Archive for January 2019

Deyrolle in 2007

Taxidermy heaven in Paris

On a trip to Paris in 2003, a large number of transit and public utility workers were on strike. Strikes of this kind are extremely common in France; a week when no one is on strike would be considered strange. In any case, a lot of people weren’t showing up for work, either because the subways weren’t running or because they were participating in demonstrations on the streets. As a result, museums and other attractions were forced to scale back their hours of operation. After leaving the Musée d’Orsay early, we had some time to kill on the left bank, and we took the opportunity to look up a nearby shop Morgen had read about.

In Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik describes the five years he spent living as an expatriate in Paris along with his wife and young son. (Hey! I did that too!) One of their favorite places to go on rainy days was a strange and fascinating shop called Deyrolle on the Rue du Bac. Deyrolle could be described as a taxidermy shop, but that doesn’t begin to do it justice, and besides, taxidermy shops are not exactly a dime a dozen—especially in Paris.

The Dead Zone

When we arrived at Deyrolle, we couldn’t determine if it was even open for business. At street level, there were large glass display cases on either side of the door; beyond that, a dark foyer. There was no sign saying “Ouvert,” no lights on, no people, no signs of life. In fact that last point should have been the tip-off that everything was normal. We tried the door; it opened. There was a creaky old staircase ahead of us, and we tentatively mounted the stairs. When we got to the top we were greeted by the reassuring glow of fluorescent lights, and the somewhat less reassuring sight of a moose staring at us.

I had always thought of taxidermy as a craft marketed rather narrowly to hunters wishing to display their prized trophies. At Deyrolle, no animal is too exotic, or too ordinary, to be stuffed. You’ll walk past lions, tigers, zebras, and a giraffe, not to mention a polar bear, a hyena, a badger, and a baboon. But you’ll also find every imaginable barnyard animal, as well as birds, deer, rabbits, and so on. The animals are scattered throughout the store as though they were customers, and they are for the most part extremely lifelike, sometimes eerily so. Some of the more exotic animals are for display only, but most are available for sale or for rent. That’s right: you can rent a dead zebra, elephant, or bear for your next party.

Take This Pet and Stuff It

The shop was founded in 1831 by Emile Deyrolle, and it moved to its current location—the former home of Louis XIV’s banker—in 1881. It is now owned by a company called Le Prince Jardinier that runs a number of specialty household goods stores. Most of the people who walk into Deyrolle are there mainly to browse, though the store does a fairly brisk business in mounted butterflies, beetles, and other insects, as well as rocks, fossils, and a variety of educational products. It is, however, a functioning taxidermy operation, and for a few hundred euros you can have your household pet stuffed when it expires. Deyrolle politely declines requests by humans to have their mortal remains stuffed and mounted; I heartily agree with the wisdom of this policy.

When we first visited Deyrolle, it looked as if it had changed little in the last hundred-plus years. Like its products, it seemed to be in a perpetually immobile yet lifelike state. But on February 1, 2008 (just months after we moved to Paris), a major fire tragically destroyed a significant portion of Deyrolle’s collection. With the help of numerous generous artists, the building and much of its contents were quickly restored, and the shop reopened in May of that year. It’s now a little bit…shiny for my tastes (you can see for yourself in a virtual tour on Deyrolle’s website), but still as weird and endearing as ever.

Current laws make it virtually impossible for a taxidermist to obtain the kinds of large, exotic animals that were once Deyrolle’s main trade (there are some exceptions, such as animals that died of old age at a zoo). That’s probably just as well; it’s a rather discomfiting notion given modern sensibilities about wildlife preservation. But the store is still well worth a visit for the sheer strangeness of it all.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 9, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on September 28, 2004.

Image credit: saragoldsmith [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Cabbage and Brussels sprouts

Brussels sprouts were high on my “yucky” list as a kid, although—as is usually the case—I hadn’t ever tried them. Indeed, I somehow managed never to consume a Brussels sprout until well into my 40s. When I finally found myself in a restaurant with Brussels sprouts on my plate, I decided reluctantly to take the plunge, and…oh wow. This is what I’ve been missing all these years? I was shocked. They didn’t taste anything like I expected them to. They were amazing. And I’ve been eating them ever since. (They’re especially good roasted, with a bit of olive oil, salt, and bacon crumbles.) Interestingly, I had almost exactly the same experience, around the same time, with sauerkraut—and cabbage, after all, is a close relative of Brussels sprouts (the former is essentially a miniature version of the latter). I will be eating more today!

Image credit: Marco Verch [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Digs and Buildings, Oak Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, August 1931

Nova Scotia’s notorious money pit

Canada’s maritime provinces may not be the first place you think of when you hear the words “buried treasure,” but for over 200 years, treasure hunters have had their eyes on tiny Oak Island in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia. Over the years, millions of dollars have been spent—and at least six lives lost—in repeated attempts to excavate one of the world’s most infamous alleged treasure sites. What could be worth so much effort? Possibly an enormous cache of gold and silver, ancient manuscripts, or…nothing at all.

