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Words by Michel Wlassikoff

From singular sheets to satirical sheets: the evolution and cultural impact of occasional publications in France from the 15th to the 20th century

What were the “Canards” that captivated 19th-century France with their sensational stories and woodcut illustrations, making a unique blend of news, folklore, and popular culture?
What were the “Canards” that captivated 19th-century France with their sensational stories and woodcut illustrations, making a unique blend of news, folklore, and popular culture?
At the end of the 15th century, just a few decades after the invention of printing, what would later be called “occasional” publications appeared in France, designed to report on the most unusual events. These early news publications generally took the form of small sheets or brochures, illustrated with one or more woodcuts. Published irregularly, they were distributed in the countryside and towns by peddlers who also supplied edifying images, songs and almanacs. In the 17th century, the advent of “gazettes” relegated occasional readers to a popular clientele. The quality of their output declined, and the engravings, largely reused for a wide variety of news items, were very frustrating, although sometimes strikingly powerful. In the 19th century, these occasional prints enjoyed a marked revival. As the means of printing and distribution improved, and as freedom of expression — albeit highly regulated — and literacy increased, a broad clientele took to reading occasional papers of a new kind. Usually printed on one side of a single large-format sheet, with a strong title and illustrated with a large woodcut, these “canards”, as they were immediately known, met with great success. The origin of the term is still debated. It may have originated as a popular remark against the bulletins of the Grande Armée. Gérard de Nerval, in Le Diable à Paris in 1845, gives the following definition: “A canard is news that is sometimes true, often exaggerated, often false. It’s the details of a horrible assassination, illustrated with naive wooden engravings; it’s a disaster, a phenomenon, an extraordinary adventure; you pay five centimes and you’re robbed.”
In Paris in the 1830s, several canards were printed every day, in runs of several thousand copies, by publishers-printers specialized in the genre, who distributed them thanks to a troupe of “canardiers”, paid by the sale. Publication follows the event as closely as possible, in the case of a trial for example. But most of the time, the date is not indicated, nor are the places precisely marked. Old, almost mythical stories are often repeated: the father and mother killing their child without recognizing it, and so on. The texts come from “serious” newspapers, but are largely reworked to borrow from popular language. Imagery benefited from relative liberalization after 1830. Engravers such as Garson and Numa Delalu made a name for themselves, but most remained anonymous. Engraving followed the old tradition of woodcuts until around 1850, when clichés were used in the second half of the century. The canard, with its whimsical information and naive drawings, survived until the First World War. During the war, some “trench newspapers”, such as Le Canard enchaîné, took up the spirit of the canard, but it soon established itself as a truly satirical periodical, in a way concluding the epic of the canard.

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