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French April Fool postcard. [Alamy image ref. B86NX4]

There’s an old tradition in France where, on the first day of April, children try to pin a cut-out paper fish shape on an unsuspecting person’s back (I should add that “back” in this context indicates a coat or jacket rather than bare skin!). Whilst I’ve never seen this done in the street, I’m sure it still happens in the home with parents dutifully complying by showing utter surprise at the event.

Compared to the English tradition of trying to trick a school-pal or an adult into looking at something non-existent, for example, and always before midday otherwise you became the the April Fool, the French “April Fish” custom, lasting originally for an entire week, seems quite bizarre.

There’s a good description explaining everything on the “Why Go France” website…

“Although the origins of April Fools is obscure and debated, the most widely accepted explanation actually credits the “holiday” as starting in France. The most popular theory about the origin of April Fool’s Day involves the French calendar reform of the sixteenth century.

The theory goes like this: In 1564 King Charles XIV of France reformed the calendar, moving the start of the year from the end of March to January 1. However, in a time without trains, a reliable post system or the internet, news often travelled slow and the uneducated, lower class people in rural France were the last to hear of and accept the new calendar. Those who failed to keep up with the change or who stubbornly clung to the old calendar system and continued to celebrate the New Year during the week that fell between March 25th and April 1st, had jokes played on them. Pranksters would surreptitiously stick paper fish to their backs. The victims of this prank were thus called Poisson d’Avril, or April Fish – which, to this day, remains the French term for April Fools – and so the tradition was born.” …although this does not explain the earliest recorded association between April 1 and foolishness which can be found in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (1392).


There are many vintage “Poisson d’Avril” postcards to be found at  brocantes – those popular French versions of car-boot sales held in most towns and villages in the warmer and drier months – usually dating from 1900 to the start of the Great War. I used to collect them only if they had the “Semeuse” (Sower ) definitive stamp on the face cancelled by a readable postmark… but that’s another long and foolish collectors’ story!

Licensed by Alamy under my “a la poste” pseudo for a UK magazine with 50,000 circulation, inside editorial, up to 1-page, print and app use for 1 month.

Postscript: Before I sold my collection I photographed a selection of the most visually interesting examples to place on Alamy… and I have an almost total domination of that specific keyworded subject with 15 out of 16 examples on view. Last year, oddly as it turned out, a dozen of my fifteen examples were zoomed – ten in a single session and two the next day… so I awaited with interest the reporting of hopefully several sales by that registered client (only certain registered clients have their zooms recorded for us to see) for a feature on that very specific subject. Oddly, not a single sale was reported during that year.

This year a single example was zoomed and sold as described and detailed above. Was it the same client? Were the previous years zooms / downloads used without reporting and therefore without payment? I feel uncomfortably suspicious about unreported usages which, although not common, should never happen, but, when I also had a dozen zooms over two consecutive days from my citrus fruit wrapper collection – here I have a unique coverage of the subject with 165 out of 165 examples on Alamy – but again not a single reported sale was made… so am I getting a little paranoid, or should I ask Alamy to investigate the client (were they one and the same?) who zooms very specific subjects but then doesn’t apparently use any of them. Do I smell something fishy? Maybe I’m being an April Fool myself!

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 TheFreeLibrary.com…

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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