Designer of the invisible

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Frutiger fonts

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

Univers and Helvetica

(The top one is Univers.)

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

Univers font family

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Frutiger Paris Metro

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

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

Rand McNally


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

CBC logo

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

Frutiger later fonts

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

Adrian Frutiger, 1928–2015


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

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


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A city built on air

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

sinkhole Paris 1914002 (2)

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

Popular Mechanics August 1914

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

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

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

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

But life can change in the blink of an eye.

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

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

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

Plan de Jaillot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underground map

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Quarry map

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

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

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



Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie.

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


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Geraniums by any other name

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

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


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

We’ve seen them on boats.


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


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


And charming little countrified arrangements in courtyards.


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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They Sell Onions, Don’t They?

On a recent trip to London, we visited the Slightly Foxed Book Shop on Gloucester Road. We recommend it highly.

unnamed (3)

One of the treasures Philippa acquired there was They Eat Horses Don’t They? The Truth About the French by Piu Marie Eatwell. It introduced us to the story of the Onion Johnnies of Brittany and how they came to represent Frenchmen and Frenchness to generations of English and Scots.

A few days later, when we were visiting some of Philippa’s relatives in Scotland, they recounted childhood memories of seeing Onion Johnnies in Glasgow and Dundee. A story that was utterly new to Philippa and me was very familiar to her Scottish relatives.

Who were the Onion Johnnies? They were itinerant onion vendors who came from Brittany to sell their famous pink onions in the U.K., primarily England and Scotland. They arrived in the U.K. in late July or early August and stayed until Christmas or early January.


Back in Toronto, we located a wonderful book called Onion Johnnies: Personal Recollections by Nine French Onion Johnnies of their Working Lives in Scotland. It represents an astounding effort by the Scottish Working People’s History Trust and the European Ethnological Research Centre.


It’s not clear how or when the trade started, but references to French onion sellers in England and Scotland go as far back as the late 1820s. All the Johnnies seemed to come from Brittany, particularly from Roscoff and neighbouring villages such as St Pol de Léon, Plouescat, and Santec, where the distinctive onions were grown.

Life in Brittany has never been easy (in a previous blog we mentioned the vicissitudes of the sardine catch) and the area grew more onions than the regional market could absorb. Exports were necessary.

At first, Onion Johnnies travelled to Great Britain by sailboat with a cargo of freshly harvested pink onions and perhaps some shallots and garlic. Later, ferries and trains replaced the sailboats. According to Eatwell, the Anglo-French trade carried on by the Onion Johnnies “peaked in the late 1920s—when 9,000 tons of onions were sold in England by 1,400 Johnnies—before gradually petering out.”


Many in the onion trade were connected by family ties. The Johnnies were organized with ouvriers (workers) under a patron (boss). The patron had to find a shop or warehouse to serve as a base for storing and preparing the onions for sale, as well as to provide rudimentary living space for the sellers. The patron also determined the daily quotas that the ouvriers had to sell, some of whom were less than 10 years old.

Ouvriers pushed two-wheeled hand carts or charrettes and then loaded sticks, or batons, with onions. They carried the batons over a shoulder, going from house to house, and knocking on doors. A freshly loaded baton could weigh as much as 50 or 60 pounds, providing the Onion Johnnies with strong incentive to sell the onions quickly.

Living conditions were spartan. Home base was often an old shop, lined with stacks of onions. When eight-year-old Jean Saout arrived in Glasgow in the 1920s, his father was a patron. Jean recalls that they used a big shop. “My father and I and all the Onion Johnnies slept there… We slept on straw and we had blankets to cover ourselves with… But you slept well, you slept well.”

In 1930, 13-year-old Jean Milin began working full-time as an Onion Johnny in Leith:

There were no beds—only straw… we all slept together in a row on the straw, like herrings or sardines! I was the youngest and I was in the middle of the row. You had covers, blankets. But we also had a sack or bag to sleep in—a sleeping bag. Oh, it was very comfortable. We were there all together, quite warm in the straw, so we didn’t feel the cold.

The facilities included a small kitchen, a table to eat on, a tap with running water, and (wonder of wonders) a flush toilet downstairs. Not all the Onion Johnnies enjoyed such amenities.

