Nineteenth-Century France: Nine Firsts Accomplished

The late 1700s was a turbulent time for France, and the 1800s appeared as if they would be no better partly because inflation hit France and many people lived in poverty. The 1800s was also the period when Napoleon Bonaparte was declared Emperor and crowned himself at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Power shifts was another common occurrence in the 1800s as political power changed hands from Napoleon Bonaparte to the Bourbons to the Orleans and then to Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, who began serving as the first president of the Second French Republic in December of 1848. A year later, he was declared Napoleon III of France, and then he went into exile when the Second Republic gave way to the Third Republic. There was also the building of the Eiffel Tower, an iconic symbol for France whose foundation was laid on 28 January 1887 and opened to the public on 15 May 1889.

nineteenth-century France - crown of Napoleon.

The Crown of Napoleon created in the nineteenth century, called “Crown of Charlemagne.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides Napoleon, political power shifts, and the Eiffel Tower, there were nine interesting firsts that occurred in nineteenth-century France. One of these first occurred because Napoleon Bonaparte wanted a way to preserve food for his army and navy and therefore offered a prize in 1795 of 12,000 francs to anyone who could accomplish such a feat. Nicolas Appert, a confectioner and chef in Paris, decided to begin experimenting with ways to preserve food and sterilization that included placing food in jars, corking, and sealing the jars with wax before boiling them in water. Fifteen years after his experiments began, he succeeded and won the prize in January of 1810. Appert then made his bottling process public, established the first food bottling factory in the world at Massey, and became known as the “father of canning.”

nineteenth-century France - Nicolas Appert

Nicolas Appert. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Several years after Appert developed his canning ideas, the first giraffe arrived in nineteenth-century France. Her name was Belle Africaine (known Today as Zarafa). She arrived at the port of Marseilles on 23 October 1826 and was a gift for Charles X from the Viceroy of Egypt. Everyone thought she was marvelous and because of her undeniable beauty she was dubbed “Belle Africaine”or “le bel animal du roi” (the beautiful animal of the King). Her popularity resulted in a giraffe craze called à la giraffe. For example, “fresh portraits, by eminent artists, and bulletins of everything she did remarkable, were published weekly. All the bonnets and shoes and gloves and gowns — every species of apparel was made à la giraffe; quadrilles were danced ‘à la giraffe.’”[1] The à la giraffe craze eventually died out as did Belle Africaine’s popularity, and, by 1830, she seemed ordinary and commonplace. However, she remained in the Le Jardin des Plantes until she died some eighteen years later. To learn more about her, click here.

Belle Africaine wasn’t the only unusual thing that grabbed the attention of Frenchmen in nineteenth-century France. A woman named Sophie Blanchard became the first female to fly a balloon solo. She was not, however, the first women to ascend into the sky. Other women had preceded her into the air because her first ascent did not occur until 27 December 1804 in Marseilles. Nevertheless, from the moment of Sophie’s first ascent, she was hooked. She declared the experience to be an “incomparable sensation.” When Sophie completed her first solo balloon flight, it was not pre-planned rather it happened because her husband, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, got sick and could not ascend. So, she went instead. To learn more about Sophie and her amazing career, click here.

Sophie Blanchard. Public domain.

One interesting first that happened in nineteenth-century France occurred in 1819, when a silhouette artist named Charles Samuel Hervé II began to exhibit an invention called a prosopographus in England. It was a machine shaped like a man dressed in a splendid costume that created perfect silhouettes of subjects, or in other words an automaton that drew the likenesses of people. Like the automaton chess player called the Turk, the prosopographus was reliant on human intervention but that fact was not disclosed to observers, and, so, they were often amazed that a machine could create their likenesses. However, a real artist looked through the automaton’s eyes and used the machine’s right hand to draw the sitter in profile. Sometime after about 1831, Hervé stopped exhibiting the prosopographus. Why he stopped seems unclear, but some historians believe it might be because his eyesight was poor making it too difficult for him to draw. Click here to learn more.

