by Yule Heibel on September 16, 2003

I just spent an aimless hour in — oh, be still my beating heart! — the open, the wide wide open stacks of a university library. This sort of thing excites me tremendously since I might find it. Sometimes I have a plan, other times I wander until I sense an alluring combination of Dewey-isms and an enticing spot for my posterior, and then I tear my clothes…, no, I mean, I open a book and begin. It’s best if I can locate something really ephemeral. Today I found the bound volumes of The Graphic, an illustrated weekly magazine from late 19th century London. I opened Vol.3, January to June, 1871, in the midst of which Paris was besieged by German troops. No photographs here, but very many engravings. To illustrate reports from France, The Graphic used drawings sent from Paris via balloon. This item — from Vol.3, February 4, 1871, p.95 — held my attention:

A Parisian Pigeon Hunt

The Ibis, tradition tells us, was worshipped by the Egyptians for its snake-killing propensities, and the stork is still venerated by the Dutch as a sure promoter of domestic felicity. A goose, also, was sacred to the Romans, while a jackdaw is reported to have been canonised by the good monks of Rheims; but the pigeon, whose home-loving nature has been utilised from the time of Noah, has been a general favourite with all ages and all nations. The Chinese are especially fond of these birds, and attach little whistles to them, so that they create a melodious sound when flying. Mahomet had some pet pigeons who used to feed from his ear, and was once preserved from certain death by a hen pigeon remaining on her nest which had been built at the entrance of a cave where he lay concealed, as his pursuers deemed the bird’s presence sufficient evidence that no one was there. The Turks recognise the bird’s claim on them, and in many towns they are properly rationed and cared for by the Government. The pigeons of St. Mark, at Vencice, are well known, and a touching story is told of how the Venetians, who, after a long siege, were famished and entirely destitute of provisions, gave up their last few grains of corn to feed these cherished birds. Formerly, also, pigeons were protected in France by a special law, under which the lord of the manor alone could keep them, and, indeed, until recently, they were considered as game, and thus subject to the game laws.

Now, however, from the great service they have rendered to Paris, they are almost adored by the Parisians, and the French journals teem with poetical and prose effusions in praise of les pigeons de la Republique, as they are affectionately termed. Thus great was the rejoicing in Paris at the advent of one of these birds, for though out of the many sent up from the provinces, comparatively few ever reached the capital, each bird could carry 35,000 despatches, which, by dint of microscopic photography, had been reduced to the space of about three inches, and were affixed to the middle feather of the tail. The severe cold in many cases proved fatal to the pigeons; some fell victims to birds of prey, while others, forced by fatigue or want of food to descend, were captured by the Parisians. One bird was thus caught, and his message being taken away, and false despatches substituted, he was permitted to continue his journey, and greatly astonished the Parisians next day by the extraordinary reports he brought them.

The sight of a stray pigeon in Paris always created great excitement amongst the population, and a regular hunt would ensue, until, chased from street to street and roof to roof, worried by stones, and stunned by the shouts of the crowd beneath, the poor bird would sink down under the shelter of some chimney-stack, and surrender a discretion. Our sketch [p.96] represents one of these hunts in the Rue Rivoli, where a venturesome pompier [fireman], perched on a giddy pinnacle of the Tuileries, is vainly trying to catch a supposed provincial messenger. As these hunts, however, greatly endangered the capture of the bird and the safety of the despatch, an official remonstrance was issued, stating that if the pigeon were left to itself it would be sure to return to its master’s house, whereas the chase might not only frighten it away, but in beating wildly about to escape its pursuers, the bird might dash itself against some hard obstacle, and the precious despatch would perhaps become detached and lost. Indeed, the hope that it might bring important news from the provinces, and the fear that it might escape, has several times proved fatal to the poor pigeon. Two (writes our artist) have been shot, and the last one which arrived was caught by a hungry marchand de vin, who, about to pick it ready for cooking, accidentally discovered the despatches attached to its feathers.

The microscopic despatches on reception at the post-office were enlarged and displayed on a sheet by means of a magic lantern, and transmitted by a staff of clerks. The private messages were forwarded to their respective destinations, while those received by the Government, such as were thought fit to meet the public eye were published in the Journal Officiel. Reduced to such absolute dependence on aerial messengers for communication either with or from their fellow countrymen, well might the Parisians exclaim with the Proscrits of Victor Hugo —

Vents, dites-leur notre misere,
Oiseaux, portez-leur notre amour

P.96, ill.: “Sketches by Balloon Post: A Welcome Visitor — Arrival of a Pigeon in Paris”


Joel September 17, 2003 at 4:40 am

I suppose a rousing chorus of “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” would be inappropriate here?

jr September 18, 2003 at 12:36 pm

I too love the viewing of such historical documents, though I do tend to keep the clothes intact. I can’t help wondering if future generations will be able to wander among dusty archives of weblogs and find quotable excitement such as “I just spent an aimless hour in — oh, be still my beating heart! — the open, the wide wide open stacks of a university library.”

I also wonder what a dusty weblog looks like.

Yule Heibel September 18, 2003 at 4:32 pm

Your point re. weblogs as sources for future “diggers” is a good one, and something I’ve wondered about a lot myself. I might post an entry on this, it’s such going to be such a ball of wax for historians….

Yule Heibel September 18, 2003 at 4:38 pm

As for rousing choruses of “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park,” hmmm…. I’m not too partial to the beasts myself, but I’m willing to live and let live. Around here it’s actually the seagulls that get almost Hitchcockian. And the crows. Love the crows & ravens, though.

Joel September 19, 2003 at 2:04 am

jr: given the nature of the media, they will likely be “staticky” rather than dusty.

Yule: Well, I will withhold my recipe for Morroccan Pigeon Pie then. I don’t think it works well with seagull. I don’t think I would want to eat seagull.

They are viscious birds but remarkable in other ways. I saw one down at Huntington Beach Pier last year with only a single foot. It managed quite well and went about being a bird. The memory of that resiliance was inspiring to say the least.

Maybe with Lynn out of town, I should go down there for a walk to see if he’s still begging.

Anonymous August 24, 2005 at 11:29 pm

Your site is realy very interesting. http://www.bignews.com

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: