Postal service

Tracing the French post through the ages

With the nation’s huge continental territory and dispersed rural population, La Poste is naturally close to the hearts of the French and a source of national pride. Culturally speaking, daffodil yellow mailboxes decorated with their distinctive curly bugles have appeared on a thousand postcards and been featured in hundreds of movies. Postal workers even have their own heavenly guardian – Saint Gabriel is the patron saint of all messengers, including workers in broadcasting, telecommunications and postal services.

The best place to explore the complete history of the French post office is the newly renovated La Poste museum in Paris (see museedelaposte.fr) The story begins during the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), when carrier pigeons were used to send newspaper articles out of town. There is also an explanation of the articulated visual semaphore system which traveled the length of France, one every 10 km, to deliver news, and a display on the delivery of mail by rocket.

The collection of the La Poste museum includes mailboxes, telegraphs, sorting equipment, uniforms and bicycles, even mail coaches. Postal Museum / provided by the author

The collection includes mailboxes, telegraphs, sorting equipment, uniforms and bicycles, and even mail coaches, giving insight into how communications have changed society over the past century. Call ahead or check the website for special events and temporary exhibits.

In addition to managing its large museum in Paris, La Poste used to help financially the small private post museums in the provinces, but since they have stopped doing this, almost all the other post museums in France have closed. In the Oise, however, a beacon still shines.

“We don’t have the money to create a full-fledged museum, explain Sylvie and Jean-Charles Benhamou, the founders of the Musée de la Boîte aux Lettres, so we are itinerant. We carry out temporary animations in schools, post offices and town halls on themes such as mailboxes, postmen, sorting mechanisms, the history of postal transport, stamps for example.

We create temporary displays in schools, post offices and town halls on topics such as mailboxes, postmen, sorting mechanisms Pic: Postal Museum / provided by the author

Their collection of mailboxes and their knowledge of them (they are both history professors) are now so extensive that they are often consulted by filmmakers looking for historically accurate sets. “We provide vintage mailboxes for film sets, and also bring our know-how. Yellow mailboxes did not appear until 1961, for example. Any pre-1961 film set should have blue, green, or gray mailboxes.

During the first confinement, the images of the streets of Paris dressed for the filming of the film Adieu Monsieur Haffmann (released in January) went viral. The mailbox for this set was provided by Sylvie and Jean-Charles Benhamou. “The designer did not want

the box looked too new, but she went too far in getting it dirty, so we helped make it look like it would have looked in 1942.” The mailbox in question is featured in the trailer , available on YouTube.

In fact, it’s still possible to spot old letterboxes in some of the most isolated parts of rural France. From 1830 to 1899, wooden boxes were painted gray with a white or gray door. Until 1912 they were bronze green. Then, until 1939, they were sky blue, dark blue or dark green. From 1940 to 1955, they were petrol or dark blue, then navy blue until 1961. From then until 1985, mailboxes were orange-yellow, and from 1985, daffodil yellow. For more information, see museeboiteauxletters.fr.

It is still possible to spot old letterboxes in some of the more isolated areas of rural France Pic: Museum mailbox / provided by the author

With the development of airmail, the Foulon company (which manufactured PTT mailboxes from 1929 to 1939) produced a special series solely for airmail; the doors had a wing design on them. To ensure that people only posted airmail to these boxes, after 1936 they were all marked ‘airmail only‘.

One can only hope that at a later date this extraordinary collection will finally be housed in a permanent museum. In the meantime, they post details of their temporary exhibitions on their website, which is well worth checking out the next time you’re likely to be anywhere near Senlis (Oise).

Far off the beaten track, the town hall of Le Luc (Var) between Marseille and Nice houses a fascinating little museum retracing the history of stamps; how they were made, the engraving material used and the relationship between stamps, art and money. Founded in 2015, the collection also includes postal uniforms. There is also a library containing around 200 books on philately, which visitors can read on site. A regular program of temporary exhibitions is offered, consult the website before planning your visit, mairie-leluc.com/musee-municipal-du-timbre.

