A bird lover’s guide to Paris


This is one of my favourite photographs from Paris. I use it as the wallpaper on my desktop computer, so that every day, when I sit down to work, I feel for a second that I am taking my place at a café table on the rue Payenne. And it brings back the day in 2012 when Norman and I and a friend sat there chatting over coffee, after a visit to the nearby Musée Carnavalet. This little fellow decided to join the conversation, lured by the crumbs from the biscuits that came with the coffee.

Years ago, some people made a precarious living luring little birds out of the air for the amusement of passersby, as shown in this postcard. The birds on his hands are called Robinet and Jeannette, according to the verse on the card.

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Since sparrows tend to cluster wherever baguette crumbs can be found, I wonder if there was any more art to it than that. Bird whispering? I consulted our book on the “petits métiers de Paris,”* which quoted from Célébrités de la Rue by Charles Yriarte, published in 1864. Yriarte describes watching the Charmeurs d’oiseaux in the Tuileries, who would lure birds with breadcrumbs, but who also seemed to exert a magnetic pull on the creatures, who perched on their hands and heads without fear. There was even a “Charmeuse,” known as Mademoiselle Henriette. Even when she had exhausted her supply of breadcrumbs, the birds would stay with her, following her when she left the park.

Looking at my favourite photo, it occurred to me that many of my happiest days in Paris seem to have a connection to birds. And Norman has taken some wonderful pictures of them. If you like birds, here are some places to see them.

There was the Christmas Day when we walked across the snowy Jardin du Luxembourg, stopping to watch the ducks in the pond that is part of the Medici fountain.


The Square des Batignolles also has resident ducks and the summer day we went there, we spent some time watching them perform elaborate grooming rituals. It is so important to look one’s best in Paris.


We also noticed a baby, not a duckling, to judge by his enormous (but unwebbed) feet.

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We saw a moorhen nearby; could they be related?

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On my birthday a few years back, Norman and I took a stroll across the Bois de Boulogne on a glorious June morning, listening to the weird, strangled cries of peacocks, and amused to see how the birds co-existed peaceably with a large population of semi-feral cats.

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When we arrived at the restaurant in the Bagatelle gardens, Norman presented me with my birthday present – a silver pendant showing birds on a wire, by the Canadian artist Iris Dorton.

The Bagatelle gardens are also home to some fine swans.


And magpies.


We’ve seen lots of crows. In Norman’s photographs, they sometimes appear as a bird-shaped absence in the middle of the image.


And they look impressive in bare winter trees.


The Quai de la Mégisserie is home to a cluster of pet shops, many of which sell exotic birds. One cold winter day we went into one to warm up and found ourselves surrounded by colourful and rather grumpy characters, far from home and longing for the tropics.


A few ignored us completely.

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And then, of course, there are the pigeons. They love Paris. Why wouldn’t they? There are handy little cubbyholes where they can nest.


There are interesting places to perch to get a good view of the passing scene.


There is food to eat and water to drink.


And places to play.


And lots of lovely parks where one can enjoy an undisturbed snooze (this one is in the Parc Monceau).


The municipal authorities are not keen on pigeons, however, and have taken it upon themselves to carry out family planning on behalf of the birds. They have set up large pigeon houses, where they place food and water, and when an egg appears, it is sterilized and prevented from hatching. They call these houses pigeonniers contraceptifs. It’s a relatively humane way of controlling the population, we suppose.


Still, it seems a little ungrateful towards a species that once helped save the city. This was during the siege of 1870-71, when the city was surrounded by Prussian troops, cut off from the rest of the world. The only way for humans to leave was by balloon, and once they left, they could not come back (ballooning was too unpredictable; indeed, one could never know in advance the destination of the outward journey). But pigeons could, and did, return, laden with messages. They travelled out by balloon, were given time to rest before the journey back, then taken as close as safely possible to the city, and released. Most of them found their way back to Paris with their cargo.

And what was that cargo? Microfilm. A photographer, René Dagron, figured out a way to take a picture of hundreds of pages of writing at a time, reduce it to a tiny size, and make copies on rolls of film. These pieces of film were inserted into goose quills attached to the tail feathers of the birds. A single pigeon could carry thousands of letters in this way, and because there were copies, if one bird failed to arrive (the Germans went after them with buckshot and falcons), another would get through. More than 60,000 letters were delivered to Paris addresses during the siege, thanks to the pigeons.**

Of course, pigeons are rather prosaic birds, so in his painting honouring the role of birds in the siege, Puvis de Chavannes used a more attractive dove, cradled by a young woman representing Marianne, the spirit of France, who is fending off a mean-looking German eagle.

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Poor pigeons. It seems their past has been stolen from them, and if the anti-fertility campaign succeeds, they have a diminished future. But I doubt if Paris will ever rid itself entirely of these enterprising and often entertaining birds.


Text and images by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball. Painting by Puvis de Chavannes from Wikimedia.

*Jean-Michel Le Corfec, Les petits métiers de Paris, Editions Sud-Ouest, 2008.

**The full story is told in the wonderful book by Richard Holmes, Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air, William Collins, 2013.

