The Days when Paris Billboards were Humped Around by Promenading Camels

Paris street furniture has changed dramatically over the centuries and today’s hoardings are sophisticated digital advertising channels; but there once was a time when promenading bill-board camels were all the rage.

Jardin des Plantes, Paris, France (Credit wikipedia - Jebulon)

Jardin des Plantes, Paris, France (Credit wikipedia – Jebulon)

Here Toronto writer Philippa Campsie of the Parisian Fields blog provides a fascinating tour de force of this veritable Parisian carnival of the animals and incidentally sheds light on that piece of music too.

Carnival of the Animals

My husband and fellow blogger Norman Ball likes to say that Paris is like Alice’s Restaurant: you can get anything you want there. Whatever you can think of, there is always a Paris connection. Let’s take camels and elephants.

Gallica camel

In 1881 camels carrying advertising kiosks appeared on the Grands Boulevards of Paris from the Madeleine to the Bastille, attracting a crowd of 250. The prefect of police responded by not only prohibiting the practice, reasoning that “the number of camels existing in Paris is increasing daily,” but also banned the sale and reproduction of camels throughout France.

Thus begins the book Scenes of Paris Modernity: Culture and Consumption in the Nineteenth Century by H. Hazel Hahn.* Alas, the book contains no images of this fantastic scene, nor anything about the fate of the poor camels that fell afoul of the prefect’s prohibition. The book simply cites the event as an example of the lengths to which businesses would go to advertise their wares in a city already filled with advertising.

A search of Gallica produced a more detailed description of the camels from the Annuaire de la presse francaise, January 11, 1882, with a useful piece of vocabulary (“chameaux-réclames” or publicity-camels).

Un arrêté du préfet de police interdit la circulation sur la voie publique des chameaux-réclames qui, conduits en laisse par un nègre, portaient sur leur dos un petit kiosque couvert d’annonces multicolores.

(A police decree prohibited publicity-camels from circulating on public thoroughfares; the camels were led on leashes by black attendants and carried on their backs small kiosks covered with multicoloured posters.)

Another Gallica search turned up the name of the prefect in question: Jean Camescasse. The ideal name for a man who outlawed camels, offering journalists lots of opportunities to ridicule his decisions by calling him Camescasse-tête (a casse-tête is something befuddling or headache-inducing). A reporter writing in Le Radical in 1884 suggested that Camescasse was just flexing his power as a new prefect of police by banning the harmless beasts. (Clearly drunk with his newfound powers, Camescasse went on to outlaw beekeeping in Paris and then sandwich-men – those impoverished  fellows who earned a few sous by walking the streets wearing advertising sandwich boards.)

Camescasse insisted that the chameaux-réclames were frightening horses in the street. One journalist noted drily that nothing frightened Parisian horses in the street. The prefect nonetheless announced that camels found on the boulevards “serait conduit en fourrière,” that is, they would be impounded. But what then? Were they sent to the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes?

Paris-en-Images camelOr were the poor creatures sent to the abbatoir? I don’t know, and I cannot find out. But I was encouraged to find a short article in Le Petit Parisien from October 1881 to the effect that the accommodations for camels and elephants in the Jardin des Plantes were being renovated to the tune of “DEUX CENT MILLE FRANCS” (the report noted in shocked uppercase letters – TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND FRANCS). The implication was that there were better ways to spend the money. But perhaps there was some room there for a few impounded camels?

The story reminded me that I had once photographed a camel in Paris. Not a real one. A stone camel. A hunt through my photos turned up the following not-very-good image from May 2011:

P1030854 (2)

The camel graces the facade of the former Société Financière Française et Coloniale at the corner of the rues Pasquier and Mathurin. The building, which dates from 1929, is now the home of an English advertising agency. The bas-relief of the camel is just above and to the left of the front door. It has a saddle, but no kiosk on its back. Ceci n’est pas un chameau-réclame.

On the other side of the door is an elephant.

