Vespasiennes: Does a Roman Emperor Deserve This?

Our home offices are in two adjacent rooms. While exploring one of my favourite Paris websites, Paris en Images, I called to Philippa, “What’s a Vespasienne?” and was instantly told, “A public urinal.” There had to be a blog in that.


Once there were over 1,200 Vespasiennes in Paris, but this is the last one standing, a forlorn structure on the Boulevard Arago by the wall of the Santé Prison. Will it one day be thrown onto a scrap heap or will it find a home in the Musée Carnavalet? Will there be protest marches – “Sauvegardez la Vespasienne!” – to block the crew sent to dismantle it? Time will tell.

Admittedly, this is not the handsomest example of historic street furniture. But the nicer versions, such as this lovely gingerbread structure on the Place de la Madeleine from 1875 are no longer with us. It was called a chalet du nécessité.


We have devoted other blogs to efforts to keep the city clean. It is a neverending struggle for all big cities. Part of the problem is the need to satisfy the call of nature (satisfaire aux besoins naturels) in a city where life is lived very much on the street. An early royal edict forbade urinating on the streets of Paris, but it was widely ignored. And measures to discourage men from relieving themselves in corners (informally known as empêche-pipi, and the subject of an entire book by Jacky Legge, a Belgian author), were not always successful.

Things started to change when Antoine Raymond Jean Gualbert Gabriel de Sartine was appointed Lieutenant of Police of Paris on November 21, 1759, a position he held until 1774. His wide-ranging powers started with public order (and he had a formidable secret service to help with this task), but ran also to cleaning, maintaining, and lighting the streets, as well as food supply, public health, and hygiene.* This early creator of modern Paris restored fourteen public fountains to give greater access to drinking water. Around 1770 he had casks or barrels (barils d’aisance) placed at street corners into which one might “ease oneself.” Privacy seems not to have been a particular concern and clearly these were only for men and boys. I have not found any illustrations of this innovation nor do I know how long they were kept in service.

Public urinals made a short-lived appearance in Paris in spring 1830. During the July Revolution, the urinals proved even more useful as material for street barricades. The revolutionaries overthrew the French bourbon monarch King Charles X and replaced him with his cousin Louis-Philippe, Duke of Orléans. But Paris was still dirty, smelly and wracked periodically by epidemics such as the deadly cholera outbreak of 1832 that in six months left 19,000 dead.

In 1833 another of the great city of Paris reformers took his post as Prefect of the Seine. A career administrator born in 1781, Claude Philibert Berthelot Comte de Rambuteau set out to create a cleaner city. He did far more than is generally recognized to make Paris the city it is today. In Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann, historian David P. Jordan writes, “Rambuteau put in place all the instruments for urban transformation that Haussmann would later appropriate.”

There was much to be done. If one was to have a less disease-ridden and more enjoyable city one had to tackle the problem of human waste in public spaces. Imagine going to a theatre or concert hall and finding no convenient facilities marked “Gentlemen” and “Ladies.” You have just imagined Paris before Rambuteau. He demanded that theatres and public entertainments provide urinals, whether fixed or mobile.

An even bigger sanitary problem was on the streets. Rambuteau attacked the problem by integrating his urinals into columns used for notices and advertisements. His initial installation of over 450 urinals made for a more agreeable Paris, but there was an unintended result.


This photo from about 1865, taken on the Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville, is clearly meant for one person; paradoxically, it features a prominent ad for perfume. It is also identified as a “colonne Rambuteau.” How would you like your name forever associated with urinals? The Prefect of the Seine was not amused.

He dealt with the issue by giving them a new name: Vespasiennes. It was a somewhat back-handed compliment to the work of Roman emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus who ruled Rome for 10 years beginning in 69 A.D. Vespasian, too, had been a city improver who had worked hard to restore law and order to a civil war–ravaged city. Rome’s Colosseum is part of his legacy.

Vespasian loved money. He instituted public urinals in Rome to earn money. There are various versions of the story. One is that he introduced a tax to cover the costs of these public conveniences. Another is that he levied a tax upon businesses that would benefit from such public facilities, such as fullers and tanners, who use urine in processing wool and leather. Perhaps he did both. When criticized by his son, the future emperor Titus, for stooping so low as to make money from urine, Vespasian is said to have thrust some coins under his son’s nose and asked if the money smelled badly. Vespasian then reputedly said, “Yet it comes from urine.” (This little anecdote comes from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by C. Suetonius Tranquillus; one of my ancient history professors at McMaster University warned us, “Suetonius was an unreliable gossip.” Other versions report that Vespasian actually said, “Money has no smell.”)

So with a little knowledge of ancient history, Rambuteau was able to deflect the naming problem. And yes, there was money to be made. Advertising space was not free, nor was admission into the finer examples of this genre of street furniture.

The urinal in front of the Batignolles public gardens clearly shows the combination of public convenience and advertising space. A metal surround provided privacy from the calves up while the piercings provided a modicum of ventilation.

1b485a5ba1c70e335e9269b35d7b3536What is described as a “new model of urinal, chaussée de la Muette” in the 16th arrondissement certainly provided greater possibilities for ventilation; the waist-high barrier was common to many urinals. It has certain architectural pretensions, with the advertising cupola surmounted by a gas lamp. Many Vespasiennes were surmounted by lamps, to make them easy to find at night.


