Let’s check out the Musée de la Poste’s impressive collection of Siege of Paris artifacts!
Located near the busy Gare Montparnasse (Montparnasse train station), le Musée de la Poste (The (French) Postal Museum) contains one of the best collections of objects related to the 1870–1871 Siege of Paris anywhere.
You may be wondering why.
Out of necessity, the Siege of Paris was a part of the development of several mail-related phenomena:
~ The first regular airmail service. From late September 1870 to January 28, 1871, sixty-six hot air balloons left Paris, carrying correspondance (and carrier pigeons) from besieged Parisians. Although balloon flight was tricky and many of the balloons ended up way off course, most arrived safely, with only two fatal crashes and five balloons captured by the enemy.
~ The popularization of the pigeon post. While there was a high rate of failure (more on this below), pigeons were the most reliable way for Parisians to receive correspondance from the outside world. The success of the pigeon post, including the development of a system of using microfilm rolls that enabled a single pigeon to carry 20,000–30,000 messages in a small tube concealed beneath one of its feathers, was an important precursor to World War I, where pigeons would play an even more important role.
~ The invention of the boule de Moulins. This system of sealed metal balls that could hold 500 letters and float upstream beneath the waters of the Seine into Paris was a brilliant idea…in theory. But unexpectedly icy weather conditions meant that none of the boules arrived in Paris during the Siege, and of the 55 released, only 35 or have been found. I’ve written an entire post about les boules de Moulins — feel free to read more about this fascinating failed experiment here.
So, objects from the Siege definitely have their place in a museum dedicated to the history of the French postal system.
….But here’s where I stop and say, Reader, I messed up.
In all of my research on the Siege, I often came upon photos or mentions of artifacts that belonged to this museum’s collection. I assumed they were all on display — which is a fatal mistake for any enthusiastic museum-goer. Nowadays, it’s wonderful that so many objects and artworks in museums’ collections can be viewed online, but when you show up on-site, you often realize that not all of them can be viewed in real life.
In the case of the Musée de la Poste, this wasn’t the only factor I neglected to consider. Earlier this year, I happened to check something online and see that a large display area in the museum was devoted to objects from this time as well as from the Paris Commune, which occurred shortly after. But it turns out that this was only a temporary exhibit. Many of these artifacts were put away into storage again, a few months before I finally made my visit.
That being said, the objects that are on permanent display are still really impressive, and still make up one of the largest permanent collection of Siege-related objects on public view that I know of. Add to that the friendly staff, air conditioned locale (it was a summer visit, and Paris in on a hot summer day is…rough), and the additional fascinating and fun objects on display from other eras, and my visit was far from a loss.
Here are some of the amazing Siege-related things I saw:
An actual projector used to read the microfilm messages carried by pigeons during the Siege. A man named René Dagron famously came up with this idea, which allowed a single carrier pigeon to bring an unbelievable-sounding 20,00–30,000 miniature messages into Paris rolled into a small tube concealed under one of its feathers.
Here, in fact, is a sketch the museum has of this ingenious system, as well as an 1870–1871 engraving of how these messages were projected and transcribed. Once each one was written down, it would be sent to the person it was intended for.
The Musée de la Poste has a fun interactive feature where you can listen to actors reading some of the letters sent to and from Parisians during the Siege. Here’s my English translation of an excerpt from one of my favorites, dated January 4, 1871. It was sent from the town of Chantenay-sur-Loire and addressed to Emile Mouchel, and doubtless brought into the city on microfilm in a tube beneath a pigeon’s feather:
It would have been better if I’d stayed in Paris, I would be much calmer, as you do nothing to calm me. I would very much like for the gates of Paris to be open. I’m really looking forward to getting back home because we don’t have our winter clothes and it’s very cold in Nantes. Tell me if you have strangers lodging [in your building or in your home], if it’s true that you eat rats and cats, as well as dogs.
The original text of the excerpt, printed on a plaque beside the headphones:
I love the personal touch of the complaint in the first line (it makes me think of what I might write to my absent-minded husband if he’d stayed in Paris while I’d left with my son). And the rest of the letter shows how much the details of everyday life during the Siege were talked about even with limited correspondance from Paris at the time — the government-imposed lodging of refugees from the nearby war-torn suburbs and countryside in dwellings that were left empty when families fled during the lead-up to the Siege, and of course, Parisians eating rats, cats, and dogs.
The details about what life was like for Parisians who left the city before the Siege began are also fascinating, notably the fact that this family didn’t bring winter clothes. Many Parisians believed the Siege would only last a month or two at most, and no one could have known that the winter of 1870–1871 would be one of the coldest in history.
But the most impressive pigeon-post-related artifact in the Musée de la Poste’s collection is, for me at least, is the only stuffed Siege pigeon that I know of. This was an actual pigeon that, according to various sources I’ve consulted over the years, succeeded either once or twice in bringing messages into the besieged city — an all too rare feat.
