Welcome back to the enchanting world of printing and publishing. Share with us the quizzical differences, variations or nuances in what could (should?) have been similar copies of sheet music covers. Sometimes these design incidents defy our imagination in how they lead to incongruity, comical twist or hilarious plagiarism. We have invented nothing. Do your own research: have a look, scrutinize and double check!
The grass is always greener on the other print
The monocle and the shifty eyes
The trick with the husband
The exchangeable dance floors
The fairy tale makeover
The world of enchantment, fantasy, bold imagination and daring fascination… I think I have a little idea on how to musically end this short post.
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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(*) 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.
The woman on this cover is holding a key while threatened by scary hands around her. She is the Danish dancer, actress and singer Charlotte Wiehe (1865-1947). Charlotte was first married to the celebrated Danish silent actor, Wilhelm Wiehe, whose name she kept after their divorce. She made her first successes in comedy and light opera in Copenhagen. According to the press of that time “she was a singer of ability and a graceful dancer”. Charlotte Wiehe remarried with the Hungarian violinist and composer Henri Berény.
Together they moved to Paris and started an international career. Around 1900 Charlotte took up a new line of performance: mimodramas (pantomime acts with dance and musical accompaniment) written and composed by her husband Berény. Two of his mimodramas (L’Homme aux Poupées and La Main) were successful on the Parisian stages andwere later adapted for the cinematograph in 1909 by Le Film d’Art.
The mimodrama L’Homme aux Poupées is based upon a book by Jean-Louis Renaud, beautifully illustrated by Jean Veber. It tells the strange obsession of a man in love with his dolls. The eccentric has only eyes for his dolls and not a blink for this woman, an actress he met one evening at the opera. Since nothing helps to draw his attention, she undresses in front of him. But even that has not the desired effect. Vindictive, she tears the man’s dolls to pieces under his bewildered eyes. Then, seized with remorse, the actress turns herself into an automaton, a mechanical doll. What a great opportunity for Charlotte to show her miming skills.
The mimodrama La Main is the story of a burglar who gets into a dancer’s dressing room to steal her jewels. But as the young woman returns into her room, the thief hides behind a curtain. And after removing her costume and standing in her negligee before a mirror she sees the presence of his hand in the folds of her curtain. Ooh la la, quite alarming…
We spare you the rocambolesque end of the plot in which the key —emphatically shown on the sheet music cover— plays an important role. Far more interesting is that Charlotte Wiehe was the muse of Jules Chéret, the master of the belle-époque poster art.
‘‘You know that this exquisite actress was nicknamed Chérette.Indeed, graceful and mischievous, she seems to be the dream model of the famous ‘maitre de l’affiche’ “. In Journal Amusant (26 January 1901).