I survived the Siege of Paris and all I got was this token.

Alysa Salzberg
12 min readApr 26, 2024

Okay, let me start by saying that the title of this post is sort of a joke. I am going to talk about a commemorative souvenir token that people who lived through the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris could buy, but the “all I got” part isn’t at all how most of them would have thought of it.

As France continued to lose the Franco-Prussian War and the month of September, 1870, progressed, Parisians (and visitors to Paris) realized that the Prussian army would soon surround the city. In a short time, Paris would be cut off from the rest of the world and besieged. And so, many residents and visitors left the city as quickly as they could. An understandable decision, of course, and one that many of them were probably grateful for, since those who stayed in Paris experienced hunger, extreme cold, disgusting bread and other food choices, and even a month of heavy bombardment by the Prussians for those who lived on the Left (South) bank of the Seine.

That said, it wasn’t always easy for those who fled the city, either. In addition to sometimes being separated from family members and friends, they also often hadn’t packed what was really necessary. For instance, a letter in Paris’s Musée de la Poste (Postal Museum) that was delivered by pigeon post includes a complaint about not having brought warm enough clothes. This was probably because most Parisians thought the Siege, which started on September 19, 1870, would only last a month or two, if that. And then there was the fact that no one could have predicted that the winter of 1870–1871 would be one of the coldest in recorded history.

Still, the Parisians and foreigners who stayed behind in the city had a great deal of pride that they saw the Siege through, especially when they compared themselves to those Parisians in the upper class or government who had evacuated.

This January, 1871 sketch by Jules Ferat shows a line in front of a boulangerie on the rue Saint-Martin. Parisians waited on breadlines for hours, sometimes literally huddled down against the cold and rain, sleet, and snow, in one of the coldest winters in recent history. (image source)

The Siege of Paris had its humorous side. Satirical cartoons were a huge thing during that time, not to mention funny songs. But there was also an overwhelming, often excessive sense of patriotism. Read even a few accounts of the Siege and you’ll easily find a number of examples. One of the most interesting ones I’ve come across recently was recorded by Francisque de Biotière in his memoir Paris dans les caves, épisode du siège 1870–71 (Paris in the Basements, an Episode of the 1870–1871 Siege). He writes about how mothers would teach their babies to blow a kiss when someone said “Pour les Français ! ” (“For the French!”) and to make a fist when someone said Pour les Prussiens ! (“For the Prussians!”).

This was actually one of the more light-hearted manifestations of patriotism during the Siege. You can see the other extreme in things like the arrest of General Ambert, whose “crime” was yelling “Vive la France!” during a battle, instead of “Vive la République!” What was probably just a slip in the midst of a life-threatening situation was perceived by many Parisians as a sign of dissension towards the the newly created Third Republic, which had been proclaimed on September 4.

Even those Parisians who didn’t become fervently patriotic often felt a sense of pride for having endured the Siege. While I don’t understand the hysterical patriotism, I do understand that latter feeling. And after all, we still make and buy souvenirs today that commemorate things like surviving a hurricane and its aftermath or, on a lighter note, getting through a particularly difficult sport-related challenge or hike…or pub crawl.

The 1871 answer to this was a commemorative coin, called a jeton de présence (token of presence). I was surprised and delighted to discover that there are at least two contemporary descriptions of the tokens in newspapers — one in Le Monde Illustré, and another from the Moniteur du Puy de Dôme, a newspaper from a region very far from Paris.

The French Ministère des Armées’ Chemins de Mémoire blog includes a direct quote from the Moniteur du Puy de Dôme (my English translation follows):

On a frappé à Paris une médaille commémorative du siège, uniquement destinée aux personnes qui n’ont pas quitté la capitale au moment du danger. Elle est en bronze, sur l’une des faces se trouve un groupe symbolique représentant Paris repoussant l’étranger, sur l’autre on lit : République française, jeton de présence. Un espace libre permet à chaque citoyen d’y faire inscrire son nom.”

Frappé par la Monnaie de Paris en argent et en cuivre, ce jeton pouvait être acquis par les civils ou militaires qui avaient été présents lors du siège.

