Paris in the year 2000, viewed from 1900

It seems that humans cannot resist dabbling in predicting the future. We have an innate need to ignore Yogi Berra’s clear warning, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” So what did the year 2000 look like from a vantage point 100 years earlier? Let’s look at a few examples from a series of cigarette cards designed to be given away at the International Exposition of 1900 in Paris.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Electric_scrubbingOur parlour maid has a wonderful-looking machine to clean her wooden parquet floor. The machine looks a bit awkward, but has a traditional scrub brush and bar of soap. Indeed, it seems to be electrically powered, but the cord leads only to the wand the maid is holding.

As for the rest of the room, it seems very much of the late 1800s: a large potted plant; the ever-respectable but economical upright piano; heavy curtains and a blind at the window; a statue on a plinth; and two paintings on the walls. Did year 2000 ever look more like the year 1900? At least the maid does not seem to have a strenuous job. Let’s look at some other workers.

France_in_XXI_Century._FarmerClearly our farmer of the year 2000 is living better electrically. He sits on a stool working the controls while the electrically powered machines do what was once done by human labour. An electric harvester cuts the grain and perhaps even ties it in stooks. Another machine piles hay or grain into large mounds.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Air_postmanRapid everyday delivery by postmen who had conquered the air meant one no longer had to depend on those unreliable telegraph delivery boys. All has been arranged. Just lean out from your balcony and grab the letters as he flies by.

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After a hard day’s work, or just to get ready for a night out on the town, a gentleman would need to visit his barber. But in the year 2000, the barber was a machine controller.  Mechanical arms shave the man sitting in the chair on the right. He looks a bit uncomfortable. The customer standing seems finished and the final errant hairs on his coat are being brushed off mechanically. The jolly man in the chair on the left is enjoying a chance to relax. Perhaps he is thinking of a trip to his tailor for a made-in-no-time suit for the opera.

France_in_XXI_Century._Latest_fashionThe man’s measurements are taken mechanically and sent to the forbidding-looking tailoring machine. It begins by gobbling up material from the bolt of fabric to the left of the machine. After  internal machinations, it spits out a completed suit jacket. But the men’s costumes show that fashion has not changed a bit since 1900.

Meanwhile, at home, other preparations are taking place.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Toilette_madameAgain we see the electric wires, control handles, and, above the bathtub, a brush with a strong resemblance to that used by the parlour maid to scrub the parquet floors. Madame is seated comfortably, even seductively, while her hair is done to perfection by electrical apparatus and all manner of other preparations completed. The mirror obscures what is happening to her foot, but the contraption looks fierce.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Air_cabOur happy couple of the future live only a short walk away from the Aero-Cab Station, where one never has to wait long for an aero-cab. The trip is over so quickly that there is hardly time to glance at the newspaper purchased at the newsstand before taking the elevator to the boarding level.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Robot_orchestraThe couple look down from their box at the Opera. Members of the audience are dressed in their finest, the story unfolding on stage is an old one. The music emanating from the orchestra pit comes from familiar instruments, all of which are controlled mechanically. The conductor has been reduced to sitting at a control panel. And without musicians to watch, something seems to be missing from the drama of a night at the opera.

But the next day brings an outing in a highly unusual vehicle.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Rolling_houseWho would have thought that one could put a house on wheels, fit it up with a steam engine, chefs, waiters, and a skilful driver? All of this so one could dine in comfort while heading for an afternoon at the seashore. Such a delightful prospect, part of what makes the future worth waiting for.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._DiversFor the adventurous sort, there was always (sea)horseback riding. But with the boots, breeches, swords, and breathing apparatus, it all seems too energetic. The new underwater breathing apparatus was best reserved for more decorous pursuits.

France_in_XXI_Century._Water_croquetA jolly good game of croquet made for a perfect day. And as the woman’s dress suggests, it was an entertainment for those who knew how to dress. But some who enjoyed an afternoon watching a race beneath the waves seemed to have taken some liberties with their attire.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Race_in_PacificClearly the woman with the scandalously short skirt must have come directly from her work dancing on stage in a club frequented by the…well, by those whose names and stations in society we shall not repeat here.

But much as the world beneath the sea beckoned, there were other opportunities to have fun, high above the mountains.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Little_robbersThese naughty lads have been lucky to escape with their lives when the mother eagle attacks them to protect her baby eaglets. Have little boys not learned anything in the last 100 years? Whatever are they teaching them in the schools?


The new learning machines were perhaps not as effective as they were expensive. The teacher could feed the books into the machine; the least well-behaved boy in the class could turn the crank, but what did the electric wires feed into the young pupils heads? Today we know the expression “garbage in, garbage out.” Perhaps the books were outdated and stale. And how did anyone know if the boys (no girls to be seen in this school) were even paying attention to the lessons coursing through the wires?

Were the lads dreaming of the day when they would have their own airplane? Or a career as a dashing aviation policeman?

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Flying_policeOr were they imagining a career in surveillance?


Perhaps some dreamed of the day when young boys (note the sailor suits in the image below) went off to war. Some by air…

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._War_plane…and some by land.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._War_carsAnd perhaps some dreamed that they could rescue those in peril.

France_in_XXI_Century._Air_firefightersAnd as each dreamed of the future, how many would realize what a jumbled mixture of past and present their dreams were made of? While hovering in the air to rescue child and infant, a steam engine on the ground pushed water up through the hose and onto the flames.

