Curious what your favorite street or square in Paris looked like in the early 20th century? Now you can see for yourself thanks to the Commission du Vieux Paris, which has made over 10,000 photos available to browse for free online. Taken between 1916 and 1970 as part of a project to document — arrondissement by arrondissement – what the city looked like: houses, shops, and apartment buildings (many photographed before demolition), but also historic monuments, public facilities, and industrial complexes. Some of these photos have people posing in them or caught unaware as they go about their day in Paris.
It’s quite easy to use, even if you don’t understand French. Start at the website of Les photographies de la Commission du Vieux Paris.
Then simply click on one of the red dots on the map of Paris, or type an address into the search box, and then click on the results on the left-hand panel that appears.
The little file symbol on the upper right will then open another sidebar that gives you the name of the photographer and the date the photo was taken, and – below the thumbnail of the image – two links to open the full-sized image. Sometimes there are multiple images for the same address, which you’ll see in a carousel at the bottom of the sidebar (the text is in English because I had Google’s auto-translator turned on):
The original 6200 photos were glass plate images, taken between 1916 and 1930 by Charles Lansiaux and his successor Edouard Desprez (in subsequent years the images were taken and stored as slides).
“The bulk of the work, namely conserving, restoring, inventorying, and digitizing the collection, had been done for several decades. We took over the inventories, we cleaned them and georeferenced them so that each photo corresponded to an address”, said Julien Avinain, head of the archeology center at the department of history of architecture and archeology of the City of Paris in an article in Le Parisien.
Here’s a photo of 29 Rue de la Parcheminerie in the Latin Quarter, taken in May 1917, and today home to my favorite English bookstore in Paris, the Abbey Bookshop (with owner Brian Spence serving mulled wine last winter):
This photo taken in May 1918 in Luxembourg Gardens shows a man reading a book, and a mysterious tethered balloon in the background identified as “Saucisse” (sausage) in the records:
And another from Luxembourg Gardens that May of the Medicis Fountain, surrounded by sandbags and scaffolding to protect it from bombardments (WWI didn’t end until November 11th that year):
Here’s a photo taken in my neighborhood (Boulevard Vincent Auriole, 13th) in June 1922 of a residential building about to be demolished, with some of the neighbors posing in front, with a sliver of the elevated metro line 6 seen in the background. (I can’t help but wonder when looking at them close up: did the guy tuck a bottle into the waistband of his pants to be funny?):
Here’s a photo taken in 1935 of 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, also in the Latin Quarter, long before another famous Anglophone bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, opened here in 1951:
Go ahead and check out the website, but take warning: you may end up surfing around there for hours!