151-Year-Old Bread: An Iconic Souvenir from the Siege of Paris
Soon after the Siege of Paris ended on January 28, 1871, many enterprising souls started selling souvenirs.
Most of these were things you’d expect: memoirs, photo albums of ruins, postcards, commemorative medallions and such.
In fact, even during the Siege itself, a number of people sold what they claimed were souvenirs from the battlefields, including Prussian helmets. Some of these helmets may have been real, but in his amazing book, La vie à Paris pendant le siège 1870–1871, Victor Debuchy includes an account of a secret manufacturer of fake ones. Fragments of shells from bombed buildings were also a commonly sold souvenir. Many of these seem to have been real, since they rained down on Paris for about a month at the end of the Siege (causing miraculously few casualties, all things considered).
The idea of souvenirs might appear shockingly modern, but they actually have a long history. For instance, in the Middle Ages, pilgrims would wear medallions from the holy sites they’d visited. And even then, the concept of souvenirs was hardly new; according to this fun infographic, travelers have been bringing back trinkets from far-off destinations as far back as 980BC!
Some of the most famous historical French souvenirs are items cut from the stones of the Bastille. When the fortress, a symbol of royal power and oppression, was being demolished in 1789, Pierre-François Palloy, the man in charge of said demolition, quite intelligently set aside some of the stones and had them carved into small replicas of the Bastille itself. These replicas were soon on display in just about every government office in France. Some were also sent to celebrities like George Washington. Palloy had other objects carved from the detritus of the Bastille, as well. For instance, the Musée Carnavalet has a card table in its collections whose top is made from materials culled from the fallen fortress.
So, a souvenir industry around the Siege of Paris isn’t surprising unto itself. What is surprising is one of the most common souvenir items that was kept or sold to commemorate the event: pieces of bread.
Over the course of the Siege, the white flour used for Parisians’ bread, an essential part of their diet, ran out. In the late days of the Siege, the bread that was being distributed was rationed at 300 grams per day, per adult, and could only be obtained after waiting on line for hours at the boulangerie in below freezing temperatures.
After the long, frigid wait in one of the coldest winters in history, Parisians were “rewarded” with hard bread that varied in color from brown to gray with a bluish tint. Its ingredients included mashed dry vegetables, bran, and…straw.
This might have remained behind as a small historical detail; instead, it lingered in the minds of Parisians. Bread was — and is — important to them (even today, there’s a yearly contest to find the best baguette in the city).
And so, the terrible bread became an emblem of the Siege of Paris. Many besieged citizens kept pieces, which were soon rock-hard (to be fair, regular, modern-day baguettes made with white flour also harden quickly).
Shortly after the Siege ended (and in some cases, the Paris Commune, as well), some business-minded souls took things a step farther, mass-producing souvenirs that either included the bread or downright spotlighted it.
Amazingly, many of these souvenirs are still around today! Do an online search of “Souvenir Siege de Paris” or “Pain du Siege de Paris 1870” (pain is “bread” in French) and you’ll find it being sold everywhere from local French community sites like leboncoin, to eBay, to prestigious auction houses.
The most common format of these surviving bread souvenirs is a shadowbox that typically includes two souvenir medallions and a small crown of flowers in memory of fallen soldiers (another artifact whose survival is impressive), mounted on a large sheet of paper with information of all sorts about the Siege, including the prices of basic food items. Some of these shadowboxes also include information about the Paris Commune, a revolution and civil war that occurred about two months after the Siege ended — the two events are often conflated.
Regardless of which historical event(s) they commemorate, in these shadowboxes you’ll also find a small, rough, brown thing that many modern-day sellers have trouble identifying. After reading the previous paragraphs, you’ve probably guessed what it is, though: a piece of the notorious bread.
Sadly, though, over the past few years I’ve seen more and more of these shadowboxes for sale whose bread seems to have disintegrated or maybe even been removed. These usually sell for a lower price than complete shadowboxes, although that’s not always the case.
But the bread was so famous that it didn’t necessarily even need to be a part of a larger whole. It was sometimes kept or sold as a stand-alone souvenir.
Victor Hugo, who played a major role in public and literary life during the Siege, kept some pieces of the bread, and he was far from the only one who thought to do this.
The Musée Paul Eluard, in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, has a lovely collection of items from the Siege of Paris. In addition to one of the typical shadowboxes, there’s also a box in which an anonymous Parisian kept several small pieces of the bread.
