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In June 2009, construction revealed mid-20th century posters
preserved behind the walls of La Muette, an underground station on
the ninth line of the Paris Métro in the 16th
An old ad uncovered during construction at La Muette, a Paris
Métro station. The two styles of phone numbers date it sometime
between 1953 and 1973. (photo: Paul Shamble)
The Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP) is now
undoing work originally completed in the 1950s and '60s. After
World War II, carrossage (arched tiling) was widely used as
an inexpensive way to quickly renovate outdated metro stations from
the 1920s and '30s. The mid-century construction crews did not
bother to remove the stations' posters, leaving layers of maps and
schedules, avis and advertisements from another time to
Muette is one among many recently deconstructed stations—the
process is informally known as décarrossage. Since the
RATP's Renouveau du Métro (“Renew the Métro”) campaign began
in the early 1990s, décarrossage has revealed poster
archives in dozens of stations, including St. Suplice, George V,
Les Sablons, École Militaire, Brochant, Bérault, Charles Michels,
Jules Joffrin, Convention, Volontaires, Trinité and Anvers.
Even an official RATP blog took note: “The metro stations
themselves are sometimes better than a transportation museum. They
jealously keep the treasures of their past, which only appear
during heavy construction!” (“Abbesses se
découvre” in Carnets du Voyageur, 2004).
Layers of posters were revealed during construction at La
Muette. (photo: Paul Shamble)
During construction at La Muette, which ended in November,
passengers traveled through the drafty station with exposed beams
overhead. I felt like Jonah inside the whale. The posters for
bygone products fascinated me, but few other commuters seemed to
notice them. A thick layer of dust and grime—sediment several
millimeters thick—made poster study at La Muette closer to geology
than art history. Layers and layers of postings further reinforced
this idea. While the advertisements on the top layer (“the crust”)
were dull and dirty, posters beneath were shockingly colorful and
alive. Old penned and scratched graffiti, long before the reign of
spray paint, was also preserved.
Young scholars of France long for the mastery of Parisian
history that can turn any detail into a temporal clue. We wish we
could immediately come into the vast archive of experience and
scholarship that enables greats like Charles Tilly to
place a stranger or strange object in historical context.
Detail of an old advertisement in La Muette station. (photo:
“A subway rider elbows his way out of the blue, rubber-tired
train at the Hôtel de Ville station,” Tilly once wrote. Above
ground, the man notices buses, shoppers coming from the Bazar de
l'Hôtel de Ville, the top of the Bastille column, and, walking
north, “the garish blue, red and green surfaces of the Centre
Georges Pompidou.” This string of sights allows Tilly to “fix our
subway rider's view of the Place quite precisely in time: no
earlier than 1977, when the Centre Pompidou opened its doors. No
later than 1980, when Mayor Jacques Chirac of Paris succeeded in
banning motor vehicles from most of the square” (The Contentious
Similarly, we can try to date La Muette's posters through a
process of historical narrowing.
Let's start with the obvious things, like the presence of the
franc monetary symbol on advertisements with prices. This
firmly places the posters before January 2002, when France changed
its currency to the euro.
Telephone numbers provide another clue. Take the two types of
phone numbers printed in one advertisement on a large sheet of
heavy cardboard siding: the name “Robinson” precedes the first,
while the other consists entirely of digits. The first is Parisian,
the second is not. In the 1930s, all French phone numbers began
with the name of the centrale téléphonique in their area
(Robinson, in this case), followed by the subscriber's unique
number. The most famous example is Odéon 84–00 (l'horloge
parlante, the speaking clock service). In 1953, French phone
numbers every place but Paris became exclusively numerical. It was
not until October 1, 1973, that Parisian phone numbers went the
same way. So this poster could be dated 1953–73.
An old advertisement with prices in francs at La Muette. (photo:
Specific threads could also be traced through existing archives.
Actors' names, an invitation to a veterans' ball—these are simple
to research. There is no wrong or right way to place a poster—or
any unknown—in time. Graphic designers might recognize a certain
font or illustrative style that was used only in the 1960s.
Posters' physical properties—type of ink or weight of paper—might
allow an experienced printer to name the date.
The latest explicitly dated poster I discovered in La Muette was
for the school year 1963–64. This is consistent with what we
expect, since most carrossages occurred in the early to
mid-1960s. But, because of the station's many layers of posters—and
the fact that certain types of affiches, such as maps and
avis, tend to be older than the advertisements surrounding
them—it is safer to posit a reasonable timeframe, say 1950–65, than
attempt to assign a single year.
Peeled-back posters become abstract art at La Muette. (photo:
In the second half of the 19th century, Baron Georges-Eugène
Haussmann, Napoleon III's Prefect of the Seine, remade Paris
completely, razing buildings, widening streets, creating the city
we know today, with its boulevards and “classic” buildings. In the
process, he destroyed an older Paris, whose death was mourned by
generations of artists. Since then, many a flâneur has tried
to find hints of the ancestral city lurking beneath the new.
Ostensibly, Haussmann's redesign was motivated by concern for
public hygiene. It is also widely acknowledged as an
antirevolutionary measure, meant to make military access to the
city's most dangerous proletarian neighborhoods more efficient
John Merriman calls this “imperialism of the straight
On the platform at La Muette, I met an RATP engineer working on
the renovations. Wearing a striped shirt and carrying a clipboard,
he told me that the construction would make the station “plus
claire,” bringing more light into the underground. Haussmann's
reforms, too, were meant to do exactly this, to bring more light
into the city (see
David P. Jordan, Transforming Paris, 1995).
Haussmann is merely the most famous French example of urban
planning—“progress”—destroying a rich history.
An old design school
poster at La Muette. (photo: Paul Shamble)
The situation at La Muette is more complicated. There is no
clear “imperialism of the straight line” in this case. Indeed, the
posters, momentarily revealed last year, were preserved only
because of the mid-century remodel. Otherwise, they would have been
covered by other posters or removed, living out their brief lives
within the tile frames of the metro billboards. Further, the
posters were only rediscovered because of the new construction—or,
rather, the deconstruction—of 2009. Catching the metro at La
Muette, one stands at a crossroads in time.
But what is remembered there? I pointed out the poster for the
1963–64 student-rail pass to a woman standing in front it: “A
poster from '63! But I wasn't even born yet in '63,” she
My research into the small online cult of décarrossage
reveals enthusiasts primarily to be of my own generation.
“J'adoooore… le décarrossage des stations de métro” (“I
loooove… the décarrossage of metro stations”), writes
on her blog, right after posting about her new netbook. Most
fans are young twenty- and thirty-somethings, adept with iPhones,
Flickr, Blogger and Twitter. Bref, people for whom the
posters recall nothing. La Muette's posters are glimpses into
someone else's present, not the past of today's admirers.
Today, construction is complete at La Muette and in the process
most of the posters were peeled down and thrown away. But some have
been covered up, to inevitably be unearthed again.
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