry of the Interior and the rue de Varenne for the Ministry of Agriculture. The rue de Varenne is also the site of the Hotel Matignon, the official residence of the prime minister (that’s what references to Matignon mean in the papers). There is always a police officer stationed at the corner of the rue de Varenne and the rue du Bac, outside one of our favourite cafés: the Café Varenne. Norman calls it the best guarded café in Paris. This photo, taken by Google Street view one day when the café was closed, shows its typical security detail.

2. The choice of the coq has nothing to do with the particular qualities of the bird, but with its name alone. In fact, it’s a pun. In Latin, cockerel is gallus, which is similar to the word Gaulois, another name for the French.

3. Marie Curie died in 1934 and her remains were transferred to the Pantheon in 1995. But in 1907, Sophie Berthelot, who died on the same day as her husband, chemist Marcellin Berthelot, was buried in the Pantheon with her husband, respecting the couple’s request to be buried together. Only three other women are honoured in the Panthéon: Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz (Resistance fighter and social reformer), Germaine Tillio (Resistance fighter and political activist), and Simone Veil (Holocaust survivor and feminist politician). You’d think they could manage a few more…

4. There are four triumphal arches in Paris. Two were commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his military victories in the early 19th century: the one at the head of the Champs-Elysées, commissioned in 1806, but not completed until the 1830s, and the smaller Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel at the opposite end, in the Louvre courtyard, surmounted by a figure in a chariot drawn by four horses resembling the horses of St. Mark in Venice (in Napoleon’s day, the actual Venice horses were placed there temporarily). The other two arches were commissioned by Louis XIV to celebrate his military victories in the 1660s: the Porte St-Denis and the Porte St-Martin, both of which replaced former fortified gates to the city. Today, they are located two blocks apart on the southern edge of the 10th arrondissement. In the postcard below, the Porte St-Martin is in the foreground, with the Porte St-Denis just visible in the background.

5. The Hôtel de Saint-Fiacre (named for an Irish saint who came to France in the 7th century) was an inn and tavern in the rue St-Martin. In the 17th century, the proprietor operated a successful business hiring out four-seater carriages and horses. They became known as fiacres. Because of this connection, St-Fiacre was eventually designated the patron saint of taxi-drivers.

6. Mélanie Hélène Bonis, known as Mel Bonis (1858 –1937), was a contemporary of Debussy at the Conservatoire and a student of César Franck. She wanted to marry poet and singer Amédée Landély Hettich, but her parents disapproved and forced her to marry Albert Domange, an unmusical widower with five children from a previous marriage. After seven years of strict domesticity, during which she had three children of her own, she met Hettich again and he encouraged her to return to composition, which she did to great acclaim, writing romantic works for piano, organ, chamber groups, orchestra, choirs and solo singers. She also had an affair with Hettich that produced an illegitimate child and a host of unforeseen complications. Here is a recording of her piano piece “Carillons mystiques” that includes photographs of her. We are amazed her work is not better known. She’d get our vote for a transfer to the Pantheon.

7. La Samaritaine was originally the name of a water pump on the Seine beside the Pont-Neuf with a sculpture of Jesus and the woman of Samaria (hence la Samaritaine) who spoke to him when she came to draw water from a well, as described in the Gospel of St. John. The pump stood there from 1608 to 1813. The shop that eventually grew into a large department store was located nearby and took the same name.

8. Notre Dame du Travail was constructed with an iron-and-steel-supported interior. It is located on the rue Vercingetorix in the 14th arrondissement. It is Norman’s favourite Paris church, and he wrote about it here.

9. Oscar Wilde is supposed to have uttered this line close to the time of his death in November 1900. He was staying at what was then called Hotel d’Alsace and is now simply l’Hotel, on the rue des Beaux-Arts in the 6th arrondissement. The wallpaper that won the battle with the writer was finally replaced 100 years later. You can stay in the Oscar Wilde room, which now has peacock wallpaper, once the hotel reopens after the pandemic. 

