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A city on the brink of change: Paris 1788

The Wallace Collection’s library holds a number of rare books, which our visitors can view on request. In this blog by Helen Jones, Library Cataloguer, she explores century Almanach parisien en faveur des étrangers et des voyageurs, a guidebook of Paris from 1788.

The Almanach parisien is guidebook to Paris for 1788 and one of my favourite items in the Library on account of both its size and its contents. Unlike many of our “giant” art books, it is tiny and aimed at a general readership. The descriptions of the sights of Paris, many of which are still exactly the same, are also very interesting, and makes me picture the eighteenth century tourist, most probably a young man on his Grand Tour, taking in the splendours of Paris with wonder and delight.

Almanach Parisien

This tiny book is probably the smallest in the Library at only 12.5 cm high. It was designed to be portable, and so ‘pocket-size’. The preface states that some doubtlessly worthy books on Paris are “… trop volumineuse pour être mises en poche, et pour être consultée dans le cours d’une promenade. L’Almanach Parisien, au contraire, est portatif, & renferme généralement tout ce qu’un Etranger peut desirer de savoir.” (“… too large to be carried in a pocket, or to be consulted while on a walk. The Almanach Parisien, on the other hand, is portable, and generally contains everything that a foreigner might wish to know.”)

A practical size for a tourist seeing the sights

From 1761 to the Revolution, this almanac was published annually, updated every year to include new information. It is recognisable as a precursor to the modern guidebook or tourist app. The Almanach ceased publication in the early 1790s, presumably because the course of the Revolution was not exactly encouraging of travel in France in general and Paris in particular. This 1788 edition shows a Paris that would soon no longer exist in this form and so it is quite a poignant reminder of the unexpected turns that history can take.

Title page

The leather binding is somewhat battered and it is highly likely that this is the original binding. The leather is worn through at the corners and the gold tooling on the spine has mostly worn off, though it is still visible. The back cover has been repaired where the board was torn and bent but otherwise the covers remain fairly untouched. The endpapers and page edges are marbled and it is not difficult to see that this would have been a very attractive book when it was new. The custom of the time was to buy books unbound or with basic paper covers and then have them bound to the owner’s taste, so it is probable that that was the case here. Unfortunately, we do not have any clues as to the provenance of the book. However, one of its owners must have, very optimistically – considering the eighteenth-century sewage system – hand-coloured the Seine in blue in one of the illustrations.

The Seine - handcoloured in blue

The book itself contains information and anecdotes about all the major sights, events and walks in the city, containing, as the title-page boasts, “all that it is useful and necessary to know for a traveller sojourning in Paris”. At the beginning is a list of notable events for the year, including balls, royal events, visiting days for prominent institutions such as the Manufacture des Gobelins (22 May) or the Sorbonne (4 December, apparently the one day of the year when women were allowed to enter those hallowed halls!), and exhibitions such as that of paintings of the scholars of the Académie de Peinture held in the Place Dauphine (29 May).

Interesting events taking place in Paris in May and December 1788

At the back of the volume is a calendar for 1788, including dates with corresponding days of the week, saints’ days and phases of moon. As February is listed as having 29 days, it must have been a leap year. St. Nestor is the saint listed under 29 February, although modern (Catholic) calendars of saints give his feast day as the 25 February. Perhaps someone decided that he deserved to be commemorated more than once every 4 years!

Calendar for February 1788

The main part of the work, however, is taken up with an alphabetical list and descriptions and some few images of buildings, monuments and places of interest in Paris. A few pages at the beginning list streets that are of interest, and at the end, before the calendar, can be found a glossary of names and historical or artistic terms that require explanation, and a series of anecdotes on the history of Paris.

Depiction of the Palais de Justice

Closer examination of this book has increased my affection for it and almost makes me wish that I could spirit it off to Paris and take a step back in time to have tour of the historical sites and sounds of Paris in the manner of those taking the Grand Tour. I think I would steer clear of the Seine, however, and the historical smells…

By Helen Jones, Library Cataloguer


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