Monday, 5 April 2021

Week 14: What was the population of Paris in 1921?

100 years ago this week: Week 14

In April 1921, the first population census of Paris and its surrounding towns for a decade was published. Although I accept this probably fascinates me much more than it might you, I encourage you to dive into the data with me. The numbers reveal a city on the cusp of major changes, and a very different Paris from the one we know today.

Come and mingle with the people here.

First census figures for Paris and the Seine

It is estimated that the full results will show an increase of 40,000 souls in Paris, and 180,000 in the suburbs.

At time of going to press, we know the census results for sixteen of the Paris arrondissements. Those for the 6th, 10th, 19th and 20th have not yet been finalised. Although incomplete, these initial statistics confirm what the Petit Parisien has already reported: first of all that the population of the capital has not grown in the proportion that we expected, and that the arronidissements of the centre, invaded to an ever greater extent by offices, banks and cinemas, are losing inhabitants, whilst those on the periphery and in the suburbs, are seeing their numbers increase.


Part of my reason for doing this weekly series of posts is to get a really good idea of what Paris was like in 1921 and how people lived. And there are few better ways to get a sharp snapshot and point of comparison than a population census! 

The 1921 population census of Paris and the Seine - the administrative department that covered the city's immediate suburbs - was the first in a decade, and the first since the end of WW1. What strikes me immediately about the coverage in the press is the sense of surprise that the increase should be so low. Given the sheer quantity of people in the city at that time and the fact that millions in France had recently died in the war and during the Spanish Flu pandemic, how could they have imagined that there would be a large rise in numbers? 

Looking back now 100 years later, we can say something that the journalists at the time could not know; the figures revealed in the 1921 census were the historical pinnacle for Paris. The census counted 2,906,472 people, the highest number of inhabitants the city has ever known. Although we think of today's city as being crowded, this figure equates to almost 750,000 more people than the current total (approx 2,160,000 in 2019). 

As a percentage of the total population of France, the figures are also significant. In 1921, 39 million lived in France, meaning that around 7.5% of the country's population lived in its capital. Today there are around 67.4 million in France, with the Paris proportion equating to around 3.1% of that total.

An unrecognisable centre

Looked at in detail, the figures paint a picture of Paris that I struggle to comprehend. As the article states, the changes were becoming most obvious in the centre of the city - today's touristic heart that everybody is familiar with. Although we still see the banks, offices and cinemas today in these districts, it is hard to imagine how they ever managed to fit in such large numbers of people. 

The two density maps (source here) below show this change extremely clearly. The populations of the central districts of Paris have thinned out to an incredible extent in 100 years, whereas the outer areas have stayed much the same or even increased in density. 

It should also be noted that although the overall population of Paris rose very slightly between 1911 and 1921, the central zones were already becoming less crowded.

I tracked down the numbers for the four districts missing in the article, and have provided the full list below. In brackets are the most recent figures that seem to be available (2019). Green represents the numbers that have declined in the last 100 years, red shows those that have increased.

1st - 53,171 (16,252)
2nd - 53,819 (20,260)
3rd - 76,530 (34,788)
4th - 89,705 (27,487)
5th - 117,758 (59,108)
6th - 99,935 (40,916)
7th - 111,265 (52,512)
8th - 97,273 (36,453)
9th - 112,991 (59,629)
10th - 146,415 (91,932)
11th - 223,088 (147,017)
12th - 149,166 (141,494)
13th - 150,558 (181,552)
14th - 171,301 (137,105)
15th - 219,997 (233,484)
16th - 162,889 (165,446)
17th - 214,507 (167,835)
18th - 273,717 (195,060)
19th - 153,559 (186,393)
20th - 184,058 (195,604)

Let's focus on the 4th arrondissement, which provides perhaps the most revealing statistics of all. This zone - which covers the Marais and the Ile Saint Louis and Ile de la Cité - is wealthy and desirable today. In 1921 though, it was a different world all together. Between 1921 and 2019, the district lost over two-thirds of its population. Incredibly, the 1921 figure also represents a 10% drop from 1911! There have been some clearance and reconstruction projects in this area - notably around the Centre Pompidou - but much of the housing stock remains essentially the same. Put simply, for each person in the appartments of today, there were 4 people at the beginning of the 20th century! We can also note similar drops in the chic districts on the city's left bank.

A push to the periphery

So where were these people already going in 1921? As the article states, the outer arrondissements and surrounding towns were starting to see significant population increases. These zones were essentially villages until the end of the 19th century, and ripe for development, especially with the ongoing construction of the Paris Metro system. The very edges of Paris in 1921 were also still the 'zone', the abandoned city protection system. This ring today is home to the périphérique motorway system, but also a whole series of large-scale housing developments that cropped up in the 1920s and 30s.

Once again, here are some of the suburban towns mentioned in the article against the population figures in 2019. 

Antony - 7,433 (62,210)
Bagneux - 3,519 (39,763)
Champigny - 13,316 (77,409)
Créteil - 8,151 (89,392)

On average, each of these towns has seen its population multiplied by 10 in the last 100 years, starting from a fairly modest base. There is though one clear counter-example:

Levallois - 72,217 (62,462)

Levallois was an industrial centre in 1921, and has followed the same trajectory as Paris into a more gentrified residential town over recent decades.

One final chart to underline the direction the city was taking in 1921. For nearly a century, the population of Paris and its suburbs was rising steadily and at the same rate. By 1921, there were still more people in Paris than in the surrounding towns, but these proportions were about to change radically. As the population of Paris dropped, the number of people in the urban and wider metropolitan areas grew massively. Today, there are approximately four times the number of people in the Paris suburbs than in the city itself - a vision of urban life that journalists in 1921 clearly could not imagine.

With the changes in society we have seen over the last depressing year, will these figures decline once again from 2021? Many Parisians express a desire to leave the city and set up home in a smaller town where they will have more space and better air, but the numbers making the move are currently still low. Increased possibilities to work from home may make this simpler, but will the attractions of Paris be sufficient to retain people? I personally have no plans to go anywhere soon!


Colin said...

Truly fascinating. Much to digest. Thanks for working it all out!

Unknown said...

Statistics tell a story unto themselves. Thanks for this monumental effort. Monique

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