All the images in this short article are originally 6×13 cm glass slides which I am presenting here in the usual format of stereocards after digitally cleaning them a little. They may not be outstanding but I like them for what they are, little snippets of life which were deemed important enough at the time to be recorded. They were all bought as a lot from a French dealer and they have in common that they show people picknicking on the side of the road. Although there is nothing extraordinary about having a picnic by the side of the road I would barely recommend trying it today. It would be a noisy, smelly and, most importantly, very dangerous thing to do. What has changed between the scenes pictured in these images and the present day is, you may have guessed, a considerable rise in traffic.
The first image does not bear much information, except a date, 1906, and the name of a place, Riolas, a small town in the departement of Haute Garonne, France. It is the beginning of the twentieth century and people are still covering short distances with horse-drawn vehicles. Apparently, nine of the ten persons in the photographs – one must not forget the photographer, of whom we can only see the shadow of the top of his/her hat – travelled in the same vehicle, with a dog. One of the boys seems to have followed them on his bike. They have stopped for a bite after what must have been a bumpy drive and seem to be enjoying themselves. The lady in black in the middle is holding something which looks like grapes towards the camera but most of the other persons are not looking at the photographer. It really is a snapshot and the person behind the camera did not ask them to freeze or even look at the lens.
All I know about the second image is that it was taken near Rouen, Normandy, in 1910. Times are changing fast and wealthy families are now travelling in an automobile. This one was registered in Paris because of the letter I on the number plate. Although I do not know anything about cars it was not too difficult to find that this one is a 1909 Renault type BX 14/20 HP limousine. By some strange coincidence the firm Bonhams auctioned one back in 2008 and there are nice photographs of it on the internet. There is no mistaking the typical “coal-scuttle” bonnet of the Renault cars of the time. Although I have no information about the people represented it is not difficult to imagine they were travelling to or from Normandy, where a lot of wealthy Parisians had (and still have) secondary houses. Normandy is not very far from Paris and has been for decades a favourite destination of those who wanted to escape from the capital whenever possible. Since there was next to no traffic back in 1910, the lady on the right of the image can still sit on a stool right in the middle of the dirt road without risking being killed. I would definitely not attempt doing the same thing these days. One would barely survive five minutes.
Image 2 Close-up
The next picture, which also bears the date 1910, shows the same car parked along a different road. You needed a lot of patience then when you wanted to travel by car and lots of breaks were necessary, both for the passengers and for the vehicle. I rather like the fact that nobody is looking at the photographer but is busy watching the lady in the background who seems to be shaking a piece of cloth. I love the hats neatly aligned on the bank next to the little girl in the foreground.
Image 3 Close-up
The close up of the car in the above image shows the upholstery on the inside of the open door. The interior of the limousine reminds one of former luxury horse-drawn carriages. Notice that the driver, or chauffeur, sits outside and is only protected by a canopy over his/her head, and a very low windscreen. Not really ideal in case of rain, which is why you often see chauffeurs or drivers of the time wearing a visor cap and goggles.
Ten years and one World War later – the photo is dated 1920 – people can still have a picnic by the side of the road but there is already more traffic. If you look closely you will notice there is another car, in the distance. It is difficult, seeing only the back of the car, to determine what make or year it is but it must have been a capacious vehicle since it did not only carry the six people in the photograph plus the photographer but also a folding table, at least three folding chairs, and two hampers of food and drinks.
The last image differs from the others because all the persons in it – except one – are looking straight at the camera. The car, also seen from the back, unfortunately, does not seem as wide as the other ones but is big enough to carry seven people and quite a lot of luggage.
I wish I knew who the people in the images are but I guess there is no way of finding out, except by pure chance. It is obvious that some of the photos have the same origin but I am not even sure they all come from the same family. They may have been put together by a former collector who specialised in images of picnics, or cars. What matters more is that, thanks to scanners, computers, and the internet, we can give them a new life and show them to more people than they ever were. They also show slices of time from one hundred (and more) years ago. In lots of ways life was no better then, but definitely moving at a slower pace and with considerably less noise around. That’s one thing the current pandemic made us realise, with so many planes grounded and motor vehicles off the roads. At some point there was so little traffic in some places that one could almost have had a picnic by the side of the road !
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