Posted in Paris gardens, Paris history, Paris parks, Paris postcards, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Enough to make a cow laugh

New Year’s is a time of cleaning up and clearing out, and to that end I have unsubscribed from all kinds of newsletters and mass mailings to keep my head clear and my inbox manageable. But I’m keeping a few, including one I can recommend wholeheartedly to readers of Parisian Fields: the newsletter from Gallica, the online presence of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF). The newsletter is in French, but much on the Gallica website is available in English.

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In the November/December edition, I spotted a familiar face: La vache qui rit, with her dangling earrings of cheese boxes, which show a cow wearing earrings which show a cow wearing earrings which show…presumably an infinite regression (or what the French call mise en abyme). The article profiled Benjamin Rabier (1864–1939), the illustrator who created the jovial red cow.* For years, he was an inspector at Les Halles, the central Paris markets, where he could observe animals up close. But he also drew and painted, creating a menagerie of creatures with distinct personalities, which appeared in books, journals, and children’s papers, in series that were precursors of today’s cartoon strips. His output was vast.

The newsletter article contains more than a dozen links to his illustrations. Among them, I found unexpected uses for snakes…


…vignettes of country life, likely from the Berry Region,** where Rabier lived much of his life…


…a shipboard jazz band so lively that the animals are escaping the borders of the picture…

JazzBand…trees observing a dramatic scene from under a layer of snow…

Trees…and a monkey gazing disconsolately at his own reflection in a hand mirror.

MonkeyLa vache qui rit was only one of Rabier’s publicity posters, not all of which involved animals…

Ambassadeurs…although I was rather taken by this smartly dressed French sardine.


The newsletter shows the poster for the original vache, with her eyes almost closed: in modern versions she looks a bit more alert. Note that the cheese advertised is described as “gruyère.”


Various legends are associated with the creation of this pasteurized cheese made from cream mixed with gruyère, comté, emmenthal, edam, cheddar, or gouda, or some combination of these cheeses (today, the recipe differs according to the country in which it is made). Some say it was a Swiss invention from 1910; others say it was a French invention from about 1920. According to Wikipedia, the name and the image come from French meat supply trucks in the First World War, which were decorated with the image of a laughing cow and known as “Wachkyrie” or “Vachkyrie” – a pun on the “Valkyrie” symbol that marked German army trucks. Frankly, I thought it was one of those language myths that don’t hold up to close scrutiny. So I checked with Gallica.

That took me to the 12 January 1919 issue of La Revue Politique et Littéraire, which describes an exhibition of 155 signs from French army trucks at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris (a BnF link helpfully supplied its address – 8 rue de Sèze, in the 8th arrondissement – and the fact that this gallery operated between 1877 and 1933). The signs showed imaginative and often amusing symbols used in wartime to distinguish the purposes and contents of trucks and vans. And yes, it mentioned (although it did not show) la Wachkyrie. The symbols illustrated in the article include a white mouse and an elephant with a cannon strapped to its back.

ArticleLa Wachkyrie was painted on the sides of the trucks, vans, and converted buses used by Ravitaillement en Viande Fraîche (Fresh Meat Supply).

WachkyrieTruckVersions differ as to who did the original wartime drawing, but I have seen at least one version that includes Benjamin Rabier’s distinctive signature and French Wikipedia says he contributed the image through an official contest. It’s possible.

WachkyrieSignLéon Bel (1878–1957), the man usually credited with developing the soft cheese in the years just after the First World War, may have worked for the RVF (depending on which source you consult), or he may just have been familiar with the image. One way or another, he registered the symbol in 1921 for his “fromage moderne.” But the first packages did not use the same image as the RVF. They show the cow standing up, without earrings, yawning rather than smiling, behind a rudimentary fence.

VacheQuiRitAt some point, it seems, Bel approached Rabier to recreate the original image. The earrings are said to be the suggestion of Bel’s wife, who thought the cow needed to look more feminine. At about the same time, Bel came up with the idea of individually wrapped triangles of cheese, which contributed to the product’s lasting success.

Certainly this nearly 100-year-old invention is going strong. We asked our culinary consultant (Norman’s sister Linda) about the cheese, and she offered the following suggestions:

  1. You can make any kind of vegetable soup with it. Sauté onions, add garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper, some broth, add diced vegetables, such as squash, turnip, carrot, zucchini, leeks, potatoes. Boil gently till veg are soft, purée with immersion blender or food processor, having added in 1–4 wedges of the cheese, depending on taste and quantity.
  2. Add 1 or 2 portions of La Vache Qui Rit to scrambled eggs. Stir to melt in.
  3. Drain a can of giant escargots, sauté in butter (and/or oil if desired) with 1 or 2 cloves crushed garlic. Remove escargots and set aside. Add a little broth or reserved liquid from can to the pan, heat and whisk in 1 or 2 wedges of La Vache Qui Rit until melted, return escargots to pan, stir to heat and coat in cheese. You could also grate a little aged cheddar over it before serving.

Of course, results will vary according to which country you are in. But bon appétit and Happy New Year to all.