Can You Dig It?

The story begins in 1795, when a boy was wandering around on the island and found a curious depression in the ground. Right above this depression was an old tackle block hanging from the limb of a large oak tree, as though someone had used it to lower something heavy into a hole. Having heard stories about pirates frequenting the area in centuries past, the boy immediately suspected buried treasure. He returned the following day with two friends and began digging. A few feet down, the boys found a layer of flagstones; 10 feet below that was a wooden platform. Both of these markers strongly suggested the hole was man-made. They kept going, but by the time they reached 30 feet, they realized there was no end in sight and called it quits.

Several years later, having secured some financing and additional help, they returned, this time digging to more than 90 feet—hitting several additional wooden platforms on the way down. At 90 feet they found a stone inscribed with strange symbols they could not decipher. (Later, some would claim that the symbols were a cipher for “Forty feet below two million pounds are buried,” but that stone was soon, conveniently, lost.) Just below that was a layer of mud. Probing down into the mud with a crowbar, they hit another solid surface—perhaps another wooden platform, or perhaps a treasure vault. But when they returned the next day, the shaft had filled with 60 feet of water, which foiled all attempts at bailing. Shortly thereafter, they tried to dig a parallel shaft, thinking they’d get below the treasure and tunnel in horizontally—but this second shaft filled with water as well. The first crew of treasure hunters abandoned their dig.

In 1849, a second group attempted an excavation. Then another, and another, and another. Each time, treasure hunters made some intriguing discovery, but each time, their attempts to go deeper were frustrated—by flooding, cave-ins, accidental deaths, and other misfortunes. On several occasions, workers attempted to drill into the earth beneath the water that filled the pit, and the drills brought up some interesting fragments—a piece of gold chain here, some wood there…and a small scrap of parchment that had one or two letters written on it. The evidence suggested that below more layers of earth and wood was an empty space—a vault containing chests, perhaps with gold coins inside. But these were just educated guesses, because no one could actually get down to them. Some attempts to widen or deepen the hole—or to get at the treasure indirectly through other holes—caused whatever the drill bits had hit to sink even farther down. The diggers eventually realized that the flooding was due to two or more horizontal tunnels that ran to the shore, and had seemingly been dug as booby traps. Unfortunately, repeated attempts to block those tunnels also failed. By the early 20th century, so many large holes had been created that the original location of the so-called money pit was no longer certain.

Excavations using modern equipment in the 1930s enlarged the main hole greatly, but still nothing of value was found. In the decades since, various groups have made additional attempts to unearth the treasure, digging ever larger and deeper holes, and although more intriguing objects have been uncovered, there’s still no definitive proof that there is, or was, a treasure there. Following years of legal disputes about the ownership of the land and the rights to any treasure that may be buried there, agreements were finally reached among various parties with a financial stake in the site and the provincial government. Excavation work is ongoing, and has been documented on the History Channel’s series The Curse of Oak Island since 2014.

Getting to the Bottom of It

Over the centuries, dozens of theories have been advanced as to what the Oak Island treasure really is. One popular theory holds that it’s Captain Kidd’s fortune—or that of some other pirate. Another says it’s the lost treasure of the Knights Templar. Some say (based apparently on that one tiny piece of parchment) that it’s Shakespeare’s original manuscripts. Others say it must be the Holy Grail. Although proponents of each of these theories make persuasive arguments as to why they must be correct, a recurring theme is that any treasure hidden so carefully and protected so elaborately as to defy two centuries’ worth of determined treasure hunters must be unfathomably important.

Except that it apparently wasn’t important enough for whoever hid it to come back for it—or pass on information of its whereabouts to anyone else.

And that assumes there’s something hidden there in the first place. There might not be. There is some evidence to suggest that the original “pit,” as well as the tunnels that fed water into it, were actually natural formations, and that the wooden “platforms” found at various points were nothing more than dead trees that had fallen into a hole once upon a time. What of the tackle block? And the gold chain? And the parchment? And the stone with the mysterious message? Well, all these artifacts have disappeared, and even if someone produced them, it would be impossible to prove they came from the pit. They could have been planted; they could also have been imagined. At no point in the last 200 years was work on the site controlled or documented carefully as an archeological dig would have been. All we truly have are the reports of people who wanted desperately to believe they were about to find a fabulous treasure.

Perhaps some day, when the best technology has been brought to bear on the problem (or there’s nothing left of the island but a gigantic hole), the Oak Island Mystery will be resolved once and for all. But we may ultimately find that the only real money on Oak Island came from a TV show.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on March 23, 2005.