(In Paris, a commemorative medal of the Siege has been struck, solely intended for those people who didn’t leave the capital during this dangerous time. The medal is made of bronze, on one of is faces is a symbolic group of figures representing Paris fending off the foreign threat, on the other [face] one can read: French Republic, token of presence. There is a blank space [below this] where each citizen [who’s purchased a token] can have his or her name engraved.

Struck by the Paris [National] Mint in silver and in copper, this token can be acquired by civilians or military personnel who were present during the Siege.)

Le Monde Illustré’s mention of the token is sort of like a companion piece to this. It’s an advertisement, and shows, among other things, that the token was available in other materials as well: white metal (I’m assuming this would be a cheap alloy that looked like silver) and imitation gold, in addition to silver and bronze. There’s no mention here of a copper option, so maybe the two reddish-gold metals were used interchangeably by the writer of the Moniteur du Puy de Dôme article.

Interestingly, the ad for the jeton was published on January 21, 1871 — a week before the Siege ended. Although most Parisians knew the end of the Siege was inevitable at that point, it’s interesting that some were already producing commemorative souvenirs. There is a sense of opportunism, but maybe it was also a sort of consolation — “At least we got through it,” or “France may have lost, but we Parisians were tough and held out as long as we could.”

The ad in Le Monde Illustré, January 21, 1871 (image source)

In all of my research on the Siege of Paris and its aftermath, I don’t think I’ve ever heard about jetons de présence — or if I have, I guess it didn’t stick with me. They are legit, though; even the Musée Carnavalet, Paris’s delightful history museum, has one in its permanent collection.

And then, one day, I came upon some present-day ads for jetons de présence, on Le Bon Coin. A very popular site in France today, Le Bon Coin is sort of like Facebook Marketplace, where you can find anything — including some really interesting antiques. In fact, it’s where I found my beloved Siege of Paris bread souvenir.

From time to time, I’ll head over there and do a search for “Siège de Paris 1870” and see what comes up. In late February, a few jetons de présence were among the results.

Although they aren’t the most iconic Siege souvenir (at least, not for me — that honor definitely goes to bread souvenirs), the significance of them, that sense of pride that they’re so closely associated with, and that universal idea of wanting to commemorate something we’ve been through, really stuck with me. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to buy one.* One day, a new jeton de présence ad appeared. Unlike most jetons I’ve seen, this one actually had a name engraved on the back, and, rarer still, it was a woman’s name: Blanche La Jousse.

I loved this connection to a real person, and something about the fact that she was a woman made it even more moving to me. I thought of Claire, one of the main characters of my novel Hearts at Dawn.

But whether or not the name had been that of a man or a woman, the fact that someone had purchased this token and then taken on the additional trouble and expense of having it engraved is a powerful sign to me of how much their experience mattered to them and how much they didn’t want it to be forgotten.

…Although a part of me wonders if it was a misguided gift that had been given to them by someone else. Maybe Blanche La Jousse just wanted to move on from the Siege, and didn’t care about having an engraved coin to commemorate the experience. It’s one of those things we’ll never know.

Jetons de présence are often bought and sold by coin collectors, and in fact, when I reached out to the person who was selling this one**, he told me that he dabbled in coin collecting and had bought it at the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen (a huge antiques and flea market just outside Paris) a decade or so ago. He didn’t know much about the Siege of Paris but had been attracted to the coin for the image on the front.

It’s a compelling one: (Likely) on the wall that then surrounded Paris, an allegorical personification of Paris is defending the city with a spear she’s holding out in one hand. In the other, she holds a flag. She’s surrounded by soldiers. There’s impressive detail in their uniforms; we can see the typical uniform of a member of the Garde National, but also the sailor-like uniform some artilleryman/gunners wore. Many of these men were recruited from the navy. We can also see barrels and other materials that reinforced the National Guards’ posts along the city wall. You can spot many of these in photos like this one. Despite all of these details, though, the face of the Paris figure isn’t sharply defined.

