The Morris column (colonne Morris in French) is a tall and elegant dark green advertising column. Placed at regular intervals on the Paris pavement, the cylindrical structure has been an iconic element of Parisian street furniture for generations.
While researching the topic, I found out that the Morris column first appeared in Paris in 1868. Today Morris columns are found in almost every French town and even in other parts of the world such as in San Francisco! Let’s find out more…
The battle against wild posting
The first advertising columns appeared in Berlin, Germany in 1855. They were invented by German printer Ernst Litfaß (1816-1874) and known as Litfaßsäulen or Litfaß columns.
During that time, wild posting was taking over the streets of Paris. This was due to the rapid development of entertainment venues: theatres, music-halls, cabarets… In the mid-19th century, advertising was not regulated. Consequently posters were found everywhere: on the walls of buildings, on fences, on trees, and particularly on the “colonnes moresques” or “colonnes rambuteau” (urinals inside a hollow pillar). The exterior walls of the urinal columns were conveniently covered with advertising posters.
This photo from around 1865 shows the colonne moresque with a poster advertising a French perfume store:
Another [more explicit!] water painting by Charles Hoguet (circa 1860) gives an idea of the colonnes mauresques that were found across in Paris until the creation of the Morris column. Notice the advertising posters which surround the entire column:
The birth of the Morris column
On the 1st August 1868, French printer Gabriel Morris and his son Richard Gabriel won the competition launched by the City of Paris for the concession of exclusive advertising space. They noticed that the urine smell strongly repelled the passers-by (I guess many would have said the same!). Anyway they thought it through and suggested to separate the urinals from the advertising space.
They took inspiration from the Berlin pillar to design their advertising column that now bears their names. The column would be dedicated to advertising purposes and the urinals would be housed in pissoirs (or vespasiennes). The separation of advertising and relieving oneself was the start of a new revolution in the streets of Paris!
The Morris column: a perfect fit into the streets of Paris
With an advertising space covering about 4m2 and a height of 6.25m, the Morris column had to be harmonious with the urban environment in compliance with the urban work developed by Baron Haussmann. Elegantly tall but slim the cast-iron structure was painted in a dark green colour so as to blend in with the city’s tree-lined boulevards. The circular billboard terminated in a pointed dome similar to that of the Wallace fountain. The dome is set on a hexagonal awning, decorated with scales and acanthus leaves. It gives a definite oriental look to the structure.
Two generations of Morris columns
- Between 1868 and 1870, no less than 451 “first generation” Morris columns were placed in service in Paris.
- The “second generation” of Morris columns was perfected by architect Gabriel Davioud.
A round strip was added under the awning with the words “Spectacles” and “Théâtre”. The words are separated by a medallion representing a boat, a reference to Paris’ motto “Fluctuat nec mergitur“.
Advertisements on the Morris column
At first, the column displayed municipal announcements. Soon it began to advertise concerts, movies, theatre plays and cabarets. Today the columns mainly promote movies.
Originally the hollow pillar was useful for lamplighters who stored their equipment in a closet designed inside. When gaslighting disappeared the empty space was used for different purposes: to store materials and tools for street maintenance. In 1991 J.-C. Decaux transformed them to house sanisettes (public toilets) inside (a nod to the colonne mauresque!).
Until recently the interior of some columns were equipped with telephone booths. With the general use of mobile phones, these columns disappeared a decade ago. This photo was taken by Joe Shlabotnik at the Champs-Elysées in 2006. You can see the former logo of France Telecom, now Orange.
The Morris column today
Needless to say, you won’t find the first generation of Morris columns in the streets of Paris today. The ones that were initially covered with paper posters. Now the Morris columns are lit at night and rotate. A weatherproof perspex glass protects the advertising space from vandalism.
In 2017 an old version of the Morris column was worth 30,000 to 40,000 euros according to the auction house Artcurial.
The Morris column is now an integral part of the street furniture in Paris. It is considered as a symbolic Parisian decorative element and has been featured in many paintings and novels of the Belle Epoque era.
Since 1986 the Morris columns are part of the advertising network of J.-C. Decaux, world leader in street furniture.
The Wilmotte column
Over the last decade, the City of Paris has been replacing the Morris column with a more modern version known as the Wilmotte column. Not all Parisians were happy with this decision and it aroused some controversy.
Useful sites to learn more about the Morris column
- J.-C. Decaux – The Morris column: a historical and mythical advertising support
- Paris Zigzag – Petite histoire des colonnes Morris [in French]
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