This more compact model in front of 44, rue de Rennes, 7th arrondissement, provides even more privacy while taking up less space on the pavement.


As urinals gained in popularity and greater numbers appeared, the manufacturers increased the number of users. In the photo below taken about 1870, the “urinal with 6 boxes” at the Place de la Bourse in the 2nd arrondissement combines capacity, privacy, and architectural features at the top.


The same number of occupants could be served by this six-sided kiosk urinal at the place du Théatre Francais in the 1st arrondissement. The top bears a striking resemblance to a Morris column.


The image below, taken in 1876 on rue Rambuteau at the corner of rue Baltard, reveals several efforts to make a more sanitary, cleaner, and pleasanter Paris. The twig brooms leaning against the tree speak of the clean streets so much a part of modern Paris. The gas lamp standard was part of the quest for a brighter, safer city, and the urinal with six slate boxes is part of greater sanitary convenience. (Slate was regarded as a cleaner material than cast iron.) The building in the background of cast-iron construction is part of Les Halles, the central markets, and the Vespasienne does rather resemble stalls for animals.


The photo below wonderfully captures a Paris moment, something Charles Marville excelled at as he set about documenting Paris before Haussmann.


For a single-box urinal, surely this cast-iron and brick version on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin must have set new standards in elegance. The advertising appeared inside.


This eight-box urinal with two gas lamps is rather unusual. Rather than the customary metal privacy band, bushes provide privacy. Of course, it was in the Champs-Elysées garden.

8a6d7797c5ac2fe809454af50c32aa73This installation on avenue Victoria outside the Café Estaminet proudly advertised Gaz and sported a gas lamp on top. The sunshine reveals the patterned piercing that provided some ventilation.

47d12268dc5510bbcc1923fb4e21c9cdAs with any technology, Vespasiennes changed over time. Their capacity was increased, and different materials were used in the construction, but perhaps the biggest change came in the late 1860s, when the roles of public toilet and advertising post were separated. Vespasiennes remained as public conveniences and Morris columns became signposts and storage facilities.

This photo was taken in the 1860s in front of the Théâtre de l’Ambigu on Boulevard Saint-Martin. The photographer Marville identifies it as an example of street furniture (mobilier urbain) using the Jennings system (a British manufacturer of sanitary plumbing). Note the separate Morris column in the background.


Today, Paris has “sanisettes” – functional, bland, unisex, with nothing more in the way of decoration that a street map on the side. But free (if they are not “Hors de service”). Vespasian would consider them a waste of an opportunity to profit.

Gone are the days when one might have wondered what this building was for. A mausoleum? A ticket office for an electric street railway system? Architectural folly? It is difficult to make out the writing in this 1870s photo, but above the door one can make out the word “Toilette” and on the side what looks like “Cabinets d’Aisance.” It is identified as a Cabinet water-closet by Dorion, a concessionaire who had the right to provide such facilities in Paris. (He also owned the lovely Gothic style facility shown in the second image of this blog and on which one can make out the words “Water Closet” and “Cabinet de Toilette,” along with the prices.) And the location of the grand edifice above that is long gone? The Avenue Champs-Elysées. Where else?

Text and contemporary photograph by Norman Ball; historic photographs from Paris en Images.


*The Lieutenant of Police who commissioned the Halle au blé now known as the Bourse du Commerce also instituted an education program for the poor. In part it aimed at keeping them from a life of crime, along with supplying artisans for the luxury goods trades which were becoming so essential to French prosperity.

Posted in Paris civic functions, Paris history, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Greeting the New Year in French

We’ve never been very good at New Year’s resolutions. I’m still carrying around that five pounds I meant to lose in, um, 2012, and Norman still hasn’t cleaned out the area around his basement work bench. But this time, we think we may be on to something, because we started early – in November.

Our plan was to spend more time in 2016 working on our French language skills. I’ve attended university in France, and Norman completed French-language requirements for graduate school and employment in Canada’s federal civil service, but for both of us, that was a long time ago (although I still have my old textbooks, shown below). When we are not in France, opportunities to use the language are infrequent.


We talked about things we could do: listening to French radio, reading French books and newspapers, and so forth, but we still felt the need for a more structured and routine approach. In the end, the answer – or a part of the answer – found us.

In November, we received an e-mail from a woman called Heloisa who represents an online French learning system called Frantastique. Would we allow her to place advertising on our site? Well, no, we can’t do that. The terms of some of the archival materials we use require us to be non-commercial. Nonetheless, she offered to let us try it for a few weeks to see what we thought.

We weren’t sure what to expect. Neither of us had ever taken an online course before.

The first ten lessons (delivered at the rate of five a week) were designed to test our knowledge of French and after that we would receive lessons tailored to our individual needs. Those first lessons were based on a quirky series of cartoons about French-speaking extraterrestrials who bring Victor Hugo back to life and set off with him on a voyage to Paris to stock up on French mustard. I for one would like a T-shirt with their slogan “Liberté Egalité Moutarde” on it.


Each lesson begins with a song, a reading, a dialogue, or an animated cartoon, containing elements of the theme of the lesson, which includes vocabulary, conjugations (audible creaking of mental gears when it came to the passé simple), and exercises focused on a particular grammatical point, such as comparisons or conditional sentences. There are aural comprehension exercises and the program scrupulously advises us of the source of the French accent: Paris, Belgium, Quebec, the south of France, and so forth; in pronunciation examples, there is usually a choice of French or Canadian.

