Monday, December 05, 2005

advertising pillar: Morris and Litfass

The French claim that these frivolous and wonderful ornamental columns were invented in the nineteenth century by the printer Gabriel Morris in 1868, which is why their popular name is colonne Morris.

Germans claim they were invented by a Berlin printer named Ernst Litfass in the 1850's, hence the name Litfaßsäule. Great minds think alike. In Berlin, they began as a way to organize posters previously hung raggedly on fences and private building facades -- to make the printed material orderly, aesthetically unified. Consequently, the very first ones were all black and white print, as in the wintry photograph to the left (though that is actually Paris you see), except for the blood red ink of police notices seeking a criminal, perhaps for a sensational crime like murder. Litfass died in 1874, leaving behind a legacy of 150 advertising pillars. By the turn of the century there were 1,500 of them, and the newspapers chronicle city plans to build even more. Soon after the columns are put up, however, the order they once imposed on the Prussian capital gives way to disorder, as poster designers experiment with new typefaces, designs, and colors. Peter Fritzsche writes in Reading Berlin 1900: "the blood-red colors reserved for an extroardinary murder had long since been adopted by the promoters of boot polish, variety theater, and new-age messiahs. The fabricated quality of sensation wrecked any sort of hierarchy among the items and occasions of the boulevard. As a result, Litfass' pillars came to upset the demeanor of the streets: they stood out like giant "exclamation marks,"* they "screamed,"* their "thick letters" danced a "never-ending can-can."*

The "can-can" of that last quote from a Berlin newspaper gives me the sense that the French columns went up first, and that in fact their existence is the sign of a Parisian urbanity and modernity, in which the city becomes a readable text just as news and adprint becomes necessary to navigate it and its ever-changing, ephemeral streets and offerings. Classes mixed at the advertising pillars, where you could read about opera productions next to variety theater and even jobs wanted fliers (rather like today, minus all the "lost cat" and "lose weight" ads).

The classic literary text for these pillars is Proust's Du Cote de chez Swann, where the young Marcel breathlessly reads them to discover the next dates for La Berma's performance of Phedre. (quote coming soon)

Although the numbers of these columns are diminishing, new ones are manufactured in Paris at least, where the nineteenth century lives on. Today they are made by JC Decaux, which bought the Morris company (whose actual name was La Société Fermière des Colonnes Morris) in 1986. You can see some of their new ones on the website, redesigned to multitask: some of them are also used as public toilets (hidden inside!) or public phone (mostly on the Champs Elysées).

Still I prefer this old survivor, which I found on the rue Marcel Etienne somewhere between the third and first arrondissements:

*"Die Litfasssäule als Jubilarin," BLA no. 315, 1 July 1905
*"Mehr Litfasssäulen," BT, no. 609, 29 Sept. 1908
*Edmund Edel, "Der Schrei der Litfasssäule," BT, no. 481, 21 Sept. 1908


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3:37 AM  

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