The images presented here show colourful visions of the year 2000 when it was 100 years into the future. There are 87 or more known cards in the series started by the French artist Jean-Marc Côté. The artist had been commissioned by a toy-and-novelty company called Armand Gervais et Cie of Lyon to produce images for cigarette cards to be distributed at the International Exposition of 1900 in Paris.

Unfortunately, Gervais died unexpectedly and his company ceased operations. The cards were never distributed. The plant closed down and was left untouched for almost a quarter of a century. Then a toy collector, Monsieur Renaud, visited the premises with the idea of using it to manufacture toys. He discovered instead the untouched inventory of the Gervais company, including the cards. Monsieur Renaud decided not to produce toys, but to buy the entire stock of the company as the basis of a left-bank store called Editions Renaud.

In 1978 the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and his wife were living in Paris. They visited Editions Renaud, hit it off with Monsieur Renaud (who was then quite elderly) and bought a set of cards. According to Asimov, the set was the only one not to have been damaged by water in the abandoned factory. Intrigued with the collection, he wrote a book about it, published in 1986.

Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000 is an astounding piece of work. I recommend it highly. I bought it some years ago, read it with enjoyment, and then somehow forgot about it until I was sorting some books that I had left in storage and rediscovered an old friend. Soon I, too, wanted to learn more.

My discovery of the online images of the Public Domain Review led to this blog. The site is well worth any time one spends there. So I dedicate this blog to Jean-Marc Côté, other unnamed artists who contributed to the series, Armand Gervais, Monsieur Renaud, Isaac Asimov and his wife Mariea (who, like my wife, speaks far better French than her husband).


Let us leave this blog with another improbable image. It reminds me of the many futuristic images and stories that entertained us in our younger years when we were enraptured by Popular Mechanics magazine and the works of Jules Verne. However entranced we may be by the new and different, we seem to seek comfort in novelty and unintentionally lug the past into our visions of the future.

Text by Norman Ball; images courtesy Public Domain Review


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Fifty Ways to Close Your Shutters

On our last visit to Paris in June, we did most of our travelling by bus, which meant time spent waiting at bus stops and journeys on which we gazed out the window at the streets, instead of hurtling through a darkened tunnel on the Metro. And that meant studying Paris facades, ever familiar and ever new, noting details and differences.

This time it was shutters. I started to notice all the different forms and styles and began to photograph them. For example, here is a photograph showing the two most common styles of all – exterior wooden louvred shutters above and folding metal shutters below. Utterly ordinary, and yet remarkable.


When I tried to figure out the correct terms in French, I found myself in a thicket of words – volets, persiennes, contrevents, jalousies, stores, couvre-fenêtres, grilles de défense – plus a host of variations. Volets roulants valenciennes, persiennes à l’abbattant relevé, store cassette

For no particular reason (other than what else are you going to do while waiting at a bus stop?), I decided to create a typology of shutters.

First off, those wooden shutters are called volets (or to be more precise, volets battants, to distinguish them from volets roulants, or roll-down shutters).* Here is a typical Paris façade, photographed as a demonstration passed in front, with residents looking out to see what is going on. But when I looked again, I noticed that these windows are slightly unusual, because they are combined with individual awnings.


These shutters need regular painting to keep them looking this tidy. Many Paris facades, however, do not get that kind of attention.


Most, but not all, shutters have louvres in them to let through light or air. The term jalousie (literally, “jealousy”) was coined for shutters that allow the person inside to look out without being seen.


The ones on the right with large and obvious hinges seem to be a very traditional design for what appear to be fairly modern security shutters.

Inside the shutters, there are other details, all with specific terms. This comes from a helpful website called “lexique des volets,” by a shutter manufacturer.


Such old-fashioned and rather rustic shutters can be found in Paris, if you look.


Notice the hardware on the open shutters. The interior closing mechanism is called an espagnolette. There are several types, shown on the website of a woodworking company.


Just when you thought shutters were simple things.

But I wanted to find the word to describe something we have seen from time to time – the little fixtures on the exterior wall used to hold the shutter and prevent it from swinging back and forth in the wind. Some are plain, but some have faces or other decorations on them. Norman photographed one in the Marais a few years ago.


If you look closely at the next photo, you will see them holding back the shutters. (This is quite a complicated window, with its security grill and frosted glass privacy screen.)


I found that they are called “arrêts de volet” (shutter stops) or “arrêts de vent” (wind stops), and they come in many forms and colours. You can still buy ones with faces on them: arrêts bergère, suggesting that the face with the hat and the long hair is that of a shepherdess. Isn’t French hardware wonderful?

Arrets de vent

But these are modern ones. The oldest are simply bits of metal in a T-shape that project out from the wall and swivel to hold the shutter against the wall. You can see them at the Maison de Balzac, where they are still in use, painted green to match the shutters.


Commercial premises sometimes have wooden shutters that fold right into the wall and don’t need an arrêt de volet. In the next picture, I like the way everything, including the hinges, are flush with the wall. (I am also fascinated by the various metal openings near the ground, but any investigation of them will have to wait for another blog.)


Then there are persiennes. The term is used for a variety of louvred shutters, but it seems to be the common term for those folding metal exterior shutters that we have wrestled with in various rented apartments. They always seem to be slightly bent, so it is hard to get the closing to engage. Years ago, when I was a student and au pair in Paris, I used to help an elderly lady downstairs with her persiennes in the evenings. She was in her eighties and very bent and frail. She seemed able to open them on her own, but struggled with closing them.