Text by Philippa Campsie, all images from Gallica, except for the picture of the army truck, the Wachkyrie sign, the original can of cheese, and the winking cow. For more information, see the Maison de la Vache Qui Rit, a museum devoted to the brand. Thanks to Linda Prinsthal for the recipes.


*The choice of Rabier for the newsletter was prompted by an exhibit devoted to his work at the Museum of Children’s Illustration in Moulins (about 2½ hours by train from Paris, according to their website). If we were in France right now, we’d go.

**As it happens, I am also reading an absorbing book about this part of La France profonde: Célestine: Voices from a French Village, by Gillian Tindall (Henry Holt and Company, 1995).

Posted in Paris food, Paris history, Paris popular culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

First we take Manhattan, then we take Paree!

I bought my first Eloise book from a secondhand bookstall at school when I was 9 or 10. It was Kay Thompson’s Eloise in Moscow, and I was captivated by Hilary Knight’s illustrations, including a fold-out view of a wintry Kremlin. A year or so later, probably in the same place, I bought Eloise at Christmastime, and discovered her natural habitat – the Plaza Hotel in New York.

By then I felt I was getting too old for picture books, particularly ones featuring rambunctious six-year-olds – I did not know then that the books were also intended for grown-ups. So I didn’t read the first in the series, Eloise, let alone Eloise in Paris, when I was young. But recently, at another secondhand bookstall (a more upscale one, at the Antiquarian Booksellers Fair at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario), I found Eloise: The Ultimate Edition, with all four original books and background about the writer and illustrator. I snapped it up.

Eloise_coverNow I have been to Paris with the irrepressible Eloise (not to mention her companions, the long-suffering Nanny, Weenie the pug dog, and Skipperdee her pet turtle), and what a whirlwind it was.

From the moment they get on to the airplane (“Sabena is the only airline that will allow you to travel with a turtle”), I was transported back to 1957, when air travel was still a luxury. Eloise and her Nanny sleep in berths (like the ones I have used on overnight trains in Europe). The other passengers are fashionably dressed. They land in Brussels and take a helicopter to Paris.

If this sounds like an unusual way to get to Paris, it is. But it was the outcome of a promotional deal with Sabena – Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight received free transatlantic tickets in return for a plug for the airline, well before the expresssion “product placement” had been coined.*

In Paris, Eloise’s party is met at the airport by the charming Koki, a chauffeur employed by Eloise’s permanently absent – but clearly wealthy – mother. Koki drives a Renault Dauphine (possibly another bit of product placement).

RelaisBissonEloise stays at the Relais Bisson at No. 37, Quai des Grands Augustins. The hotel is no longer there, but in the 1950s it was considered quite a chic place to stay. Again, Kay Thompson had wangled a free stay in return for depicting the 25-room, elevator-less hotel in the book. Hilary Knight drew it from life, with its central balcony opening towards the Seine (he did take some liberties with the location of the main door). He also shows the “Librairie Académique Perrin – Éditeur” next door at No. 35: a venerable publishing house, also vanished, but a going concern at the time. He and Kay also depicted the real owners – Monsieur and Madame Dupuis – much as they were.

This is what the building looks like today in Google Street View.


Interestingly, as soon as the characters land on European soil, the main background colour in the illustrations changes from Plaza pink to Bisson blue.

Eloise, Nanny, and the menagerie occupy the central room with its distinctive balcony, where they are shown having breakfast in the morning. At night, Eloise leans out to say bon soir to Notre Dame; the hotel was known for its stunning views across the river to the islands and the cathedral.

Eloise is in fine form as she takes in the sites. She causes havoc in the Place de l’Etoile traffic circle, leaps into the fountains in the Place de la Concorde, and nearly loses Weenie and Skipperdee at the coat check at the Louvre. They shop in flea markets (Eloise collects champagne corks) and on the rue St-Honoré. Eloise is fitted for a frock at Christian Dior by the great man himself, with his assistant and eventual successor, a sombre-looking Yves St-Laurent, in attendance.

Like all tourists, they walk endlessly. “Here’s what you have to do in Paris keep moving a lot,” she notes. “There are absolutely nothing but streets in Paris.” “Il y a beaucoup de cobblestones in Paris and some of our feet are getting round.” And being Eloise, she doesn’t just walk, she skibbles, she sklathes, she zaps. At night they take footbaths. She also notes, “There are very few places where you cannot take a chien.” Fortunately for Weenie.

Eloise in ParisThey return to the Plaza (and the colour changes back from blue to pink) with 114 pieces of luggage (having left New York with a mere 37). Eloise immediately summons Room Service to order watermelons, champagne, and seltzer water. As one does.

Some of the inspiration for Eloise in Paris had come from the author’s own trip to Paris in 1956, to film parts of the movie Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Kay Thompson played the part of Maggie Prescott, the magazine editor famous for her “Think Pink” campaign. Funny Face includes many of the places featured in Eloise in Paris – from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower. However, during the film, the cast stayed at the larger and more luxurious Hotel Raphael, which did have an elevator. Koki, who appears in the book as Eloise’s chauffeur, is apparently a real person. He was the driver assigned to the cast of Funny Face.