Frantastique also makes use of songs to drive home grammatical points: here we have Edith Piaf and others in the service of the correct way to use expressions of negation. Non, je ne regrette rien.


When you have finished your exercises, you get “le dessert du jour.” I look forward to these tidbits: film clips, excerpts from songs or poems, or French proverbs. I loved this little video about an American (speaking terrible French) who wants to buy a “real French beret.”


You submit the exercises (the software first ensures that you haven’t missed anything), and receive your “Correction” within a few minutes. (At first Norman had technical problems sending the lessons, and some Corrections ended up in his spam filter, but we think we have it sorted out now.) You get a mark and copious feedback both on what you did right and why (which is helpful if you made a lucky guess on a multiple-choice question) and on what you got wrong. In future lessons, you will review your errors again, to ensure you have mastered these points. This can be a trifle annoying when the error was caused by a slip of the finger, but useful if you really didn’t grasp the grammatical rule properly.

With the Corrections come further details about the source of the “dessert” – information about the filmmaker or the songwriter or the poet. Here is the one from the video above:


Who knew Jacques Prévert made films?

At every point, you have the option to click on “EN” for an English translation of a rule or a correction. Sometimes, the English is not necessarily a translation of the French version, but an informally written note about the same point. I found this out by chance, after carefully trying to read everything in French. I was glancing at a Correction that required me to distinguish between the words “francophone” and “francophile” (terms I know well). But in scrolling down to the next part, my cursor hovered over the “EN” and the following popped up:


This gentle humour is typical. Some of the cartoons are hokey, but they keep you paying attention. Other episodes are more serious, such as the one about a heart-broken Victor Hugo writing a poem about the death of his much-loved daughter Léopoldine (Victor, shown below, makes numerous appearances in the series), or a news item about political fractures within the European Union.


Sometimes I find the lessons too short, because I am enjoying stretching disused mental muscles. They seldom take more than 10 minutes to complete, plus a few more minutes to review the Correction, and a few take even less than that, although I have asked for the longest possible lessons. But the benefit is that one can always squeeze in 10 minutes, even during the busy Christmas season. We’ve never missed a lesson (although the software is forgiving if you do, apparently).

There are other features and settings we haven’t tried. If you are a strait-laced type, you can select the “mode sans épices,” which we gather means suitable for family viewing  (although we haven’t seen anything scandalous, only the odd reference to extramarital relations and hangovers).

You can choose which five days in the week you like (but you can’t have more than five). You can suspend delivery during a vacation. You can download the app and complete your lessons on a smartphone.

One thing Frantastique cannot do, of course, is improve your spoken French. It will give you guidance about things like silent consonants at the ends of words and there are lots of examples to listen to, but it cannot tell you if you are mangling your vowels or stressing the wrong syllable. And you cannot practice the skills required for keeping up your end of a conversation. For that, we suppose, we’d need in-person instruction. (We would welcome suggestions from our readers for improving our conversational skills.) Still, Frantastique  helps with reading and aural comprehension (dictée!) and as well as grammar and vocabulary.

Now if any of this appeals to any of you, Frantastique will allow us to forward your name and e-mail address and you too will get a free trial month. We receive no money for this transaction, but we will receive extra free lessons if you then choose to subscribe. The basic subscription works out to about $1 Canadian a lesson. Given the state of the Canadian dollar, that seems reasonable.

Feel free to contact us at if you would like to give it a try.

For more information, check out the Frantastique website.

Here’s to better French in 2016. Meilleurs voeux to all our readers and correspondents.


Text by Philippa Campsie, photograph by Norman Ball; screen shots from Frantastique.


Posted in French language | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Paris is a billboard

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


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


Two ways of displaying posters. What is the connection?

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


Posted in Paris street art, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Some corner of a foreign field

To the memory of Raymond Hummel, 1886–1916, and John Sieber, 1893–1917, and to the 166 men and 1 woman of Perth Academy who died in the Great War.

The remains of my great-uncle Raymond Hummel lie in France, in a cemetery called Sucrerie. He died on 19 May 1916 at Colincamps, a village roughly mid-way between Amiens and Arras. He had arrived in France as Second Lieutenant in the West Yorkshire regiment (known as the Prince of Wales’s Own) about a week earlier. His death did not occur during one of the epic battles (Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge), but during a relatively “quiet” period several weeks before the Somme offensive, when the trench he occupied was shelled. He was 29 years old.

Raymond Hummel

I know very little about him. He was one of twins, in a family of six brothers and one sister (I am descended from the sister). His father was a chemistry professor at the University of Leeds, and the family lived in a row house near the university. You can see it on Google Street View, and to modern eyes it looks wholly inadequate for a family of eight.


Raymond wasn’t married. He signed up in August 1914 as a private, but was promoted to officer after a few weeks. I don’t know what he did between August 1914 and May 1916. His widowed mother received the news of his death in a telegram about four days after it happened. She wrote to the Secretary of the War Office asking for details, and he promised to pass the request to the regimental officer in charge, but I have not seen the response.


