We found this item in a brocante last year. At first, Carole was taken by the labels on the box- the cool, clean lines of interwar graphics. The box was tatty, peeling and dusty. Inside were a selection of glass plate negatives. In the gloom of the shop it was difficult to see but it seemed to be antique holiday pictures, probably pre-war. We decided to take a small risk and purchased the set. At home, Carole fired up her lightbox and we took a closer look.
It seems sweet enough at first. Family pictures. Women and gentlemen taking drinks on the terasse. There is a fascination for us here in the clothing style and trying to find the little details, what people were drinking, the background architecture and so on. We don't pretend to be historians but we're looking to be charmed. And then....
Military men in French interwar dress uniform with skyscrapers and palm trees? I was surprised. Was this some alternative history where Art Deco skyscrapers sprouted over Paris? And this seems to be Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, or rather a copy of it.
And this? elephants? is this the Alhambra?
The clue for me was Angkor. Or rather this was clearly Angkor but an exaggerated version of it, slightly camp. The real one is much wider and doesn't have the huge ceremonial staircase on it. But where would someone make a copy of a vast temple like this? Today this would be a Disneyland or Vegas version The military uniforms told me this was probably the 1930s so we guessed some kind on Trade fair. Scanning online photos it didn't seem to be the famous 1937 Paris Expo.
Almost by accident we found information about another Fair in Paris several years earlier: The 1931 "Exposition Coloniale Internationale". A dazzling, enormous event to advertise the success of the French Empire. Replicas of Angkor, West African villages and Moroccan palaces were erected to delight the public and promote trade. As well as France, the Italian, Dutch, Belgians and perhaps oddly, the USA also had pavilions. In the 1930s before widespread color photography and mass tourism, the idea of the farflung countries coming to visit would have been exotic and entrancing to many Parisians, so understandably thousands upon thousands visited. There is more about the exhibition written here on Arthur Chandler's website, who also has this gloriously 1930s map:
Of course today the content seems beyond the pale. At best it seems a celebration of condescension at worst a festival of cruelty. But, it was an extraordinary event that actually happened even if it seems almost forgotten now. Ordinary people went and marveled at faraway exotic lands. One of them went and took snapshots to be made into slides which we have 'discovered' decades later. We're undecided about selling these. Perhaps they would be better off in a museum. For the moment we're enjoying having discovered something a tiny memento of an extraordinary event, and that curious frisson of glimpsing a lost world. #France #Brocante #Antiques #FrenchHistory #Colonialism #Interwar