Category Archives: Inventions

Pandemic & Panic in Paris

V’là l’Choléra qu’arrive’ by Aristide Bruant, published by Le Mirliton (Paris, 1893) and iIlustrated by Théophile Steinlen.

The song V’la le Choléra qui arrive by Aristide Bruant is an ironic and anticlerical hymn to the cholera pandemic that scared Paris. The illustration is by Theophile Steinlen. We have no idea why he chose to dress this very contagious and devastating disease like a stereotypical Englishman. In a previous Bruant publication Steinlen had rather chosen for the image of the cholera as a travelling salesman or a polite caretaker.

V’là l’choléra qu’arrive‘, illustration by Théophile Steinlen, in ‘Dans la rue : chansons et monologues. Volume 1’, published by Aristide Bruant (Paris, 1889-1895). source: Paris Musées (CC-0)

And for a third edition Steinlen chose to represent the cholera as a murdering phantom hovering over the capital, the frightening sign of divine vengeance: “Here comes the cholera! From shore to shore, everyone will die. Here comes the cholera.”

V’La l’Cholera qu’arrive’ by Aristide Bruant, published by Aristide Bruant (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Steinlen. Source WikiArt.

Aristide Bruant created the song in 1884 when cholera was diagnosed in Toulon. Allegedly it had arrived by boat from Saigon and quickly spread to Marseille and Arles. People started to flee from the Midi to Paris. The memory of the huge epidemic wave of 1853-1854 —with more than 143,000 dead— was still vivid: the people from Paris, the municipality and the press panicked!

Le Cri du peuple, 25 juin 1884. Source: Gallica.fr.

Quickly, prophylactic measures were prescribed. Special train wagons were reserved for travellers coming from Toulon and Marseilles. On arrival in Paris, at the Gare de Lyon, these travellers had to descend into a special waiting room where the floor was covered with sawdust impregnated with thymol and copper salts. Large containers with nitrosylsulfuric acid were left to burn, in the belief that inhaling the hazardous vapours could disinfect. Travellers had to stay there for half an hour, meanwhile their luggage was fumigated in another room.

A newspaper of the time tells the anecdote of a wealthy merchant, arriving from China, who lands in Paris with a collection of parakeets and turtles. The birds sat in an open trunk and the unfortunate animals were poisoned by the spreading vapours of the disinfection ( Le Matin 11 July 1884). Soon however the Academy of Medicine dismissed these disinfection practices as inefficient and illusory.

The press was stirring up the fear for a new murderous epidemic. But by then science had already rejected the old idea that miasma, or a noxious form of bad air, caused cholera and had accepted John Snow’s idea that cholera could originate in water. Louis Pasteur had demonstrated that microorganisms can cause diseases and he had discovered how to make vaccines from attenuated microbes. Robert Koch had determined the causative agent of cholera by isolating the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.(*) And a complex system of new sewers (Les égouts) were being constructed in Paris to sanitize the city.

Le Vaccin‘ by Fernand Heintz and Jean Deyrmon. Published by Marcel Labbé (Paris, s.d.), illustrated by Paul Dubois.

By that time a cholera epidemic was thus no longer automatically synonym for a catastrophe. It is in this view that we must understand Bruant’s song:

Paraît qu’on attend l’choléra,
La chose est positive.
On n’sait pas quand il arriv’ra,
Mais on sait qu’il arrive.

And indeed the epidemic would soon be under control and a very small number of cases would reach Paris. But according to Bruant, entrepreneurs, pharmacists and especially the clergy had made a profit from the anxious situation.

This is the 1935 version of the song by Stello.

The 1884 cholera outbreak was the last one to reach France. By then France had already been haunted by several more serious cholera outbreaks. The first murderous wave of cholera struck Paris in 1832. Hospitals were unable to keep pace with the volume of new patients and morgues were overflowing. Sounds familiar? It prompted the public authorities to clean up the capital, which was still simmering in its medieval juices. The fear for cholera would become a driving force behind urban planning.

