The photograph above (and the similar one below) is a fascinating glimpse into the vanished urban past of Paris, France. This gloomy narrow street is the Rue de l’Arche Marion, and as you can see it’s little more than a tiny cobblestone gutter between ancient buildings looming high on either side. If you look closely down the street you can see a sign for a hotel, several gas powered streetlights, and what appears to be furniture stacked in a doorway (perhaps the tables and chairs of a cafe). The advertisement painted on the wall at left is for a bar of some sort, offering wine, beer and liquors. This is definitely a residential area. The photo was taken probably in 1853, but there’s no telling how old these buildings are–many of them obviously date from the previous century, perhaps before the French Revolution. This is what most of Paris looked like at this time.

Now look at another view, this one the Rue de Breteuil:


Here you can see a wall posted with handbills, another wine shop at the end of the alley, and above that (just above the sign that says “Bouillon”) an open window leading into a bedroom, where you can even see the antique bed in an iron frame. The open door at right also apparently leads to a cafe or bar of some kind–I can see empty tables inside, a back wall with peeling plaster, and wine bottles displayed in the windows. Something ooky, perhaps raw sewage, trickles through the gutter. Given the notable lack of cart traffic and human activity, I suspect these might have been taken in the early morning, perhaps on a Sunday. Despite the fuzzy nature of 1850s photography, the detail in these pictures pops out at you.

These pictures were taken by a French photographer named Charles Marville, and they were taken precisely because Marville (and his employers) knew that the Paris of these pictures was about to disappear. During this period, the Second Empire, the French government hired an urban designer, Baron Haussman, to completely “remodel” Paris and remake it into a grand new city. This project, which cost the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars, took up most of the 1860s, and demolished these ancient almost medieval-looking streets in favor of the broad avenues and grand buildings that came to symbolize Paris in the Belle Epoque of the later 19th century. There was a political objective too. The ancient streets you see in these pictures could be easily barricaded by citizens against police and troops of the government during political uprisings. That had happened in 1830 in Paris and again in 1848; the latter instance was also caught on early film, and was the subject of an earlier Historic Photo post on this blog. After 1870, there were no more popular revolutions in Paris.

I find these pictures utterly mesmerizing because they really take you back to what an urban area was like in the mid-19th century. And it’s not a recreation: this is the real thing. Real people lived in these houses, walked these streets and worked in these shops. It’s very different now, but through the miracle of photography a crisp record of the past still remains.

These photos are in the public domain.