Few heroes of French history are as obscure as Eugène-Réné Poubelle, yet not one—not Joan of Arc, not Napoléon, not Charles de Gaulle—has as many monuments named in his memory. It is impossible to walk anywhere in Paris, or other French cities and towns for that matter, and not daily come across one of these shrines. It is true that they are not treated well, are not revered, and buses do not come from miles around loaded with tourists panting to have their pictures taken in front of one of them. As a matter of fact, people habitually throw nasty things in, or at, them. But the monuments, if not truly the memory of M. Poubelle, endure.
Poubelle gave his name to the garbage can. Originally, he intended them for domestic use and, with astounding foresight into recycling, ordered each household to have three of them: one for general household waste, a second for paper and fabric, and the last for glass, crockery, and oyster shells. Why M. Poubelle was silent on the subject of clam shells is unknown, but it is often argued that the guild of clam merchants in Paris during the 1880s, when Poubelle’s star and influence were rising, took offense at being passed over and led the whispering campaign to call the new devices after their creator. (The name is obviously catchier than Poubelle’s own suggestion which was “a wooden receptacle lined with tin.”)
In time, Poubelle’s successors decided that public trash cans would do no harm, and ornamental cost-iron ones began to appear in Paris. They have since lost their beaux-arts charm and the typical contemporary poubelle is a metal ring with a transparent plastic bag hanging from it. While the new version does the job, it seems to dishonor Eugène Poubelle: it is hard to get emotional let alone patriotic in front of a plastic bag drooping from a sheet-metal ring—and the loss of privacy of one’s junk inside the clear plastic bag seems an assault on Third Republic sensibilities.
Even so, Poubelle is a fortunate man. His name is mentioned daily by tens of thousands, and the last of his competitors for everyday mention, if not really memory, has been just about completely lost to history. That would be, or was and could have been, Claude-Philibert Barthelot, le Conte de Rambuteau, who invented the pissoir around 1840. To the despair of anyone with an enlarged prostate gland, these have vanished, and so Rambuteau’s name is remembered and used only by those who use the Métro station named after him, which strikes me as a serious demotion. The end of the rambuteaux, I suspect, had little to do with the fragrance they produced, especially on hot summer days, and the culprit maybe militant feminism, but that does no credit to the women of Paris. It is a mystery, and a sad one.
But if Poubelle has no French rival whose name is unknowingly on everyone’s lips day in and day out, there is one in the English-speaking world. That would be Thomas Crapper who set up a business supplying toilets, tanks, associated hardware, plumbing, and toilet seats in two shapes (more or less round and oval) in 1861, and sold his wares to King Edward VII and King George V and, obviously, to millions of Englishmen who could at least emulate royalty in one regard whenever they chose to.
The company, now private, agrees that the word “crapper,” referring to a toilet, is the natural extension of Thomas’s surname, but absolutely insists that any similar vulgarity is purely coincidental and unrelated to the firm. A pity (and a load of crap) that they think so, but perhaps understandable. “Crapper” is a little short on poetry, unlike poubelle and the unfortunately extinct rambuteau. The lack of poetry is especially sad because Thomas Crapper & Company Limited maintains it offices in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Thus the French may take pride that their eponymous waste-collectors retain the resonance and the romance of poetry, of vision, and of history while the Brits—smugly seated and flushed with success just a few yards away from the birthplace and tomb of William Shakespeare—hear nothing but utility even as they repeat the name daily in their advertising. The Parisian obscurity is more beautiful. After all, it is possible, after doing a little research and appreciating the greatness of the discovery, to exclaim, “Vive Poubelle!” or “Bravo, Rambuteau!” But can you imagine jumping to your feet and yelling, “Long live Crapper”?
© Joseph Lestrange