Conditions improved somewhat in the late 1940s. Some Johnnies who worked out of vans and were away for more than a day stayed overnight in hotels that bought onions from them. However, they were the exception. Yves Rolland was a teenage Johnny who worked from a base in Maritime Street, Leith, in the 1960s. “The shop was full of onions. So at that time we slept in very cramped conditions. Have you ever had rats running on top of you?”

The young ouvriers received no cash for their work; their share was sent home to their parents. Those who were paid directly generally received wages only at the end of the onion-selling season. No wonder that when householders asked the cost of onions, the ouvrier would give the price and then say, “and a penny for myself.”

The days could be long, as ouvriers seldom returned to home base until all the onions were sold. Looking back on his work as an ouvrier in Leith in the 1950s, Yves Rolland could remember leaving the shop at five in the morning and not returning until “about half past-ten at night.” But, he added, “that wasn’t a normal day’s work. It depended how lucky you were. But normally it was round about seven or eight at night we used to finish. Most days the leaving time from the shop or the base was from about six, half-past six in the morning.”

The long hours of Monday to Friday were shortened on Saturday to midday or mid-afternoon. Sundays were for “stringing the onions or…gathering rushes from the fields for stringing them.” Straw or hay from nearby fields could also be used.


Numerous photos show Onion Johnnies with strings of onions slung over bicycles, which by the 1930s were replacing handcarts and batons. It was still hard work, as some routes covered long distances with a heavy load. After the Second World War, vans became more common, They “were employed as mobile depots from which the Johnnies, lifting out their laden bikes once that day’s destination was reached, could pedal their rounds and return to the van again for fresh supplies if needed.” Onion-laden bicycles also travelled on trains and tramcars.

Were the Onion Johnnies “representative Frenchmen”? To many people, Onion Johnnies were stereotypically French: beret, bicycle, and striped shirts (although the photographs we have seen show them wearing darker, more practical clothing and some wear brimmed hats, not berets). But they represented a specific culture within France, not the whole of France. Moreover, many of the original Onion Johnnies spoke Breton, a Celtic language similar to Welsh, rather than French.

What strikes me most about the accounts is the hard work they did. Jean Milin summed it up with “We Onion Johnnies were always working. It was a hard life.” Claude Quimerech stated, “We simply didn’t have plenty money! It was very hard, very, very hard.”


Jean Saout strikes one as a thoughtful workman. In 1965 when he was 52 years old and had been an Onion Johnny in Glasgow for more than 40 years, he retired from the job, but not from working.

Well, I never got rich selling onions, ah, no! I just made enough to live on and to drink a little glass of wine. But I never wanted to change my job, never. I never had any ambitions to do any other job like being a seaman or working on the railways. It was the same when I was working the other months of the year with the vegetables at home in Brittany.

Years later, aged 86, he told an interviewer,

The life of the Onion Johnnies was hard—and it was hard for their wives and families at home, too. But you had to live as best you could. I wouldn’t like to begin all over again, though at least one doesn’t have to sleep on straw any more! I don’t regret having worked as an Onion Johnnie at Glasgow. But it was a hard job, too hard.

Whenever we get nostalgic about the past, we do well to remember how hard things were for many people. The sight of an Onion Johnny pushing his bicycle may conjure up “the good old days” for many in England and Scotland, but this was hard, lonely work for little pay, with only a sack of straw to sleep on at night.

Text by Norman Ball. Photos from Wikimedia; except for the final photograph above, which is from Buffalo Dandy; apparently the Buffalo Lazy Randonneur Club sponsors an annual Johnny Onion ride in September – photographs from the 2014 event are delightful.

Quotations, unless otherwise credited, from Ian MacDougall, Onion Johnnies: Personal Recollections by Nine French Onion Johnnies of their Working Lives in Scotland, Tuckwell Press, 2002. I am grateful to the Scottish Working People’s History Trust and the European Ethnological Research Centre for helping me see French history more fully.

They Eat Horses Don’t They? The Truth About the French by Piu Marie Eatwell, was published by Head of Zeus Press, 2013.

Roscoff in Brittany has a museum called “La Maison des Johnnies,” where you can explore the history of these hard workers. Here is a leaflet from the museum.