Here is a photo that Norman took of the rusty persiennes in a flat we rented several times in the Marais.


Persiennes of this type have the advantage of tucking neatly into the window embrasure, so when they are open, they do not clutter the façade or obstruct the view. But closed, they are not particularly attractive.


Modern shutters tend to be the roll-down kind (volets roulants), also very dull-looking, but practical. Some are electric and roll down at the push of a button, others have a hand-crank. Many are used as security shutters on commercial premises, and they tend to attract graffiti.


On this Art Deco building, note the frames that allow the shutters to function as awnings, open at the bottom.


Fabric awnings and blinds are known as stores, and the window awnings that stand at an angle to the window seem to be called stores à l’italienne. (Stores also can mean interior blinds, as in stores venétiens or Venetian blinds.) I noticed awnings on quite a few institutional buildings. Here is the Port Royal maternity hospital.


(Note also the interesting half-shutters just under the eaves.)

Exterior window blinds made of fabric seem quite common. Here are some rather dingy ones on a university building in the Latin Quarter. Of course, they would be impossible to keep clean.


Bamboo is similarly used for exterior window coverings.


The more I looked at windows, the more variations I noticed. This row of small shutters intrigued me. With all those huge expanses of glass above and below, what is the purpose of the shuttered windows? And note the persiennes to the left that leave the curved top of the window uncovered. The question of what to do with windows of unusual shapes must bedevil some Parisian homeowners.


Of all the words I discovered in my typology of windows, the most exotic is moucharabieh. This is a word from North Africa for the filigreed window coverings, usually carved wood, on Moroccan buildings. The most outstanding Parisian version is found at the Institut du Monde Arabe, where the openings are designed to respond to changes in the light by opening and closing.

P1150124 2

My typology is hardly exhaustive, and the possibilities are endless. One could compile a further list just of modern window coverings, quite a few of them one-off architectural features.

Next time you are standing at a Paris bus stop, you can pass the time by counting the number of types of shutters and window closings you can see. Chances are, even a single façade will have more than one type. How many do you see in the photo below?


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

*Volet is a word with many, many meanings. This translation website shows the many ways in which this word is used, and “shutter” is mentioned only a couple of times.


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The scavengers

Major nineteenth-century cities such as Paris or London depended on complex ecosystems in which the showiest sometimes obscured underlying layers. Consider a city in which by 1900 it was said that as many as 300,000 cigars (perhaps the number included cigarettes) were consumed daily.

Paris cigars001

In 1890, Saint-Juirs, author of La Seine à Travers Paris (from which the illustration above is taken) warned readers that in La Place Maubert and its surroundings, “all the vices were represented” in the dives (bouges) frequented by “the worst specimens of the human species.” And yet, in these shady quarters, there were also honest people making a living. These were practitioners of les petits métiers or small trades. One group made a living from discarded cigars and cigarette butts.

In this shady milieu the honest people are represented by the scavengers of cigar butts, who have an industry that is respectable, even if not lucrative. Badly dressed in grimy, ragged clothes, the scavengers go into the rich areas, on the boulevards when café terraces are filled with guests; they watch intently around the theatres. Their eyes on the ground, they chase after bits of tobacco. The most well-off have a hook to grab the cigars thrown away by the smoker; the poorer ones pick up the remains with their hands. All of them have large pockets or bags to gobble up their harvest. The prodigality of the rich feeds their small earnings. In fact the streets give to those who exploit them more tobacco than that produced from ten fine plantations. Cigarette butts, cigar ends, either common or high-priced, the orphans abandoned on the sidewalks and carefully collected each day give a harvest of appreciable value. There are often pieces of good fortune, for the most expensive cigars, the havanas worth three francs, were rare finds.

In today’s currency three francs would be around €7. “All this debris is washed, then cut and formed into a special tobacco, superior in quality to caporal tobacco. The gatherers dry it by putting it in the sun on the banks of the river; then they retrace their steps to  Place Maubert,  where they run their market.”

4309fc1b3e66ab505919ad69e5372084-2 In the photo above, taken about 1900, photographer Louis Vert has captured some men processing their tobacco finds on one of the embankments. The results would eventually end up as pipe tobacco or in roll-your-own cigarettes.

According to Gustave Macé, a former chef de la police de Sûreté, cigarette-butt and cigar-end scavengers were organized into groups with their own territories. Each had a leader whose many tasks included keeping track of potentially good picking sites such as well-to-do weddings, important funerals, and church festivals.


In this 1900 photo by Jacques Boyer, a lone worker is unpacking and sorting his finds. As with any product sold on the open market, prices varied according to supply and demand as well as quality. A cigar barely smoked fetched a better price than a short butt. The former could simply have the ash cut off and be sold as a small cigar, whereas those smoked down to a short stub had to be cut up and the tobacco mixed with other scavenged bits.

The top of the food—or tobacco—chain was occupied by those described as “moneybags” (richards) who specialized in cigars bought from waiters in cafés who kept an eye out for those precious barely smoked ones that could be resold immediately.


If you look closely at this caricature of a night of excess, you will spot the treasure trove of cigar and cigarette butts that scavengers sought.

