Chic Parisian Infographics of the 19th Century

"Gas fittings" is not a term that screams elegance. Then again, the French have a way of making anything chic, as attested to by this remarkable statistical manuscript. 

Compagnie Parisienne D'Eclairage et de Chauffage par le Gaz. Conduites Montantes. Album No. 2  was produced in 1883 by the The Parisian Gas Lighting and Heating Company (also known as the Paris Gas Company). The firm was founded in 1855 and “quickly developed into one of France's greatest industrial enterprises, an exemplar of the new industrial capitalism that was beginning to transform the French economy. The PGC supplied at least half the coal gas consumed in France through the 1870s and became the city's single largest employer of clerical and factory labor” (Berlanstein, Big Business & Industrial Conflict in France).

The term “conduites montantes" (rising pipes), in the title refers to pipes that enter buildings from the street and rise up within the walls to distribute gas throughout the structure. In this manuscript — incredibly, it is a handwritten manuscript and not a printed book  the company charts the increase in gas connections during the previous thirty years, a celebration of the growth in demand for their services.

In addition to the title page and contents list, the manuscripts contains fourteen large and very precise hand-drawn statistical charts, diagrams that we would describe today as infographics. The first diagram is a pie chart showing the number of rising pipes fitted between 1859 and 1882, with the number growing from 273 between 1859 and 1863, to 1,430 in 1882.

There are a variety of other infographics present in the manuscript, including bar and line graphs, tables, a fan chart, and unusual circular charts.

Two of the most attractive graphics are simplified maps of Paris that use different sizes of black circles to indicate the number of rising pipes and gas subscribers in each arrondissement.

Many of the pages are folded, and open to reveal extra-large illustrations.

The beautiful lettering is all done by hand, and there are even decorative flourishes in the margins.

In addition to being the most elegant statistical document we've ever come across, this manuscript is a wonderful example of the use of information graphics during the 19th century, and a significant historical record of the modernisation of Parisian infrastructure.


Laura Massey
Laura Massey

Author

Alembic founder Laura Massey holds a bachelor's degree in the history of science from Georgia Tech and a master's in book history (focusing on medieval and early modern scientific and medical books,) from the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a cataloguer, bookseller, and blogger in libraries and bookshops in the United States and Britain.



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