10. The picture shows a visual telegraph machine, invented by Claude Chappe in the 1790s and used to transmit messages over long distances that could be deciphered by sight from miles away. We told the story in this blog post. You can find a model in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, but about two dozen installations remain scattered about the country, such as this one near Narbonne.

11. A chasse-roue is a stone or metal bumper at the edges of gates through which horse-drawn carriages were designed to pass. Its function is to protect the sides of the gate from damage by the carriage wheels. You can see them throughout the older parts of Paris. We wrote about them in a previous blog.

12. The Point du Jour is at the southernmost tip of the 16th arrondissement, beside the river. It got that name because of a duel that took place there at the break of day on March 4, 1748, between Antoine Francois, the Count of Coigny and the prince de Dombe, over a perceived insult to the prince (an illegitimate grandson of the Louis XIV). The count was killed. The moral of this story: Do not insult illegitimate members of the royal family; it won’t end well.

13. Deyrolle at 46 rue du Bac has a unique cabinet of curiosities on its upper floor. On our last visit, we were very taken with a stuffed owl (the stuffed giraffe would never have fit into our house), but came to our senses. The business was founded in 1831, and has passed through several owners. In 2008, the shop was largely ruined by a fire, but it has been repaired and is as enthralling as ever.

Deyrolle also prints and sells those wonderful maps of the products of France that used to adorn French schoolrooms. For all we know, they still do.

14. Georges Dufayel gave his name to a massive department store or palais de la nouveauté on the rue de Clignancourt. It was known for house furnishings of all kinds and even had a cinema. Dufayel was not just a department-store owner, but also ran a successful publicity business, so was able to get his name on all kinds of surfaces. He is largely forgotten today, but his vast store was famous in its day, with a revolving beacon on top. We wrote about the man and his department store here.

15. The widest street in Paris is the avenue Foch in the 16th arrondissement, with its huge linear gardens on either side of the road. The avenue is lined with some of the most expensive real estate in the city.

16. Arsenal (line 5), Champ de Mars (line 8), and Croix-Rouge (line 10) are stations that were closed at the beginning of the Second World War and never reopened. If you pay attention, you may see them as you pass through them on a train that does not stop. Philippa remembers noticing Croix-Rouge on her way to classes at the Sorbonne as a student; once she had seen it, she never failed to look out for it on subsequent journeys. The Arsenal station has been used for training RATP staff. These three are among about 16 or so “phantom” Metro stations that have closed, or in some cases, were partly built but never opened. Proposals are sometimes made to convert the stations to other uses, but to date they remain as ghost stations.

17. The dress-shop known as Le Grand Mogol was originally on the rue St-Honoré, located where no. 149 is today. This is the address of the building used in the television series Dix Pour Cent / Call My Agent. In 1789, Rose Bertin moved her boutique to rue de Richelieu.

18. The chevaux de Marly are two statues of rearing horses with men trying to restrain them with ropes, created by sculptor Guillaume Coustou in 1739. The originals are now in the Louvre. But two sets of reproductions stand in the two locations where the originals once stood. They were first placed beside the Abreuvoir (a large basin for watering horses) at the Chateau de Marly (the building was destroyed in the Revolution, but the gardens and the pool remain in Marly-le-Roi). This image from Google Street View shows one of the horses on the left and a bit of the Abreuvoir on the right.

After 1795, the horses stood on either side of the Champs-Elysées where it opens into the Place de la Concorde. The originals were put in the Louvre in 1984. Their presence may account for the name of the open-air Café Marly in the courtyard of the Louvre: the food there is indifferent, but the view is excellent.

19. In fact, there are two Paris streets beginning with X: rue Xaintrailles in the 13th (named for one of Joan of Arc’s companions and supporters) and rue Xavier-Privas (named for an early 20th-century singer-songwriter) in the 5th.

20. Claude Lelouch (director of movies such as Un homme et une femme) made C’était un rendez-vous at dawn in August, when traffic was at its lightest. If you have not seen the white-knuckle ride, fasten your seatbelt and watch it on YouTube. Note the terrified pigeons desperately trying to get out of the way at several points. The film was shot with Lelouch himself at the wheel of his own Mercedes (although he later dubbed in the sound of a Ferrari to make it sound more exciting). According to one account, he was briefly arrested because he went through 18 red lights during those eight minutes, but the police officer did not charge him.