FunnyFace2Kay Thompson was a larger-than-life character, just like her fictional creation Eloise (a sort of imaginary friend/alter ego, with a name that may be based on Kay’s own middle name, Louise). Kay was a handful as a little girl; because she was plain compared to her two pretty sisters, she would misbehave to get attention. She became a singer and vocal coach who worked with Judy Garland, and she once had a nightclub act with four brothers (of which one, Andy Williams, was rumoured to be her lover).

But if Eloise’s voice and antics belong to Kay, her appearance belongs to Hilary Knight, the artist. His relationship with Kay Thompson was often fraught (she could be very difficult to work with, and he was woefully underpaid for his work), but you would never know from the vigour and bounce of his illustrations. The pictures range from clever vignettes to landscapes full of detail – the man demonstrating wind-up toys in front of Fouquet’s, a wall poster advertising a Foujita exhibit at the Galerie Paul Petrides, the children walking with a nun in the Bois de Boulogne (perhaps a nod to Eloise’s rival Madeline). The picture of Eloise returning through customs with her new acquisitions (“We had absolutely nothing to declare”) is a masterpiece.

Knight drew some inspiration from the misbehaving schoolgirls in Ronald Searle’s St Trinians series, as well as Norman Thelwell’s pony-mad little terrors, among other influences, but Eloise is an original. He was able to translate Kay Thompson’s imaginary creation and make her memorable and wholly herself.

Eloise with baguetteKay Thompson died in 1998, but Hilary Knight is still drawing and Eloise is only one of his creations in a long and successful career as a professional illustrator.** His portrait of Eloise (actually the second of two, since the first was stolen) still hangs in the Plaza. Say bonjour when you are next in town.

EloisePlazaText by Philippa Campsie

* Sam Irvin, Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, Simon and Schuster, 2010.

** I particularly loved the illustrations he did for the books of Peg Bracken (notably the I Hate to Cook Book).

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A Doomed Attempt at Out-Eiffelling Eiffel

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Even before its inauguration on March 31, 1889, the Eiffel Tower was world famous. Loved by some, reviled by others, it would be the world’s tallest building until New York’s Chrysler Building took the lead in 1930.

Of course, as Paris’s biggest rival for leading European city, London wanted its own tower, even bigger than the one in Paris. So a group of Londoners planned one.

Book Title Page Great Tower of London

The Tower Company Limited was created to carry out the project and offered first and second prizes of 500 and 250 Guineas. The driving force was Sir Edward W. Watkin, Member of Parliament, railroad entrepreneur, and the man behind a failed attempt to build a tunnel under the English Channel for railway traffic. Sir Edward personified the “Railway Mania” of the time.

As Chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, Sir Edward wanted to increase business by creating new attractions—be they amusement parks or suburban dwellings—that people could reach by train. So he purchased a 280-acre tract of land near the hamlet of Wembley in rural Middlesex. In anticipation of massive crowds, he had a new high-capacity railway station built at Wembley and planned to equip the park there with artificial lakes for boating, a waterfall, ornamental gardens, and cricket and football pitches. But the big draw was to be a tower taller and grander than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

On November 1, 1889, the company issued specifications and asked for designs and cost estimates for “a Tower of not less than 1,200 feet in height” by the end of February 1890. Sixty-eight proposals came from the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Italy, Austria, Turkey, and Canada.

The specifications stated that “the structure must be so designed as to resist wind pressure, sudden storms, and be guarded as regards lightning.” (The Eiffel Tower was an open lattice structure which readily allowed wind to pass through, thereby reducing the load on the structure and its foundations.) Some designers paid attention to these concerns. Some did not. At the same time, the tower was expected to be a money-maker.

Here we have the winner, which was to rise to 1,200 feet from an octagonal base 300 feet in diameter. It included a hotel with 90 bedrooms. The designers, Messrs. A.D. Stewart, J.M. MacLaren, and W. Dunn, claimed that “the plan being octagonal, the greatest stability with economy is obtained. An octagon affords a nearly equal resistance to bending in all directions.”


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Charles Baillairgé, City Engineer of Quebec City, had the most novel approach to dealing with wind pressure. His 1,600-foot circular design was fully enclosed and was expected to withstand most winds. But, as he put it, “The factor of safety would be increased if the glazing were to be blown out in a hurricane.” Never mind any personal injury from glass shards being blown about. Another advantage he claimed was the “capability of being taken down in sections—each section being useful for other purposes. All bolted together instead of being riveted.”

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The American Architect and Building News selected his design for special note. “For thorough-going ugliness the tower with the motto ‘Circumferentially, Radially and Diagonally Bound’ bears away the palm. It resembles a series of reels of cotton of gradually decreasing size placed one above the other, and surmounted with a wax taper from a Christmas tree.” Baillairgé was a brilliant engineer and designer, but this was not his finest moment.

S. Fisher of London offered the most versatile design. As with modern sweatshirts, it came in four sizes: S, M, L, XL and could rise as high as 2,000 feet at a weight of 312,550 tons.

