Colonnes Moresques and Morris Columns

. . . from urinals, to poster sites, back to urinals, to tool sheds, to phone booths and back to poster sites . . .

By  Pierre 


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!

Due to the rapid development of theatres, music halls, cabarets . . . advertising posters were found everywhere: on the walls of buildings, on fences, on trees, and particularly on the colonnes moresquesor colonnes rambuteau(urinals inside a hollow pillar). The exterior walls of the urinal columns were consequentially and conveniently covered with these advertising posters.

Most photos and paintings of Paris streets from around 1865 show the colonne moresquewith these advertising posters.

The birth of the Morris column 

On the 1st August 1868, French printer Gabriel Morris and his son Richard won the competition launched by the City 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 name.

The column would be dedicated to advertising purposes and the urinals would be housed in pissoirs or as they were called vespasiennes.  [Vespasiennes derived their name from the Roman Emperor Vespasienne who introduced a tax on public urination. Which brings me to wonder if the Parisians abbreviated them to “Vés-Pas” – or pronounced it as “spé” – which in turn was abbreviated to the “vécé” . Which to me makes more sense than asking for “double vé cé” ??? Comments please Ed.] 

The separation of advertising and relieving oneself was the start of a new revolution in the streets of Paris where 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.

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“. [Tossed by the waves but doesn’t flounder]

Today the columns mainly promote movies. Originally the hollow pillar was useful for lamplighters who stored their equipment in a closet designed inside. When gas lighting disappeared the empty space was used for different purposes: to store materials and tools for street maintenance. In 1991 JC Decaux transformed them back to public toilets ‘sanisettes’(perhaps a nod to the colonne mauresque ?!).

Until recently the interior of some columns were equipped with telephone booths. But with the general use of mobile phones, this use disappeared a decade ago.

Unfortunately you won’t find the first generation of Morris columns in the streets of Paris today but 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. Now the Morris columns are lit at night and rotate.

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 considerable controversy.

AUTHOR PIERRE Website Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management. RELATED POSTS

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