Sunday, 11 December 2016

News from the 1920's

Our house was built before the first World War, but so far the most fascinating insight to the early history of our dwelling came in the form of a few sheets of L'Express du Midi, found under the wallpaper on our built-in wardrobes.  These newspapers date between 1918 and 1924, thus giving us valuable information of when these cupboards were constructed, but beyond learning about our home, the brittle pages open a window to a world long gone: the everyday life after World War I in regional France.  

People talk about the roaring twenties, but the idea of a golden, carefree era between the end of the 1914-1918 war and the stock market crash of 1929 did not really exist.  In reality, most people took their time to recover after the war, emotionally, as well as economically:  The war machine that ate away the sons, occasionally spitting away nothing but bones; worse yet, broken men had grown quiet, but the lives lost left behind a sizable hole in the young male population, shaking small rural communities to the core.  People displaced by the fighting and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 were struggling to return to a normal rhythm of life - and what was normal anyway?  It could have been said the Great War marked the beginning of modern times - in both good and in bad.  Things that contributed to the myth of the 1920's: the café culture of Paris, the bohemians and the flappers, the Great Gatsby, Josephine Baker and all that jazz... that was not most peoples reality living through the decade.  

The First World War memorial in Mazamet. 

Mazamet, my hometown, was a thriving industrial hub built on the textile and leather trade. A quick look at the development of population in Mazamet reveals that it had dropped during the war, but grew steadily throughout the twenties: an indication of an abundance of jobs available and economic stability.  The Montagne Noire with its mountain streams provided a steady supply of clean water for the industry and there was plenty of unskilled labour available to take on the jobs the factories provided.  

Our house was originally built as a crèmerie and this must have been a prosperous time for them, as we know they embarked on a hefty renovation program remodeling two of the grandest rooms of this house in a trendy Art Deco-style.  The rest of the town was booming too: great big townhouses and villas were being erected to house the families of the wealthy factory owners, some of them being the oldest steel framed houses in the South of France. These grandiose homes were decorated with marble and hardwood, whereas my cheesemongers settled for the next best thing: wallpaper.  And this is where the L'Express du Midi comes in: the makers of the new built-in units used sheets of newspaper to line the exteriors of their new wardrobe doors. 

Sheet of newspaper used as a wallpaper liner where I found it - covering a door of a built in wardrobe. 

I found these pages hiding under what felt like a million layers of wallpaper and they are pressed as full of text as it is possible to read, broken up only by regular and beautifully illustrated adverts for products such as fortified apéritif wines, ladies garments and pseudo-medicines, basically all the goods that were again openly available after the war.  

Selection of 1920's advertisement from L'Express du Midi

L'Express du Midi, (1891-1938) produced by Le Nouvelliste de Lyon-group was a catholic newspaper based in Toulouse.  One of the leading voices of the conservative opposition in the region and the main competitor for the left leaning La Dépêche du Midi, it defined itself as "the publication of the social and religious defense".  Mazamet, at the time, was a town divided by religion and class: the vast, catholic working classes led very separate lives from the predominantly protestant upper class.  I had been trying to guess the beliefs of the family that built my house and by finding out about the politics of their chosen newspaper, I can be certain they would have been devout Catholics.  As merchants, though, they must have worked with all walks of life, serving cheese right beside a grand protestant church.

Catholic sacraments of marriage and confirmation as illustrated by these photos taken in Tarn in the 20's and 30's. 

But what created headlines in the early 1920's?  Aftermath of the war and signing the treaty of Versailles, sure.  Everyday political upheaval between the left and right, strikes, general elections... and refugees flooding Europe.  After the end of the war - surely that can't be right?

Once the guns had been lowered between the Allies and the Central Powers, the killing had only started in the newly formed Soviet Union and the supporters of the old régime were fleeing the bloody civil war that was raging between the Bolsheviks and anti-communist "Whites".  The ones that managed to escape were seeking a passage to mainland Europe via Odessa, desperate for a ship to carry them and their families to safety.  An estimation of 400 thousand of the refugees chose France.  The influx of these strangers would have been strongly felt and the L'Express du Midi paints a powerful portrait of people, displaced and waiting for rescue - or certain destruction.  Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It is harrowing to think how little the world has changed in nearly a century.

Russian refugees fleeing after the civil war that was raging after the revolution. 