While hot air balloons were the main system and most reliable system for sending letters from Paris to the outside world during the Siege, carrier pigeons turned out to be the most reliable for bringing messages from the outside world into the city. There are no records concerning how many pigeons were released at the start of the Siege, but records do show that from October until the end of the Siege, on January 28, 1871, 300–400 pigeons were released, usually from cages on the aforementioned hot air balloons.
Sadly, only about 57–59 of these pigeons were able to return to the city. The rest were victims of bad weather, hawks and other predators, Prussian troops, bad health, or maybe just bad training. Still, thanks to microfilm, these comparatively few pigeons were able to deliver around 115,000 messages to the city.
Carrier pigeons were seen as heroes. Many contemporary sources on the Siege mention that in addition to laws forbidding it, Parisians usually would not kill a pigeon even in the hungriest days of the Siege, in case it was carrying important messages.
….That said, I recently read a memoir entitled Ce que Paris a vu, whose author, Charles Laurent, a soldier who was stationed on the ramparts of the city during the Siege, recounts seeing people count the number of tail feathers the pigeon had; apparently, carrier pigeons had a certain number compared to ordinary, okay-to-eat pigeons.
Still, not every Parisian may have made this distinction.
The pigeon in the Musée de la Poste’s collection was considered a hero. But beyond that, we don’t have any concrete details — for instance, the name or other type of identification of this particular bird, and, troublingly, how it died. The label says it was stuffed shortly after the Siege. My hope is that it had returned to its coop and died of natural causes, then was preserved. But the documentation found beneath the bird’s pedestal and on the label at the museum are very unclear….
Merci, pigeon, for all that you did for Paris.
On a happier note, another surprising relic from the Siege is this hot air balloon basket. Unlike our pigeon friend, we do know its name — well, the name of the balloon that it was part of. The basket is said to be the one from Le Céleste, which took off from Paris on September 30, 1870. It was piloted by Gaston Tissandier, who later wrote a remarkable book about balloon flight during the Siege.
Tissandier’s book was a companion during my years of research for Hearts at Dawn, and it was so exciting to see the basket he (probably) flew in!
Believe it or not, though, this basket isn’t the only one that survives from the Siege. I know of at least one other, from Le Volta, which I saw at the amazing France-Allemagne(s) exhibit at the Musée de l’Armée in 2017.
Both balloons were sent into the air with bags of correspondance (written on very thin paper!) from Parisians and a few cages of carrier pigeons to release. While Le Volta landed safely outside enemy lines, Le Céleste crash landed 81 kilometers (50 miles) from Paris, in Dreux, but fortunately Tissandier (and hopefully the pigeons) survived, and the letters were able to be delivered throughout the rest of France. Someone must have saved the balloon basket as a souvenir of that time.
I was also excited to see this souvenir poster featuring statistics about each balloon released during the Siege, as well as illustrations of important details and events about them and the carrier pigeons they released.
It’s an image I know well and that I even showed during my lecture at Bill & Rosa’s Book Room on what remains of the Siege of Paris. I know these were printed in mass editions, but it was still fun to see one from an early print run. I’m sure that if I’d been alive at the time, this, along with my bread souvenir, would have been hung on the walls of my apartment!
The pigeon post and the first regular airmail service were successes, or at least the start of them. But the museum also fondly spotlights boules de Moulins, a failed postal experiment. Online, in partnership with Google Arts & Culture they share a relatively intact example of one of these sealed metal balls that were only recovered from the Seine after the Siege (the post office continued to deliver letters, even to the descendants of the addressees, from the time the first ones were found in the months after the Siege, to the most recent find, in 1988).
But the one the museum chose to display in its on-site permanent collection is a boule de Moulins that was recovered from the banks of the river far from Paris, in 1968, nearly a hundred years after it was first released into the Seine and about 450 km (280 miles) downstream from its point of origin, the town of Moulins.
It’s impressive to see this artifact that survived so long, but it would have been even better to see a more intact example beside it. I was left wondering why the museum didn’t display the two, or at least the one that better shows what a boule de Moulins looked like around the time it was created, not after being under water and mud for a century.
Impressively, the letters inside were still intact, and you can see one from this boule de Moulins, as well as one from a boule that was found in 1956 and one from one of the the most recently discovered boules, which was recovered in 1982, on display at the Musée.
As I wrote in my blog post about the boules de Moulins, these letters are extremely rare, since most were delivered or else are still lost in the boules that remain in the Seine (or have floated out to the Atlantic Ocean). One was recently sold at auction for 12,000 euros (11,665 USD as of this writing).
Although its entire collection of Siege-related artifacts isn’t on permanent display, I’d say a trip the Musée de la Poste is worth it for any fan of the Siege of Paris. It was moving to see these objects that I’d spent so much time reading about and researching, in person.
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!
And if you do, 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.
Until next time!