Another bygone Parisian tried to preserve the bread in their own way, by sealing pieces in a bottle:
Others simply wrapped the hardened bread in paper, carefully writing down what it was.
The person who posted this photo on an appraisal site writes that they found it in a piece of furniture they inherited from their great-grandmother.
They are one of the few living people today who have actually touched the bread from the Siege of Paris.
This is because, most commonly, the bread from the Siege that’s survived is either beneath the glass of a shadowbox or enclosed in a small glass dome, mounted on paper that contains information like the dates of the Siege and how long it took to procure a ration of this unpleasant commodity. The glass was then sometimes set into a decorative plush frame.
Here are a few versions of this format:
Some Siege bread intrigues me because it looks relatively normal. It makes me wonder if these particular pieces were saved (maybe even accidentally, by being left out and forgotten? — after all, as I mentioned before, even normal baguettes get very hard very fast) earlier on in the Siege, before the bread was at its worst.
This one, conserved in the Musée Joseph Denais, in Anjou, seems legit, since museums should verify the provenance of the objects in their collection. It certainly is old; the webpage lists it as “a gift of Joseph Denais [made] before 1908”. But it looks a lot easier to swallow than most other examples I’ve seen:
And the piece of bread in this display case is so white that I wonder if the real thing disintegrated and someone replaced it with a hard piece of modern-day baguette.
It probably won’t strike you as a surprise that I’ve been in love with Siege of Paris bread souvenirs for a long time. As someone who’s fascinated by the Siege of Paris and was immersed in researching it for over a decade, I’ve long dreamt of owning one.
A few weeks ago, the time was right.
Someone on leboncoin was selling a piece of the bread encased in a glass dome, mounted on a plush frame. You might say that the shadowbox format seems more prestigious, but personally, I couldn’t resist the charm and utter strangeness of simply having a very old piece of terrible bread from one of my favorite periods of history in my home, without the fanfare of added medallions and context.
You might be wondering what the going price is for a piece of infamous 151-year-old bread. Because some people don’t realize what they’re selling (or maybe they have trouble finding buyers for such a thing?), I’ve heard of some history buffs getting their hands on even the multi-item souvenir shadowbox format for as low as 10 euros. But the going rate at auction houses, on eBay, and in other places in general tends to range from 50 to 100 euros. Still pretty incredible, considering the age and history of the bread.
I took a chance and offered 60 euros for the particular bread souvenir that had captured my heart, and the seller very kindly agreed to my price. A few days later, it came in the mail, well-wrapped and with the piece of bread still intact within its glass dome, minus a few small crumbs and what seems to be a ghostly shell of a very small wheat germ.
When I showed it to friends and family members, most said how much it looks like ordinary wholegrain bread we’d eat today. But some examples, including, I think, mine, show the presence of less wholesome things, like the straw that made it so distinctive.
I wish I could share more about these very unique souvenirs from the Siege of Paris. But none of my research has yielded a particular name or story, no equivalent of the Bastille’s Palloy.
There is a name written very faintly at the bottom of this stunning example that features beautiful drawings of animals that were commonly eaten during the Siege (cats, dogs, rats, and horses). I’m going to try to reach out to someone to see if I can get more information.
But overwhelmingly, as far as I can see, no distributor or manufacturer’s name or address is printed on any of the other paper mountings, including on my own bread souvenir.
Still, it’s amazing to know that these little pieces of history still exist, that it’s possible to see what besieged Parisians actually saw and held when they got their bread ration in the winter of 1870–1871.
My bread souvenir now sits carefully on my bookshelf. A hook on the back indicates it was probably intended to be mounted on a wall, which would have been delightful. But I’m worried that gravity could make those crumbs increase. Still, I get to look at it every day, and I feel amazed and honored to own such a strange and meaningful fragment of history.
A Beauty and the Beast retelling set during the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris, Hearts at Dawn has been selected as a Historical Novel Society Editors’ Choice book. It’s currently available in Kindle and paperback formats and is part of the Kindle Unlimited Library. I hope you’ll give it a read!
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I hope you enjoyed this foray into the world of Siege of Paris bread souvenirs. Feel free to subscribe to this blog or follow me on Goodreads or Amazon to find out when I publish new posts.
Until next time!