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Learning to see: Emily Carr in France

She arrived in Paris with her trunks, her sister Alice, and a malevolent grey parrot called Rebecca. She had purchased Rebecca in Liverpool, where the ship from Canada had docked, and brought the disagreeable bird the rest of the way by train. One can only imagine. Here is her picture of the travelling party.


Emily Carr came to Paris in the autumn of 1910, after making the long journey from Canada’s West Coast. She was 38 years old and had previously studied art in San Francisco and London. She later wrote in her memoirs:

My sister [Alice] knew French but would not talk. I did not know French and would not learn. I had neither ear nor patience. I wanted every moment of Paris for Art. … I wanted now to find out what this “New Art” was about. I heard it ridiculed, praised, liked, hated. Something in it stirred me… I saw at once that it made recent conservative painting look flavourless, little, unconvincing.

She had mastered the techniques of “conservative painting” in her previous schools, but they were a poor match for her subject matter – the dense, dark, dripping forests of the Pacific Northwest, its mountains and seascapes, and the settlements (some populated, some abandoned) of the native peoples with their haunting totem poles.

Emily and Alice found lodgings on rue Campagne Premiere in Montparnasse and Emily attended classes at the Académie Colarossi, rue de la Grande Chaumière. This picture of the Académie dates from about 1908.


Emily chose the school on the recommendation of another artist, because Colarossi’s allowed both men and women to work in the studio together, rather than segregating them. This was all very well, but Emily was the only woman attending at that particular point, and with her poor French, she felt isolated. Worse, the school didn’t really give her what she was looking for – the “New Art” with its vivid colours, looser brushwork, and abstracted forms, done in the open air.

After several weeks, she became ill and went to Sweden to recuperate (it felt reassuringly like Canada). When she returned to France in spring 1911, she avoided the city and took a class in landscape painting in Crécy-en-Brie, about 50 km away (Alice stayed in Paris). At this point, Emily really started to enjoy herself. She struck up wordless friendships with local women and children, and fell in with the rhythms of country and village life.

Crécy-en-Brie (now called Crécy-la-Chapelle) was a little town defined by a set of canals that in those days was two hours from Paris. Today it is on a suburban commuter rail line just east of EuroDisney, but the centre of the town looks, at least on the map, much as it did in Emily’s day.


By this time, Emily had a new travelling companion. The bad-tempered Rebecca had been replaced with a good-natured green parrot called Josephine, who spoke more French than her owner and helped Emily make friends with local residents.

I tramped the country-side, sketch sack on shoulder. The fields were lovely, lying like a spread of gay patchwork against red-gold wheat, cool, pale oats, red-purple of new-turned soil, green, green grass and orderly, well-trimmed trees… At night I met weary men and women coming home, bent with toil, but…pausing to nod at me and have a word with Josephine… She wore an anklet and chain and rode on the rung of my campstool.

From Crécy, Emily went to Brittany with friends, and spent time in St-Efflamme and Concarneau. St-Efflamme was a tiny hamlet buried in the countryside, and if you Google it, pretty much the only images you will find are those by Emily Carr. Concarneau is a fishing village on the coast, where Emily sketched “the people, their houses, boats, wine shops, sail makers in their lofts.”

Emily returned to Canada in fall 1911, but not before exhibiting a couple of paintings in the Salon d’Automne. This was a large event that embraced all forms of art; Emily’s was in a room with other “innovators,” including Cubists and Fauvists. Her work did not attract much attention, but it was heartening to participate.


I came home from France stronger in body, in thinking, and in work than I had returned from England. My seeing had broadened… [My new work] had brighter, clearer colour, simpler form, more intensity… I was glad I had been to France. More than ever I was convinced that the old way of seeing was inadequate to express this big country of ours, her depth, her height, her unbounded wideness, silences too strong to be broken.

Alas, British Columbia was not ready for this new way of seeing. Emily exhibited in Victoria and Vancouver, both works she had executed in France as well as scenes of the Pacific Northwest in her new style. Although she did receive some good reviews, most people reacted to her work with dismay or ridicule. The clearer, more intense colours and the Impressionistic style did not appeal to a more-English-than-the-English community that saw the world through mild watercolour spectacles.

