Letter From France

From December 8, 2001 to April 28, 2002--and currently on its web site (http://www.bm-lyon.fr..musee/imprimerie.htm) and in a catalog--The Museum of the Art of Printing of Lyon staged an exhibition called "Ephemera: Everyday Printed Matter, 1880-1939." In its promotional literature, the museum invited people to enter the rich universe of exciting and memorable ephemera, everyday companions that marked the joys and sorrows of life and that affected both studies and leisure time activities. Covering the time period between the Belle Époque and World War II, the exhibit displayed paper artifacts that were outstanding for their artistic achievement, colorful designs, and typographical accomplishment-in short, masterpieces of printing skill.

Included in the show were such items as menus, certificates commemorating the passages of life from birth through death, handbills, bookplates, diplomas, letterheads, page markers, bills, stock certificates, theater and concert programs, and visiting cards-or cartes de visites, a French language term adopted by speakers of English,. All were reminders of an "art of life" lost to time, but still alive for us today in the paper ephemera of the period.

The ephemera on display came from four regional Lyon printers: Audin, a family firm in business since the 1920s whose current owners collect ephemera dating from the eighteenth century; A. Waton, in business 1875-1970 and which produced much advertising ephemera for industry; Gougenheim, which specialized in labels, especially wine labels; and Perreyon, established in 1884, now run by the fourth generation of owners, and the last firm in existence in the Lyon area using traditional printing methods.

The catalog of the exhibition, which shares the title of the exhibition, is 64 pages long and contains nearly 100 color and black-and-white illustrations. Michael Twyman, director of the Center of Ephemera Studies at the University of Reading, wrote its foreword. Ordering information is available via the web site of The Museum of the Art of Printing of Lyon.

The French Army Museum in Paris at Hotel des Invalides features an exhibition on World War II that uses many kinds of ephemeral items to help tell the story of France's participation in the conflict. Arranged in thirty sections on several floors, the exhibit effectively portrays life in France and on the battlefield during wartime.

Shades of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in "Casablanca" and the importance of letters of transit are recalled when seeing a small pass that allowed Martial Valin, Commander of the Free French Air Force, to move about freely. Sheet music from 1941, leaflets about BBC radio broadcasts dropped by the RAF, and manuscript code books all focus on the efforts of resistance forces. A case of newspapers, including such titles as Victoire, Front National, France d'Abord, and La France show how news from clandestine presses circulated. Le Courier de l'Air, published in London on January 28, 1943 reported on the Casablanca conference and pictured Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Josef Stalin, and French leader Charles de Gaulle.

Especially intriguing are several very small pocket sized sabotage manuals parachuted to resistance soldiers in France that had covers completely unrelated to their contents. Two are: Je Sais Cuisiner (I Know how to Cook), and Adolf Hitler: Discourses de 1943. Allied soldiers obviously hoped that German forces would consider the tiny manuals too innocuous to open up for further reading.

Other items include envelopes used in Africa by the Free French, posters, a sheet of paper containing directions for using a gas mask, and ration cards and coupons dating from January 1942 for bread and clothing. Relating the work of French prisoners of war are four blank menus with decorative headings and vignettes that they printed while in captivity, presumably to be filled in later by hand and used by restaurants.

Those who are interested in seeing an Internet version of the World war II exhibition should go to http://www.invalides.org and follow the links to World War II. The site is in English as well as French.

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

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