Thank you for your encouragement and comments over the course of this peculiar year, and we wish you and your loved ones a healthy and happy 2021. 

Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs of Notre Dame du Travail and the chasse-roue by Norman Ball. Postcards from our collection. Photo of Beaubourg from the Centre Pompidou website. Photos of Quai d’Orsay, the coq, Manet sketch, Marie Antoinette, Narbonne, avenue Foch from Wikimedia Commons. Image of La Samaritaine from Gallica. Images of Deyrolle interior and map from deyrolle.com. Still from Lelouch’s film from YouTube. All other images from Google Street View.

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Cloches et clochers

On April 15 of this year, as Paris remained in lockdown, one of Notre Dame’s bells rang out to mark a year since the fire that largely destroyed the cathedral’s interior. The bell’s name was Emmanuel, and a grainy still from a video shows what was happening inside the tower.

You can see a big, stationary bell (cloche) with someone standing beside it and pulling the clapper on a rope. Normally, the bells swing back and forth, so this must be a safety precaution in a building that is still being repaired.

Emmanuel is the oldest bell in Notre Dame, and dates from the 17th century. Its note is a low F-sharp. There are ten bells in all; the other nine are 21st-century creations. They were dedicated in 2013, to mark the cathedral’s 850th anniversary. They replaced an ill-assorted group of bells that were themselves 19th-century replacements for bells destroyed in the Revolution. Like the ones they replaced, the new bells all have names: Marie, Gabriel, Anne-Geneviève, Denis, Marcel, Etienne, Benoit-Joseph, Maurice, Jean-Marie. They were placed in the nave before their dedication, allowing the public a close-up look at the variety of designs.

You can see and hear them here:  the visuals show them swinging back and forth. To the best of my knowledge, the bells survived the fire along with the bell towers (clochers).

Later, on 25 August 2020, bells across Paris were rung to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in the Second World War.

Tradition has it that all Paris’s bells were rung on that August day in 1944. Perhaps not all, but many churches joined in. According to a story in the book Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, the parishioners of St-Philippe-du-Roule were miffed that their church bells were silent when other churches were ringing theirs. The parish priest, one Canon Jean Muller, had to remind his congregation that, ahem, the church actually had no bells, but this might be a good time to take up a collection for some.

This image, taken before St-Philippe-du-Roule’s roof was engulfed in a huge protective cover, shows only a single bell in a little cage. Ah well, it was wartime and I daresay the parishioners didn’t have much to spare.

The war was hard on bells. Thousands throughout Europe were confiscated and melted down for their component metals (bells are made of bronze, typically four parts copper to one part tin). French bells largely escaped the worst of this plunder. Italy, Austria, Belgium, and eastern European countries fared far worse and lost a precious heritage. Here are some of the bells awaiting their doom in the Glockenfriedhof (bell cemetery) in Hamburg.

But melting down bells was not a German innovation and it was not unique to the Second World War, as Stephen J. Thorne explains:

The practice of confiscating and transforming church bells into tools of war is not new. It was a longstanding tradition of European warfare that artillery commanders had rights over the bells of conquered villages, towns and cities. Napoleon, in particular, relished claiming this right, and added to his war coffers by requiring vanquished cities to buy back their bells. If they could not, the commanding general was entitled to dispose of them as he saw fit. Half the revenue would be his, the other half went to the central treasury. The practice was called “Rachat des cloches,” or “redemption of the bells.”

But the scale of the destruction in the Second World War was unprecedented. It has been estimated that 175,000 bells were confiscated and 150,000 destroyed. Many more were lost or damaged in air raids.

These numbers got me wondering how many bells there are in Paris today. Campanologist and musician Regis Singer did an inventory in 1995 and came up with a total of 878, although he believed that this was an undercount, since many remained in convents to which he was not given access. He thought the real number was closer to 1,000.