Another little article talks about "the wives of (coal) miners opposing the imminent strike action" in the United Kingdom, referring to activity that would ultimately culminate in the 1926 general strike that lasted for nine days.  The low consumption of coal, decreasing export market and the artificially strong position of the pound had driven the price of coal to a record low, nearly halving the miners wages.  To stir up the mess that was forming, Germany, whose industry had been heavily sanctioned following the defeat to the allied forces, was allowed to re-join the coal market in 1924 and provided coal for Italy and France practically free as a part of their post defeat reparations.  In the end the miners were to achieve nothing.  They held their ground at first, but had to return to the pits to work even longer hours with less pay - those who still had their jobs anyway. 

Mr. Clavier fixed hernias in Mazamet as the delegates of newly independent Finland finished negotiating peace with the Soviet Union. 

In addition, both my native country of Finland and my current hometown of Mazamet get a mention in 1920:  The delegates of the newly independent Finland and the Soviet Union were involved in negotiating what would be know as the "Treaty of Tartu" in Estonia.  This peace treaty was to draw a new border between the two countries and cause bitterness and friction on both sides, notably affecting the decision in Finland to try and reclaim the lost areas during the Continuation War (25/06/1941-19/09/1944).  This decision was to turn sour for the Finns: They avoided being occupied by the Soviet forces but ultimately lost further areas, including massive chunks of the Finnish heartland, Karelia. 

Mazamet achieved prominence this week thanks to the visit of M. Claverie, an esteemed authority on the treatment of hernias and other displacements of internal organs, offering immediate and long-lasting relief. 

Reading through these pages of yesterday's news has been an eye opening experience.  As a keen student of history, war history in particular, I always found the Great War distant and hard to feel largely due to the focus on numbers and statistics over the real human experience in mainstream history telling.  It is also a conflict largely overshadowed by the Second World War.  It's easy to forget the Average Jacques when reading about the undying personalities such as the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, but these articles dating from the last days of the war made it all feel eerily real for me.  The memorial with rows upon rows of names carved in cold, hard stone, could not evoke as deep of a sense of sorrow as the last advert I'll post here for you to see: a notification of a free service for locating lost soldiers, two years into peace, for families that were still looking for their loved ones. 

For the families of soldiers disappeared during the war...

Portrait of a young man in WWI uniform, identified as Caporal Caffarecca in the back of the picture. According to the inscription, he lost his life on the 21st of August in Alsace.
The estimated casualties of the First World War were more than 38 million, including a total of 17 million military and civilian deaths, 20 million wounded and numerous who simply vanished.  For the many thousands of families that had to bury a loved one, thousands more never got to know what happened to their nearest and dearest.  

I am lucky enough never to have known war.  Let us not forget the horrors these people lived through and those who lost their lives for others to exist in a world without war, after all, this was supposed to be the war to end all wars.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A Brief History of Our Walls Part 1- Wallpaper

We fell in love with our house from the bottom up: the century old cement tiles just aching to be polished and the parquet, dusty, but mostly in excellent condition.  From there on, unfortunately, it was a different story.  Our walls, plaster on lath as you might expect in a house built in the beginning of the 20th century, have all seen better days.  Some were painted, but more often than not, they were covered in layers upon layers of wallpaper dating back to the construction of our house in 1910.  In this first part of A Brief History of Our Walls I'll be focusing on the latter: all the wallpaper I have managed to uncover so far.  

And boy there's a bit of it! 

Peeling back the layers of time was one of our first priorities as to inspect what was going on below, after all, this house had been uninhabited for ten years.  And sure enough, we did come across few signs of moisture damage caused by a previous leaks in the roof, ranging from minor to severe and several smaller spots to where the plaster had been damaged and had came loose from the lath.  On top of all the damages and the ass-about-a-face patchwork of repairs, our house, was covered in an array of ghastly 90's vinyl coated wallpapers that quite frankly would have seen the bottom of a bin sooner rather than later.  

During the stripping process that followed, it turned out, I am not the only lady of the house* who has had her say regarding suitable wall coverings, in fact, some rooms had been wallpapered up 6 times since this old house was built in 1910.

*I will milk this stereotype dry - despite of currently holding evidence of the male of the species having had their say in decorating this house too: Well, at least my darling James and the previous proprietor, who kicks ass not only in chemistry class, but in wielding a trowel as well. 

We we able to found mere fragments of the original wallpapers that graced the freshly plastered walls over a hundred years ago, and they feature an array of small and detailed floral motifs in bright, airy colours with intervals of light stripes, accented by a narrow floral boarder.  Popular at the time, these wallpapers are typical late-term art nouveau: more subdued and sporting a nodge or two towards old classicism where as early art nouveau, with their swan-neck arches, favoured highly stylised flora and fauna. These motifs were widely reproduced, relatively inexpensive and remained popular for decades.