Beneath the group, we have the words “SIÈGE DE PARIS” and the year 1870 in Roman numerals.

The back of the token is far less elaborate, with RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE written around the top rim, in a curved box with a five-pointed star at the outside of each end. The bottom of the token has the same sort of curved box along the rim, but nothing is written in it. At the top center of the token’s back are the words “JETON DE PRÉSENCE”, followed by a small decorative symbol. The rest of the jeton’s back would have been left intentionally blank, and many jetons de présence you find today remain so, but here we see that as was intended, Blanche La Jousse had her name engraved in the blank space.

I like the back of the jeton best, since it has this unique, human touch.

I didn’t expect to learn more about Blanche La Jousse, but when I received the coin, my husband, who’s an experienced genealogy researcher in his spare time, suddenly had an idea. He called me over to his computer. To my astonishment, he’d found a record of her burial in Paris’s Cimetière du Montparnasse. You can see the two full pages of the ledger here. Blanche La Jousse’s name is the seventh on the list. Here’s a closeup of the line with information about Blanche:

(image source)

The cemetery’s records gave us some insights into Blanche’s life. She died in 1917 at the age of 75, meaning she was 28 at the time of the Siege. I was amazed that this made her only a few years older than Claire in Hearts at Dawn. Not that this is the most important thing, of course. Still, it was a moving coincidence.

According to the records, Blanche lived in Paris’s 7th arrondissement (7th Ward). We don’t know where she was born, or if she ever lived in other places or even other arrondissements, but this means that at the very least, she was living in Paris during the Siege and was back in the city (which was once again undergoing a war and bombing), at the end of her life in 1917. Maybe she was a lifelong Parisian. If she wasn’t, I hope she was happy about returning here.

It’s doubtful that she’s still in the burial plot listed for her, since Parisian cemeteries tend to remove people’s remains to a charnel house after a certain number of years. But there are exceptions — for instance, family mausoleums or people whose descendants continue to pay for the plot. Whatever the case, we plan to go to the cemetery one of these days and see if we can find her gravesite.

I wish I knew more about Blanche La Jousse than this. I hope she likes being mentioned here, and thought about. I know that, like everyone who stayed in Paris during the Siege, she had a difficult four months. I hope she didn’t suffer too much. I hope she liked her jeton de présence and carried it with pride or kept it in a place of pride. The fact that it wasn’t found at the Marché aux Puces till recently makes me wonder if it was kept by her descendants for a few generations. That’s something I’ll never know, either.

But I hope she thinks it’s funny that her jeton left Paris with a collector and now is back in the city, with a family who wonders about her from time to time and admires her for getting through one of the hardest times in Paris’s history.


*If you’d like to get a jeton de présence of your own, you can find them for sale on various coin collector websites, as well as on eBay. Most jetons de présence, engraved with a name or not, tend to be sold for around 25–35 euros (about 27 to 28 US dollars).

**Special thanks to the man who sold the jeton to me and answered my questions about where he got it. The photos he took of the jeton de présence are the ones I’ve used in this post, since my phone’s camera just could not get that level of definition. I would have asked if he wanted to be credited by name, but once I told him that my husband and I were going to look for Blanche’s grave, he stopped responding to my messages — I think he thought that was creepy.


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!

If you’re a fan of print books, my friend Rip Coleman, founder of Bohannon Hall Press, recently surprised me by reformatting the print edition of Hearts at Dawn. I can’t thank him enough.

I love the improved font, layout, & chapter headings, and hope you will, too!

Whatever the format, if you do pick up Hearts at Dawn, I’d be forever grateful if you left an honest review on Amazon and any other sites or social media platforms where you post. Reviews help books gain more visibility and credibility. Even a review of a short few lines can be incredibly helpful.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Siege of Paris jetons de présence. I’m still taking a hiatus from regular blogging as I work on my second novel. But I’ll be back as soon as I can with more interesting and strange things to share about life during the Siege of Paris. 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!



Alysa Salzberg

is a writer & worrier. She recently published her first novel, “Hearts at Dawn”, a Beauty & the Beast retelling set during the 1870 Siege of Paris.