Two “French Letter” boxes [Alamy image ref: AEF1JR]

I’ve seen quite a few condom dispensers in small French towns (population around 5,000) but only one, in Chatillon-sur-Indre, offering several story-line or caption suggestions.First is the obvious connection with the French post-box which, if you are unaware of it – or live somewhere other than in the United Kingdom – “French Letter” is slang for a condom.

Then there is the “No Waiting” sign and the instruction about “Limited to 1 hour 30 minutes”… which would be pretty good going for most people contemplating any amorous act!

And then there is the big arrow… not only pointing to the machine, but being the recognized symbol for a male – the shield and spear of the Roman god Mars, which is also the alchemical symbol for iron, represents the male sex.

I don’t know how this photo was used recently in a UK national newspaper with 1 million print-run as a 1/2 page inside reproduction, but if it was “The Sun” or “The Mirror” the picture editors could have had a field day with the captioning!

Although I’ve sometimes waited around a corner to see if there were any customers at these machines, I’ve never been successful in snapping anyone. I guess most people are just too embarrassed to be seen buying one (although long gone are the days when the hairdresser used to whisper in one’s ear, “Anything else sir?”) However, they are a guaranteed set-up for posing a friend or two and having some suggestive fun with their expressions and body language!

A little bit of research has provided the following… from…

Some nicknames of the condoms demonstrate international tensions. In Germany, a slang term for a condom is a “Pariser,” or a Parisian. In English, condoms are sometimes called French Letters. Why is France associated with condoms? This might be because other countries associated all that was decadent with France.

As a side note, a French Letter will protect you against the French Disease; or, to put it more plainly, a condom will help protect you against syphilis. Syphilis was called the French Disease because of the outbreak in the French Army in the sixteenth century; it was the Italians that coined that phrase (morbus gallicus).

The French, however, might have gotten their linguistic come-uppance with their terminology. The French called syphilis “la maladie anglaise,” or the English Disease. They even called it the Italian disease or the Neapolitan disease too. Other countries were equally derisive, with the Arabs calling syphilis the English disease and the Russians calling it the Polish disease.

Although most nationally-derogatory terms for syphilis are now in the past, the French still call condoms “la capote anglaise,” or the English raincoat.

And from wikipedia…

Julius Fromm (1883 – May 12, 1945) was a Jewish entrepreneur, chemist, and inventor of a process for making condoms from liquified rubber. Fromms became a synonym for condom in Germany. In 1928, the world’s  first condom vending machines were installed by Fromm’s company, but the interior ministry only allowed it to advertise the hygienic advantages of condoms, not the condom’s use as a contraceptive, because it feared a further decrease of the birth rate.

French letter box [Alamy image ref: B8F069]

24-hours after this French letter (ha-ha!) box was erected in a local village outside their now-closed post office – and after the security tape and stickers had been taken away once the concreted base had set solid – I snapped the bright yellow receptacle in the bright sunlight. I was lucky as there was not a speck of dust, swirl of graffiti nor splatter of bird shit to spoil the pristine freshness of this straight-out-of-the-box post-box. I knew I’d stumbled across a rare opportunity to capture an image which would be more attractive to buyers than the usual weathered or repainted examples on many town’s street corners. I also had the advantage of a non-distracting background… OK, maybe a not-so-plain random stone wall, but equally, not a distracting view down a street with parked cars and people.

I sent three versions of this subject to Alamy… a full-length shot, this close-up, and a similar close-up from an oblique angle to show a three-dimensional view which also had the background masked-out in Photoshop. I thought the “cut-out” shot would have had more sales potential, but in the course of the first 12 months the image above sold five times (although on different occasions, presumably to the same publisher because the licensing terms were always for three years) for uses including travel guides, newspaper, magazine and educational school books.

I used my old manual 55mm macro Nikkor on a Nikon D200 set at 1/500th and f/8 (bright light for a February afternoon), and of the five shots taken three were selected for uploading to Alamy. I’d looked for a bit of “human interest” by wandering around for the postwoman to arrive and empty the box mid-afternoon… but after 20 minutes standing in the cold Spring air, and with the sun lowering in the sky, I noticed the emptying time was 12 ‘o-clock noon! I’d been looking at that information on the new box for a couple of minutes thinking it was a pity the label had been fixed incorrectly at an annoying but noticeable slight angle, and would it be possible or worth correcting in Photoshop? Duh!

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