For example, consider two images of an arbutus tree, both by Emily Carr, the one on the left done in 1909 in the approved English style and the other painted after the trip to France. Which would you rather put on your wall?


In 1913 in British Columbia, the art world made its choice. Emily’s art classes attracted no students and her exhibits attracted no sales. She stopped painting. The war came, and she made ends meet running a boarding house, breeding Bobtail Sheepdogs, and producing ceramics for the tourist trade.

Photograph with dogs

Still, during this apparently unproductive period, word of her work was making its way to Ottawa. In 1927 she was asked to contribute 26 paintings to an exhibit in the National Gallery of Canada. Suddenly, her work found an appreciative audience, and at the age of 56, she became an “overnight” sensation.

For the next 18 years, she painted, exhibited, lectured, and wrote books (some Canadians knew her as an author before they ever saw her pictures). She continued to refine her style, drawing inspiration from the art of the native peoples of the West Coast. The works most people associate with her name date from this late period. It is encouraging to think of her doing all that in her sixties. Hope for us all.


She worked herself to the point of exhaustion (as she always had), and died in 1945. Today, her art is celebrated – an exhibit in England at the Dulwich Picture Gallery earlier this year, and currently, an exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario that inspired this blog.

I keep thinking about those parrots, though. How appropriate that she rid herself of the nasty grey, colourless parrot from England and befriended instead a gregarious green, French-speaking parrot who accompanied her on painting trips and helped her communicate with the people she met. I wonder what happened to Josephine…


Text by Philippa Campsie, all quotations from Growing Pains by Emily Carr.

Cartoon by Emily Carr from Sister and I: From Victoria to London (Royal BC Museum, 2011); photograph of Colarossi’s, catalogue cover, and parrot image from Wikimedia; antique map from Gallica; arbutus trees by Emily Carr from Dulwich on View; photograph of Emily Carr in 1918, Vancouver Art Gallery; Indian Church by Emily Carr from the Art Gallery of Ontario.

For more images of Emily Carr’s paintings, visit the virtual museum of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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American clubs and Canadian fists

“We went to the American Club.” The words sound simple enough. But if you want to identify the address in question, complications arise. It depends on who is talking and when. Paris is positively littered with sites that are or have been referred to as “the American Club” over the past century or so.

The quest began when I tried to track down what Canadian writer Morley Callaghan meant when he wrote about boxing with Ernest Hemingway in June 1929 at the “American Club.” The story appears in his memoir That Summer in Paris, published in 1963,

summerToday, if you Google “American Club of Paris,” the location specified is that of Reid Hall on the rue Chevreuse in Montparnasse. Reid Hall was once the American Girls’ Club, later the American University Women’s Club (not to be confused with the American Women’s Club on the Right Bank), and is now part of Columbia University. Today, the American Club holds monthly Happy Hours at Reid Hall. In the 1920s, though, Reid Hall was the preserve of women. I can’t picture Hemingway and Callaghan sparring there.

So I think Callaghan must have been referring to the United States Artists’ and Students’ Club at 107, boulevard Raspail. The building is still there, visible on Google Street View.


It was a shape-shifting entity that changed its name and location three times and is more celebrated now by the French than the Americans. Here is its story.

In the 1920s, the clergy of the American Cathedral in Paris wanted to offer young Americans a wholesome alternative to the temptations of Montparnasse cafes and dance halls. The club they created became a home away from home for many visitors. When it outgrew its original premises, a new building was constructed farther down the boulevard in the early 1930s.

I found a nostalgic description of the original club from that time:

The United States Students’ and Artists’ Club soon moves into a magnificent new building of imposing dimensions. [But] we shall question… whether the spacious accommodations of the new club building can promise anything like the rich quality of familial intimacy 107 [boulevard Raspail] afforded us…

In all the world, will it ever be given to any kitchen, let alone that of the new building, to be the scene at tea times of such incredible commotion and unheard of traffic as was that silly little two by four cupboard so generously and euphemistically termed “kitchen”?

