Peering Beneath the Streets of Paris: "Paris Sewers: Realities and Representations" by Donald Reid

Updated on January 25, 2018
The catacombs may be the most famous tunnels under Paris, but the sewers deserve their place in the sun they'll never see as well.
The catacombs may be the most famous tunnels under Paris, but the sewers deserve their place in the sun they'll never see as well.

Sewers are not something which polite society has a great affinity for, but they form an integral part of our civilization. Sewer systems are integral for our cities to flourish. Without them disease spreads, noxious odors develop, waste overflows, and our existence becomes all but untenable. They extend beyond merely being technical systems, but are representations of our societal ideals and values. Consider thus the image of the "gutter press", or of denigration of people by their association with the sewer - and also the values of cleanliness and order which are propagated by the attachment to sewers.

Thus there are both realities of sewers and representations of sewers, and both are dealt with splendidly in the excellent book Paris Sewers and Sewermen : Realities and Representation, by Donald Reid. This covers in its first section the technical realities of the expanding sewer systems of Paris, from when their presence was more noted by their absence, in the days of the ancient regime before the French revolution, to their long development and creation under the host of regimes which followed, the French Second Empire and Third Republic in particular. A second section deals with the lives of sewermen in Paris, their working conditions, unions and politics, but also how they were viewed, being transformed from the image of the suffering drunk dregs of society to model proletarians. Both go into a great amount of detail, and raise fascinating concepts including the psychological elements of sewers as bourgeois society descended into them in the French Second Empire on guided tours. It also explores their changing estimation in literature - from a view of a representation of the failings of society in the ancient regime, where they represented that society could not even manage to dispose of its own filth, to fountainheads of criminality and immorality, to a sanitized representation of order which represented the triumphs of technology over disease and confusion.

The book is rich in its analysis of class, gender, science, and modernism in this transformation, but combines it with a well-grounded appreciation of the technological developments of the sewers. This makes it useful to any reader, be they interested in purely the concrete structures of the passages under Paris, to French society, culture, and literature during the 18th and particularly 19th century, but even to today. The amount of archival work that the author must have done, and the degree of literary references and comments, is deeply impressive.

Tours were given to the public of the new sewer system by the 1860s : apparently they were noted as being eerily beautiful and amazingly clean and free of smell.
Tours were given to the public of the new sewer system by the 1860s : apparently they were noted as being eerily beautiful and amazingly clean and free of smell.

The work goes well beyond sewers alone. As an example, it also discusses the way in which the waste was utilized for irrigation and fertilization of agriculture in the country, personally my favorite chapter in the book. As with other sections of the book, Reid portrays both the actual engineering elements of this project, the structures utilized to funnel sewage waste for fertilization from the city to the countryside, but also the moral and political atmosphere surrounding it. The origins of the idea, stretching back to before the French revolution, its relationship to broader ideas of engineering and social affairs (rooted in the ideal of the abolition of poverty by righting the disorder of throwing away such useful material) causes (more driven by the need to filter the sewage by passing it through the ground than for agricultural needs alone), resistance (as skeptical observers trusted little in crops grown with sewage and country folk viewed it as another Parisian invasion, until both were ultimately won over), challenges (opposition both from country folk and from the Parisian bourgeois), effects (brilliant agricultural productivity), international influence (the adoption by Berlin of the same system), all are well illustrated. It is in my opinion, an excellent demonstration of the author's strengths : he analyzes the sewer irrigation system throughout its existence to the present, the social issues associated with it, its representations, and its technical aspects. Additional examples beyond purely the sewer purvey is its examination of sewer worker unions and their welfare systems, which extended as far as setting up worker colonies in the countryside to care for their ill, old, and orphans, in a radical differentiation from the welfare system of the IIIrd Republic.

The book does have some faults. I would have liked to see some maps showing the growth of the Parisian sewer system. Perhaps of course, such maps were not available, but if they were, they would have made a valuable companion to the work. Sometimes I found myself wishing for more in the way of international perspective, although generally the author did an excellent job on this - consider the previously mentioned sewage irrigation, or about cesspool and tout-à-l'égout (everything into the sewer, thus including solid waste) - at other times the general sewer system seems like it could have some comparison, especially during the period of the ancien regime and before the French 2nd Empire. There are some occasional notes during this period about the relationship to the English, but these are mostly concentrated upon English representations of the French and their hygiene habits, and that French houses had less internal plumbing than their English counterparts. Was France during this period "backwards" or "advanced" by European standards? Rarely, the author does have a tendency to segue into post-modernist style incomprehensibility, such as discussing how a madwoman in a play throwing flowers into the sewer is a representation of the internalized desire to gift feces which children have.... something I've been unable to identify the wider relevance or comprehensibility of. This asides, I generally find the author's writing style easily comprehensible. Finally, there are a lot of French terms scattered throughout the text, without translation. Normally I find this to not be problematic, as I have a good, albeit imperfect, command of French, but many of these terms are technical, specialized, or informal. Sometimes it is difficult finding their proper usage in this context, even in a dictionary! It would have been invaluable if the author had provided more English translations alongside the French terms that he utilized : I must note that the translations which he had done were generally very fluid and authentic, something which I can attest to being sometimes difficult to achieve.

Ultimately, this book is an excellent one for not merely those interested in sewers, but also for the evolution of labor relations, ideology, and technology, for centuries, centered upon the Parisian sewers but also the great panoply of affairs related to them. The author manages to remain mostly centered upon these sewers and material related to them, while still casting his net impressively wide for their greater impact upon society. Few books could connect together Parisian sewers, literary trends and ideas throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, sewage fertilization, the evolution of work-labor discipline and technology, unionization, contemporary political struggles of Parisian workers, the French welfare state and worker-driven alternatives, and public health, into one well-functioning book. An enjoyable read for both students of French history, and those who are casually interested into a window on a fascinating historical development.

5 stars for Paris Sewers: Realities and Representations

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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      Louise Powles 2 months ago from Norfolk, England

      How interesting. The subjects people write about! I actually wouldn't mind reading this. Sounds really interesting.