However, now that the events have passed into history and all who were there are dead, the government has released War Diaries, daily accounts of the conflict written by the commanding officers in the field. The one pertaining to the West Yorkshire Regiment was more than 1,000 pages long, but eventually I emerged from the haystack clutching the needle I wanted: the record of Raymond’s death, written in pencil on the evening of the day he died by an officer sitting in a muddy trench at Colincamps.


“Intermittent shelling by enemy through the day. From 1 pm to 3 pm shelled our right centre with HE, doing a good deal of damage and causing 10 casualties (2 K, 1 DW, 7 W), at MAXIM ST. NORTH. Enemy appeared to be registering a new gun behind PENDANT COPSE. Trench mortars active at intervals, 20 canister bombs falling in right section during the morning. About 50 rifle grenades sent into right section between 3 and 6 pm. Casualties: K: – 1 officer (2/Lieut. R. Hummel); 1 OR; DW – 3 OR; W – 5 OR. All artillery.”

[HE = high explosive; K=killed; DW = died of wounds; W = wounded; OR = other ranks (that is, not officers). Maxim Street North would be the name of a specific trench.]

Raymond’s grave in the Sucrerie cemetery is my family’s corner of a French field. I have never been there, but a second cousin, descended from Raymond’s youngest brother, made the trip a few years ago and sent me photographs. I hope to follow his example in 2016, the 100th year since my great-uncle died.


So many of us – Canadian, British, Australian, New Zealander, American, South African – can lay claim to a corner of a French or Belgian field. But what do we know about those who died in the First World War? Actually, a lot more than we did 50 years ago. The release of formerly confidential documents and the medium of the Internet have brought us closer to the war.

Another great-uncle, John Lonsdale Sieber, brother to my paternal grandmother, had also been killed in action. Like Raymond, he had been born in Yorkshire, but he was educated in Scotland at Perth Academy. He trained as an engineer and went to work for the Argyll Motor Works near Glasgow. Also like Raymond, he signed up as soon as war broke out. He became a Lieutenant with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

However, unlike Raymond, John survived the Battle of the Somme, although he was wounded there. When he recovered, he was sent to German East Africa with the King’s African Rifles in 1917. And unlike Raymond, he got married shortly before he left England. John Sieber was killed 17 October 1917 in what is now Tanzania; today his grave is in Dar-es-Salaam (relocated from a more remote location). He was not quite 24.


As it happens, I have a friend in Dar-es-Salaam. I wrote to her last fall and asked her if she could photograph John Sieber’s headstone. She did better than that. On November 11, 2014, she brought flowers from her garden to adorn his grave, and sent me photos.


She also took a picture of her husband standing by the stone, to give me a sense of the location of his plot in the cemetery. Her husband is the current German ambassador to Tanzania, who had participated in a ceremony of remembrance with his U.K. counterparts earlier in the day. What an extraordinary testament to the changes since 1914.


The story does not end there. In July, Norman and I were in Scotland, visiting my cousin Jane. She has a trunk full of family documents, including many related to John Sieber. She told me that members of her family had tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to trace John Sieber’s wife after the war.

Of course, I had to try. And given the resources of the Internet, I found her quite quickly. She had remarried, moved away, died in the 1970s. But during this search, I was surprised to find that someone else was looking for information about John Lonsdale Sieber. This person had posted a request for information on a forum about the Great War.

I replied, cautiously, to the effect: Who are you and why do you want to know about my great-uncle?

It turned out that the request came from Dave, a former teacher at Perth Academy, the school my great-uncle had attended. He had served in the navy for many years before becoming a teacher. At Dave’s urging, the school was commemorating the 167 students and staff members who died in the First World War and are listed on the school’s war memorial. The project is called “Flowers of the Forest,” after the tune traditionally played at the funerals of fallen soldiers.


For each name, there is a page of information, and on the 100th anniversary of each death, Perth Academy holds a brief ceremony of remembrance. I know where I will be on 17 October 2017. The school is not in the same building my great-uncle knew, but the original building is still standing in Perth. Dave sent me a photo of it.


I sent Dave what I knew about John Sieber. Then, after we’d exchanged several e-mails about the project, Dave asked if I could look up information on 10 former Perth Academy students who had emigrated to Canada after leaving the school, and who had served in Canadian regiments. I had no idea what I could contribute beyond what he had already found, but it sounded like an interesting thing to do, so I had a go, and found some details to add to the information he had collected. When I had done that, I worked on a few other names for which information was needed.

It was a fascinating excursion into the stories of individuals in the Great War and how those stories were or were not documented. Class mattered: it was easier to find information about commissioned officers than about “Other Ranks.” Indeed, the fact that my great-uncles were officers meant that their names were relatively easy to find. (In the war diary I quoted earlier, Raymond Hummel was the only casualty of the shelling that day who is mentioned by name.)

And I learned that like my great-uncle Raymond, many had died in between the big battles, in periods described as “quiet” or “uneventful” in military records. They were listed as “killed in action” if they died on the spot from a shell or a sniper’s bullet, even if the action in question was eating dinner, smoking a cigarette, or chatting with fellow soldiers. If they did not die immediately, they were listed as having “died of wounds.”