Excamples of 1910's wallpapers - what's left of them anyway.

First of the re-decorators, perhaps the original owners of the house, had a change of heart around 1924 when they repositioned some of the internal partitions in two of the grandest rooms to make way for a set of built-in wardrobes, new plaster medallions and stone mantelpieces.  Perhaps inspired by the grandiose paneling found in the luxurious townhouses of what then would have been one of the richest industrial towns in France, they chose a faux wooden finish with vertical borders in light sage, accentuating the lines of the built-in cupboards and the fireplaces, then finished with a narrow trim in beige and dark navy blue.  This labour intensive job must have cost them an arm and a leg at the time and it would have been a spectacular example of early Art Deco wallpaper.  Sadly - mere scraps remain today, hidden away by the efforts of later decorators. 

Dating this early job was made easy by the discovery of their chosen liner - sheets of Express du Midi-newspaper, contemporary to the renovations and dating between 1918 and 1924.

Selection of Art Deco wallpapers with sheets of the newspaper-liner showing through. 

After the Second World War, a new generation wanted to brighten up the space and updated the whole house, including the electrical work, in the mid to late 1940's.  Their choices were much more subdued, featuring floral motifs typical of the day in hues of muted greens and browns, blue and sage.  Shortages of dyes and other materials after the grueling war and the general shift towards functionalism, the wallpapers in the 40's tended to be reproductions of old motifs, often without decorative borders.  Formalist rather than dainty, these wall flowers couldn't have been more different from the cheerful bouquets of the 20's.

40's limited palette reproductions and formalist florals.

The limited post-war palette was evidently not groovy enough for the folks taking over the decorating duties in the 60's as they went and covered nearly every single surface of this house, including the insides of the built-ins, with psychedelic flower patterns in the brightest colours available.  My personal favourites include a crazy pattern of waterlilies, chosen to decorate several of the rooms in the shades of electric blue, bright green and olive.

Out with the old, in with the new - this was the motto of the day, in politics and fashion as well as decor.  The home owners of the 60's did no longer look up to the grand old homes of the bourgeoisie, but created their own aesthetic with the materials of the modern world: cement and plastic.  An array of fashionable choices was opening up to them as the archaic imitation of classical motifs gave way to a generation of bold designers not afraid to answer to the demand of everything fresh, new and modern.  It was bye bye subtlety in favour of statement motifs, printed as loud and as big as possible.

In an effort to modernise old buildings and inspirited by the minimal detail and clean lines of the new pre-fabricated apartments, many people living in older homes chose to get rid off the excess decoration, such as ornate ceiling medallions and the crown molding, that was seen as old fashioned and difficult to maintain.  And sure enough, this is what happened here: upon removing the numerous layers of wallpaper, we discovered a ghost line of raw plaster underneath the 60's florals where a wide crown molding used to be fixed to the top of our walls.

Many old buildings still bear similar scars of sins committed in the 60's and 70's, but sometimes the damage done extends beyond a missing detail: the historic infrastructure was being destroyed and replaced with modern construction so fast, the manufacturers couldn't always keep up with the demand.  Town centres were forever changed, communities  with roots reaching back centuries were run to the grown and packed one on top of one another, one block of flats at the time, just for it to fall out of fashion and in cases, then neglected and knocked down within a few short decades. What is worse yet, we still continue to live in a culture where new is automatically associated in being better, and the tendency to replace rather than repair triumphs.

Groovy, baby: examples of 60's wallpaper. (Check the middle picture for a speck of early 20th century pattern peaking through.)

Next few decades came with minor changes to the general wallpapering of this house, with the exception of the downstairs chambre sporting the most 1980's wallpaper I have ever seen, sitting on top of a moody Art Deco diamond pattern and a layer of post war blandness. Talking about Miami Cool-vibes with this tropical pastel number! It had it's brief moment to shine before being covered up with latex-coated salmon orange, mere ten or so years later.

In general the 80's wallpapers were light and subdued. Pastels and smaller patterns were preferred over the 60's and 70's extravagant designs and borders were starting to make a big comeback, often paired with painted walls or a wallpaper in a neutral shade and/or texture.  Wallpapering had become more and more affordable, thus allowing people to redecorate their homes regularly to reflect the current trends.