That’s a lot of bells. But Regis Singer was thorough and included bells that others might have overlooked.

For example, not all are in churches. The former mairie of the first arrondissement* has a fine bell tower, often mistaken for the tower of the next-door church, St-Germain-l’Auxerrois (the former mairie is on the left in this postcard view).

Not all are in towers. The chapel of St-Yves inside the Cité du Souvenir has five bells hung on the wall of the abutting building, like teacups on cup hooks.

One, on the former chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Jouy, just visible over the wall from the avenue Denfert-Rochereau, is so tiny it looks like a sparrow on the rooftop.

Some swing back and forth and sound as the clapper hits the inside; some are stationary and are hit with a tapper (typical of bells that mark time in clocks). Some are operated manually; others electronically.

Notre Dame’s Emmanuel isn’t the oldest bell – that honour belongs to the church of St-Merri, which has a 14th-century bell. Saint-Severin has one dating from the 15th century. The biggest in Paris, indeed in all of France, is Savoyarde, in Sacré-Coeur, weighing in at 19 tonnes. It could use some protection from the local pigeons.

Paris has only two carillons. The carillon, a set of bells used to play melodies, either manually from an oversized keyboard or electronically from a regular keyboard, is largely a northern French and Flemish tradition. Carillons may have as many as 40 bells. If you have seen the movie Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (2008), filmed in Bergues in northern France, you will remember the scene in the bell tower.

One of the two carillons in Paris is in the belfry beside the mairie of the first arrondissement (shown above) and the other is in the unusual church of Sainte-Odile in the 17th arrondissement, built in the 1940s. Sainte-Odile’s website proclaims that is has the only hand-operated carillon in Paris (the one at the former mairie is presumably operated electrically).

Although Paris has a wealth of bells, they are heard less than they used to be. A century ago, you would hear the Angelus early in the morning, at noon, and at dusk (usually three sets of nine peals each time). A few churches still ring the Angelus at noon and dusk, but the early morning set does not square with modern lifestyles. In 1995, Regis Singer commented sardonically that Parisians express no objections to the noise of sirens, alarms, or traffic, but claim to be disturbed by the bells, and in the 1990s demanded that the early-morning Angelus tradition be discontinued. Churches that do still ring bells in the morning do it at 9 a.m. rather than the traditional 6 or 7 a.m.

Personally, I can’t understand why anyone would want to silence bells. Norman and I lived for four years beside St. James Cathedral in Toronto, which has a full peal of English-style bells for change-ringing** as well as bells that toll the hours, half-hours, and quarter-hours throughout the day (although not at night). When we were married in the cathedral, I remember the bells ringing out as I entered the church and the way it made me feel as if my feet weren’t quite touching the ground. And for our recessional, we chose the finale of the first organ symphony by the blind composer Louis Vierne, which mimics the sound of bells.

Bells permeate French music. Debussy, Ravel, Bizet, and Massenet also wrote works that use the sounds of bells. Recently, after listening to a recorded piano concert in Paris by Jean Dubé, I bought his CD “Cloches” which features these composers and others. I am listening to it now, as I write.

Bells recall us to ourselves. When we lose them, we lose something that draws us together. I hope the bells of Paris will continue to sound, to mark the hours and the seasons, in celebration and grief and danger, to ring in better times than those we are living through now.

Text by Philippa Campsie. Images of St-Philippe-du-Roule, Ste-Odile, and Notre-Dame-de-Jouy from Google Street View; pictures of the dedication of Notre Dame’s bells, the Glockenfriedhof, St-Yves, and Savoyarde from Wikipedia. Postcards from our collection.

* This building is no longer used as a mairie. The four innermost arrondissements of Paris have merged administratively, and together use what was originally the mairie of the third arrondissement; the other three buildings have been given new functions.

** Change-ringing is a world unto itself and I would not presume to describe it in a footnote. But here is an overview.

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A November day some years ago. We are dawdling by the Seine when we spot a barge filled with coal being pushed up the Seine.