[And] is it likely that we shall be at liberty to sprawl over, under, and inside Canon Belshaw’s desk, as we did at 107 whenever the spirit moved us, and shall we be able to make his office the warehouse for our books, hatboxes, suitcases, radio sets, umbrellas, baby carriages, etc., etc., and leave them there till we sail for home?*

One can just picture the place: overcrowded, a bit shabby perhaps, but welcoming and full of life. But – and this immediately piqued my curiosity – it was hard to picture the new building. It has gone, demolished to make way for the Cartier Foundation at 261, boulevard Raspail. Try as I might, the only images I could find online showed the front door only. The following is from Wikipedia:


Eventually, I found a picture in a book,** and as a service to anyone else who might be curious, I provide this aerial view of it in the 1970s:

Scan_20150529 (2)

And a view of the library:

Scan_20150529 (4)

Renamed the American Students’ and Artists’ Center, it occupied a tree-shaded property that included a huge cedar of Lebanon planted by Chateaubriand. The facilities included a fully equipped theatre, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a library, and artists’ studios on the top floor.

After the Second World War, membership was opened to people of all nationalities. Renamed simply the American Center, it developed a reputation as a venue for avant-garde concerts, plays, exhibits, and those indescribable events known as “happenings.” It was a far cry from the intentions of its founders, but it filled a need at the time, and artists from all countries gathered there. Today, the main records of the place are in French, not in English (there is, for example a French Wikipedia article, but not an English one devoted to it).

When the building started to deteriorate in the 1980s, the management sold the property and commissioned a new facility by Frank Gehry for a site in Bercy. Big mistake. The cost of the new building bankrupted the organization. The French government bought the Gehry building and turned it into a cinémathèque. And the American Center vanished.

But that was in the 1990s and I’m getting away from my original mission. In the 1920s, it was a club, not a an arts centre, and its function was very different. So it is a reasonable candidate for the location of Callaghan’s and Hemingway’s boxing practice.

I even checked a 1927 copy of Express Guide to Paris and Environs. It lists something called the American Club and notes that it holds weekly lunches. But it does not provide an address. I assume the this entity had no fixed premises and members met at various restaurants for its events. For example, when Charles Lindbergh addressed the American Club just after his Atlantic Crossing in May 1927, he did so at the Hotel Ambassador. The guide also mentions the United States Artists’ and Students’ Club at 107, boulevard Raspail, and notes that it had a billiard room.


So what did Callaghan say about the “American Club” in his memoir?

The story starts when he and his wife Loretto visit Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, at the Hemingways’ apartment at 6, rue Ferou, near the Luxembourg Gardens.

Hemingway challenges Callaghan then and there to a quick demonstration of the latter’s boxing skills, and after some cautious sparring in the drawing room, Hemingway suggests a proper round. “Not far away was the American Club. It had no ring, but there was lots of space.”

Could that be the overcrowded place on the boulevard Raspail? A few days later, they visit the “American Club, where Ernest seemed to be at home.” They go “downstairs and into a back room that had a cement floor” which appears to be used for gymnastics, and is next to a billiard room. Aha, a billiard room.

After boxing, they go for drinks at an unnamed café, but when they part, Callaghan heads for Le Sélect on the boulevard de Montparnasse, which is in easy walking distance. Another time, they repair to the Falstaff Bar, near the corner of the boulevard de Montparnasse and the rue de Montparnasse. Again, in the general vicinity.

Then comes the fateful afternoon when Callaghan knocked out Hemingway, possibly because F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was acting as timekeeper, failed to stop them after a three-minute round. Or possibly because Callaghan, who had learned to box at college, was simply a better trained and more experienced fighter. In any case, the round went on for at least an extra minute (in later life, Hemingway suggested that it was even longer than that) and Hemingway wound up flat on the floor. And very cross indeed.

Where did that take place? Callaghan again places the event in the “American Club” and refers to the billiard room and the bare floor, but now we have a new contender for the location: a gym on the rue du Vaugirard.

A Guide to Hemingway’s Paris by John Leland places this particular event at the Gymnase George at 33, rue du Vaugirard, citing a biography of Fitzgerald by Sarah Mayfield. Leland even calls it this spot “the American Club,” although I don’t think anyone else called it that at the time. It was certainly closer to Hemingway’s apartment, but much farther from the Falstaff Bar and Le Sélect. And it was a proper gym, whereas Callaghan’s description suggests a less well-equipped space. I think Mayfield and Leland are wrong.