I became familiar with the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (originally the Imperial War Graves Commission), and their many idiosyncrasies. I learned to squint at badly transcribed records to figure out what the actual words might have been. Here is an example. The Royal British Legion, using information from the CWGC, published this page on its site:


Corporal J Hardie

Royal Engineers, Died on 15 October 1916 age 26

Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension, Nord

Nord France

Native of Perth. Son of Bailie T. K. M. Hardie, J.P., and Agnes J. N. Hardie, of “Eveenbrae,” Petticur Rd., Kinghorn, Fife.

The first thing to catch my eye was the improbable name “Eveenbrae.” Has any house ever had that name?

Turned out it was a mistranscription of “Greenbrae.” I was so pleased at identifying it properly that Dave took a drive along the (misspelled) road in question and photographed the house.


But we also realized that the record is utterly misleading, since Greenbrae was the house that Hardie’s mother moved to after her husband died in 1920. The War Graves Commission was doing its work in the 1920s, so the names, places, and dates may be out of kilter with the families of men who died between 1914 and 1918. Jack Hardie (I don’t know why the CWGC listed him only by his initial; his first name wasn’t hard to find) never lived in Fife, and neither did his father.

Speaking of fathers, Jack Hardie’s dad wasn’t T.K.M. Hardie, but John King Morrison Hardie. He was a leading citizen of Perth (a Bailie is a town councillor), worked as a hairdresser and perfumer, and had a notable political career which merited a sizeable obituary in the local paper when he died in 1920.

Of course, the Internet being what it is, one mistranscription can be repeated many times, frustrating the searches of those who are trying to trace relatives.

Still, Dave drew on information in local newspapers and school yearbooks as well as official records, to ensure greater accuracy. Eventually, his work will be printed up as a book of remembrance for the school, although the project will never be really finished, as relatives like me learn about the project and come forward with new information.

On November 11, I will stand in silence and remember Raymond Hummel and John Sieber. I have always been moved by the words that are usually repeated at that time: “They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old…” but more and more I think they are not the right words, or at least, they fall short.

Growing old is no great accomplishment. Perhaps we should say: “They will not have families as we who are left have families” (Where are my missing second cousins who were never born?). “They will not contribute to their communities as we who are left can contribute to our communities” (What inventions, artworks, structures, laws, institutions, ideas, businesses, books, and other contributions are we missing because they died when they did?).

Nevertheless, in the end, “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”


Sucrerie Cemetery.


Written by Philippa Campsie; photographs by Peter Lind, Wendy Kochanke, and David Dykes; documents from, Google Street View, and the National Archives of the United Kingdom.










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Designer of the invisible

When you arrive at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, one of the first things you will see is the work of a man who died on September 10 of this year: Adrian Frutiger, type designer.


You won’t give it a minute’s thought. You will look for your gate and the shops and move on. But the ease of finding your plane and your duty-free Veuve Clicquot depends on clear signs. Now, of course, more and more airports are signed in pictograms. But not everything can turned into a picture (such as, apparently, an airport lounge, judging by the image above). And for those signs, there’s Frutiger. The designer’s name is now forever attached to the typeface used at Charles de Gaulle.

Frutiger’s obituary in the New York Times on September 20 quotes Erik Spiekermann, a German type designer, who notes that the Frutiger typeface “doesn’t call attention to itself…it makes itself invisible, but physically it’s actually incredibly legible.”

The best typefaces are invisible. One is so busy absorbing the content of the message that the actual form of the message disappears. As Frutiger himself put it, “If you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch, it has to be the wrong shape. The spoon and the letter are tools; one to take food from the bowl, the other to take information off the page… When it is a good design, the reader has to feel comfortable because the letter is both banal and beautiful.”

Frutiger seems to have developed this approach over time. After training in Switzerland, where he was born, he settled in Paris and went to work for the type foundry Deberny and Peignot.


(Now here is where I get to admit that I am a type snob, and the minute I saw the name “Peignot,” I thought, what, the creators of that font? The font named Peignot, which is not the one shown above, was designed in 1937 and enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s. It may look familiar to people of a certain age as the font used for the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I don’t think it has aged well. But I digress.)

Frutiger’s first efforts with Deberny and Peignot were varied: President, Ondine, Meridian. These are not invisible or banal typefaces, but he was a young man making a name for himself at this point. Here is a sample of each, in order:

Frutiger fonts

Things changed in 1954 when he developed the simple, clean, sans serif font Univers. This was three years before the creation of the now-ubiquitous Helvetica. Frutiger indicated the difference between the two quite simply: “Helvetica is the jeans, and Univers the dinner jacket.” If you compare the two, you will see the subtle elegance of Univers in comparison to the workaday appearance of Helvetica:

Univers and Helvetica

(The top one is Univers.)

But there was more to it than that. Univers was a system, a whole family of fonts that could be specified by number, rather than the vaguer, more subjective terms “bold” or “extra bold” or “italic” or “condensed.” It was neat, precise, and well-organized and allowed for greater choice.

Univers font family

Here’s one of many examples of Univers in use: London street signs.


Adrian Frutiger was in his twenties when he created Univers. In 1962, at the age of 34, he opened a type design studio at the Villa Moderne in Arcueil, just outside Paris, with two colleagues, André Gürtler and Bruno Pfäffli. I am not sure if the building survives, but an image of it appears on the cover of a book.