Two days later, we are exploring the Parc André Citroën. As we cross over to the right bank, we see demolition rubble being loaded onto another barge, this one with movable metal coverings over the holds.

On another day, after a visit to Le Petit Palais, we are crossing Pont Alexandre III and notice a colourful barge loaded with cardboard bales headed for a recycling depot.

Barges, or péniches, do the heavy work of getting bulk freight into and out of the city.*

The term péniche may be translated as a barge or a narrow boat. There are other uses for the term, such as péniche de débarquement, which is a military landing craft. For civilian craft, those that have their own power source are called péniches automotrices. But in everyday parlance, pretty much everything used in commercial water traffic gets called a péniche, whether it has its own power source or is pushed or towed by another vessel.

The term chaland, or canal barge, generally refers to the very narrow barges built for English canals. They are not used as modern cargo carriers, but are popular as dwellings and vacation boats. We once saw one of these boats in the locks at the Bassin de l’Arsenal.

Péniches have a long history in French waterways. Let’s look at a few historic images.

In the photo below, the boat in the foreground has the traditional look of a péniche. The turning basin of La Villette saw many péniches, coming, going, loading, and unloading. The pile of stone held by a wooden retaining wall was undoubtedly unloaded from a péniche at the site.

Canal Saint-Martin and La Villette roundabout. Paris (XIXth arrondissement), circa 1900.

The next photo, taken by Eugène Atget in 1923, provides a moody depiction of two péniches in the quays. The large buildings and boats disappearing into the background on the far bank of the Seine add to the sense of a still foggy morning. It is all rather dreamlike, but was probably cold and damp.

The quays (Winter). Paris, 1923. Photograph by Eugène Atget (1857-1927). Paris, musée Carnavalet.

This one, taken in the early 1930s by François Kollar (1904-1979) at the quai de Grenelle in the 15th arrondissement, says much about the look and traditional role of péniches. They provided Paris with large quantities of relatively low-cost, heavy, bulky goods. In this overhead view, workmen are unloading slender logs cut to uniform length. The pile in the background stands ready for the winter and would diminish as temperatures dropped. Before delivery to furnaces and fireplaces, most would be cut to shorter lengths.

This 1936 photo of péniches flanked by large warehouses at the Bassin de la Villette reminds one of the closeness of parked cars in Paris. The two most prominent péniches in the photo show the movable metal panels that protected cargo that was either sensitive to exposure to the elements or was likely to be stolen.

Péniches served as more than just freight carriers, though. The interior of this ambulance péniche, photographed in October 1914, is spartan. It appears to have only stretchers surrounding the central stove. Stretchers would have been in great demand at the time.

World War One. Interior of an ambulance barge. Paris, early October 1914.

A month later, this is the interior of one of the ambulance boats established by l’Union des Femmes de France. This interior is much less grim, with flowers and proper beds for patients.

World War One. Inauguration of the first ambulance boats set by the French Women Union. Paris, pont Alexandre-III, on November 26, 1914. Photograph published in the newspaper “Excelsior” of Friday, November 27, 1914.

The next photo is perhaps one of the most unusual péniche interiors and it comes with a story of links to fame and compassion. It shows the interior of the Louise-Catherine

Salvation Army : the Louise-Catherine barge, floating refuge. Paris. Photograph by Marcel Cerf (1911-2010). Bibliothèque historique de la Ville de Paris.

Here’s the back story. Born in Munich in 1856, Maria Louise Katharine Breslau moved to Paris in 1874 to study art at the Académie Julian. In less than five years she had opened her own studio and dropped Maria from her name. Her career can be described as meteoric and in 1879 she joined the Salon de la Société National des Beaux-Arts in Paris where she exhibited her work and served on the jury. Louise-Catherine was the third woman artist and the first foreign woman artist to be honoured by France’s Legion of Honour. While a student, she made friends with Madeleine Zillhardt, who has been described as her muse, model, confidant, supporter, and companion of more than 40 years.

