Coping with the call of nature

13th arrondissement - corner of Boulevard Arago and rue de la Santé

OK, I'm cheating here. This little beaut, the last "vespasienne" in Paris, is actually situated in the 14th arrondissement, but is only 50 metres from its junction with the 13th. And since there is nothing more depressing than exactitude…. Behind you can see the walls of the most famous prison in France, La Santé.

The Paris vespasiennes, or public urinals, go back to the 1830s, when the city prefect, Rambuteau, decided to finally do something about the extraordinary filth of the city by building what were initially called "colonnes Rambuteau". By 1843, there were 478 of them scattered around the city. Their name comes from the Roman emperor Vespasian (9-79 AD), who built a network of public toilets in Rome and charged every household an annual tax for their use. The vespasienne was a very necessary addition to a densely populated city that was decades behind its European peers in terms of hygiene, most notably London. As recently as 1832, 20,000 people died from cholera in the city. How filthy Paris was can also be gauged from readingthe massive Tableau de Paris written by the greatest chronicler of 18th century Paris life, Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814). "The most inconvenient thing about carriage entrances [portes-cochères]", he writes, "is that every passer-by releases his waters there and at the bottom of every stairway one finds a pisser who just looks at you and carries on undisturbed." Not an awful lot has changed. There is hardly a corridor in the Metro system where one does not run the risk of being overcome by the whiff of urine. Merci les clochards!

Alas, the vespasiennes quickly became ideal meeting places for homosexuals, who nicknamed them théières, or tasses. In 1961, the city council decided progressively to get rid of them, though many survived right through to the early 1980s. Generally, you smelled them before you saw them.

More serious operations, known in polite circles as les Pays-Bas, also were the source of disposal problems, right through to the second World War. In effect, mains drainage, the tout à l'égout, was long the preserve of the beaux quartiers, leaving the rest of Paris in thrall to one of the most ancient and powerful of the city's corporations, that of the vidangeurs (not to be confused with the vendangeurs) . The job of the vidangeurs, who generally operated in teams of four or five, was to empty the city's cesspools, which were underneath quiet residential streets. This they did at the dead of night, in an enormous fracas of horses, chains and steam pumps. Needless to say, the smell was overpowering. In the early 1930s, the Hungarian photographer Brassaï accompanied a group of vidangeurs one night. At around 3am they broke off for a snack and met with other vidangeurs in an all-night café in the Marais. "Without even washing their hands," wrote Brassaï, "they ravenously tore into their snacks of cheese and sausage and gulped down the glasses of cheap plonk that the café owner poured them." In the circumstances, it is easy to see that a connection to the mains drainage was a key selling point for property until relatively recently. Hence one still sees little enamel plaques like the one in the photograph above (spotted in the 3rd arrondissement, it reads Maison salubre - tout à l'égout).

Return to home page To top of the page