History dans le Métro
By Gene Tempest February 9, 2010
History dans le Métro
By Gene Tempest February 9, 2010
History dans le Métro
By Gene Tempest February 9, 2010

History dans le Métro

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 arrondissement.

Old posters revealed during construction at Paris' La Muette metro station

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 After World War II, carrossage (arched tiling) was widely used as an inexpensive way to quickly renovate outdated metro stations from the 1920s and '30s.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 emerge today.

La 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 revealed at La Muette.

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.

La Muette's posters in time

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.

“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 French, 1986).

Detail of an old advertisement in La Muette station.

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.

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.

Urban history in Haussmann's Paris

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 (historian John Merriman calls this “imperialism of the straight line”).

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.

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 exclaimed.

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 Absurdouée 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.

Tags history Article Voice graphic design posters