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Iconic Morris Columns of Paris

Advertising column on a Paris street

If you visit Paris, you can’t help but notice tall cylindrical dark green columns with advertisement posters plastered round their middle. Colonne Morris (Morris Columns) as they are known, are an iconic feature of the city’s landscape as much as the red post boxes of London and the fire hydrants of New York. And yet, they’re not French at all!

History of the Morris Columns of Paris

Tall, green advertising column, Morris Column, with a poster for Folies BergeresThe Morris Columns are one of the most loved features of Paris street architecture alongside the Wallace fountains you see everywhere. The fountains were designed in the late 1800s by Sir Richard Wallace, an Englishman who lived in Paris. He generously donated the money to supply free water for Parisians. To this day the fountains are in use, in some places they even provide free sparkling water!

Morris might sound like an English name but in this case, the Morris in question was a Parisian.

In the mid-19th century, the German capital Berlin suffered a proliferation of fly posting. Businesses tried to circulate information to lure customers, plastering flat surfaces with posters at will. It made for a very messy looking city. In 1854, a printer called Ersnt Litfaß designed a tall cylindrical column on which posters could be placed. Installed in 1855, they were a success and enabled authorities to ban unauthorised posting.

Paris had the same problem. Show and theatre posters were stuck on walls, railings and even trees. In fact one of the most popular place for them was public urinals where they had a captive audience. These pissoirs also often featured a cylindrical column painted green. An enterprising printer who specialised in event posters by the name of Gabriel Morris created a French version of the German columns. In 1868 the first advertising columns were installed in Paris.

The city authorities were delighted with the success of the new advertising kiosks. They awarded Morris the advertising monopoly on the columns. It didn’t take long for people to start calling them “Morris columns”. Within 20 years there were more than 450 columns on the streets of Paris. Posters got more and more colourful. Theatre, shows and dance halls were enormously popular at the time. Paris led the way with poster design with artists such as Toulouse Lautrec creating masterpieces.

Painting from the Belle Epoque era showing Paris street with advertising columns

The iconic green advertising columns with their bright coloured posters featured in many paintings from the Belle Epoque era. They became a familiar sight encouraging passers by to stop and discover the pulse of the city.

Morris Column design

Cylindrical in shape, made from green cast iron, they blended beautifully in the cityscape and provided 4m² of advertising in a tidy way. The hollow interior in some of them was used for storing  city maintenance equipment, brooms etc.

In 150 years the design has hardly changed. The column has either a hexagonal (older models) or round cover and is topped by an onion shaped dome. The cover on the older Morris Columns is decorated with 6 lion heads. The words “Theatre” or “Spectacles” is featured. The Paris city medallion is displayed, a ship floating on a stormy sea and the motto “Fluctuat nec mergitur.” It means “It is beaten by the waves but never sinks”. The motto harks back hundreds of years. Officially introduced in 1358, and used as the motto of the River Seine boatman’s corporation, some historian say it’s much older and dates back to Roman times.

Many of the Morris Columns have been updated over the years. Replacement columns, under the management of JCDecaux (who also manage the street kiosks and bus stops of Paris) are being made with more sustainable materials where possible.

We may have our phones and tablets and the internet to inform us these days, but the iconic advertising columns are still very much a part of the DNA of Paris.

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