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In addition to 12 hydraulic elevators, Fisher suggested the Tower Company Limited “run a locomotive engine and train half-way up the spiral gradient. The gradient would begin at 1 in 20 and gradually increase to 1 in 10.”

Other designers also suggested locomotives, one even trained mules, but none so quintessentially Victorian as Max Am Ende’s gothic tower, which featured “a Spiral Railway, worked by steam.” In order to maintain the decorum so highly prized by Victorians, the railway would offer first-, second-, and third-class carriages.

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O.C.D. Ross also submitted a gothic-looking edifice “designed to differ as much as possible from the Eiffel Tower.” Indeed, no one would claim any resemblance.

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And surely no one could confuse the design below with the Eiffel Tower. At 2, 296 feet, this design by Albert Brunel of Rouen was the tallest submitted. Brunel (no relation – as far as we know – to Isambard Kingdom Brunel) suggested it be built of granite. It probably could not have been completed, because the granite at the lower levels would not have been able to support the weight of the rest of the structure. Albert Brunel gave no details as to what it was to contain or the source of his inspiration, although Imperial Rome may have been in his thoughts.

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Design No. 17 from J. Horton of Copley, near Halifax, Yorkshire, tapered from a 180-foot diameter to 42 feet as it rose to a height of 1,200 feet. It looks like a giant screw that has had its tip blunted.

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Another rose to 1,900 feet, but designer J. W. Couchman provides no information on its facilities.

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The design by J.H.M. Harrison-Vasey would, at 1,820 feet, be hard to miss and not much of it appears to have escaped decoration. He eschewed elevators and proposed “a spiral road of about 2½ miles under which a descending Railway is constructed, the incline of both being 1 in 20.” Perhaps the most intriguing feature was the “captive parachute to hold 4 persons, led in guides…fitted in one of the corner towers, and regulated by a brake.” He mentions no restaurants or refreshment stands, but surely visitors who had walked to the observatory floor at the 1,780-foot level would have needed something to quaff while enjoying the view and preparing for the descent.

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The design by Henry Rose and E.J. Edwards seems cluttered and lacking the transparency of the Eiffel Tower. At 1,274 feet it was nowhere near the tallest proposed structure, but provided more detail than many others. There were “Otis” lifts, two 12-foot wide staircases and “a two-track spiral Electric Railway, gradient 1 in 6…which would travel at 5 miles per hour, and 1,600 passengers per hour could be conveyed by it.”

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Visitors would find no shortage of amenities: “This tower is provided with the usual Restaurants, Offices, Shops. There are 6 Bungalows on the 3rd stage and a Photographic room. On the 4th stage are 4 Clubhouses, proposed to be let [rented] to London Clubs, with stage below. On the 5th stage, 2 large Dining or Reception Rooms to be let for private entertainments. On the 6th or top stage there are 4 look-out Bays, 1 Meteorological Room, Photographic Room, small Café, and a room for a Siren Foghorn to be used in conjunction with a Phonograph for advertising purposes. A powerful Electric Searchlight would be fixed in the Lantern, and a projector provided.”

The winning design had included a hotel with 90 guest rooms. But Design No. 42, which bore the name “Utility,” at a height of 1,400 feet, offered Bachelor’s Chambers. With “400 Rooms at a rental of £25 per annum, [it] would produce £10,000 a year.”

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However, it is likely that the greatest revenue would have come from a rather clunky looking building expected to rise to 2,007 ft.

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Proposed by the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Co., it was clearly inspired by the Eiffel Tower, but also by “the Monoliths of Ancient Egypt.” It was to be “constructed out of small parts symmetrically arranged, which is a less costly and more convenient method than adopting gigantic parts. The design was intended “to provide for an aerial colony.” That is, it provided for more than the needs of daily visitors. After listing the many features of the lower levels, which included gardens, restaurants, a museum, a library, and international stores, the proponents announced, “After this comes the Residential part of the Tower, viz: The Hotel, and a Club, also Mansions, Flats and Chambers, the smokeless, fogless atmosphere of which should command a rent proportionate to their Alpine altitude.” The rooms would be heated by electricity.

One of the more visually intriguing designs came from “Neloah” at 224, Stockwell Road, London, S.W. Unfortunately the only information that came with the designs was that it would be 1,200 feet high and was “to be built in concrete.” Concrete was at the time still a largely experimental material for large structures, so “Neloah” was either ahead of his time or out of his depth.

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Although construction actually started on the winning design, a review article in The American Architect and Building News (Vol. XXVIII, No. 755, June 14, 1890, pp. 161–163) held out little hope for the project. First, it had to be an attractive structure, for “there will be no hiding it. [An ugly structure] will expose its forlorn height to every passer-by, and advertise its own failure in the most effectual fashion possible.” Alas, “in reviewing the various designs, we must frankly admit that none excels the Eiffel Tower in beauty and grace.”

But the biggest problem was the question of how it would attract visitors. The Eiffel Tower had been part of an international Exposition that made Paris “the focus of all the pleasure-takers of the world, and was filled with crowds having time on their hands, and money in their pockets which they were anxious to spend.” The London Tower Company was not associated with such a drawing card and risked becoming the kind of attraction for which “immense numbers will postpone the journey for the convenient season which so seldom comes.”

