rough notes

Between Wars: Lille

with 2 comments

Yesterday morning I encountered a rather interesting postcard of showing rue Escuermoise in Lille, France. The scanned resolution is fairly high, so it was fairly easy to note many details in the picture, including many of the shops such as the Taverne du XXième Siècle, Olympia Antiquites, and le Librairie L. Quarre du something. Although the postcard is numbered “64”, one lille-france-before-great-war1of the buildings also has a “64” painting on its exterior, so it is a little difficult to determine whether this is a number in a series or an address of a building on the road, or even a cross-street. The large sign with a “15” down the way muddled things as well. There are not any readily visible signs or symbols to determine an exact date, either.

Anyway, I wanted to find a little more information about the date that the photo was taken, since it is too difficult to tell just by sight alone. There are no motor vehicles on the road, but there are electric or gas-lights along the street. There are three carts on the street, two of which are pulled by horse, and one of which is pulled by a man (I imagine he didn’t have far to go); there are one or two bicycles as well. The area is definitely urban, so I’d expect to see more traffic of any sort than that which is pictured, but one can’t really tell what time it is, or what day it is for that matter (it could be Sunday). For all we can tell, the scene could have been composed, too. Aside from the Taverene XXième siècle, there is very little we can use to put a specific date on the picture.

I decided to do some quick google-searches, to see if I could find any instances of either the antique store or the restaurant that might give a definitive date, but the results returns nothing of substance. This doesn’t mean that there is no record of of either, of course, but only that no such such records are public and spidered on Google. I did find a PDF in France’s National Archives that list a number of Lille’s booksellers booksellers up to 1881, however, but I couldn’t find a record for 64, r. Esquermoise. I did find a record for bookseller at 58, r. Esquermoise between 1838 and 1841, but that would be certainly too early a date for this photo. This path wasn’t completely fruitless, though, since it was interesting to realize that a fair number of booksellers have operating near this site for at least 150 years: la Librairie Tirloy Père et Fils operates at 62, r. Esquermoise to this day. But I digress. Without any solid search regults, I’m willing to say this photo comes from the turn of the century, but I don’t want to be any more specific than that.

This morning, I did one last google-search on this topic, which initially muddled things. Frederic Humbert at // a great coloured/tinted photograph of rue Nationale in Lille, France. Rue Nationale terminates at rue Esquermoise, forming the large square now known as Place de Général de Gaulle, where yesterday’s photograph was likely taken. The small discussion at Rugby Pioneeers assumes that his postcard is from the 1920s, given certain important dates in French rugby history. The streetcar guidewires in the photo would support this. (Of course, the original r. Esquermoise photo was likely taken at time time when streetcars were prevelant; it is just likely a road without streetcar service). Anyway, Frederic’s photo could be another perspective of this public square, or it could be a photo of the scenic roundabout made by the intersection of rue Nationale, rue Jacquemars Giélée, and rue Massena. The clock tower in the distance of his postcard could help place this, but I’ll let some one else do the work.

The google-search didn’t end with that image, though. Not far below the link to Rugby Pioneers was a blog post featuring an incredible number of images from Lille and the north of France, most from before the First World War. Histoiresdunord‘s photos shine some light into the dark areas that yesterday’s postcard initially exposed. This blog’s photo of rue Nationale is stunning, given the perspective of the camera. Taken one or two stories above street level, it offers an incredible view down the length of the road. What I’m particularly interested in, however, is the blog’s own photo of rue Esquermoise. Although one photo is more yellowed than the other, I’m convinced they are of the same set. Both images

Rue Esquermoise, Lille

Rue Esquermoise, Lille

have a similar mise-en-scène. One photograph was taken at the square, and another was taken about 50 feet into the other photo’s foreground. Histoiredunord’s photo is is located within the other – look for the ribboned sign on the right side of the road, which can now clearly be read as the sign for the local “TEINTURERIE”, which lies roughly across the street from the “15” sign, now partially hidden by a lamppost.

Histoiredunord‘s images appear to confirm the fact that the postcard was taken before the First War, and sometime around the turn of the century. His scanned image of Lille’s Bourse, which is located at the square where r. Esquermoise and r. Nationale meet and shows a streetcar that ostensibly runs down r. Nationale itself, is dated “25/5 1902” by hand. This defaced postcard may lend some credence to the turn-of-the-century argument, and the defaced photo of the Palais de Justice, which is postmarked 20 Novembre 1902 or 1904, reinforces it all.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this anymore except to say that I’m confident that the postcard was photographed at the turn of the century (or le fin-de-siecle, as it were: the French really are more eloquent). But I think I was confident of that one already. Rather, this has been more of an exercise in data mining and social history, and in this paragraph, the brutal face of mankind. It’s pretty cool to see what you might find when scratch the surface of something, or how those found objects and moments are linked to others. For instance, just last night did I find out that my great-grandfather fought at Passchendaele, that hellish scorched earth of a battle that ripped up the countryside around Ypres fifteen years after Histoiredunord‘s postcards were postmarked. The wikipedia entry of the battle features the iconic aerial “before and after” photos of Passchendaele, revealing a town and countryside completely flattened by war.

Lille is only a 45 minute drive away from Passendale (as it is known in modern Dutch) when the traffic is good. I could end here by saying the people caught in these photographs wouldn’t know that their lives would be wrecked a little more than ten years after the picture was taken. But then again, this is France in the early 1900s. We’re looking at a photo of a city whose surrounding countryside has been bloodied by one war after another. The people in these photos are looking pretty good, but that happiness (dare I say joie-de-vivre) is certainly just a brief respite from the carnage they’re used to.


Written by mitchellirons

July 3, 2008 at 3:02 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] this remembrance day talk has got me thinking about about some words i wrote on Lille long ago, in july of 2008.  it’s a typical digression on the past that ends with my becoming […]

  2. […] this remembrance day talk has got me thinking about about some words i wrote on Lille long ago, in july of 2008.  it’s a typical digression on the past that ends with my becoming […]

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