Monday, August 12, 2013

Eiffel's Tower by Jill Jonnes

Jill Jonnes gives the reader a delightful and enlightening account of how one of the modern wonders of the world was built and the history surrounding it.

 Gustave Eiffel was commissioned to build an edifice to celebrate the Republic of France in time for the Paris World Exhibition of 1889.  Something that would impress the rest of the world and prove to the rest of Europe that a country did not need royalty to govern her people.

Predictably, most of Europe boycotted the Exhibition in protest, since they all still had Kings and Queens, even if, like in England's case, the royalty was largely a figure head and the country was practically run by a Democratic parliament.  Still, Queen Victoria and her retinue stayed ostensibly away.  (Her son and his wife sneaked into Paris to see it.  If Queen Victoria knew it, she didn't acknowledge it.)

Very much on France's side was America.  They not only attended in abundance but were amply represented in the Fine Arts section and especially on the cultural side.  One of the most interesting aspects of Jonnes' book is the side stories about what happened peripherally around Paris' Tour en Fer.

For one, William Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, and his Sioux Indians came.  They made a huge sensation with their Wild West reenactments, even if they presented a romanticized version of how the West was one.  We learn quite a bit about Annie Oakley, a person the French came prepared to be bored with, but were completely won over with her sharp shooting skills.  She not only shot holes in cards while racing around the tent on horseback but could shoot and slice the card in half sideways.  Jonnes also gives the back stories of these legendary figures which adds interest to the characters.

Another American that came and was feted was Thomas Edison.  He was continually  given dinners in his honor and was the toast of the town.  His inventions, such as the phonograph, were on display at the exhibition and lines wrapped around the fairgrounds as people waited their turn to speak into a device and then hear their own voice repeating their words moments later.

James Abbott McNeil Whistler is mainly the only American artist that Jonnes describes and he spent most of his life in France.  We learn about his temperament (fiery and atrocious-Degas said if he could paint with his tongue he'd be a genius) and his works.  His most famous work, Whistler's Mother, can still be seen in the Louvre.

But this is the Paris Exhibition, after all.  Even though Jonnes spends a generous amount of the book describing the visiting Americans, she also gives us insight into contemporary attitudes towards what today is considered some of the world's greatest art: The Impressionists.

The French Impressionists, Monet, Degas etc...were completely cut out of the Official
French Art Exhibit by the French jury.  So they bought their own venue at the Fair to exhibit their works and called it the Salon des Refusees (Salon of the Refused).  Vincent Van Gogh and his friend, Paul Gaugin, also set up their own venue.  History, of course, tells us whose art has endured.

But the most important part of the book is about Gustave Eiffel himself.  Throughout the book we learn of his life, his background, his other engineering feats-both the good and the failed (such as a disastrous attempt to create a canal and locks across Panama that left thousands bankrupt and impoverished and for which Eiffel was sent to prison).

We vicariously experience his struggles to finance his vision of the tallest tower in the world.  An engineering feat that would prove France's dominion as a Republic and reign in modern technology.  We are rooting for him as he and his workers labor desperately around the clock to have the tower built in time for the fair.  We learn how he used his concepts for railroad tracks and basically applied them vertically to create his tower.

It's amusing to us now to know that there was such protest against it.  Here's a sample of some of the remarks by certain well known contemporaries such as Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas  fils (son of the famous writer), and Charles Gounoud.

For the Eiffel Tower, which even commerical America would not have, is without a doubt the dishonor of Paris.  Everyone feels it, everyone says it, everyone is profoundly saddened by it, and we are only a weak echo of public opinion so legitimately alarmed....

  And for the next twenty years we will see cast over the entire city, still trembling with the genius of so many centuries, cast like a spot of ink, the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted metal.

It seems contemporary France did not possess much vision concerning its artists or engineers.  I'm sure the average French man thinks differently today.

Interestingly, the original agreement was that the tower would remain for twenty years after the fair and then be dismantled.  Fortunately, Eiffel was able to prove it's value as a telegraph tower during WWI.  By the time Eiffel died of a stroke at the ripe old age of ninety-one in 1923, his tower had become a permanent fixture of the Paris skyline.  "I ought to be jealous of the tower," he joked.  "It is much more famous than I am."

At 915.7 feet it surpassed the Washington Monument to become the tallest building in the world at the time.  The Americans, Thomas Edison the most vocal among them, promised to surpass the tower with something even taller in time for the Chicago's World Fair.

This was not to be, although a giant wheel  with gondolas which  took people up and around was invented by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr for the occasion, it only topped out at 264 feet. It would take another forty-one years for American engineers to develop what would become  known as the skyscraper and the Chrysler building would finally dethrone Eiffel's famous tower.

But Eiffel should be jealous.   How many people know that the name "Eiffel" should have a possessive written after it? (The French still call it the Tour en Fer, "Tower of the Fair").  And let's not forget that it is also Eiffel's Statue of Liberty that greets people on a little island off Manhattan.

I bought this book.


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  2. Though my wife's family is from France and a know a fair amount of French history, late nineteenth century French history represents a kind of a gap in my knowledge. I never knew much about the history of the tower. I had no idea that the plan was to dismantle the tower after twenty years. Amazing how sometimes folks do not know the value of what they have!

    1. Brian: So true. I also appreciated learning more about Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. People I had heard about but didn't really know much. This book complements a book about the history of the Circus that I'm reading. A lot of the acts, such as dancers and acrobats, that came from Asia and attended the fair, influenced the acts that made their way into circuses in Europe and America.

  3. I knew some of the history but you have really given so much more information. I have been at the Eiffel Tower (line was way too long to go up the Tower) and now I am interested in reading deeper.

    1. Leona: I'm glad my review whetted your appetite. This is really a very interesting book. Well-written and enjoyable.

  4. A very informative account of a landmark I never knew that much about, except by name only. Which brings to mind a dilemma here in the US regarding historical structures and landmarks. It seems so many have gone the way of the scrap heap in recent years. Whether it be university buildings, arenas, towers, etc., the mentality seems to be one of economic reasons over historical significance . It makes you wonder what could be next. The White House, Capitol, or Statue of Liberty?

    Which brings up another point. The principle of upkeep and maintaining has given way to the idea of "bigger and better." We have created a society which adheres to this philosophy. Just look at all of the new church buildings that are cropping up. So many of them do not even resemble a church house, in the prototypical sense. They are certainly bigger. But better? Better for what, I wonder.

  5. clinch64: I wholeheartedly agree with you. A few years back I attended a church in Seattle WA. A beautiful historical building. They were preparing to tear it down. I couldn't believe it. I don't understand how things like that can even be legal.

    I also agree with you about the churches. I visited Europe this past summer. The cathedrals and churches there commanded a reverence that is not evident in many of our modern churches in the US. I prefer the old fashioned Victorian churches with their tall stained glass windows over the dark gymnasiums that currently serve for a lot of churches.
    Kind regards,


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.