One wonders what the tobacco tasted like and who bought it. Saint-Juirs claimed it to be superior to caporal, which was a strong dark tobacco. The reclaimed street tobacco was probably not renowned for either sweet aroma or gentle taste. However, it served its intended market of the  poverty-stricken elderly (vieillards indigents) or poor workmen. For those of us of a certain age, the smell of street tobacco might bring back memories of the would-be-poets and budding philosophers of our university days who proclaimed their pretensions with the strong aroma of Gauloise cigarettes.

In his 1867 book Les petites industries, Edmond Texier explained the origins of some of the little ways of making a living that were “not listed in the dictionary.” Nobody grew up with the dream of living off cigar and cigarette butts. Rather, such an occupation was “the conquest of the imagination by stomach cramps.” The need to eat threw one into such careers.

As Jean-Michel Le Corfec reminds us in Les petits métiers de Paris, those who were excluded from the mainstream of society either had to depend on public charity or find some kind of work to be able to eat. Living off discarded cigars and cigarette butts was one way.


As for the smokers, the photographic archives yielded this photo, taken during the Commune of 1871. The woman looks as if she is enjoying a well-earned smoke and there will be little left for the scavengers.

The rich photographic and artistic history of Paris has captured some of the little trades that made up the functioning city. In a later blog I will describe some other petits métiers of Paris. They were essential parts of a complex city and a now-vanished way of life.

Text and translations by Norman Ball

Photographic images courtesy of Paris en Images, except for the first image, which is from Saint-Juirs,  La Seine à Travers Paris, Illustrée de 230 Dessins et de 17 Compositions en Couleurs par G. Fraipont. Paris: Librairie Artistique, 1890.

Additional information from Jean-Michel Le Corfec, Les Petits Métiers de Paris. Bordeaux: Éditions Sud Ouest, 2008.

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Pippa, Pouch, and a Paris Publisher

We don’t usually make a big deal of birthdays. Norman’s falls in late winter just as the academic term is winding up. Philippa’s falls in early summer, just as everyone is going away. This year we were in Paris for the latter occasion. At one point we contemplated dining in a grand restaurant and or visiting some major attraction, but in the end, we just walked up the boulevard St-Jacques, stopping for lunch at Au Port du Salut, at 163 bis.*

We then wandered on to a bookshop-gallery at 25, rue du Sommerard called, appropriately, Pippa (since Pippa is the short form of Philippa’s name, used by family and old friends). The previous week, at a poetry market in the Place St-Sulpice, we had seen someone with a bag on which was printed the bookshop name and had decided that this would make a good birthday destination.


First, we asked about the name Pippa. The owner told us that the word meant a Chinese stringed instrument rather like a lute (more often spelled pipa). We never did find out why she chose it, though. And the logo is a feather, not a musical instrument.

Meanwhile, we had noticed another familiar name. The gallery in the basement was showing works by the illustrator and cartoonist François Pouch. As it happened, we already owned one of his engravings.

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Flashback to, oh, about 2005 or so. We were staying in the Marais and had taken a walk along the Canal St-Martin on a Sunday afternoon, when we came across a little open-air arts and crafts market. As we were admiring some pen-and-ink cartoons, an enormous gust of wind flattened several displays, including the one we were visiting. We immediately set to work helping the stall-holder reassemble the stand and clear away some broken glass from framed pictures that had fallen on the cobblestones. We chatted to him and ended up buying one of the unbroken pictures, an engraving by Pouch. (The glass later shattered inside Philippa’s suitcase on the way home to Canada.)

We’ve enjoyed the picture ever since – of a musician parking his modest bicycle at the bottom of a flight of grand stairs into an baroque opera house with over-the-top decoration. Pouch does a lot of images of musicians.

marché de la poésie

Flash forward again to 2014, and here are more of his pen-and-ink cartoons, with musicians and cats and rooftops. So there was the question of a birthday present settled (an original pen-and-ink work featuring all three), and we bought some books as well. Of course. Our plans to reduce the number of books in our lives always come to naught.


Librairie Pippa sells books by small and independent publishers, including its own line of poetry, children’s books, and travel books. We picked out several of these, as well as some wonderful facsimiles of 18th and 19th-century books by a publisher called Maxtor.

We struck up a conversation with the owner, Brigitte Peltier, whose husband, André Arnold-Peltier, is a photographer who has contributed to many of the travel books. Brigitte is an editor and publisher who founded Pippa Editions in 2006 and the bookshop in 2008. Like Philippa, she had worked in publishing companies for years before striking out on her own.


It is encouraging to see a new bookshop in the Latin Quartier, where bookshops more often close than open. According to a 2011 article in Le Point, 70 bookshops in this area closed between 2003 and 2008 (we have noticed closures in other quartiers as well).

The main problem is, as always, rising rents vs. ever-narrowing profit margins. The area is becoming trendier and bookshops are being replaced by designer boutiques. Many publishers have moved to the suburbs. After all, fewer university students frequent the area around the old Sorbonne buildings since the Université de Paris was decentralized to campuses throughout the region. And those who remain buy fewer books. Meanwhile, in the cafés, the students who used to make a single drink last all evening as they argued over existentialism are being replaced by tourists.

Nevertheless, the quartier is still a centre for bookselling and a few publishers remain. There are 255 bookshops (down from about 340 ten years ago, but still a good showing compared to other cities). And you can now search their holdings through a single website. The site also lists all 300 bouquinistes by name and includes them in the search function, which strikes us as a lovely mixture of traditional and contemporary methods of bookselling.