What does it matter? Who cares? It matters because I am putting together a walking tour. Again. This one is focused on Montparnasse in the 1920s. I feel that if I am going to show someone a building and say, “This is where Callaghan clocked Hemingway,” I need to know what I am talking about. Oddly enough, most biographers of Hemingway do not bother to identify the location, except for the one I’m fairly sure is wrong.

This story has an odd coda, which Norman discovered as I obsessed over American clubs in Paris. After the death of Morley Callaghan in 1990, an antiquarian bookseller in Toronto whom we know, David Mason, received some letters pertaining to the fight, written by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He advertised them for sale and published a catalogue.

Mason catalogue

But one night in 1993, someone broke into his shop and stole the letters (as well as other valuable material) from the safe. Two years later, a suspect was arrested, but he died in jail – either a suicide or a homicide. The letters have never been recovered, but Mason remembers them.

In an undated, never-before-published follow up [letter to Callaghan], Hemingway threw down the gauntlet.

“I honestly believe that with small gloves I could knock you out inside of about five two-minute rounds,” Hemingway taunted, adding later, “So if you want us to disarm let me know.”

“Astonishing,” Mason says today. “Just astonishing. This is one of the most stunning Hemingway letters, in which he basically tells Callaghan, ‘In an alley, I could clean your clock.’ What kind of a person acts like that? Especially one of the greatest writers in American literature. And he’s acting like a 7-year-old.”***

So which alley did Hemingway have in mind? No idea. It won’t be on the walking tour.

Text by Philippa Campsie.

The walking tour is available from VoiceMap. It is an audio guide that works with GPS on an iPhone or Android device. 


* Quoted in Cameron Allen, The History of the American Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Paris, 1815-1980 (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2012).

**Nelcya Delanoë, Le Raspail Vert: L’American Center à Paris: Une historie des avant-gardes franco-américaines (Paris: Seghers, 1994).

*** Toronto Star article by Bill Schiller.

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A Sardine Is Not Just a Sardine

I have always liked tinned sardines. When I was a young boy, I found they were the perfect food to take on a hike to Red Hill Creek, King’s Forest, or Albion Falls. Just insert the key, roll back the top, and a fine lunch was ready. During adulthood, I ate them occasionally, but somehow they never tasted as good as the ones I remembered. Then we went to Paris and an old love was rekindled.


It was our first time renting an apartment instead of staying in a hotel. We found a lovely place on the Rue Charlemagne in the Marais. This meant we could make our own meals, and explore markets and food shops. We bought fresh food, but also had great fun looking at and buying food in tins. The French supermarkets have wonderful tinned food unlike anything in Canada. And we are fascinated by packaging. The packaging shown below was irresistible and, as so rarely happens, the contents lived up to the design.

Spicy sardines

Soon no shopping expedition was complete unless we had looked for colourful sardines tins. Some of the empty ones made their way back to Toronto. They were just too pretty to throw away. Perfect for storing paperclips.

Sardine pepper

As with so many things, once one becomes conscious of something it seems to pop up everywhere. We started seeing sardines wherever we looked. Moreover, we started to look more carefully at how they were packaged and presented.

Sardine aviator

Who can resist the World War I aviator, his plane lost in action we presume, and carrying on valiantly in his flying sardine. Perhaps he is looking for a long lost love.

Sardine box

Today, most tinned sardines sold in France come from Portugal. But the design on the tins seems to be fully French, even it if is just an elegant image of a small but beautifully streamlined fish.

Maybe the lack of French sardines inspired this graffiti: “Free the Sardines.” You can find many pictures of this message on the Internet. What does it mean? Some people seem to think that sardines simply need to be freed from their confining tins, but others suggest it has something to do with the overfishing that has more or less ended the French industry.


We once found a clothing shop called Mimi la Sardine, where we bought a T-shirt embroidered with a funny little fish. We wondered about the name, which sounds like a character in a children’s story; it seems it is quite common name for all kinds of things. A Google search took us to a now-defunct dance hall (guinguette) on the banks of the Marne with that name, a children’s art studio in Marseille, a racehorse, a fish shop, a yacht…

The search also showed that images of sardines seem to be a perennial motif in French arts and crafts.

