The Paris Subway Iconic Signs

DSC_0639_2The Paris Métro‘s art nouveau entrances and art deco candelabras are iconic.  They are almost as readily recognizable as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or the Louvre.  The smell of the subway is almost equally iconic, but fortunately not as easily expressed via the internet.  

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A French friend explained to us that for something to be popular in France, it must be beautiful, even if it means sacrificing function.  A lot of Paris’ beauty and charm lies in the elegance of everyday life.  These subway signs are a perfect manifestation of this.

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These “edicule” entrances were designed by the architect, Hector Guimard in 1899.  Some conservative Parisians considered them too fanciful.  Some saw the wrought-iron stems clutching glowing reddish balls, pistils and stamens of flowers, as suggestive. Eventually, acceptance grew.  Nevertheless, they didn’t have the appreciation they enjoy today.  Many of the signs were torn down over the years, in the name of modernization.  Eventually, Paris recognized their beauty, value and symbolic power. In the late 70’s the remaining ones were declared historic landmarks.  At the end of the century, they restored the remaining art nouveau Metro entrances.

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Cool huh?  We aren’t the only ones who think so.  The New York Modern Art Museum bought the old wrought-iron railings from a Metro entrance.  They are on display as a pioneering, beautiful example of art nouveau.

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Fribourg’s Wrought Iron Signs With Icons

I visited Fribourg.  It is a charming, medieval town.  Wonderful old details have been preserved and in the historic quarters many new additions are consistent with the traditional surroundings.  Before streets were numbered, buildings and businesses were identified by symbols carved into the buildings or signs hanging from them.  Walking through the streets, I noticed many hanging wrought iron signs with icons over shops, cafes, hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

Such signs were hugely popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Their purpose was to attract the public; they were a sort of advertising.  As a result, they were often artistic and elaborate. Even the metal posts from which they hung were elaborately worked.  They functioned not only to identify the business and as advertisement, but also as landmarks for directional information before street names and building numbers.

Over time, certain symbols became common on signs as a sort of code to help the illiterate public identify the nature of the business inside.  They include:

  • Bible = Bookseller
  • Civet Cat = Perfumer
  • Key = Locksmith
  • Mortar & Pestle = Apothecary
  • Red & White Striped Pole = Barber (the red stripe signifies the bloodletting they preformed)
  • Shoe = Shoemaker
  • Sugar Loaf = Grocer
  • Three Golden Balls = Pawn Broker (this became the symbol of the Medici family)
  • Eagle on a bolt of cloth = Merchants, finishers and dyers of foreign cloth
  • Lambs = Wool manufacturers and merchants
  • Alehouse = traditional garland of leaves or hops

Eventually, increased travel led to competition.  To differentiate themselves from their competition, signs began bearing the name of the business and a representative symbol for illiterate customers.  Over time, the sizes and heights became more or less standardized to keep those on horseback from banging their noggin.  While these types of signs were common in Europe, different areas enacted different rules governing their size and height.

I chuckled at some of the more modern twists on the signs.  WC means water closet.  This sign marks the entrance to public toilets.

Even Starbucks got themselves one.

I have to admit, they are a bit more charming (if less hypnotizing) than the giant neon signs that are so prevalent in the US.  Looking for pictures of them made me a bit homesick, but not hungry.

From Getty Images via The Telegraph