Le ministère attaqué du Choléra morbus” by Grandville (1803-1847). in:  “La Caricature” du 4 août 1831. Lithographie. source: Paris Musées / Maison de Balzac (CC 0)

As one of the first solutions, Paris sought to supply its inhabitants with uncontaminated water. Therefore the City Council decided in 1833 to drill the first artesian well. Artesian wells are named after the French province of Artois where the first drilling of its kind was undertaken by monks in the 12th century. Water flows from artesian wells under natural pressure without pumping. However to get to the layer that contains enough water, one had to drill extremely deep in Paris. It was not before the 1830s that technical progress made deep boreholes possible.

Sheet music cover of 'Le Puits de Grenelle', song by Victor Parizot and Ernest Bourget. Published by Nadaud (Paris, s.d.)
Le Puits de Grenelle‘ song by Victor Parizot and Ernest Bourget. Published by Nadaud (Paris, s.d.)

The engineer Louis-Georges Mulot undertook to drill the first artesian well in the courtyard of the Grenelle slaughterhouse, just outside of Paris. It would take almost eight years of effort, slow progress, setbacks and a borehole of 548 meter deep, before water finally squirted out of the well in 1841.

On opening their newspaper the next day, the Parisians learned of the successful end of this scientific and technological adventure and thousands of them rushed to see the new curiosity.

Puits artésien de l'abattoir Grenelle
Puits artésien de l’abattoir Grenelle. Source Gallica.fr.

A poster was made to show how deep the borehole was, comparing its depth to the height of the Strasbourg Cathedral, Notre Dame of Paris, the Dôme des invalides and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

A rumour soon circulated, amplified by a press campaign, and scaring Parisians that their city would be engulfed in a landslide or that the waters of the Seine would seep through some crack and disappear completely into this chasm. Fake news is not a recent thing…

The water that came out of the well was lukewarm and alas somewhat muddy. Decanting was therefore necessary before it could be used.

To that purpose a three-storey cast iron regulator tower, 43 m high, was built outside the slaughterhouse. This tower looked somewhat like a mini Eiffel tower. It is said that it also functioned from time to time as a fountain. I couldn’t find a reliable source to corroborate this, only an engraving which makes me dream that this splendid fountain truly existed at one time…

At the start of the 20th century the aquatic construction deteriorated due to problems of water quality, pressure and silting. In 1904 the tower was —aptly— replaced by a statue of Louis Pasteur.

Monument à Pasteur, au centre de la Place de Breteuil, Paris (7ème). source: Siren-Com on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

(*) Although Robert Koch isolated the vibrio the same year, the miasma theory of cholera transmission was still dominant in Marseille. In 1884, Koch went to Toulon and Marseille, where he isolated the vibrio bacillus in the stools of patients to convince the sceptics and to support two local biologists. Koch gave prophylactic advice and insisted in particular to not consume any uncooked food.

Ugène

‘Ugène pass’ moi l’Odorigène’ by Yahne Lambray, published and illustrated by Joë Bridge (Paris, 1920).

Joë Bridge created the imaginary character Ugène, a Parisian Joe Sixpack from the Twenties. Joë Bridge was a French lyricist, cartoonist and sportsman. He was famous for his posters and press cartoons. Here is his beautiful portrait.

Joë Bridge in 1927, photographed by Agence ROL (source: Gallica-BnF)

He had his own advertising workshop and was one of the first to create a complete product marketing campaign by combining a brand mascot (Ugène), a rhyming slogan (‘Ugène pass’ moi l’Odorigène’), cartoons and a song. The product he promoted was a kind of pomander: the odorigène. This pocket-sized nasal inhaler was meant to provide a continuous olfactory shield against the bad odours of the city. It was a small flask containing perfumed oil and a wick to diffuse the fragrance by capillary action.

The odorigène. Source: ebay.fr

Joë Bridge’s advertising poster demonstrates how the odorigène could be very useful in a bad-smelling metro.

And —thanks to its antiseptic vapours— the odorigène also helped to prevent influenza and contagious diseases.

In L’Ouest-Éclair 26 October 1920.