VillaModerneArcueilA few years later, Frutiger became involved in the planning for a new Paris airport at Roissy, to the north of the city. I love his description of the early discussions:

Paul Andreu, a dynamic young architect and engineer, was entrusted with this project. He formed an architectural study group comprising interior architects, color specialists, philosophers, a musician and a typographer. Long evening sessions for brainstorming were accompanied by food and drink.

The discussions were something quite new for me. Each member of the group just said the first thing that came into his head on successive subjects. I remember one of them recommending that the experience of take-off be made to last as long as possible, so that passengers could truly and deeply experience their separation from Mother Earth. After half a dozen glasses of wine we heard proposals like the desirability of laying down a pasture for sheep at the airport.

Can’t you just see it? Philosophers and a musician! I am willing to bet that most of them were wearing black turtlenecks and smoking Gauloises as well as knocking back the red wine. Frutiger continues:

I was commissioned to design the entire signage system for the airport. Everyone thought that I would want to use the Univers typeface, but I was aware that this kind of sanserif face had too round and closed an effect for the easy recognition of word-signs. I took out the drawings of Concorde, the sanserif which I had designed…in collaboration with André Gürtler, and made some sketches. The banana-yellow background recommended by the color specialist was obtained by superimposing several transparent Letraset color foils, and we cut the word “Départ” from a rather bolder and more expanded version of Concorde, with the word “Departures” pasted above it in black. Proof of better legibility than Univers was not hard to demonstrate. In addition, Paul Andreu was fascinated by the thought of using a special kind of “Airport Type.”

Thus was born the typeface now known as Frutiger, although it was first called “Roissy” and only later named for its creator. One distinctive touch was the stubby little arrows used to indicate direction.


(As for the musician who participated in those late-night debates, he might have been Bernard Parmegiani, who created the sound known as “Indicatif Roissy” that used to play just before an announcement over the PA system. Click here to hear it.)

Frutiger later reconsidered his work at the airport, still referring to the typeface as “Roissy”:

What I may say as a critic, after thirty years of the use of Roissy Airport typography, is this: that the Roissy face is too light and too closely set. Moreover there is too little space, too narrow, around the letters, especially in the signage for the access roads. The first thing the driver sees on arriving is the colored rectangle.

He was always very conscious of the space around type, of the voids and shapes created by the background behind the type. Indeed, he once said, “When I put my pen to a blank sheet, black isn’t added but rather the white sheet is deprived of light… Thus I also grasped that the empty spaces are the most important aspect of a typeface.”

Meanwhile, his typeface had left the airport and entered the Metro. Yes, those wayfinding signs are Frutiger.

Frutiger Paris Metro

(Newer Metro signage uses upper and lower-case letters and is in a typeface known as Parisine, created by Jean-François Porchez. But the older signs in all caps tend to be Frutiger.)

You’ve also seen it on Rand McNally maps published since 2004 (before that, it was Univers).

Rand McNally


And here in Canada, our national radio and television broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, uses a version of Frutiger Bold.

CBC logo

Everywhere, and yet invisible. Frutiger went on to create more fonts that were less self-effacing, such as Herculaneum, Iridium, Serifa, and Versailles, shown in order below.

Frutiger later fonts

But he will probably always be best known for the unremarked but nonetheless extraordinary fonts that get us where we want to go.

Adrian Frutiger, 1928–2015


Text by Philippa Campsie; font samples created at, which is also the source of the quotations from Adrian Frutiger; photograph of Adrian Frutiger by Henk Gianotten, other images from Wikipedia.

If you are interested and would like to learn more, I recommend the slides and commentary by Mark Simonson, available on SlideShare.


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A city built on air

A few years ago, we found this postcard in a street market, showing a sinkhole in the Place Saint-Augustin.

sinkhole Paris 1914002 (2)

What on earth (or under the earth) had happened during the storm of June 15, 1914? We found one account in the August 1914 edition of Popular Mechanics:

Popular Mechanics August 1914

Of course, this wasn’t the first time the earth had opened up. Sinkholes are bound to happen in a city built on a hollow foundation.

When you look at some of the beautiful stone buildings of Paris, much of what you are seeing was once beneath the city. Since Roman times, underground quarries below the city have yielded limestone and gypsum. Paris, especially its southern and northern extents, is built upon the empty spaces left by the seemingly insatiable desire to bring the underground above ground.

Underground quarrying was a long tradition. There was no overall supervision, but skilled quarrymen (usually) knew when to stop. They read the clues in the groans emanating from the rocks, in the appearance of ceiling cracks or rockfalls. The caverns they left behind were littered with debris and punctuated by columns of undisturbed rock to bear the weight of the city above.

Over time, more and more massive piles of stone–churches, palaces, shops, and houses–were built over quarries in areas that had once been outside the city. Above ground, buildings were inspected carefully, while below ground, nobody thought to take a look.

But life can change in the blink of an eye.

December 17, 1774. One of the main routes into the city from the south brought merchants and tradespeople through the “Barrière d’Enfer.” Enfer means hell. There are various theories as to how the street got its name, not all of which deal with hell. But that day, the street seemed well named.

At about three o’clock in the afternoon, as Graham Robb writes in Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, “There was a sound of a giant heaving a great sigh and stretching his limbs… Along the eastern side of the Rue d’Enfer…for what proved to be one quarter of a mile, a gaping trench had opened up and swallowed all the houses.” It was called, for obvious reasons, “the Mouth of Hell.”

