Forgotten lives: The man who invented la poubelle

Some people have pasteurisation named after them, others the humble dustbin.

Paris was not always the city of light. In the dark ages, Parisians threw their refuse onto the streets or into ditches. The city has not always been sweet-smelling and beautiful.

In 1184, Philip II of France tried to stem the rising tide of rubbish in Paris by ordering the paving of the city’s streets.

In 1506, Louis XII decided that the monarchy would take charge of collecting and disposal of the rubbish. To the tax for this service was added that of overhead street lighting. It was christened “the mud and lantern tax” and general hostility ensured it was quickly thrown out.

In 1750, the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau bid farewell to what he called the “city of mud!” Paris, of course, was known to the Romans as Lutetia, derived from a Celtic root word meaning “marsh” or “swamp”.

In 1799, a police ordinance required Parisian owners and rent payers to sweep the area in front of their lodgings.

In March 1883, a street sweeping tax was instituted and Baron Haussmann began to remodel the city partly with the aim of cleaning it up.

poubelleLater that year, on 24 November 1883, Eugène Poubelle, Prefect of the Seine, signed his famous order obliging Parisian property owners to provide each of their tenants with three covered containers to collect (a) stuff that was likely to rot (what we would call green waste), (b) paper and cloth, (c) glass, pottery and oyster-shells. Le Figaro newspaper quickly named these receptacles “boîtes Poubelle”.

Owners of properties resented the cost of providing and overseeing the use of the bins, and traditional rag-and-bone men, known as chiffonniers, saw them as a threat to their living. It was not until the end of the Second World War that dustbins and their collection by municipalities became common, by which time in a supplement to Le Grand Dictionnaire Universel du 19ème Siècle the word poubelle had long been officially recognised as a noun.

Today, the city of Paris collects trash daily and recycling twice a week. In apartment buildings, the gardienne is typically responsible for taking the bins out to the street for pickup by the city crew. But people themselves are responsible for separating trash from recycling and the proper disposal of household waste.

And all thanks to Eugène Poubelle, who died on 15 July 1907 in Paris, where a street between the Avenue de Versailles and the Quai Louis-Blériot in the city’s 16th arrondissement is now named after him.

In 1948, when Citroën launched its 2CV economy car, it was lampooned by the motoring press and for a short while became the butt of French comedians. One British motoring correspondent wrote, “It is the work of a designer who has kissed the lash of austerity with almost masochistic fervour.” The 2CV became widely known as a poubelle.



4 comments on “Forgotten lives: The man who invented la poubelle

  1. Peter Horsfield says:

    Hard to believe that the regular collection of rubbish did not become standard until the end of WWII. I’ve frequently walked cities savouring their distinctive smells – fortunately walking the streets of Paris for the first time was in the 1990s.

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