The odorigène, what an invention! We’ll stop now and smell the roses*.

(*) “Stop and smell the roses” may be a cliché, but new research suggests it’s sound advice for finding satisfaction in life. A forthcoming study in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences suggests that appreciating the meaningful things and people in our lives may play an even larger role in our overall happiness than previously thought.

A Nice Cuppa

‘Ich lass mich gar zu gern (Teekanne Javalied)’ by Carl Alfredy, published by Musikverlag Metropol (Berlin, sd). Illustration signed ‘molge’.

On our way back from Berlin we did not enjoy our rather bland breakfast. But the tea was lovely and its brand name Teekanne rang a musical bell.

Back home we searched our sheet music collection and sure enough we found the above stunning cover. It was probably designed by Heinrich Molge for the German tea company Teekanne, a firm founded in 1926 that still exists. Molge (1888 – ?) was a Dresden based artist of whom we know little but that he was half of the graphic artists couple Molge-Koch.  The Asian red and white teapot however is still used as today’s logo of the Teekanne company.

Advertising for Teekanne’s textile incentives : small silk gadgets offered by Teekanne with their product.

To thank customers for their loyalty, Teekanne offered small silks. These promotional gifts, popular during the early 1900s,  could be stitched on tablecloths or cushions to embellish them. In the tobacco industry these little textile gadgets were more common, as seen in our earlier posts about Dutch Cigarettes.

Advertising poster for Teekanne, by Jupp Wiertz

Advertising poster for Teekanne, signed with PL monogram.

Teekanne engaged excellent illustrators for their advertising campaigns. Also, their tea blends were packaged in lovingly designed tin boxes.

Teekanne played an important role in the invention of the teabag, that ‘ordinary’ item that we are so used to. The history of the teabag starts in 1901 with two American ladies who obtained a patent for a tea-leaf holder. We do not know if they ever commercialised their invention. The first modern tea bags in the Western World were hand-sewn fabric bags. The story goes that the New Yorker Thomas Sullivan sent samples of his tea leaves in small silk bags to potential buyers as a sales gimmick. His customers wrongly supposed that these were meant to be popped into a teapot and loved the idea.  So this Sullivan, and others, started selling tea in single-serve bags. However, customers started to complain because the glue used to seal the bags left a bad taste to their nice cup of tea.

During the First World War, Teekanne adapted the idea and started mass producing round cotton-gauze bags sewn by hand, and tied close with a piece of string. These tea bags —also filled with sugar to offer energy— were called Teebomben (tea bombs).  The Teebomben were distributed to the German soldiers on the front line. Alas, soon they got the reputation among servicemen of only colouring hot water to a brown concoction.

Advertisement for Tee-Bomben by R. Seelig & Hille (the trademark owner of Teekanne)

After the war the German inventor and self-made engineer Adolf Rambold started to work for Teekanne. And in 1929 he invented the world’s first tea-bag-packing machine. Twenty years later he invented the double-chamber tea bag: the tea is filled in two chambers allowing an optimum flow of water around the tea which results in a fuller tea flavour. In the same year he proposed a new tea-bag-packing machine which produced these double-chamber tea bags. His machine sold all over the world and  revolutionised the tea market. I never analysed my teabags before but indeed the double chamber is still used for today’s tea bags.

Double-chamber teabag.

The two following ‘tea songs’ from our collection were very successful in their days. Apart from a hit, Tea for Two even became a standard.

‘La tasse de thé’ by Joseph Szulc, Gaston Dumestre & Roger Ferréol, published by Salabert (Paris, 1920) and illustrated by Atelier Salabert.

‘Tea for two‘ by Vincent Youmans & Irving Caesar, published by Salabert (Paris, 1924) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Now, let’s start to bake a sugar cake and have a tea for two…

Possibly you would prefer Bourville’s version of the famous song in the film La Grande Vadrouille. Certainly a memorable hot scene!

For the aficionados of Teekanne, hereunder is the German publicity printed on the back of their sheet music. To be read with a nice cuppa, of course!