(We consulted a map to figure out where this disaster had occurred, but most maps of the day show mainly orchards and fields surrounding religious establishments along that stretch of road. The image below is from the 1775 Plan de Jaillot. The customs barrier is roughly in the centre. Admittedly, that was a year after the cave-in, but it’s hard to tell where the houses might have once been and where the Mouth of Hell opened.)

Plan de Jaillot

One of the King’s architects, Antoine Dupont, was appointed to inspect the damage and carry out immediate remedial underground work in the rue d’Enfer. But a longer-term and wider-reaching solution was needed.

The French might not have invented bureaucratic inertia, but they had a certain track record. More than two years later, on April 4, 1777, Louis XIV created the Inspectorate General Service of Quarries, to inventory, map, and consolidate the cavities under public property and maintain a watch for further changes.

Further paperwork was, of course, required. Finally, on April 24, 1777, the first Inspector of Quarries assumed his duties. Charles-Axel Guillaumot was a brilliant architect, winner of the Prix de Rome at age 20, but he had not been born in France, and was denied the scholarships that would have given him both training and connections. Still, he worked hard and developed a reputation for fixing up other architects’ failures. He also had the sense to marry the daughter of the chief architect of Paris, but the big commissions had eluded him until now.

On the very day Guillaumot took office, another collapse occurred near the convent of the Feuillants des Anges Gardiens, closer to the centre of the city. Guillaumot was on his way to the site of the first collapse in a sedan chair, but the way was blocked by traffic and officials. His royal warrant let him through to the site of a twenty-foot-diameter sinkhole. Clearly, the job was going to be larger than anyone had foreseen.

At that point, no one knew the full extent of the underground quarrying. Guillaumot deployed cartographers to map the world below the streets of Paris. What they discovered was astounding: some quarried areas were in layers. One generation of quarrymen had stopped work and years later, another found the old workings and went deeper to create new quarries. As Robb explains, “The floor of each quarry then became the roof of yet another mine, so that now, instead of finding solid rock beneath the tunnel floor, Guillaumot encountered vast cavities buttressed only by a few teetering piles of stone.”

Guillaumot’s job was to save Paris from collapsing in on itself. He embarked on this work with an architectural and design sensitivity that most would have thought only the aboveground world deserved. In essence, he created a mirror city underground, with streets and squares, walls and columns, but no dwellings.

Underground map

As Robb puts it, Guillaumot constructed “the largest architectural ensemble in all of Europe” – much larger than Versailles (Robb estimates the linear distance at two hundred miles) and mostly invisible. “More cartographers were employed on the map of the underworld than had worked on Cassini’s map of the entire kingdom.”

Today, Guillaumot’s one visible achievement is the Catacombs. This was created when the ninth-century – and continuously used – Cimetière des Saints Innocents became too full and a retaining wall collapsed in 1780. Like the cave-in of 1914, it occurred following a long spell of rainfall. The results were neither pretty nor sweet-scented.

Guillaumot came up with a solution. He had an ossuary installed in his underground city and arranged to move the dead there. Work started in 1786 and continued for a year as the remains of Paris’s dead were exhumed and relocated. Rather than simply piling the untold number of bones in an untidy heap, Guillaumot devised a huge sculptural assemblage of human bones organized by type.

Where the cemetery once stood, there is now an open space with a fountain. We took this picture of it in 2009:


Guillaumot’s career was interrupted by the Revolution. He was imprisoned: he had been, after all, a royal appointee. Unlike many, however, he was eventually freed and in 1794 resumed his work as Inspector of Quarries and continued until his death at the age of 77.

There is a curious footnote to his life. Guillaumot was buried in the Cimetière Sainte-Catherine after his death in 1807. But the city grew, cemeteries filled, and eventually the bodies were relocated. The Cimetière Sainte-Catherine was excavated in 1883. Guillaumot’s gravestone disappeared and his remains were conveyed to the ossuary he himself had envisioned and built. His now-anonymous skeleton joined the three-dimensional sculpture of human remains that was part of his legacy.

The city he built underneath Paris has been used for everything from growing mushrooms to (more recently) all-night raves. Victor Hugo made good use of this city in his novels.

Meanwhile, the work of the Inspector continues and the maps of the streets below the streets are kept up to date. There are even online interactive versions:

Quarry map

Brown is for quarries; yellow is for gypsum (which is soluble and has a nasty tendency to dissolve in periods of heavy rain). Purple is for areas of erosion and ancient sand or clay pits.

Whenever property changes hands in Paris in any area known to have ancient quarries, the seller must provide assurances that the structure is secure.

And the current office of the Inspector is, appropriately enough, located close to where it all began at the Mouth of Hell: on the rue Denfert-Rochereau, in the customs house built by Ledoux in the 1780s.



Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie.

The full story of Guillaumot is told by Graham Robb in Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris, Picador, 2010.


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Geraniums by any other name

We are fairly laid-back gardeners. Our Toronto garden is small and shady, and nearly all the plants are perennials that come up every year on their own so we do not have to “put in” the garden every spring. We have tried growing vegetables, but the raccoons and squirrels chew them as soon as they are edible. They don’t eat them exactly, they just sample them so that nobody else can eat them. At least they leave the kitchen herbs and the garlic alone.