Prissac, south-west of Châteauroux in Indre, has not one but three museums in the same building; the Agricultural Machinery Museum (agricultural machinery), Espace Gutenberg (history of printing equipment) and the Musée du Facteur Rural. The museums are only open from early June to late September and dates for 2022 had not been announced at press time, but details will be posted on troismuseesprissac.jimdofree.com along with all other information.

The Indre Rural Postal Museum presents a collection of postal vehicles, satchels, mailboxes, documents and uniforms. Jacques Tati’s film Jour de fête (1949) was shot near Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre, where Tati lived during the occupation. Tati’s first film was a sweet comedy about an inept and easily distracted postman, with mostly unknown local actors. Regularly voted as one of the top 40 movies of all time, it has a 100% rating on movie site Rotten Tomatoes.

The Narbonne Telephone Museum is proud to say that its exhibition of over 120 Pic telephones: Telephone Museum / provided by the author

The museum was founded by two retired local postmen, François Würtz and André Ballereau, and is clearly a labor of love. The other two collections are also worth a look. The collection of agricultural machinery contains beautiful old tractors, which will delight children, and the printing machinery is also very interesting.

While you’re in Prissac, don’t miss the Church of St. Martin, with its spectacular, colorfully painted interior. The murals date from the 12th century but were restored in the 19th century and still retain their vivid colors.

If the Prissac museum has whetted your appetite for a little more Jacques Tati, Sainte-Sévère-sur-Indre is not far away. The village itself is very charming and still recognizable from the film. It houses a fabulous interactive museum dedicated to the making of Jour de Fête, complete with a reconstruction of the village square and the bar. There is a lot of information (in English and French) on the shooting of the film, as well as on the life and work of Jacques Tati.

Nearby, Châteauroux has a superb park right in the centre. Belle Isle Leisure Base comes into its own during the summer months with canoeing, cycling and swimming, but also has plenty to offer in the spring. There is a cafe as well as a very good children’s play area. L’Ilot Z’enfants (open from the beginning of June to the end of September) is pretty much a paradise for children with a selection of bouncy castles, a swimming pool, bumper boats, trampolines and a mini-train. Admission is free for adults and children under two, and you can grab a picnic and make a day of it. (lilotzchildren36.fr)

The Museum-Hotel Bertrand is housed in a beautiful mansion that once belonged to Marshal Henri-Gatien Bertrand, who was so devoted to Napoleon’s cause that he went with him to Saint Helena when Napoleon was imprisoned there.

The collections are eclectic and include all sorts of unknown painters, as well as a sculpture by Camille Claudel. The 26 rooms also contain archaeological pieces alongside curiosities including a red ibex and a two-headed sheep (both stuffed). Don’t miss the mummy in the attic. Admission is free and the guides are also local volunteers. Check the opening hours on their website.

The Telephone Museum of Narbonne is proud to say that its exhibition of more than 120 telephones, including one of the first to arrive in France, dating from 1877, covers 140 years of telephone history around the world, in France, in Aude, and in Narbonne. On display are telephone directories, minitels, payphones, “videophones” and switchboards. They even have a telephone booth from 1910. A fascinating tidbit is that in the Aude, while the first private telephone was installed in 1890, the telephone network was not fully automated until 1979.

The museum also covers the development of telegraphs, and it is amazing to realize that as early as 1792 there was a visual telegram network stretching 5,000 km around France, invented by Claude Chappe.

A message took 4.5 hours to travel from Paris to Narbonne (a great improvement over the six to eight days previously required by a messenger on horseback).

The system was superseded by Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph system, invented in 1838.

Normally only open on Saturday afternoons, it is possible to make an appointment (by phone of course) to visit at other times. The museum is run by volunteers who are incredibly informative and passionate about their subject, so join a guided tour if offered. If you can’t get there in person, their website, museedutetelephone.frlots of photos and explanations (only in French for the moment).

The Museum of Art and History of Narbonne is another fascinating museum well worth checking out if you are in Narbonne. Housed in the archdiocese, parts of which date back to the 12th century, the interiors of the museum alone are worth a visit, but the North African gallery stands out for its fine collection of paintings.

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