There also seemed to be foundation problems with the marshy ground underneath the site, as well as financial problems as investors lost enthusiasm. Construction halted when the tower had risen to only 47 metres. The company went bankrupt in 1901. For a few years, the incomplete structure was known as Watkins Folly or The London Stump. It was blown up in 1904 and sold for scrap.

But that is not the end of the story. Wembley was chosen as the site for the 1923 British Empire Exhibition, for which the Wembley Stadium was built. In 2000, during the rebuilding of the stadium, the concrete foundations of The London Stump were rediscovered.

By that time London was far ahead of Paris in the tall buildings category, but nobody ever out-Eiffelled Eiffel.

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Text by Norman Ball. First image: author’s collection. Final image: courtesy Roger Dorton. All other illustrations from the Public Domain Review.

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Eking out a living on the streets of Paris

Paris has a reputation as a city of glitz and glamour. But in the early 20th century, beneath the glamour, many barely survived from day to day. In London, journalist and reformer Henry Mayhew had written a multi-volume study, London Labour and the London Poor in 1851, a fascinating but depressing study of people living on the margins in that city. Mayhew, who had earlier lived in Paris, said of the self-employed poor: they “don’t find a living, it’s only another way of starving.” He could have been speaking about those in Paris who eked out a meagre existence through “Les petits métiers.”

The term referred to those who made their way in the world without the stable structure of apprenticeships, journeyman status, and achievement of mastery. Some were talented at what they did; others did jobs that required only perseverance. They may have worked hard, put in long hours, and acquired specialized skills, but their efforts were not officially recognized as “métiers.” Let’s meet a few of them in the photographs of the collection Paris en Images.

Ice cream has long been an important part of Paris life. This beautifully decorated pushcart is a cut above average. However, it is still typical with two large spoked wheels, and handles projecting from one end. On the same end one finds two spigots (taps) to let out water and for cleaning and a fold-down leg to support or balance the cart. Some vendors also sold hot chocolate.

This street vendor has a heavier load and a greater variety of goods. She is dressed like the typical market or street vendor. The cart has only two wheels, but instead of one support to balance the wagon when it is stationary, there is a heavy metal folding support or leg on each side of the cart. The advertising posters on the wall behind her were the work of another specialized trade: the bill poster.

The bill poster is shown with his pot of glue into which he dips a brush and covers the wall surface. He smoothes the poster out and the job is done. On my first trip to Paris, I was in awe of the advertising posters in the Metro. An even greater treat was watching them being put up. I was astounded at how quickly and neatly the workers did the job.

Not all bills or posters went on walls. At the beginning of the 20th century, one could hire sandwich men who, unlike traditional sandwich men, walked with a poster held aloft in a frame attached to his shoulders. If adjusted properly, it was probably more comfortable and more visible than the traditional sandwich board, which hung from the shoulders.

Most days, a meal might be little more than a crust of bread and with luck a bit of cheese. On better days there might be soup, such as that from this soup seller at Les Halles. You ate the soup on the spot and gave the bowl back to the seller to use for the next customer. This is a lovely scene, almost like something from Central Casting. The advertising posters on the wall add an interesting touch, as does the variety of clothing on the people in the photograph.

The quest for art works and antiques draw many tourists to Paris. But some of the most interesting finds—particularly if one is not too flush with cash—are secondhand goods. Here we find another street vendor with his trusty pushcart. The vendor is dressed roughly and one can imagine the weight of the cart and the effort required to push it. With iron-spoked wheels it seems built for heavy loads.

Today when we think of vendors of goods on the banks of the Seine, it is the bouquinistes that come to mind. Identified as the secondhand bookseller Chonmoru on the Quai des Grands Augustins, this stand also sells music. The contrast between the garb of the vendor and the cleric speaks of different positions on the social scale.

This small businessman with the walrus moustache looks stern. These are not hats he is selling on the Pont d’Arcole; they are lampshades.

5638a53542037db4aaa80c17babf7884The narrow specialization of some vendors is astounding. This man in front of the Caserne Labeau sold shoelaces. Yes, shoelaces. It seems an unlikely way to make a living. But it was probably not much of a living.

e21815e22aea9426237628eb112bbbf6I am not sure how they work – probably with some form of adhesive paper – but this vendor on rue Saint Antoine is selling flytraps. He does not need a pushcart for such lightweight products; the ingenious folding one-legged stand seems to work well.

cb3ae74529b602840048404c72bb55afThis merchant of small flags in front of the Church of Saint-Paul Saint-Louis intrigues me. The stand holds small tricolor flags. Perhaps it is a special holiday such as Bastille Day. What else does he sell? Is he a regular at the site? What did he do on non-festive days?

b343d2825b30da79d178526e6066e8d5Here we clearly have a festive occasion and a good showman who can attract a crowd. I love his hat. He seems to be holding a large knife in his left hand. According to photographer Louis Vert, he is selling a paste or compound for sharpening razors. At a time when shaving generally meant using a straight razor, sharpening it was important. I remember watching my grandfather sharpening a straight razor on a leather strop. It was quite an art. One assumes that the paste was put on the strop.

