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    The Romans kept Lutetia well supplied with water especially the baths at Cluny which were fed by an aqueduct built in the 3rd century A.D. and destroyed by the norman invasion in the 9th century. Much later, during the 17th century, Queen Marie (Medici) had a new aqueduct built. One third of its supply provided water for her new Luxembourg palace and its gardens (today the French Senate), another third for convents and rich individuals who paid for a private link and the remainder for public fountains. The distribution was ensured by the Maison du Fontainier which can still be found at the top end of avenue de l'Observatoire (14éme).The whole project was financed by a tax on wine thus changing it miraculously back into water ! This aqueduct remained in use up to 1904. In 1802, Napoléon I initiated the construction of the Canal de l'Ourcq (completed in 1825) in order to improve citizens' water supply as well as that of their horses (a dray horse consumes anything from 10 to 100 litres per day depending on its workload). The Montsouris, Lilas and Ménilmontant reservoirs were commissioned by Napoléon III. This led to a huge increase in the number of drinking and ornamental fountains as well as considerably extending the sewerage system; all this incoming water required an outlet once it had served its purpose.

    (click to enlarge)








    Sir Richard Wallace, the heir to a large fortune who lived for much of his life in Paris and died there in 1890, paid for the installation of some 100 of the fountains that now bear his name. Made after a model by the sculptor Charles Lebourg (1872), these provided drinking water for Parisians who were all the more grateful as most housing at the time had no water at all, drinkable or not, and they thus had to go to a fountain or buy water from peddlers in the street. The fountains, made out of cast iron, have a steady trickle of water coming from the inside of a dome held up by four caryatids symbolizing Simplicity, Goodness, Sobriety and Charity. A second and cheaper version was created later.  Wallace has not given his name to any streets in Paris but there is a boulevard Wallace in Neuilly (an elegant suburb in the west of the town) and there are copies of his fountains on Las Ramblas, Barcelona’s most famous avenue.

    Despite what you might think, our ancestors - even the Parisians - did in fact wash (with an extant iconography). Perhaps not all of them and probably much less often than we do (until the second half of the 19th century,  water was a scarce commodity in towns and had to be shared with the equine population). The Gallo-Romans had public baths, remains of which can still be seen at the corner of boulevards Saint Germain and Saint Michel. But there were other baths in the île de la Cité as well as rue des Ecoles and rue Gay-Lussac. Under  king Philippe IV le Bel (reigned 1285-1314), Paris had roughly thirty steam baths for cleanliness and fun.

    In the 18th century, public baths were installed on boats moored at Pont de la Tournelle and Pont Royal which solved the problem of water supply and disposal. On the eve of the Revolution (1789), the architect Lenoir built the luxurious "Bains Chinois" (Chinese baths) at 29 boulevard des Capucines and in 1789 a forerunner of the "spa" opened on the quai d'Orsay (today quai Anatole France / rue de Bellechasse). Doctors started to prescribe baths for medical reasons.



    In the 19th century, more boats were moored in the river. 




    Personal hygien became the norm and the construction of pipelines for water and sewerage led to a proliferation of baths of all kinds (steam baths, mud baths, electric baths...) from up-market to dirt cheap - like those at 20 cents (1 euro) in front of the gare d'Austerlitz (Austerlitz railway station).


    In the 20th century the city opened municipal "Bains Douches" (bathhouses) which were less ornate and cheaper (today free of charge). Some of them are twinned with a swimming pool  or a gym and some have been demolished or converted e.g. St Merri in front of Centre Pompidou now a police station. Today there remain just under twenty of these working municipal "Bains Douches" and the Bidassoa  have retained their dazzling interior.