The first successful photo was accomplished by a French inventor named Nicéphore Niépce. He became interested in lithography and camera obscura, which was a drawing aid used in the late eighteen and early nineteenth century that allowed a highly accurate image to be traced onto paper. The result of camera obscura images inspired several people to look into the feasibility of producing images in more effective and easier ways. However, it was Niépce who was the first to be successful. He developed a photographic process known as heliography that created a heliographic metal plate in 1825 (the exact date is uncertain) and from that he produced an ink-on-paper print. In 1829, he partnered with Louis Daguerre, who was also trying to create photographic images using a camera, and they improved the process. When Niépce died in 1833, Daguerre continued to experiment and eventually produced a process that superficially resembled Niépce’s. He named it “daguerréotype.” From that point forward, Niépce fell into obscurity and received little credit until historians recognized his valuable contributions. Thus, today, Niépce’s “heliography” is considered to be the first successful example of what we call “photography.”

Nineteenth-century France - photographic artifact by Nicéphore Niépce

One of the three earliest known photographic artifacts, created by Nicéphore Niépce in 1825. It is an ink-on-paper print, but the printing plate used to make it was photographically created by Niépce’s heliography process. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Paris hosted five World Fairs. The first of these five fairs occurred in 1855 and was called the Exposition Universelle. It occurred after Britain hosted the 1851 Great Exhibition of Works of Industry and of all Nations, an international exhibition (essentially a world’s fair) and the first in a series of popular exhibitions that occurred worldwide throughout the nineteenth century. Napoleon III hoped to outdo Britain and France’s equivalent to the Crystal Palace was its Palais de l’Industrie. The exhibition lasted six months from 15 May to 15 November, and although not a financial success, it was a great political success because it put Paris on the map as an international city and legitimized the Second French Empire. To learn more about this interesting exposition, click here and to learn more about Britain’s Great Exhibition, click here.

Nineteenth-century France also has reason to boast about being the homeland to inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince. He was the first to create a moving picture on paper film using a single lens camera. He shot his film in October 1888 in the city of Leeds, which was a 2.11 second silent film titled “Roundhay Garden Scene.” Unfortunately, before Le Prince could give a public demonstration of the filming process, he mysterious disappeared after boarding at train heading to Paris. Neither he nor his luggage were ever found. However, a century later, a photo of a drowned man who looked like Le Prince was discovered in police archives.

Clip from the first silent film titled “Roundhay Garden.”

Another thing that France claims as a first might be not worth bragging about. It is being home to the first dumb blonde. She was born in Versailles in 1748 to a retired artillery officer and christened Catherine-Rosalie Gerard Duthé. She became a celebrated courtesan and attracted to her bed some of the most distinguished men in Europe and France, including monarchs and future monarchs. She also became a ballet dancer and star at the Paris Opéra, but her long silent pauses on stage resulted in a one-act play being written that satirized this unflattering characteristic and helped her acquire a reputation as a dumb blonde.

Portrait of Duthé holding a rose, 1779. Courtesy of British Museum.

Another of the firsts in nineteenth-century France occurred in the late 1800s and was the introduction of the cabaret. The idea for a cabaret originated with an unsuccessful painter named Louis Rodolphe Salis. He opened “Le Chat Noir” or “The Black Cat” as a way for patrons to sit at tables, smoke, and drink mugs of Bavarian beer while they enjoyed a variety of stage acts that were introduced by a master of ceremonies, who also interacted with the audience. Le Chat Noir opened in November 1881 in a two-room building located at 84 Boulevard Rochechouart. From the start, it was a hit, and it soon outgrew the 84 Boulevard Rochechouart site. On 10 June 1885, Salis moved his Le Chat Noir to new premises located at 12 Rue Victor-Masse, previously called Rue de Laval. To learn about Le Chat Noir, click here.

nineteenth-century france - iconic poster chat noir

Iconic Poster by Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen Advertising the Approaching Tour of The Black Cat show, 1896. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] Sanderson, John, The American in Paris, 1847, p. 133.

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