However, for pure street drama, it was hard to beat the act of an itinerant tooth puller. And at a time of limited attention to oral hygiene, there were toothaches aplenty. This photo, taken about 1900 by Louis Vert at Place de la Bastille, captured a tooth puller who offers the extra inducement of a raffle. Sometimes a few musicians would be part of the show. The first job was simply attracting a good crowd. Tooth pullers often started with an associate planted in the crowd. Feigning a terrible toothache, the associate would approach the tooth puller and the two would put on an act in which the puller stressed the difficulty of his task and the stoical patient proclaimed that it had hardly hurt at all. And a much-used tooth was brandished for all to see.

Things were different when a genuine sufferer of toothache took the bait to have a painful tooth removed. The puller usually used what was known as a dental key. This appalling device did not pull the tooth out vertically, but tended to turn it or bend it sideways and break off the top of the tooth. The roots and lower parts of the tooth remained to cause continuing pain and infection. And the promise of painless extraction? The answer is found in a French saying “mentir comme un arracheur de dents.” To lie like a tooth puller.

Unloading boats was strenuous work and if there no boats that day or too many others vying for too few jobs, there might be little or no money for food that evening or the next day. But they were not necessarily on the lowest rung of workers.

The woman shown here is described as a mender of plaster sacks. The limestone underneath Paris was quarried for building material or turned into plaster that was shipped in large sacks. There was a tiny amount of money to be made turning tattered sacks into something that could be used for a few more loads. It is hard to imagine a less rewarding and remunerative job than this.

Like those who survived by gathering up used tobacco, many Parisians in the early 20th century made a meagre living providing food, repairs, cheap goods, and conveniences to other city dwellers and to tourists. They were part of the scenery and often overlooked. Have they disappeared?

Not entirely. Some modern-day petit métiers remain, such as Métro musicians, souvenir sellers, some of the more marginal flea-market vendors, and those who sell old telephone cards or coins on the fringes of stamp and postcard markets. If someone will pay, there is always someone willing to sell, if only to keep body and soul together.

Text by Norman Ball; photos courtesy Paris en Images

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A lost member of the not-so-lost generation

The hero in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, is thrilled to go back in time to the 1920s, where he meets his literary idols Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and members of their circle. Today, many visitors to Paris fantasize about time-travelling to that golden age of jazz and gin and flappers and meeting these larger-than-life characters. But what were they really like? Are Woody Allen and Ernest Hemingway reliable guides to the so-called “lost generation”?


Commemorations of the First World War remind us that French, British, and Commonwealth soldiers who survived the war were often scarred by the experience, even if they were not maimed or blinded. Men who had fought in the trenches, if they came back at all, came back with horrific memories and possibly survivor guilt. And when they returned, many civilians resented them: why did you survive and not my son / brother / lover / friend / husband?

Meanwhile, young (often working-class) women who had taken on full-time employment during the war were being told that men needed their jobs and they should return to domestic life. But what was there left for them? Marriage was no longer a certainty; according to some estimates, they had about a one-in-ten chance of finding a husband, because of the death toll of young men in the war.1

The hectic pace of life in the 1920s, the jazz, the gin, and the flappers, reflected unease as much as release. And although the Americans had participated only in the last 18 months of the war and had not suffered the same catastrophic loss of life, they too felt the anxiety underneath the gaiety.

Ostensibly, this is why Gertrude Stein called those who were still young in the 1920s the “Lost Generation.” But were they really? It’s an odd epithet. In fact, Stein did not invent the expression. According to one account:

During one of their regular talks, Stein told Hemingway of having taken her Model T Ford to a garage to have the ignition repaired. The young mechanic who did the work bungled it in some way, and his patron scolded him for his incompetence. The young man had served in the war and the patron said to him in exasperation, “You are all a génération perdue.”

“That’s what you are,” Gertrude Stein assured Hemingway. “That’s what you all are. All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”

Ernest began to object. “Don’t argue with me, Hemingway,” Stein said. “It does no good at all. You’re all a lost generation, exactly as the garage keeper said.”2

I’m not surprised Hemingway objected. He had come to Paris to find his voice as a writer – and he succeeded. So did many other writers and artists. Stein may have liked the sound of the expression, but it didn’t fit Hemingway, nor did it fit others he knew. Still, he used it as an epigraph for The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. Perhaps it was to please Stein. It was his first novel, after all, and he needed the goodwill of his influential friend.

I admit I am not a huge fan of Hemingway’s work. Reading The Sun Also Rises, based on real events in 1925 in Paris and Spain, I cannot help thinking that with friends like Hemingway, nobody needed enemies. He depicts his contemporaries in a generally unfavourable light, while making the first-person narrator seem the only decent chap in the bunch.

But were they “lost”? The group that went to Pamplona, Spain, in 1925 is captured in a contemporary photograph. Who were these people? I went looking for them.


First on the left is Hemingway himself, looking smug and far from lost.

