Saturday, 29 October 2011

19th Century Paris: 'Gaz à tous les étages'

Three very interesting exhibitions have recently begun in Paris, all looking at various aspects of life in the city in the 19th century. In order to get a little more information about each of these, I decided to talk to the curators about the stories behind the shows.

First up, the Gaz à tous les étages exhibition at the Bibliothèque Forney in the Hotel de Sens. The exhibition takes its name from the signs that can still be seen on many buildings around Paris today, and aims to tell the story of how gas arrived in the city and why it became so important. I spoke to Claude Mahuzier, President of COPAGAZ and one of the organisers of the exhibition.

When did gas first arrive in Paris?
CM: Gas was used for the first time in Paris when Philippe Lebon demonstrated his ‘thermolampe’ at the Hotel Seignelay in 1801, following a patent that he had filed in 1799. According to contemporary accounts, this demonstration was a great success, with Parisians rushing to see the rooms and the garden lit by gas. Unfortunately for Lebon, no one was ready to invest in his invention and he died bankrupt in 1804. Gas was brought back to Paris a few years later by a German, Winsor, who knew the work of Lebon and understood the interest it presented. In 1817 he created a gas plant near the Luxembourg gardens to light the Chambre des Pairs and the galleries of the Odeon. This was the real beginning of the adventure of the gas industry.

What changes did gas bring to people's lives? Did it also bring any problems?
CM: The impact on people's lives was considerable! Firstly, gas lighting brought them security. Gas lamps replaced inefficient oil lamps, enabling people to start going out in the evenings, to cafes and restaurants, which were also quickly lit by gas themselves. They also went to the theatre - where the footlights were gaslit - in the evening. As a result, meal times changed, and life was no longer dictated by the sun.

It also became possible, thanks to gas lighting, for artisans to work after dark, although such activity was banned for much of the nineteenth century. When they did work after dark, they took care to blacken out their windows to avoid being noticed, hence the term "travailler au noir"!

Cooking gas, which developed from 1855, offered a real advantage over wood and charcoal, both in terms of handling, and the odours and fumes that came from coal. When running water arrived in homes, after gas in about 1860, hygiene levels improved, even if such facilities were reserved for a wealthy minority. With stoves and gas heaters, people were warmer – at least a little bit!

We can't talk about gas without mentioning the pipes that distributed it. The major concern for cities was initially to manage the many projects launched by the gas companies, who were more concerned with serving the greatest number of customers – and demand was very strong – than in coordinating their work.

With the development of the gas industry, security concerns were also raised. The government quickly imposed safety regulations and although there were some accidents during the nineteenth century, none managed to put consumers off using gas.

How did gas change the face of Paris?
CM: It's thanks to gas that Paris became the ‘city of light’ in the 1900s!

How is the exhibition organised?
CM: The exhibition, in the beautiful surroundings of the Hotel de Sens, mixes objects, illustrations - including posters - and recreated rooms from this period. Our experience has taught us that using such settings, even very simple ones, multiplies the interest of the objects for our visitors.

The exhibition follows the principal developments of the gas industry. It begins with the invention of the industry, featuring gas plants, pipes, meters, then shows how gas lighting entered into the public and private world. Cooking Gas is shown through a recreated kitchen from the 1920s, and there's an art nouveau bathroom showing how hot water by gas changed lives.


Gas heating is explained in a living room, with a magnificent brass fireplace, and gas powered signs show how this medium was also very widely used over the years. Finally, there are two examples of professional uses. One is more traditional, but the other - an organ - is a little more "wacky". However, we wanted to include it to show how at the time people thought that gas could be used for everything!

Gaz à tous les étages
Bibliothèque Forney 1 rue du Figuier 75004
Entrance €3-€6
Tuesday to Saturday, 1pm - 7pm
Guided visits on Saturday at 3pm (included in the ticket price)

1 comment:

Peter said...

Very interesting, as always! ... and I learnt the origin of the expression "travailler au noir"! :-)

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