We are happy to report that one of those in the forefront of support for the Latin Quarter book trade is Toronto-born: Brian Spence, of the Abbey Bookshop on the rue de la Parcheminerie, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Brigitte, too, works hard to promote publishing and bookselling, through the Salon des éditeurs indépendants du Quartier Latin, held in June (alas, we left Paris the day it opened).


And as if that were not enough, Brigitte explained that some of the bookshop profits go to a charity that she founded, called SEMESanté Etudes Musique Espoir (Health Study Music Hope). SEME supports young people in India, Africa, and Vietnam – she mentioned, for example, helping a young woman in Pondicherry, India, train as a nurse. Doesn’t that just make you want to go out and buy more books?

Note that the shop is closed between July 11 and August 19, 2014. Even booksellers need time off.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie.

* We don’t do restaurant reviews, but if we did, we would give this small restaurant as many stars as we were allowed to give. We particularly recommend the “formule de midi” – the set-price lunch menu at 19.50 Euros. Given the genius of the chef, Marius Arranz, this is a stellar example of what the French call “un bon rapport qualité/prix” (good value for money). Michelin describes it as “une cuisine semi gastronomique à base de produits frais.” We’re not sure about the “semi gastronomique” – it seemed wholly gastronomique to us – but we can vouch for the fresh ingredients.


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The contra-flâneur

On Friday, October 18, 1974, at 10:30 in the morning, Georges Perec took a seat in the café known as Tabac Saint-Sulpice, and assigned himself the task of observing what happened in the square in front of him. He wanted to describe the things that usually pass unnoticed – to capture “ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien” (what happens when nothing is happening).

His observations were published as an essay called “Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien” (Attempt to exhaust a Parisian place). He made notes on what he saw and what went past – mostly people and buses. He commented on the weather and the behaviour of pigeons, and on how even when the square seemed to be deserted, you could usually see someone somewhere.


I thought I might try something similar with the view from our window, which overlooks the intersection of the boulevard Port-Royal with the rue St-Jacques, which becomes the rue du Faubourg St-Jacques as it crosses to the south side. I have written about this place before, but I wanted to look again, with new eyes.

As Perec did, I will start with an inventory. On the four corners, from the northwest clockwise, we have: La Terrasse St-Jacques (a bistro with some pretensions), a boulangerie artisanale, the Harmony (a bistro with fewer pretensions), and the ancient and now unused 1888 entry to the Port Royal maternity hospital (the hospital is still there, with many old buildings, but the current entry is now to the west).


We also have: a news kiosk, a bottle bank (for recycling glass), a phone booth, a mailbox, two bus shelters with seating, public toilets, public benches, street parking, garbage receptacles, a large container for donating used clothing, and an electronic sign posting helpful information from the Mairie, such as weather and upcoming events. This is a full-service intersection. Rows of mature plane trees provide shade and stanchions separate the sidewalks from the roads at the corners. There is a Velib’ stand, but it is not visible from the window.

Other businesses on the boulevard that I can see from the window include: a pompes funebres (funeral service), a lingerie boutique, an optician, a shop selling electronic cigarettes beside a regular tobacconist, a laundromat, two pharmacies, and a chocolatier that also sells ice cream. A food market sets up on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays on the boulevard to the east of the intersection.

The traffic provides free entertainment because the intersection is complicated. There are four lanes on the boulevard, but they are not, as one would expect, two westbound lanes on the north side and two eastbound lanes on the south. Rather, there are two lanes of regular traffic in either direction on the north side, and two lanes of buses/bicycles/taxis/service vehicles in either direction on the south side.


We observe non-locals navigate this complicated space in a car: they emerge from the one-way southbound rue St-Jacques and see a thicket of signs and arrows. The right-hand turn is straightforward, but the left-hand turn requires quick wits or a prior knowledge of the place. We keep expecting to hear the sound of metal crunching on metal, but it is mainly horns and occasional shouts we hear as one more neophyte turns into the bus lane, then laboriously backs out.

Two bus lines serve the boulevard: the 91, which shuttles between the Gare Montparnasse and the Place de la Bastille (unless it short-turns at the Gare de Lyon), and the 83, which arrives less frequently to take people between the Porte d’Ivry at the city’s southeastern edge and Friedland-Haussmann on the Right Bank. The busy 91s are long, articulated, low-floor vehicles; the 83s are ordinary buses. Instead of horns, the buses have bell-like chimes to warn pedestrians or stopped vehicles of their approach. From what we can see, Paris bus drivers seem both observant and patient – people running to catch the bus at the last moment usually succeed.


Perec’s account of what happens when nothing is happening is fairly simple: people pass by with parcels, children, or dogs; there is a funeral, and later a wedding in Saint-Sulpice; it rains and then the rain stops.

This intersection seems to be more animated. So far, we have seen a procession of motorcycles (about 50 or so) and another of rollerbladers (more than 100). There are many emergency vehicles (we live surrounded by hospitals, the Sapeurs-Pompiers are a block away along the boulevard, and the Santé prison is nearby). We are learning to distinguish a police siren from an ambulance siren.

