“Discovering” dog mess in 20th century Paris



Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending ‘The Dog in 20th Century Science – Science in the 20th Century Dog’ workshop. Hosted by the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester and supported by the Wellcome Trust, the workshop featured a range of papers on the relationship between dogs and science. They included the use of dogs to research neurosis and the conditional reflex at Johns Hopkins University, the establishment of a “beagle colony” in California to test the effects of radiation, the emergence of small animal practice veterinary medicine in the UK and the recent prescribing of Prozac to dogs (for tweets from the workshop check out https://twitter.com/hashtag/20thCdogs?src=hash )

I gave a paper as part of what might be described as the “Poop Panel.” Neil Pemberton presented an excellent – and pun-filled – paper on the conflict that broke out in 1970s Burnley over the banning of dogs (and their excrement) from the town’s ornamental parks. I discussed the “messy modernity” of dog mess in 20th century Paris and the ways in which the city’s authorities have tried to manage the problem through educational campaigns, issuing fines and the creation of dog toilets.

A Parisian dog toilet

A Parisian dog toilet

One of the points I tried to make is that dog mess, like other forms of urban pollution, is profoundly historical. In the nineteenth century, merde had formed a minor part of the Parisian economy. Some poorer Parisians would collect it throughout the city to sell to tawers (mégissiers) in the tanneries near the Bièvre River who used it to taw sheep skins: 10kg of dog faeces could treat 12,000 skins.[1] Dog mess went from being an economic resource to a public health problem in the 1920s. Doctors and public hygienists “discovered” the problematic materiality of dog mess because of shifts in Paris’ environmental history. The public hygiene movement and changing cultural ideas about filth and smells led to attempts to cleanse the city’s streets through regulations and technologies (such as street-cleaning vehicles). The replacement of horses with motor cars, buses, trams and trains also transformed the streets. The demise of horse drawn-transportation from its peak in the 1880s and 1890s meant that Paris produced far less manure and sludge by the 1920s. As one writer in La Presse Medicale formulated the problem in 1929, the disappearance of the city’s horses had exposed the ‘true horror’ of dog excrement.[2] Cleansed, paved and tarmacked roads constituted a “blank canvas” upon which dog excrement could be “discovered” and framed as a public hygiene problem.

No longer obscured by the sludge that once covered Parisian streets, observers were struck by the diversity of dog faeces. Dr Marcel Clerc, a hygiene specialist at the Medical Faculty of Paris, noted that it varied according to the dog’s ‘intestinal situation and atmospheric conditions,’ ranging from the ‘dropping (crotte)’ deposited by little dogs to the ‘human-sized faecal black pudding (boudin) of the police dog.’[3] Writing in La Presse Medicale, ‘Un piéton’ (who Clerc identified as city councillor Jacques Romazzotti) similarly contrasted the ‘marble’ sized excrement of ‘marquise’s beloved little Pekingese’ with the ‘enormous black-pudding created by the industrialist’s wolf-hound.’[4] Significantly, whilst nineteenth century public hygienists targeted the working classes, they treated upper and middle class dog owners as responsible for the faecalisation of Paris in the twentieth century. For whatever kind of dog produced it, and whether it was a powder-like or of a sloppy consistency, faeces was a ‘disgusting spectacle’ that turned into pavements into ‘cesspits’ and symbolized the general uncleanliness of Parisian streets.[5] As well as the appearance and smell of dog mess, Clerc and other doctors were horrified by what lurked within: tapeworm eggs that could lead to lethal hydatid cysts in humans. The “discovery” of dog mess led to debates in the Paris’ municipal council and – eventually – fines, dog toilets and educational campaigns (I plan to cover these in a future blog). The alarm over dog mess in twentieth century Paris show that fears over and disgust at organic waste outlasted the nineteenth century by some margin.

[1] Rodolphe Trouilleux, Histoires insolites des animaux de Paris, Paris, 2003, p.121.

[2] Un piéton, ‘Chiens et trottoirs: lettre ouverte à messieurs les conseillers nouvellement élu,’ La Presse Medicale, 54, 6 July 1929, p.889.

[3] Marcel Clerc, ‘La souillure des villes par les excréments de chiens,’ Archives médico-chirurgicales de Normandie, 65, May 1929, p.2294.

[4] Piéton, ‘Chiens,’ p.889.

[5] Ibid. p.889; Conseil municipal de Paris, ‘Compte rendu de la séance du 30 décembre 1935,’ Bulletin municipal officiel de la ville de Paris, 10 January 1936, p.300.


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