Next, in the background, with glasses and bow tie, sits an unsmiling Harold Loeb. He later wrote his own account of that trip to Spain. He seems to have risen above Hemingway’s unkind depiction of him in the character of Robert Cohn, who falls for the femme fatale, but is later ejected from the group. Loeb eventually became a successful writer and his only loss was that of the woman he had fallen for. But in the end, he was probably better off without her.

The femme fatale in question sits beside Hemingway. Lady Duff Twysden looks like a cat who has just polished off a tasty canary. She appears in the book as Lady Brett Ashley, sleek as a Bugatti, breaking hearts wherever she went, accustomed to having men pick up the tab for her. When she left Pamplona in 1925, her friends paid her hotel bill. As usual. Duff was not her real name. She was born Mary Smurthwaite. Early on she realized it wouldn’t do for a femme fatale, so she changed it.

In 1925, she was in the process of divorcing her second husband, Sir Roger Twysden. They had a seven-year-old son back in England, but she doesn’t seem to have considered him in her plans. Supposedly she was engaged to the man on the far right. But a few years after the photograph was taken, she met an American artist and moved to the United States with him instead.

Hemingway depicts her as a beautiful but aimless airhead, dependent on the narrator’s strong-shouldered support, but there was much more to her in real life. She had her flaws, but she wasn’t an airhead, and I wouldn’t call her lost.

Hadley Hemingway, Ernest’s (then) wife, beams in the middle of the photograph. The book was dedicated to her, but she was written out of the narrative – that way, the narrator could openly express his attraction for Duff Twsden / Brett Ashley and still appear to be a swell guy. Hadley was certainly lost to literature in this book. She eventually parted from Ernest (in hindsight, a wise move) and married a well-respected journalist. She may have felt lost at the time, watching her husband dancing attendance on Duff, but she found herself in the end.

Only just visible beside Hadley is Donald Ogden Stewart, who went on to have a successful career as a screenwriter, and is probably best remembered for The Philadelphia Story. He appears in the book as the narrator’s buddy Bill, an affable fellow with no heartaches and no apparent inner life. He wasn’t lost.

And finally, on the far right is Patrick Stirling Guthrie, the one and only utterly lost person in the group. Hemingway immortalized him as “Mike Campbell” in The Sun Also Rises, and depicts some of Patrick’s real-life characteristics. (1) Mike is an undischarged bankrupt. So was Pat. (2) Mike receives an allowance from his family. Pat was indeed a remittance man. His bankruptcy papers list him as having “No occupation.” (3) Mike drinks heavily. That squares with the record. (4) Hemingway calls him “Scotch.” Well, his family was Scottish, although he was born in London and seems to have spent most of his life in England. (5) He was engaged to marry Duff. Hm, unclear. Others believe he was gay3 and he may just have been a convenient escort. He was a distant relative (fourth cousin) of Duff’s and it seems that they were emotionally close, but the real nature of their relationship is lost to history.

In 1927, two years after the trip to Spain and a year after the publication of his first novel, Hemingway noted in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald that Duff and Pat had parted company. Pat was rescued to some extent by an older American freelance journalist, Lorna Lindsley, who seems to have paid his debts and kept him out of trouble, at least for a while. But he died in 1932, aged 37, either by suicide or from a drug overdose; nobody is sure. And nobody seems to have cared, except his mother, who came to Paris to settle his affairs and pay off his debts.4

All the other characters have made some kind of mark on literary history, and been written up in various ways, from academic treatises to Wikipedia. Not Pat. He disappeared into oblivion, other than a short memoir about him by a barman who served him at the famous Dingo Bar on the rue Delambre.5 And most of that document is about Duff.

I found a few traces of Patrick in official records. His father was a merchant banker and MP who died in 1911 and his mother was the daughter of an Irish baronet; they were part of high-society London and owned an enormous house in London and a castle on the Isle of Mull. Pat was educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Sandhurst, served in the First World War in the First Life Guards, a cavalry regiment, and became a lieutenant in 1915, when he was 20. The regiment served at Mons, Ypres, and Passchendaele and presumably Pat was there, too. If so, he must have had some appalling experiences. But in those days one didn’t talk about such things. He just drank a lot.

In a generation of hardy survivors, good-time girls, and emerging writers, most of whom found themselves in Paris, Pat was truly lost, poor fellow.

As for that hapless garage attendant, I hope he got his act together, bought out the patron, married, had a family, and lived a long and prosperous life. If only to prove Gertrude Stein wrong.

Text by Philippa Campsie; cinema still from http://theweek.com/article/index/251479/the-9-best-ways-to-time-travel-ranked; 1920s photograph from Wikipedia.


  1. Judith Mackrell, Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 73.
  2. Lyle Larsen, Stein and Hemingway: The Story of a Turbulent Friendship, McFarland and Company, p. 52.
  3. Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: The Paris Years, Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 301.
  4. Apparently his mother was something of a character. When Patrick’s father died in 1911, she remarried, but later divorced, and ended her days living in Torosay Castle in Scotland with a Pekinese and a foul-mouthed parrot.
  5. James Charters, “Pat and Duff: Some Memories,” in Hemingway and the Sun Set, NCR/Microcard Editions, 1972, pp. 241–246.


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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.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 11.22.51 AM

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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