Perec noted many tourist buses, but this is not prime tourist country – although this morning we noted a baffled pair consulting a map on the opposite corner. Rather, we see commuters on Velib’s with briefcases in the baskets, people with shopping caddies going to the market, children on scooters, joggers hooked up to MP3 players, and people with musical instruments in specially designed backpacks (there is a music school nearby).


You can see people carrying all kinds of things: an ironing board, a ladder, a cat in a carrier-box. In a city where many people make their way through life without a car, stuff that would normally be carried (and hidden) in a car suddenly becomes visible.

I am fascinated by what people are wearing. A woman in white with fluorescent orange running shoes and a matching orange scarf. A man in a raspberry-coloured suit. Another woman in a smart coral jacket with a handsome handbag. A man in military khaki with a képi ornamented with gold braid. An older woman in Turkish pants and complicated sandals with many straps.

Norman watches the cars and motorcycles. Renault, Peugeot, Citroen, Toyota, Fiat, Ford. SmartCars. The occasional Porsche or Maserati. Three-wheeled motorcycles. Vespas. Delivery vans. Delivery cycles. Street cleaning equipment. Garbage trucks – one of which got stuck in the intersection for several minutes; cars carefully manoeuvred around it.

The hospital’s presence is indicated not just by the ambulances, but by people with arms in casts, or hobbling along on crutches. We also spotted a man wearing a dark-blue paper hospital gown over his trousers, trailing an IV pole complete with a bag of some liquid, bumming cigarettes from the people at the two cafés. We have seen him twice.

One glimpses bits of other people’s lives. A young woman stops on the corner, hesitates, consults her smartphone, disappears. A few minutes later, she is back at the same corner, this time accompanied by a young man who is also consulting a smartphone. Were there others they were supposed to meet? They confer, look around, and eventually wander off. I guess this is what Perec calls a “micro-évènement” (micro-event).

I watch a little boy rollerblading with his father. Eventually, I realize that two older people nearby watching the boy must be his grandparents.


I spot a couple with a baby emerging from the maternity hospital. A newborn? The woman stopped to kiss the tiny head as they walked toward the bus stop.

Street philosophers occupy the benches for hours at a time, talking to each other or to themselves. One was there for an entire evening, waving his arms and addressing passersby until someone finally stopped and talked to him. He was still there when we went to bed.


The light changes as the day passes. The pillars on the traffic island light up along with the streetlights. Parents walk their children back from school, commuters make the homeward journey, diners congregate in the bistros. This intersection never seems deserted.

Is it worth travelling so far to watch such everyday sights? Yes, if the goal is to understand the city a little better on each visit. And I find that the exercise of writing down what I see makes me notice more.

As I write this, an elderly man is studying something intently in the window of one of the pharmacies, a police car is approaching the intersection with its klaxons blaring, and a 91 bus passes full of people. A woman sits in the café opposite, writing, perhaps, a description of the intersection from the other side. Or a novel. She has been there for some time.

Perec’s essay positioned him as a “contra-flâneur”* – rather than wandering the boulevards looking for interesting literary material, he stayed in one place and let the world come to him. The same approach in mid-June 2014 at a busy intersection gives us a new way to appreciate life in Paris.


Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie.

* I am indebted to Meeka Walsh for this expression, used in her essay, “Georges Perec: Soft Chalk and Pigeons,” Border Crossings.

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Monsieur Rochefort and his surprising typewriters

When Martin, my typewriter collector friend, invited me to see “a little something from Paris,” I had never heard of the Dactyle typewriter. Nor did I realize I was about to learn the story of a French engineer/inventor who helped the blind communicate. Moreover, I encountered a mystery I need help to solve.

Dactyle 8

The typewriter that Martin took from this box at first looked familiar.

Dactyle 3

The spidery-looking keys, the cylindrical type-sleeve at the top, and the folding space bar in the middle all said “Blickensderfer 5” to me.

I have long admired the look and ingenuity of Blickensderfer typewriters. In the model 5, the cylindrical type-sleeve did not get out of alignment, and could be changed quickly, to alter the font or even the language. Moreover, with 28 keys there were 84 character possibilities. Look closely at the image below.

Blick inking wheel

Here the inking wheel is making contact with the uppercase letters, which are in the middle row. The top row of letters is for lowercase and the bottom row is the symbols and numbers. To select the Upper Case, one would press the lower left key marked Maj [Majuscule] and for symbols, Chif [Chiffre].

Dactyle 2But the keyboard is neither the English QWERTY nor the modern French AZERTY layout. Nor is it the “Scientific Keyboard” that Blickendserfer used on the typewriter he introduced at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. And the label says “Dactyle 46 Boul Haussmann Paris.”

I turned to a book called The Five-Pound Secretary: An Illustrated History of the Blickensderfer Typewriter.*

The name Dactyle appears on a significant number of Blickensderfer typewriters. The Dactyle was marketed primarily in France, although many were sold in Belgium and some in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland. The earliest known specimen has the features of the early No. 5… The Dactyle keyboard placed the most frequently used French letters in the first row and included special French characters.

This was helpful, but I wanted to know who was behind the Dactyle name and operation. My first clue came with a 1904 ad I purchased on eBay.


At last I had a name. O. Rochefort, engineer of arts and manufacturing. This ad was for a calculating machine. It didn’t mention typewriters, but the address was 46, Boulevard Haussmann. (The site is now that of the department store Galeries Lafayette. In about 1911, the company moved to 4, rue Lafayette.) With the help of a German-language website and a Dictionnaire biographique des grands commerçants et industriels available from Gallica, I put together part of the human story behind the machine.