P1030858 (2)

Which got me thinking about elephants, who shared the enclosure with camels at the Jardin des Plantes. Elephants have a long history in France, ever since the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad sent an elephant called Abul-Abbas as a gift to Charlemagne in 801.**

In the 18th century, elephants were popular in royal menageries. Some were gifts from foreign rulers or wealthy merchants who hoped to curry favour with the king; others were acquisitions designed to impress visitors to court with royal power and possessions. In 1772, an Indian elephant, accompanied by a mahout, arrived in France and walked the distance from the port at Lorient to Versailles to take up residence in Louis XV’s menagerie. Unfortunately, his successor, Louis XVI, failed to maintain the menagerie’s buildings; in 1782 the elephant broke out of its enclosure, fell into a canal, and died.***

Gallica elephantAll in all, it seems, elephants have not had a very good time of it in Paris. Consider the sad fate of Castor and Pollux, the elephants in the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, who were killed and eaten during the Prussian blockade of Paris in 1870 (along with camels and other zoo animals). This Christmas menu from the Café Voisin shows that the elephants contributed to the consommé while the camels were roasted. At the time, Parisians could not afford to be sentimental, and they could not afford to feed the zoo animals.

Paris-en-images menu

One elephant did, however, escape Castor and Pollux’s fate. Five years before the siege, the Jardin des Plantes sent an elephant to the London Zoo in exchange for a rhinoceros (I daresay the hapless rhino was another victim of the siege). The elephant’s name was Jumbo. Yes, that Jumbo. Apparently Castor and Pollux were so popular that a third elephant at the Jardin des Plantes was de trop. Jumbo went on to be a star attraction in London and then in Barnum and Bailey’s touring circus in the United States. He died in 1885 in a train accident in St. Thomas, Ontario. The townspeople erected a statue of him beside the tracks.

By 1881, new elephants and camels were again in residence at the Jardin des Plantes. Perhaps the sprucing up of their quarters that year was an attempt to atone for the deaths of Castor and Pollux.

Paris also has its own elephant statues, including one that is currently on display outside the Musée d’Orsay. The statue of the young elephant by Emmanuel Frémiet, once part of the 1878 Exposition, originally stood near the Trocadéro Palace, and later at the Porte St-Cloud (shown below). The elephant was one of a set of large animal statues representing the continents. But for some reason, it is not shown roaming freely; its leg is caught in a trap. Is this a metaphor for colonial domination?

Paris-en-images Fremiet statueThere was also the ill-fated attempt to create a huge hollow elephant statue on the Place de la Bastille that we wrote about in an earlier blog.

But perhaps one compliment the French have paid to an elephant was the fifth movement of Saint-Saens’s The Carnival of the Animals. A double bass plays a delicate waltz as the elephants dance. Saint-Saens was embarrassed by the whole piece, an extended musical joke written for his friends, and refused to let it be published in his lifetime. But after his death in 1922 the elephant dance became a staple of the double-bass repertoire.

If one were to create a bestiary of Paris, camels and elephants would just be the start. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my, not to mention crocodiles in the sewers, aardvarks on the Metro, cheetahs on stage, lobsters and turtles on leashes, and unicorns on tapestries. It’s a jungle out there.


Text and original photographs by Philippa Campsie, other images from Gallica and Paris en Images. The final image of camels in the Place de la Concorde dates from 1948.

*Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

** I am indebted to Footnoting History for this information, and its delightful online audio documentary on “Medieval Gift Elephants.”

***Louise E. Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots: Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century France, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Reprinted by kind permission of Parisian Fields blog and Philippa Campsie.

Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball are Toronto-based writers and joint authors of the Parisian Fields blog, an anthology of Paris and French curiosities seen through the keenly attuned eyes of two eclectic and observant writers about Paris.

Philippa “studied in Paris as a university student, and has never quite got Paris out of her system ever since.”

Norman is a retired university professor trained as an historian of technology, design and engineering, who as his blog notes “can’t stop taking pictures of Paris graffiti and interesting cars”.

Philippa has produced several walking guides to Paris including “Finding the Lost Generation in Paris”, “Coco Chanel’s Paris”, and “Through Fashionable Paris in the Footsteps of Audrey Hepburn”. These can be downloaded from the Voicemap website and cost just $6.99 each. These are audio guides that work with GPS on an iPhone or Android device.

See the Voicemap website for full details here:




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