Upon Louise Catherine’s death in 1927, Madeleine Zillhardt inherited the bulk of her estate. With the support of Winaretta Singer, Madeleine purchased a péniche and named it Louise-Catherine. This was not destined to be an ordinary vessel. It was redesigned by Le Corbusier as a 160-bed Salvation Army shelter for homeless men. The Salvation Army closed it in 1994 after the hull flooded. 

Regrettably, the vessel, now owned by the Fondation Le Corbusier, sank during the February 2018 flood of the Seine, just as it was being renovated to become a new cultural space. We took this photo about a year before it sank. The vessel was refloated in September 2018 but its future is uncertain.

If one péniche honoured an accomplished painter, another artist used a péniche as a home and studio. In about 1925 the barge shown below was the Paris home of Henri-Gaston-Jules-Louis Buoy, known as Louis Buoy. He worked primarily in pastels and was noted for his female figures. 

The barge of the painter Bouy. Paris, about 1925.

Fashion designer Paul Poiret is less well known today than his rival Coco Chanel. However, Poiret was famous for the hobble skirt and harem pants (one hobbled women, the other freed them). At the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925, an invitation to dance on Poiret’s péniche Orgues must have been a prize reserved for the wealthiest or most well-connected. Surely no péniche had a more distinguished, or shall we say, theatrical ceiling. It was not Poiret’s only péniche. There were also Amours and Delights, for example.

International exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts. Dance hall aboard Paul Poiret’s barge, “Orgues”. Paris, 1925.

Delights featured up-to-date fabric curtains, cove moulding, and recessed lighting. What appears to be a movable divider probably separates the dining area from the kitchen. Delights seemed an excellent place to imbibe, dine, and enjoy life.

Evening on board a barge. “Delights” of Paul Poiret.

And if the temptations of Poiret’s péniches led one astray, there was always the Chapelle des Mariniers, Pont St-Michel, a péniche that held out the opportunities for redemption, shown here in an Yvon postcard from our collection.

But these unusual barges were the exceptions.

This early-20th-century postcard from our collection shows a more typical group. Péniches on both banks are strikingly similar in size and configuration. Those on the left bank show the large rudders and on the right bank the rather stubby bows. This is the same location as the photograph by Atget.

The history of the péniche cannot be separated from the history of French canals. And if there is one man who stands taller than others in creating the modern canal systems of France, it is Charles-Louis de Saules de Freycinet (1828-1923). Freycinet graduated as an engineer from the prestigious École Polytechnique and joined the French Civil Service as a mining engineer. He eventually rose to the position of Inspector General of Mines in 1883. He also served four terms as premier. 

Nineteenth-century economic growth and industrialization created a need for better transportation systems. Elected to the Senate in 1876 and named Minister of Public Works in 1877, Freycinet instituted the Freycinet Plan, whereby the government purchased existing railways and built extensive new ones. It also tackled the question of increasing uniformity in the canals and reducing the need for trans-shipment.

A law of August 5, 1879, established a minimum lock size of 39 metres long, 5.2 metres wide, and 2.2 metres deep. To pass through the locks, péniches were limited to 38.5 metres long, 5.05 metres wide, and 1.8 metres draught or depth. Clearly, a tight fit was the order of the day. New canals were built and many existing ones re-engineered to fit the Freycinet standard. 

Freycinet’s influence was so great that canal traffic doubled between the opening of the 20th century and the Second World War. His work endures. By 2001 there were 5,800 km (3,604 miles) of navigable waterways in France that corresponded to the Freycinet gauge and these accounted for 23 percent of waterborne traffic. Over time, though, the size of many vessels has increased beyond the dimensions in the Freycinet standard and today we see many of these larger vessels on the Seine. But even as vessels changed in size and configuration, the names remained the same: a péniche is a péniche is a péniche.

Text and original photographs by Norman Ball. Postcards from our collection. Historic photographs from Paris en Images and Bibliothèques specialisées de Paris.

* In 2019, Ports of Paris announced that more than two million tonnes of merchandise, from building materials to consumer products, entered Paris by boat, an amount that would otherwise have required 100,000 trucks to transport. 

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