Octave-Maximilien Rochefort, 1861–1950, was an inventor and manufacturer. He was a restless man, who travelled widely. After graduating from the École des Arts et Manufactures in 1884, he went to Algeria to work in forestry for two or three years, returned to France and soon left for Argentina in 1887. In Cordoba he was a public works engineer, involved in bridge building, and he even taught at the university. He returned to France in 1890, but left shortly thereafter for the coal mines of the United States.

OctaveRochefortClearly, Octave-Maximilien had an eye for new opportunities. In 1896 he returned to Paris to set up a typewriter factory and sales outlet. He is best-known for the Dactyle (a rebranded Blickensderfer) and the Hall Braille-Writer (see below) and what has been described as “the Harrison machine to impress Braille characters on copper sheets for printing Braille characters.” In addition to making the Hall Braille-Writer available in France, Rochefort also sold Dactyles where the typewriter keys had raised Braille characters to assist the blind in writing inked text for the sighted to read. How did he make the transition from bridge building and coal mines to typewriters, including typewriters for the blind?


During the years of Rochefort’s stay in the United States, the most important and highly publicized technology showcase took place in Chicago in 1893: the World’s Fair Columbian Exposition. It was a stunning display of new technology from dozens of countries; the kind of event that would attract the curious and restless Rochefort.

It is more than likely Rochefort attended the Exposition. Typewriters were one of the hot technologies of the day and Blickensderfer was one of 23 typewriter manufacturers exhibiting. The award-winning Blickensderfer 5 appears to have captured the show and yet in the difficult financial year of 1893, Blickensderfer was in deep financial trouble.

It is not difficult to imagine that George C. Blickensderfer and Octave Rochefort met and talked business in Chicago before the fair ended October 29, 1893. Or perhaps a conversation that started in Chicago continued later. At some point, Rochefort acquired significant non-American rights. Rochefort was advertising the Dactyle in French as early as 1896.

And what else might Rochefort have seen at the Chicago World’s Fair? The Illinois Institution for the Education of the Blind was also an exhibitor; its star attraction was the Hall Braille-Writer, invented by superintendent Frank Haven Hall.

Hall was more interested in helping the blind than in making money. He never took out a patent on the machine, because he wanted it to be manufactured and used as widely as possible with no fees. Later in 1893, when a new state governor put Hall in another job, manufacturing of Hall’s inventions fell to the Chicago firm that had helped Hall with the development of his ideas. The company name was Harrison & Siefried, which explains why the “machine to impress Braille characters on copper sheets” is referred to as “the Harrison machine.”

Through his work in bringing the Hall machines to France, Rochefort joins the ranks of 19th-century benefactors of the blind. Rochefort was also an important inventor in his own right, but that is another story.

I am currently researching and writing about the plight of the blind in the late 19th century and the efforts to help them read and write. What started with Martin’s invitation to view the Dactyle, a typewriter for the sighted, has provided me with new research clues. That machine is now owned by a collector in England, but I am delighted to have had a chance to see it before it left Canada.

In the introduction I also mentioned a mystery. What is the meaning of this symbol which appears on the frame of the Dactyle? Could it be related to the Dreyfus affair? Rochefort’s  father was strongly anti-Dreyfus. Perhaps Octave was asserting his opposition to his father’s stance. Who can provide any further ideas?

Dactyle 6Text by Norman Ball; typewriter photographs by Martin Howard. Portrait of Rochefort from Gallica.

* Robert Blickensderfer and Paul Robert. The Five-Pound Secretary: An Illustrated History of the Blickensderfer Typewriter. Laren, the Netherlands: The Virtual Typewriter Museum, 2003.

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The invention of the omnibus

Take a good look at this postcard. What do you see? I tend to gravitate to postcards like this because of the rich detail in the buildings – the names of businesses, the façades of the old houses, the advertisements, the spire in the distance (it isn’t a church, it’s the mairie – city hall – of the 10th arrondissement). Most of the buildings are still there, recognizable in a modern view north along the Faubourg St-Martin.


It’s only after a while that I focus on what is in the street, not just on either side. (Norman says he is the exact opposite and looks at the vehicles first.) An omnibus pulled by three horses dominates the view, followed by two men on bicycles, with an assortment of delivery carts pulled up to the curbs on either side. Those vehicles have vanished forever, leaving only images in photos and postcards. But where did they come from?

Omnibuses were a French invention, and have a curious history, less well documented than the history of the buildings in Paris.

The story begins, not in Paris, but in Nantes, where a man called Stanislas Baudry built a steam-powered flour mill outside the city in 1823. Steam technology produces lots of hot water, and Baudry saw an opportunity to make some money on the side by opening a bathhouse. Unfortunately, the bathhouse was a very long walk from central Nantes, and there were few customers. Baudry hit on the idea of offering a shuttle service – a coach that left from the centre of town on a regular schedule. It held 16 passengers, seated eight to a bench on each side. But not all the people in the coach were necessarily going to the baths – some Nantais started to use the coach for short trips along the route.

Baudry was quick to spot another business opportunity opening up, and launched the first urban transit service in 1826. He called his coach an “omnibus,” a Latin word meaning “for all.” He expanded the business to Bordeaux the next year, and then to Lyon. His request to operate in Paris took longer to get approval, as the authorities were cautious about adding large vehicles to the already congested streets, but eventually Baudry and two partners were given permission to operate up to 100 vehicles, each of which could hold a minimum of 12 people and a maximum of 20. The authorities would set the routes.

