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The Seine before Paris Plages

Historic View of the Seine

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Paris Plages, the Hôtel de Ville is hosting a free exhibition “Paris Sur Seine: from the old docks to Paris Plages” which highlights the special relationship between Parisians and the Seine River with many fascinating historic images and photographs. As usual, the free municipal exhibitions are only in French, so for those of you who would like a little help, here is our translated version of the text from the exhibition.

The Seine’s Early Years

historic photo Seine
© Rue des Archives / AGIP

Until the 18th century, thanks to its commercial and recreational value, the Seine and its banks were the place to be in Paris. At that time, the Seine was a place of partying and pleasure.

Royal celebrations were organized along the Seine and citizens headed down to the banks to wash themselves and their clothes. But commerce was important and these frequent gatherings along the river hindered boat dockings. With the increasing needs of the city, there was a delicate balance between recreation and commerce.

From the 1750s, recreational activities were phased out while the Seine underwent many improvements to become an industrial and commercial waterway on a national level.

The exhibition “Paris Sur Seine: from the old docks to Paris Plages” invites you to discover the many faces of the river and its banks from the 18th century to today.

In the past, the Seine and its banks…

In the 18th century, it was unimaginable to live in Paris without heading to the banks of the Seine. Commercial goods arrived by the river and were sold directly to the people since the boats often had to wait over a month to travel to the outskirts of Paris. 

It was also a place that attracted laundry boats, water carriers, and many artisans. Stalls set up everywhere also enlivened the river. And of course, at any time of day or night, there were onlookers who arrived simply to soak up the spectacles that occurred on the water.


Nearly 80 laundry boats covered the Seine in the 18th century and it was strictly forbidden to wash clothes anywhere but on these boats. The laundresses washed the clothes of the average Parisian population. This activity survived until the late nineteenth century.

historic image Seine
© Musée Carnavalet / R Roger-Viollet

1750, drinking river water, swimming and fireworks…

Delivered by water carriers, by brace or barrels, the water of the Seine represented at least half of the water consumed by Parisians. The Seine was an important resource for personal hygiene, as well. About 15 establishments were set up to welcome women and men separately in the spring and summer for bathing.  And for the rich folk, in 1757 baths at Poitevin hosted a privileged clientele that paid 3 pounds and 12 cents for hot baths.

Fireworks were provided by the city to mark a royal occasion, such as a birth, marriage, or military victory. The Place de Greve (outside the Hôtel de Ville) and the basin between the Pont Neuf and the Pont Royal were the most popular spots.  Fireworks were also used to celebrate tournaments and sporting events. 

Then the boats left the river…

Starting around the mid-18th century, increased activity on the river reached a saturation point. The incompatibility between economic and aesthetic values of the city led to the eviction of laundry boats at the foot of the Louvre, for example.  Aesthetics, clearly, won.

Through a network of water channels designed in the early 19th – the Ourcq Canal, Canal Saint-Denis and Canal Saint-Martin– the river trade veered to the north of Paris.

At the same time, we saw the development of sports and recreational activities. The mainstream press sponsored events that brought huge crowds to the water.  New institutions sprung up, like the Deligny swiming pool barge, where swimming and showing off became popular among Parisians.

On the occasion of universal exhibitions, the Seine’s banks were covered with temporary architecture, palaces of industry or pavilions of visiting countries. The 1900 Exhibition was by far the largest, encompassing a large swath of the two banks of the Seine between the Invalides and the Champ de Mars.

The sightseeing riverboats called bateaux mouches started appearing at the Universal Exhibition of 1867. They were an immediate success, hosting almost 3.5 million passengers on the Seine in 1867. They most likely take their name from the fact that they were originally built in workshops in a place called Mouche, near Lyon.

Old Seine barge

The Seine Today

Beginning in 1970, construction of roads along the river banks started to create a distance between the Seine and Parisians who used to enjoy the tranquility of the river.  Parisians soon found other entertainment and distractions, like the television. After World War II the leisure class grew and Parisian society discovered the possibility of leaving Paris for vacation. 

Today, strolling along the river is now widely enjoyed by all, especially during the special events like the annual Paris Plages.

While most areas related to economic activity on the river traffic are in transition back to recreational areas, like the Docks en Seine complex on the Quai d’Austerlitz, the exhibit also demonstrates the return of the river’s greater commercial importance, and how to meet the growing demand while respecting the environment.

The Seine still plays, and has yet to play, many roles in Paris, beyond a dizzying waltz in the Square Tino Rossi or a swim in the Josephine Baker swimming pool barge.

Some Fun Historical Facts

The first swim across the Seine
The first official swim across the Seine was held in 1905. Eight swimmers participated in this first edition, a race measuring 11 km. The success was so huge that Paris sponsored the event every August until 1936.

The baths of the Samaritan
The water pump of the Samaritan was demolished in 1813.  Ernest Cognacq, founder of the department store of the same name, opened up his shop by the Pont Neuf on the site of the old pump.  During the Second Empire, a sort of bath house opened up as well. Designed to offer special cabins with all the comforts for body care, the facility was rebuilt in the inter-war years as a swimming pool designed primarily for leisure.

The Deligny Swimming Pool
Sir Turquin Deligny partnered with his son in 1808 for a special project. At that time, Paris had only two swimming schools, one in the Quai de Bethune on the Ile Saint-Louis and at the Deligny Pool by the Quai d’Orsay, near the Concorde. While the school of the Ile Saint-Louis is designed for students of the Latin Quarter, Deligny was the meeting place for the most elegant swimmers. The cigar was the indispensable accessory to accompany the pleasure of a cold bath. In 1919, owners installed a filtration system to address the muddy pollution that hindered swimmers. The Deligny pool suddenly sunk one night in 1993, taking with it the memory of the aquatic antics of Parisian society.

Practical Information

Paris Sur Seine: from the old docks to Paris Plages
Hotel de Ville
29, rue de Rivoli, 4th
M° Hotel de Ville
July 6 to September 17, 2011
Free entry Monday-Friday 10am-7pm.

* Learn all about Paris Plage Here *

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