But every year, without fail, Norman buys geraniums and plants them in pots. That way we can move them around so there will be colour in the garden wherever it is needed. Fire engine red and shocking pink. They do not survive Canadian winters, alas, so we buy new ones each year.


Which got me thinking about the geraniums we see in Paris window boxes. Actually, the correct name is pelargoniums, but only serious gardeners call them that.

We’ve seen them on boats.


We’ve seen them on the façades of chic hotels.


We’ve seen double-decker arrangements of window boxes.


And charming little countrified arrangements in courtyards.


Why is the plant so popular? For one thing, as Anne Wilkinson points out in The Passion for Pelargoniums, it is “easy to grow, easily available, and stands up to a considerable amount of neglect.”* It also seems to tolerate city air and dust. And in Paris (unlike here) it apparently overwinters: here are some dried-out specimens at Christmastime, but they will probably bounce back in the spring.


Today, geraniums/pelargoniums are considered rather unremarkable plants, what Wilkinson calls “municipalized,” because they are often found in city parks and in front of public buildings. They are so common in Paris window boxes that they barely register unless you look for them. But there was a time when they were considered the last word in horticultural fashion.

Pelargoniums are a native of southern Africa, and the first ones were brought to Europe by travellers in the latter part of the 17th century. They proved easy to hybridize and horticulturalists produced hundreds of versions.


But the plant really came into its own in the 19th century. One early adopter was the first Empress of France, Joséphine Bonaparte. Joséphine was obsessed with gardens and plants.

It was said that the only books in the Empress’s apartments were botanical ones. She could name every plant in the greenhouse in Latin and give its country of origin; a botanical erudition that her courtiers found deeply tedious.**

You can bet she wouldn’t have called them “geraniums.” Joséphine contributed to the travel expenses of a plant collector, James Niven, who brought back pelargoniums from the Cape of Good Hope, along with varieties of heather and ixia (a brightly coloured relative of irises and crocuses). Joséphine wanted to make her garden at Malmaison into a spectacular display of rare and beautiful plants. And for a time, she succeeded, but the garden she created has long since disappeared.


Over the course of the 19th century, the popularity of pelargoniums increased as more and more people came to enjoy growing flowers, even in the cities – indeed, particularly in cities. As art historian Laura Anne Kalba notes:

No longer simply the affair of a few nurserymen catering to wealthy amateur plant collectors, the growing and selling of flowers became a specialized and increasingly sizeable industry in France starting in the mid-nineteenth century, as gardening became a fashionable hobby for the middle class and it became possible even for the working class to spend resources on such evanescent pleasures as flowers… Imported from all over the world; hybridized, grown and cared for in commercial nurseries; advertised in catalogs; and sold in open-air markets and boutiques, flowers were…designed for immediate and renewed consumption, very much like newspapers.***

The Marché aux Fleurs on the Ile de la Cité, established in 1808, was in the vanguard of this trend. Flower markets in the Place de la Madeleine and the Place des Ternes opened later in the century as the city expanded outwards.

(Now that I think about it, much has been made of the culinary contributions of chefs who had to find new outlets for their talents after the Revolution, when their aristocratic employers had fled or been imprisoned or guillotined – I have not seen an equivalent story about the fate of the gardeners who served the former aristocracy. What happened to them?)


As city dwellers took up DIY gardening, easy-going pelargoniums became particularly popular. Part of the appeal was their bright colours. Intense colours were fashionable in the 19th century, helped along by the introduction of chemical dyes that produced fabrics and paints that were more vivid than those created with vegetable dyes. Kalba links this development to the rise of Impressionism:

Impressionism came forth in an already evolving visual field, in which the natural merged with the artificial and the real with the imaginary, and nurserymen, landscape artists, gardeners, florists, and artificial flower makers configured the urban landscape as an arrangement of vivid dabs of colour.

It’s an arresting image: the city itself as an Impressionist painting. I’ve mentioned before that Paris was a lot more colourful than people realize in the 19th century – not all buildings were unrelieved expanses of grey stone or dull stucco. And as more and more people took up window-box gardening, more colour was added.


Kalba goes on to describe the fashion for arranging brightly coloured flowers into “mosaïculture”:

…a style of gardening that used bedding flowers and colourful, leafy dwarf plants to create figures, words, or abstract ornamental patterns. Popularized in France at the Universal Expositions of 1867 and 1878 and the temporary exhibits of horticultural societies, the style enjoyed widespread appeal among members of the general public.

Horticultural critics at the time considered mosaïculture a sacrilege, since the flowers were not appreciated for their individual forms and qualities, but treated as pixels in a larger image. (One wonders what they would have thought of 20th-century floral clocks in places like Edinburgh and Niagara Falls.)


Still, through all the changes in horticultural fashion, cheerful pelargoniums retained their enduring appeal, surviving in pots and window boxes to brighten French streetscapes. And in our garden to remind us of Paris.


Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie

*Anne Wilkinson, The Passion for Pelargoniums: How They Found Their Place in the Garden, The History Press, 2007.

**Patricia Taylor, Thomas Blaikie: The Capability Brown of France 1751–1838, Tuckwell Press, 2001.

***Laura Anne Kalba, “Blue Roses and Yellow Violets: Flowers and the Cultivation of Color in Nineteenth-Century France,” Representations, Fall 2012, pp. 83–114.

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