'Les Berges de la Seine, Quai de l'Hotel de Ville, enfants de marinier' reads the legend, and this (undated) card gives a captivating glimpse into the life of river workers in Paris, surely some time around the beginning of the 20th century.
However, my main interest in this postcard, particularly in relation to this blog, was the vast hulk moored on the quai behind them. This was even more the case when I flipped over the card and read the message that had been added, probably by a previous owner of the card; 'Grand Bain Parisien 30 Cent, Quai aux Fleurs, maintenant Piscine Deligny'.
The Piscine Deligny is a famous name in Paris, and one with a fascinating story. But what was it doing in this location?
The history of the Deligny swimming pool began with Barthélemy Turquin (also inventer of the life jacket) who set up the city's first école de natation on a floating jetty on the Seine in 1785. Between 1801 and 1803, a man seemingly known to history only as 'maitre-nageur Deligny' (but who was also Turquin's son-in-law and heir) took over the management of the school and built a more permenant, solid structure alongside what is today the Quai Anatole France in the 7th arrondissement. His name stayed with the establishment throughout its history.
This was the case when in 1840 it was rebuilt once again by its new owners, the Burgh brothers, in an exotic and luxurious oriental style. Somewhat bizarrely, the new swimming pool used wood taken from a boat - La Dorade - that had recently transported the body of Napolean Bonaparte up the river Seine to Paris!
The institution became the 'école royale de natation', and swimming an essential skill to be learnt by the middle and upper classes, alongside fencing and horse riding. This is not to say though that it was a pleasant experience. The water of course came directly from the river, and as Eugène Briffault wrote in 'Paris dans l’eau' in 1844, the Piscine Deligny was "Sale, trouble, souvent fétide et malsaine" (dirty, cloudy, often foul-smelling and unhealthy).
Nevertheless, with its grandiose fittings, including private rooms and a restaurant, it became a fashionable location with regular visitors including Charles X, Louis Philippe and George Sand (dressed as a man?), even if most people came to lounge and smoke rather than swim.
An etching of the Piscine Deligny, c1850
After hosting the first ever French swimming championships in 1899 (thus marking the passage of the activity from a 'hygenic' to a sporting one), the swimming pool remained fashionable well into the 20th century, even if it wasn't until 1919 that the water was first filtered. Throughout this century, regular users included Louis Aragon, Jean Marais, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn and Errol Flynn.
The more recent history of the swimming pool though was not about royalty and Hollywood stars, but about ordinary Parisians. On hot days it was of course a very popular attraction, but that wasn't to everybody's taste. At the beginning of the 1970s, one French politician, Emmanuel Hamel, wrote a letter to the Minister of the Interior complaining about topless sunbathing at the pool. His particlar concern about that? The French parliament, the Assemblée nationale overlooked the pool, and it was 'offputting'!
The top picture, taken for L'Express magazine in 1968 by André Perlstein (buy a copy of this print here), shows how busy the pool could be. It was though occasionally quieter, as the atmospheric shot just above shows (the photo seems to date from the same era, but I cannot find a date nor the name of the photographer).
Being a large, partly wooden, hulk on a busy river, it did suffer occasional accidents. It was partly destroyed by a fire at the beginning of the 1950s, then closed for a year in 1989 after being hit by a passing boat. The end of the swimming pool though came in the early hours of Thursday July 8, 1993 when it sank to the bottom of the Seine in less than 1 hour for a still unexplained reason. The following TV report gives some more details.
But was it the Piscine Deligny in my postcard, as the note suggested? It seems very unlikely. 10 years after its demise, when the city of Paris was discussing the possibility of rebuilding a pool* in the same location, one local politician pointed out that "from its creation until it sank it had never left the 7th arrondissement."
Floating swimming pools on the Seine were also relatively common in the 19th century, as swimming in the river had always been forbidden, and it wasn't until 1884 that the first completely artificial swimming pool in Paris was built (Chateau Landon).
The photo below, taken from the Louvre by Armand Guérinet at the end of the 19th century, shows how numerous they were in the centre of the city, and this photo (from 1885) shows that there was another 'grand bain parisien' near the Pont de la Tournelle, very close to the Quai des Fleurs.
Although I have found no reference to a public baths on the Quai des Fleurs, it is likely that the pool in my postcard was simply another of these institutions that slowly disappeared from the river at the beginning of the 20th century.
Whatever this 'bain' was though, entrance would have been restricted to the middle classes** (30 cents would have represented a good percentage of a daily wage for workers) so it is unlikely that the children in the picture ever went for a swim!
*13 years after the Piscine Deligny sank, the Piscine Josephine Baker was opened on the Seine in the 13th arrondissment.
** See comments for an alternative perspective.