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The 11 forgotten treasures of Paris
We’re all guilty of walking around the capital with our head somewhere else from time to time, getting from point A to point B without bothering to look around. Without even realizing it, the distracted and negligent Parisians that we are have overlooked a good number of bizarre relics stashed all over the city, each with their own unique and often laughable history. Next time you’re out and about, be on the lookout for these 11 unconventional treasures, a true celebration of Paris’s quirky past.
1 – Sand boxes
It is quite rare to stumble upon these curious metal boxes throughout the capital. Sporting the coat of arms of the City of Paris, these imposing structures were used during the 1900s to store sand, which was needed to clear roadways in case of ice or snow before snowplows existed. There are only three left in the capital, all in the 8th and 9th arrondissements: 48, avenue Gabriel, 75008; 2, place de la Reine Astrid, 75008; 39, avenue Trudaine, 75009.
2 – The Palais-Royal cannon
If you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll notice a small cannon fixed on a stone base in the middle of the luscious gardens of the Palais-Royal. Thanks to an ingenious mechanism developed by an expert watchmaker, the cannon was programmed to sound every day at 12 o’clock on the dot, which it did until the 1990s. Today, the canon still bears the engraved quote: ”I only count the happy hours.”
3 – Grade markers
It’s not easy to notice these rectangular-shaped cast iron plates hidden at our feet. These grade markers, which specify altitude, were used by the City of Paris when the capital’s water and sewage distribution network was being built. The oldest dates back to the 19th century, and the most well-preserved can be found on rue des Grands-Augustins in the 6th.
4 – The last urinal in Paris
At the end of the 19th century, Paris City hall decided to install a number of public urinals in order to make the streets a little cleaner. Although these circular urinals gradually disappeared in favor of mixed public toilets, one still remains on boulevard Arago in the 14th.
5 – The square Ranelagh merry-go-round
You’ve never seen a merry-go-round quite like the one at square Ranelagh. This old wooden carrousel has been running since 1870, turning solely by hand, without a motor. Young riders are given a small wooden stick that they must use to try and catch a ring suspended above their heads. If they do, they’ll win a free ride!
6 – The fire alarm on rue de Sévigné
Bright red public call boxes were scattered throughout Paris from the end of the 19th century, allowing residents to directly contact the nearest fire station in case of emergency. All you had to do was break the glass of the small window to open the box and contact the firefighters. Only one of these call boxes remains today, in front of the caserne de Sévigné (the Sévigné fire station) at 7 rue de Sévigné in the 4th.
7 – Public scales
In the middle of the 19th century, Parisians began keeping a close eye on their figures, as encouraged by their doctors. It was still too early, however, for the private scales, kept in the home, that we know of today. Parisians thus weighed themselves in public, on scales placed in the metro and in city parks. You can still find one of these old scales in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
8 – The first metric rulers
At the time of the French Revolution, towards the end of the 18th century, French citizens attempted to gradually standardize their system of weights and measures by introducing the metric system, which is now widespread throughout the world. In order to familiarize the public with these new units of measurement, 16 standard meters were installed throughout the city. Only two of these marble rulers can still be found in the capital today, one on the outside of the Ministry of Justice (Place Vendôme, 75001) and one under the archways near the entrance to the Senate at 36, rue de Vaugirard, 75006 (the only one that has remained in its original location since installation)
9 – Sundials
The City of Light is home to more than one hundred old sundials. Despite their obsolescence today, these sundials, which are carved in stone and often feature common French sayings, are quite a rewarding piece of Paris history to stumble upon. Look out for one rue de l’Abreuvoir in the 18th, among other locales.
10 – Fire station lamp posts
Outside of the city’s fire stations, black lamp posts sporting bright red tinted windows with the inscription sapeurs pompiers (firemen) were once used to help make the city’s fire stations more visible at night. Although quite rare today, you can find one at square Violet in the 15th.
11 – Wallace Fountains
These small public water fountains, painted green and made primarily of cast iron, are not particularly Parisian or even French for that matter, yet they are often characteristic of the city’s charm in the eyes of foreign tourists. They were, in fact, installed all over the world towards the end of the 19th century under the initiative of British philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace to prevent the city’s poorest from falling into alcoholism, as it was often safer and just as expensive, at the time, to drink beer or other alcoholic beverages as it was to drink water.
Only five fountains were painted bright colors, as opposed to the traditional forest green: Rue Jean-Anouil, 75013 (pink); 66, avenue d’Ivry, 75013 and at the Parc des expositions, 75015 (red); Esplanade Pierre-Vidal-Naquet, 75013 (yellow); Place Pierre-Riboulet, 75013 (blue). The only Wallace fountain to be mounted onto a building can be found on rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire in the 5th, at the corner of rue Cuvier.
Sources: Les 11 trésors oubliés de Paris