The tropival 80's. At this point, allow me to blurt out what the fuck were they thinking. On the right: An earlier take on the jungle fever, found inside a build-in wardrobe.  

The 1990's streching to the millenium gives us the most recent and by far the most boring layers present.  It is evident that the level of craftsmanship and the quality of goods deteriorates the further long we travel in time from the expertly installed and hand finished Art Deco coverings to the off-the-shelf, stain repellent modern papers that were, in most cases, just slapped in on top of antiquated electrical fittings, plumbing and the hastily repaired aging plaster work.

At this point my house, an old crèmerie, nearly celebrating it's first century, was divided into rental flats.  This had an effect on our walls as the new coverings chosen during the conversion process were picked to cover up blemishes, ward off stains and to stand as a neutral backdrop to any decor.  They were mostly cheap, bland and plasticky - unceremoniously slapped on top of holes, bent nails and trims as a quick fix for what could only be described as a need for maintenance typical in any old dwelling.

Late 1990's and early 2000's renter-friendly wallpapers.

Two wallpapers from a late 90's children's room with adorable teddies and a vibrant blue and white check-pattern, originally separated by a decorative border.

Further advances in both printing technology and development of polymer-based household products for homeowners to use, and sometimes, to abuse have evolved to be more durable, stronger and again, more affordable.  Wallpaper, printed using the traditional methods of the trade, has become somewhat of a luxury these days and a quick tour around any home improvement store quickly reveals that the cost-effective and the most common options are vinyl coated, if not made completely from fiberglass.  These products are great as they are tough, durable and water resistant, but beyond problematic in older buildings.  The polymer-based products do not breath like paper does, thus trapping moisture inside the walls and leading to damp and, in the worst cases, rot.

Vinyl coated wallpapers in salmon pink and bright orange.
The ugly truth is that it's more affordable to replace rather than restore any hand made damaged or endangered details.  Adding a coat of fresh paint on a cracked piece of molding or wallpapering over a damp patch of plaster will cover a multitude of sins, for a moment or two, but once the cover up fails, it might be too late to start dealing with the underlining problems that puts the structural safety of old buildings in jeopardy.

I feel a slight sense of melancholy in exposing and subsequently removing all these layers of history from my lovely old house.  They tell a story of the people who once lived and loved here.  But change is paramount, as we cannot just keep threading water with the repairs that need to take place here.  It's impossible to promise whether I will make the right turns along this road of renovation, but I will try my best not to make the future owners of this lovely house, in another hundred years or so, cringe at my choices. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

In the beginning there was a house, an ikea toolkit and a couple with a taste for adventure...

I know it's a bit of a passé but I could say the it was a house that chose us.  Not the other way around.   

You see, after what had felt like a lifetime of weeding through adverts in leboncoin, shaking hands with far too many greasy estate agents and rage-browsing pre banking crash-styled expat websites with names like Pleasant Meadows wanting us to BUY IN FRANCE WHERE YOU CAN STILL AFFORD TO LIVE LIKE IT'S THE SPRING OF 2007, we got to view what was to become our home.  

Shuffling our feet through the dark, musky corridors of this old house, leaving behind a trail of nervous footsteps on the floor covered in dust and dead spiders, we, me and my husband to be, we both thought - "FUCK ME this is it".  The proprietor, a pleasant man who looked like he just finished teaching chemical bonds to a class full of snotty-nosed teenagers, who later revealed himself to be, in fact, a chemistry teacher, must have had a good eye for suckers as we moved in last Sunday. 

We had discovered regional France is treasure chest of large, derelict housing stock available to buy with next to nothing - if you stay clear of.. well.. the services, motorways, the TGV... and you have  a fondness of DIY and hasty decisions.  And that's exactly what we did.  

Where I probably should have spent my energy growing up perfecting anything from valuable professional skills to a natural yet out-of-this-world selfie-pout, I dreamt of old houses to do up, 60's cookware to save from the oblivion and retro clothes that were oh so vintage but not in a way that was cool.  In this light, our house, Le Numéro 21, is perfect.  Even more un-usually, I have the luxury of getting hitched to somebody who happens to share my passion of preservation of historic homes, as boy.. this one is going to take a bit of work before everyone else sees our diamond in the rough.  

And by rough, I mean ROUGH AF. 

Intimidated?  I certainly am.  As a old house novice armed with intermediate decorating skills at best and an appetite for learning about the history of this area and the house I inhabit, this is bound not to be your average renovation blog, but hopefully, a journey worth following.