Saturday, 21 May 2011

Ghost signs of living brands

Cross over the city limits into the surrounding towns and you will immediately see that the urban appearance changes. City planning here has tended to be less rigid than in Paris, and modern rebuilds less frequent, meaning that many interesting traces of the past are still visible. Ghost signs are a good example of these historical footprints. Rare in Paris, they are still relatively common in the towns that surround the capital, such as in Levallois where I found this multi-layered sign almost overlooking the boundary line.

It seems to contain perhaps as many as three different adverts, but most visible of all is the name Nicolas. Today this title is most often connected to a ubiquitous chain of wine retailers, but is this ad referring to the same company?

Despite the unfamiliar logo, the answer is yes. The company may have a more modern image today (see photo below), but it actually has a long history which dates back to 1822. It became particularly well-known in the 1930s when 233 outlets could be found in the Paris region alone, and it is likely that this advert dates from that period. The company also produced an annual catalogue of its stock, designed by leading artists of the time, which became collector's items. One of these catalogues, dating from 1935 (pictured below), helps us to confirm the match with the ghost sign. At the bottom you can see the same logo as on the wall with a matching large 'O' in the middle.

It is interesting to think that the company is in essence still getting free publicity here today - something that is not unhelpful given that any advertising relating to alcohol is now difficult to place on the streets. How many people though make the link to the brand they are so familiar with today?

At least one layer underneath, it is also just possible to make out a painted sign for the very strangely named Byrrh. Once again alcohol related, it is a brand I'm familiar with (possibly just from ghost signs!), but also a drink I have never actually tasted.

A little research shows me that it originates from a small town near Perpignan, that it is a mixture of wine and quinine and drunk as an 'apéritif', and that it was originally considered to be medicinal and therefore only sold in pharmacies. Its popularity grew - perhaps for the associations with good health - and in 1935 (that date again...) it held a 50% market share for aperitif drinks.

Two problems seemed to cause its downfall though. The children of the founders went slightly mad with the wealth they had inherited and blew all the profits on Rolls Royces and diamonds, and secondly, its curiously chosen name. The story seems to be that it is a long-forgotten acronym, but as it sounds very much like the word 'beer', it was always difficult to export to English and German speaking markets. When the many smaller companies were being swallowed up by multi-nationals, it was decided that brands such as Dubonnet and Campari would be easier to market abroad, and Byrrh was left on the shelf.

An advert vaunting the 'hygenic' merits of the drink!

That said, it does still exist. It is now owned by Pernod Ricard and still produced in small quantities. It is amusing to think that an advert painted on a wall 100 years previously can still influence the desires of a passer-by, but I am now overcome by an urge to try the drink, particularly as I have a bit of a cold at the moment. Now I wonder if I can find any in my local Nicolas store...

7 comments:

Owen said...

Could almost hear you hiccuping on the way back, staggering, from the local Nicolas store. They certainly do carry some fine wines, if one can afford them !

Ghost signs are always a pleasure. Postcards from the past...

Lupinssupins said...

Moi, aussi, j'ai maintenant grand envie d'essayer ce Byrrh! It actually sounds good-- let us know if you find a source. Or, maybe you could improvise your own mix of wine and tonic water (which contains quinine.)

CarolineLD said...

I've never tried it either, but would be interested to know what it's like. (My similar experiment with Suze was, er, disappointing!)

Adam said...

Maybe I should organise a Byrrh party. If anyone from the company is reading...

Peter said...

When you look on photos from the the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, it's amazing to see how almost all blind walls were covered with publicity! Actually, the walls were more decorated than today, despite graffiti, tagging... :-)

Parisian Fields said...

We decided to take the Byrrh challenge. We found a bottle in the local Monoprix. It was covered in dust and had clearly been there a long, long time. It was less than 10 euros, so we bought it. It tastes much like Dubonnet, but even sweeter. We recommend lots of ice and a slice of lemon to tone down the sweetness. Cheers! Norman & Philippa

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