Image credit: Richard McCully [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day


That quintessential French pastry, the croissant, likely originated in Austria and may even have been intended to represent the Islamic crescent. But over the centuries, the true history of the croissant has flaked away into legend. Indeed, many modern croissants are straight, not curved, making the name a misnomer. In any case—whatever the shape; whether made with real butter or a substitute; and filled with chocolate, almond paste, other ingredients, or not—croissants are delicious! Fattening, for sure, but then a properly made croissant is so light and airy that the low density makes up for the high calories. Or at least that’s what I like to tell myself. I hope you’ll celebrate National Croissant Day today with a freshly baked croissant. That makes all the difference—I speak from extensive personal experience!

Image credit: Pixabay

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

The Musée Mécanique

Good old-fashioned interactive multimedia

Fog, as I have said for many years, is my all-time favorite weather condition. Other than its impact on driving, I like everything about fog—the coolness, the dampness, the way it muffles sounds, and especially the mysterious, spooky quality it gives its surroundings. So the first time I took a streetcar out to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach many years ago, I was delighted to discover that, more often than not, the entire area is covered with fog. Morgen and I walked along the beach and up a hill to a building called the Cliff House, a restaurant with a majestic, sweeping view of the mist—and, occasionally, bits of the ocean and nearby Seal Rock. The Cliff House is a favorite tourist destination—not so much for the food but for the view, the gift shops, and a few other attractions nearby. The attraction we had gone there to see was located inconspicuously around the back, downstairs in the basement of the Cliff House—and advertised only by a small, folding wooden sign on the sidewalk near the restaurant that said, simply, “Musée Mécanique.”

The Old Machine and the Sea

The Musée Mécanique (or Mechanical Museum) looked like something that belonged a century in the past—an effect enhanced considerably by the fog. Inside a large room with peeling paint and a crumbling ceiling was a collection of hundreds of very old mechanical toys, games, and other amusements. For example, there were dozens of automatons—machines in which small figures walk, dance, or otherwise move around when you insert a coin. There were fortune-telling machines, games to test your strength (the electric arm-wrestling machine was frighteningly strong), flip-card “movies,” a player piano, and all sorts of other mechanical shows and diversions. The amazing thing was that all these machines—ranging from the very campy to the very sophisticated—were fully functional. Admission was free, but nearly every machine required a quarter (or two) to operate it.

The money was well worth it, though: you just can’t get this kind of entertainment anymore. In the days before electronic toys and games, designers accomplished some impressive feats of engineering and miniaturization using simple motors, gears, levers, and springs. The result was an arcade that, while lacking video screens and digital controllers, was much more interesting and engaging than a modern gaming venue. The point of dropping in your change was not, in general, to win anything; it was simply to marvel at the skills of the machines’ designers.

The March of Quarters

The Musée Mécanique houses some of the last remnants of an amusement park called Playland at the Beach, which operated along San Francisco’s oceanfront from 1928 to 1972. When the park closed, a collector named Edward Zelinsky purchased its mechanical games from owner George Whitney, Jr. Zelinsky had already been collecting antique gadgets of this sort for decades, and had taught himself how to repair and maintain them. Shortly after acquiring the Playland machines, he put the bulk of his collection on public display in the basement of the Cliff House. He kept it going as a labor of love until his death in 2004, but his son, Dan, continues the work. The Musée Mécanique is now the world’s largest private collection of antique coin-operated arcade machines, and other than being updated to use quarters rather than the original pennies or nickels, the machines have kept all their original charm.

Returning to the Musée in early 2002, I saw a sign on the window that troubled me. It said the museum was likely to close permanently within a few months. I talked with the manager about it, and then a few weeks later, read a more detailed account in a local newspaper. The story was that the building, which is managed by the National Park Service, was badly in need of renovation. Following the repairs, the park service wanted to put a more profitable business in the spot where the Musée had been. They hoped to construct a new building nearby at some point in the future that could house the Musée’s collection, but there were no funds at the time for such a building, and in any case, there was no other space available for the Musée in the meantime. Left with no home for the machines, Zelinsky was considering whether to put the collection into storage indefinitely or simply auction it off.

The Musée Lives On

When the newspaper article was published, public outcry was immediate and overwhelming. Within a couple of weeks, more than 20,000 people had signed petitions asking the park service to save the Musée—to assure it a temporary home, as well as permanent housing after the Cliff House renovations were complete. Shortly thereafter, a follow-up article reported the good news: the park service had assured the owners that they would find a way to keep the Musée open. The Musée Mécanique is currently housed at Pier 45 on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The original plan had been for it to return to new digs at or near the Cliff House in 2004, but that never happened, and I suspect that the museum’s current home will be more or less permanent.

The Fisherman’s Wharf location lacks the dilapidated charm of the Cliff House basement and is not nearly as foggy. On the bright side, it’s right in the thick of the city’s most densely touristy area, so it’s bound to attract more visitors. Admission is still free, but take a roll of quarters for a great value in entertainment—and nostalgia.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on June 9, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on November 4, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day