At first, the single fare was 25 centimes (longer routes required double fares and the notion of a free transfer was not developed until 1834), collected by a conductor who was also there to help people on and off through the back door. There were no fixed stops along the route; passengers simply signalled when they wanted to get on or off. The No. 1 route and the most heavily used went between the Place de la Madeleine and the Place de la Bastille by way of the grands boulevards.


Today transit is so common that it is hard to imagine just what an innovation this was. People who had never taken a coach between towns (that is, most people at the time) needed to get used to the idea of getting into a small, enclosed space with a group of complete strangers, who might be of any social class. In fact, the majority of passengers were middle class, since aristocrats had their own carriages, and the very poor found even 25 (soon raised to 30) centimes too steep. The conductor was also under orders to exclude drunks, dogs, and people with oversized packages, and had some discretion over admitting anyone who simply looked poorly dressed.

Women at first did not use the omnibuses. According to an often-repeated story (possibly an urban legend), the vivacious Duchesse de Berry was the first woman to do so, on a bet, and travelling in disguise. (This may have been a publicity stunt; it seems she had a financial interest in one of the other omnibus companies that sprang up after Baudry’s company led the way.) Eventually, more and more women used the service, although a woman travelling alone was often viewed with suspicion.


The omnibuses proved extremely popular from the start. But Baudry’s firm (Entreprise Générale des Omnibus) lost money in its first two years of operation and nearly failed. Renting facilities for stables and depots was expensive. The price of horse feed went up. The two winters were harsh and people stayed home. Some of the routes the firm was required to service were unprofitable. Competitors lured away customers. And the firm was overextended, having expanded massively in other cities while entering the Paris market.

In despair, Stanislas Baudry committed suicide in February 1830. He shot himself near the company stables on the Quai de Jemmapes, by the Canal St-Martin. It seems a strange loss of confidence in an otherwise canny entrepreneur. And if he had just stayed the course, he would have seen the company overcome its tribulations and become very lucrative indeed, particularly after a merger that brought together all the competing companies to form the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus in 1854.

He would also have seen further innovations, some successful, others…not so much. In the mid-1830s, one Marie-Toussaint-Henri, vicomte de Botherel, was so excited by the prospects of the omnibus that he decided to create omnibus-restaurants, from which cooked meals would be delivered to people’s houses. He spent vast sums from his considerable fortune building a huge central kitchen on the rue de Navarin and opening a café on the rue Neuve-Vivienne, but the logistics didn’t work and the business failed.

In 1853, the impériale was introduced, an omnibus with seating on the roof. At first, this upper deck was open to the weather, reached by a ladder, but later on some vehicles it was enclosed, and the ladder evolved into a curving staircase up the back of the omnibus.


The 1870s saw the introduction of the tram. Trams run on metal rails with less friction than wheels on a cobbled roadway, so the same number of horses can pull larger vehicles with more passengers. And the ride is much smoother. At first, the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus resisted the changeover. It had become so profitable with its existing vehicles (and with its sizable real estate holdings) that it was getting complacent and was reluctant to invest in new vehicles. The Paris authorities were getting desperate, however, as congestion increased and more and more tourists flocked to the city, attracted by the great exhibitions of 1855 and 1867. Tourists need transit. Eventually, in 1872, the city laid down tram lines (the tracks were set into the roads so that other vehicles could pass over them) and insisted that the company operate horse-drawn trams.

The next step was to get rid of the horses. The company had more than 9,000 of them at the time, and they needed feed, and stables, and veterinary care. Steam locomotion was considered too risky, but in 1880s, electric traction became an option. In this postcard, you can see a double-decker tram and a two-car tram passing the overground portion of the Metro on the Boulevard de la Chapelle near the rue d’Aubervilliers.


The double-decker trams maintained the stairway up the back of the vehicle, and from time to time, accidents occurred, like the one illustrated on the front page of Le Petit Journal, June 6, 1909.

Le Petit Journal

A father holding his two-year-old was mounting the steps when the vehicle started with a jolt, sending him flying, as his horrified wife, holding their younger child, looked on. The father survived with little more than cuts and bruises, but the toddler died.

Trams were gradually overtaken by motor coaches, but horse-drawn omnibuses remained a common sight on Paris streets for many years. The very last horse-drawn impériale made its final trip between La Villette and St-Sulpice on January 11, 1913, accompanied by a crowd of well-wishers. In this image from Gallica of that historic run, it seems that it was foggy that day.

Last_horse-drawn-Omnibus The burly percherons were put out to pasture in the countryside, the men who had cared for them looked for other work, and the streets of Paris never looked quite the same again.


Text by Philippa Campsie; images from our postcard and Petit Journal collection; engraving from Physiologie de l’omnibus by Édouard Gourdon, Gallica. Final photograph from Gallica.

Further reading: Very little is available in English on the subject of early transit in Paris, with the exception of the wonderfully detailed book by Nicholas Papayanis, Horse-Drawn Cabs and Omnibuses in Paris: The Idea of Circulation and the Business of Public Transit (Louisiana State University Press, 1996).




Posted in Paris civic functions, Paris postcards, Paris streets, Paris travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments