Category Archives: Science, Industry & Transport

Lucies in the sky with lots of diamonds

‘Vers l’Azur’ by Arthur Laurent & Alphonse Fivet, illustrated by V. Valéry (unknown publisher, place & date).

There’s no shame in recycling a good idea, the Belgian illustrator Valéry must have thought. We’ve found just the postcards that most likely inspired his imagination for drawing the cover of the Vers l’Azur waltz…

Viennese postcards, sold in France.

In 1784, one year after the first free flight with human passengers, Joseph Montgolfier launched a tethered balloon in Paris, which went higher than the highest building. Three ladies formed the gallant crew: Marquise de Montalembert, Countess Podenas, and Mademoiselle de Lagarde. They were the first three women to make a voyage into the sky. From then on, for over a century, women were piloting balloons.
But after the Franco-Prussian war, the role of women in French society became more than ever restricted to being a wife and mother. Flying aerostats wasn’t a sport for them and was claimed as an exclusive male activity. Nevertheless some female aficionados of the sport persisted, albeit discredited by most of their male counterparts. One of them was Camille du Gast, a Belle Epoque singer and daredevil sportswoman who made balloon trips at the end of the 19th century.

The real inspiration for the three female aeronautics on the post cards was the French Marie Surcouf and her friends. The same year one of the postcards was stamped, they had founded the first female aeronautical club in 1909. Marie’s father was an industrialist who owned a factory for making hot air balloons. She married Edouard Surcouf, an engineer and collaborator of her father. He later took over his father in law’s firm and started building large air ships. Marie herself was also an aeronautics enthusiast. For years she urged aero clubs to grant women the same rights as the male pilots. Unsuccessful in her quest, she decided to found Stella, a female aeronautical club in 1909. The club promoted flying in hot air balloons for women, which led to the recognition of women as competent aeronautic professionals.

Three ‘Stelliennes’ on board of Les Bleuets during their flowered air festival at St. Cloud Paris, in 1909. On the right Mme Surcouf, the pilot of the hot air balloon. (Source: www.gallica.fr)

The French newspaper Le Figaro of June 17th, 1909 gives us an impression of the first flowered air festival organised by Les Stelliennes, the female members of Stella. From a male perspective, sure enough:

“In the park on the slopes of St. Cloud, a highly elegant crowd of guests arrived. Soon, the park, already adorned by greenery and baskets, became one lovely garland of women dressed in white, pink, mauve and blue. The six balloons, deliciously decorated with flowers of which they bore the name, swayed captive waiting for the departure … Among the passengers were a lot of newcomers, and their little hearts started to beat very fast because of a sudden gust of wind; but they were still very skilful, very brave, and not one, in spite of the anxieties expressed by some of their friends, did give up the aerial excursion.

The graceful Stelliennes delightedly scattered flowers on the audience. The first balloon to leave in a cloud of scented petals, was the balloon called ‘Les Bleuets’ (The Cornflowers). It carried on board three ladies. One of them was Mrs Surcouf, president of the Stella and pilot of the balloon.”

Although the passengers in the other five balloons were women, they were piloted by men, because at that time only Mme Surcouf was a qualified pilot.
Stella clearly had a feminist mark: men were accepted as members but they were excluded from the management of the club.

The board of directors of Stella. Second from left: Marie Surcouf. Fifth from left: Mme Louis Bleriot. (Source: www.gallica.fr)

A picture of the board of directors shows five bold ladies, some of them with a huge nest of flowers on their lavishly decorated hat. They also look very well-to-do, which of course they were, just like all the members. A lot of them belonged to the aristocracy. Amongst them was the wife of Louis Blériot, famous for the first air-plane flight across the English Channel.

Members of the Stella Club, with amongst them Mme Blériot. (Source: Library of Congress.)

Although being feminists, the members of Stella also enjoyed very ladylike things. They organised artistic lyrical evenings or tea parties called Stella-Thé’s. The Stelliennes also embroidered a flag for the military aviation. It was solemnly handed over in 1912 when the first five squadrons were created to form the French Air Force (the oldest air force in the world).

Mme Surcouf, president of the ‘Stella’, presents an embroidered flag to the Aeronautique Militaire. 1912 . (source: www.gallica.fr)

The Stelliennes didn’t go as far as the Australian-born Muriel Matters. In 1909 —the same year Stella was founded— Muriel took to the skies in an airship and scattered campaign leaflets over London, demanding Votes for Women.

Muriel Matters in an airship campaigning for Women Votes.

Stella stopped its activities with the First World War. It would take until 1971 before another French association of women pilots was founded.

In the sixties, Marilyn and Florence made a musical attempt at female ballooning, together with the other aeronautics of the 5th Dimension. Much to (y)our delight!


This article is dedicated to Zaza, if not a feminist (yet) at least the most beautiful baby in the world.

The French Panama Papers

Je Revois Paname‘ by Casimir Oberfeld & Albert Willemetz, Saint-Granier & Jean Le Seyeux, published by Salabert (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Paname is French slang for Paris. The origin of the sobriquet is not clear but this one is the most credible: it was inspired by the Panama Affair, the largest corruption scandal of the 19th century. The affair broke out in 1892, discrediting the government and shaking the foundations of the Republic.

In 1879 Ferdinand de Lesseps had proposed the construction of a 75 km channel, similar to that of Suez, in the isthmus of Panama. The project was expected to last 12 years and cost 600 million francs. Work on the Panama canal began in 1882. But soon technical difficulties and the death toll from tropical diseases undermined the project. Moreover in 1884, the funds of the French Panama Canal Company had dried up while only one-tenth of the  excavations had been completed. To overcome this financial crisis Ferdinand de Lesseps himself proposed to float a lottery loan. This kind of loan was especially attractive to small savers who could always hope for an immediate premium when their numbers were drawn for payback.

La Gigolette du Panama‘ by P. Dumont, published by Repos (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Yves.

To obtain the approval of Parliament for the lottery loan, the instigators plotted a multi-million bribery campaign which would be managed by three men. One of them was the financier Baron Jacques de Reinach who would try to persuade the big fish. He distributed money between politicians, journalists and the haut monde so that they would embellish the company’s situation and support the lottery loan. The adventurer Emile Arton (Aaron by his real name) managed the smaller fry, minor politicians and provincial newspapers. Arton was a dubious entrepreneur, boasting a career of bankruptcies. The third man was Cornélius Herz, an American charlatan and the greatest rogue of the three. In the end he even managed to blackmail his associate de Reinach.

A lottery bond for the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, 1888.

In 1888 the lottery loan for 720.000 million francs was authorised. But by now the Panama Canal company had come in even more dire straits. Only a year later the company went bankrupt and some 800.000 French investors lost their savings. Many amongst them could ill afford to lose anything at all.

In 1892 the French anti-Semitic political daily, La Libre Parole, started the scandal with a series of articles. Its first source was a disgruntled banker who had quarrelled with de Lesseps. Almost daily the paper added bits and pieces to the story, accusing an ever-widening number of individuals. When other Paris papers followed suit, an official investigation was started. Baron de Reinach killed himself while Herz and Arton both made a run for it. In the song Les Aventures d’Arton it is hinted that the French government was not eager to arrest him, afraid of new revelations.

Arton ou Le retour de l’enfant prodigue‘ by G. Delatouche, melody from ‘Ton ton, ton ton, tontaine, ton ton’, published by Repos (Paris, 1895)

The owner of La Libre Parole was Edouard Drumont, a devout catholic and the principal propagator of anti-Semitism in France. His book La France Juive, with full-fledged diatribes against the Jews, may be regarded as the beginning of the anti-Semitic movement in France. Drumont used the fact that the three main fixers of the lottery loan were of Jewish descent as a battering ram. His continuous rabid articles fed the growing anti-Semitism in France which soon led to the Dreyfus affair (1894) in which Drumont was one of the most strident accusers.

In the light of this, it comes as no surprise that the eager money-grubbers on the sheet music cover ‘Les Aventures d’Arton’ are depicted with enlarged stereotypical Jewish traits.

Les aventures d’Arton‘ by Léo Lelièvre & Emile Spencer, published by Repos (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Yves. Source: gallica.fr.

In the end, a large number of ministers were accused of taking bribes leading to a corruption trial against Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son amongst others. More than a hundred members of parliament were also charged.

With the Panama Affair politicians were no longer trusted in the public eye. And this brings us back to the start of the story: in ‘Les Aventures d’Arton’, he is called a ‘Panamiste’. Tripoteurs Panamistes imply persons who do shady business:

Il fit remettre des listes,
Et donna plusieurs millions
Aux tripoteurs panamistes,
Panamistes, panamistes,
Et bientôt les souscriptions
Firent monter les actions.

According to chronicler Claude Duneton, the first people to use the nickname ‘Paname’ were market gardeners who had to pay a daily tax on the produce in their carts when they entered Paris. At first, around 1903, only politicians and rich Parisians were called Panamistes. Later, it was Paris —the city itself where these sharks lived— which was tagged Paname.

Gradually, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Paname became a more gentle nickname. Around 1917 the French soldiers affectively designated Paname as the city of their dreams. ‘Revoir Paname’ was their intimate desire in the trenches.

Tu le r’verras, Paname‘ by Albert Chantrier, Robert Dieudonné & Roger Myra, published by Halet (Paris, 1917) and illustrated by Nergetris.

The word Paname spread further after the end of the war, especially in the cabarets and music halls of the twenties and thirties.

O! Paname‘ by Vincent Scotto, Géo Koger & E. Audiffred, published by Foucret (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Jack Roberts.

Today, using the phrase “I’m going to see Paname” to express a longing for Paris is terribly old-fashioned.

Umm, old-fashioned?

Time to update the titles of our collection: ‘La meuf de Sept-cinq’.

La Femme de Paname‘ by St. Servan, A. Benoit & A. Danerty, published by Pêle-Mêle (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Germy.

Le Diable Noir

‘Le Diable Noir’ by Gaston De Lille, published by the author (Hénin-Liétard, sd).

The march ‘Le Diable Noir’ is a tribute to a French heavy artillery regiment during WW1. German soldiers allegedly nicknamed French gunners ‘Diables Noirs’, or Black Devils, referring to the colour of their uniform and also to the gunpowder that blackened their faces.

Thanks to Gaston Delille’s great-grandchild (active on Reddit as balfringRetro) we can listen to a recording of Le Diable Noir.

On this week’s sheet music cover we see a black devil sitting atop a red bomb, leering through his binoculars at a ruined city. The projectile has a childish steering wheel. The two telltale circular marks on the grenade let us guess it is a naive drawing of a French 400 mm artillery shell. These bomb types were fired from a railway gun, a large artillery piece or Howitzer, mounted on a specially designed railway wagon. They were the French answer to the German Big Bertha.

The 400 mm railway gun was first put into service during the battle at Verdun. The thing was so heavy and clumsy that it took two days to set it up.

Verdun! on ne passe pas‘ by René Mercier, Jack Cazol & Eugène Joullot, published by E. Joullot (Paris, sd) and illustrated by L. Prevel

The person responsible for manufacturing the ‘Obus 400‘ bomb was Albert Thomas. He was the French minister of Armaments during WW1. A socialist and pacifist, he had cooperated with Jaurès, the leader of the French Socialist Party who was murdered in 1914. In this photo collage we see him proudly and lovingly presenting his 1.000 kg bomb.

‘J’ai Vu’, April 1916. Photo Collage by Hermann.

When the war broke out in August 1914, the French socialists had swallowed their anti-war resolutions to patriotically join the defence of their country. The left wing agreed to a political truce, the Union Sacrée, promising not to oppose the government during the war. Albert Thomas was the epitome of this Sacred Union: the pacifist had become a top manufacturer of weapons by modernising France’s munitions production. He retrieved half a million men already serving with the army, also recruited prisoners of war, refugees and women and put all these people to work to massively make ammunition. At the same time he tried to improve the working conditions in the arms industry, although with little immediate success. In 1917 the French Socialist Party left the Union Sacrée, and Albert Thomas resigned as minister of Armaments. His fight to optimise the war efforts had made him an outsider in his own party, where pacifism was again de rigueur.

What better way to finish this post than with the catching tune of ‘Ancient Combattant’, an ironic anti-war song by the Congolese Casimir Zoba: La bombe ce n’est pas bon, ce n’est pas bon: le diable noir cadavéré!

Marquer le pas, et 1, 2
Ancien combattant
Mundasukiri

Tu ne sais pas que moi je suis ancien combattant
Moi je suis ancien combattant,
J’ai fait la guerre mondiaux
Dans la guerre mondiaux,
Il n’y a pas de camarade oui
Dans la guerre mondiaux,
Il n’y a pas de pitié mon ami
J’ai tué Français,
J’ai tué Allemand
J’ai tué Anglais,
Moi j’ai tué Tché-co-slo-vaque
Marquer le pas, 1, 2
Ancien combattant
Mundasukiri

La guerre mondiaux
Ce n’est pas beau, ce n’est pas beau