We are fond of postcards and old photos and our heightened sardine consciousness led us to a series of postcards that we described in another blog about the rivalry between Paris and the sardine fishing port of Marseille.


But Marseille is not the only traditional sardine port in France. Once it was Brittany that was closely associated with this fish.

The word “sardine” may be given to a range of fish, including pilchards and immature herrings. Over the years, stocks of these fish have risen and fallen, and these cycles of plenty or scarcity have had an enormous impact on the communities that depend on the sardine fishery. More than once, the economy faced a Sardine Crisis.


It is an old adage that armies march on their stomachs. Napoleon with his ambitious plans for empire had a lot of stomachs to march. So he offered a 12,000-franc prize for the invention of a better method of preserving food. The prize was claimed in 1809 by Nicholas Appert, who came up with a method still used today when “canning” food by sealing the heated and boiled food in airtight glass jars.

The process for “canning” in metal tins might appear to have come from England where Peter Durand was granted an English patent for the process of preserving food in tin-coated metal containers. However, later research revealed that Durand was not the inventor. He was the agent for a Frenchman Philippe de Girard who, at the time, was not eligible for an English patent.  Eventually the lowly sardine, which for centuries had been salted to preserve it, found itself canned and a new industry emerged. An industry based on a French not an English invention.

With the new technology and an abundant supply of sardines, the tinned sardine industry flourished. Other industries grew along with it. Perhaps the most unusual was a fertilizer business, started in the early 1850s by industrialist Ernest de Molon, who used a process invented by an American chemist to produce an odour-free dry powdered fertilizer from the sardine canning factory wastes. Farmers liked the product, which was rich in nitrogen and cheaper than imported guano (accumulated bird droppings). De Molon started separate companies in Newfoundland and Spain.

Gallica-Sardine-fishermenThen came La Crise Sardinière of 1870, when the French catch and output per French factory plummeted by about 50 percent. Everyone connected to the sardine industry suffered, including M. de Molon whose French fertilizer factory went into receivership to Credit Mobilier in 1877.

That would not be the last Crise Sardinière. But in the meantime, times were good in the 1890s when the fish were plentiful. Then 1902 brought another catastrophic collapse. The crisis lasted until 1911. Many of those in the industry fled to other parts of France to find work. Solange Hando writes that “Breton servants were a characteristic part of the population of old Paris. The ‘sardine crisis’ of 1902, when overfishing caused stocks [of sardine] to collapse, forced many young girls from Brittany to leave home and work in Paris. Over 100,000 of them worked as maids, but others became filles de joie in brothels.”* Other women turned to lace-making to earn a living.


The crisis in the French sardine industry also allowed other countries to enter the market. It even led to a court battle over whether the Norwegians could use the term “Sardines de Norvège” for what the French considered a lesser product. The French lost that one.


Nonethelesss, English biologist Edwin Lankester noted in 1915 that “The natural fine quality of the sardine and the skilful ‘tinning’ and ‘flavouring’ of it by the French ‘curers’ of Concarneau in Brittany, have made it celebrated throughout the world as a delicacy. The dealers in Norway sprats—for the purpose of passing off on the public a cheap, inferior kind of fish as something much better—have recently stolen the French curers’ name of ‘sardine,’ and coolly call their sprats ‘sardines.’ The sprats thus cured are soft and inferior in quality to the true sardines which are a less abundant and therefore more costly species of fish.”**

As with so many things in life, what constitutes a sardine depends on our vantage point. A sardine may not always be a sardine. Perhaps it is not inappropriate that this can of sardines is embellished with St. George slaying a dragon.

St George the Sardine

Text by Norman Ball, photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie; historic map, photograph, newspaper, and poster, from Gallica.

* Solange Hando, Paris: Memories of Times Past, with paintings by Mortimer Menpes (Worth Press, 2008), p. 112.
** Quoted in Tim D. SmithScaling Fisheries: The Science of Measuring the Effects of Fishing, 1855-1955 (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 18.

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