On the Cover

Monday, January 23, 2012

La Meije, a mountain in the French Alps, towers above a snowscape in this travel poster from the early twentieth century. La Meije was the last major alpine peak to be conquered by climbers. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, members of the elite Alpine Club had tried again and again to reach the summit, publishing accounts of their adventures in the pages of the Alpine Journal. Not until 1877 did mountaineers Emmanuel Boileau de Castelnau and Pierre Gaspard finally ascend the thirteen thousand feet to the Grand Pic.

Enticing images like this poster fostered adventure of a safer sort: the adventure of travel. In a foreshadowing of the explosion in mass-market travel that would come after World War II, tourists began taking to the rails and roads of Europe—and eventually the skies—a century ago with the encouragement of groups like the Tourism Club de France (TCF). Its goal: “to organize France for tourism, to have it be better loved in making better known the sweet land of varied landscapes, situated within an ensemble of marvelous harmony, la Patrie, la mère, alas, still ignored by her own children.”

A 1911 book called The American Woman Abroad urged lone women traveling to France to seek the aid of the TCF in finding modern lodging, receiving discounts, and understanding the lay of the land.

Meanwhile, the Chemins de fer de Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée, the rail line running from Paris to Lyon to the Mediterranean, was expanding. The partnership of the railway and the TCF caused tourism in France to bloom.

The partners established centres du tourisme from which travelers could branch out to surrounding, less-explored destinations, such as the villages of the high Alps. The trains sold tickets that allowed circular voyages with specific destinations determined by the tourism club.

French graphic artist Georges Dorival (1879–1968), who signed his work “Geo Dorival,” was commissioned to advertise La Meije and its nearby winter resort areas just before World War I. His representation of the proud peak evokes the possibility of a rising sun behind the viewer and a new day of climbing and adventure. In fact, the mountain’s name derives from meidjo, or midday in the Provençal language, because the sun would appear above the summit at midday. Villagers and climbers thus used La Meije as an enormous sundial.

The mountain itself was nowhere to go for a leisurely vacation. Men died trying to ascend it. Often climbing without guides, sometimes holding on to icicles for dear life, some, such as the Austrian mountaineer Emil Zsigmondy, plummeted to their deaths. Henry Gale Gotch evoked the thrill and danger in an 1878 Alpine Journal article. Gotch gazed in admiration as “the setting sun shone full on the mighty face of the western peak, making its ruddy rocks glow through the haze of lingering clouds.”

“The assailant of the Meije should be no ordinary man,” he warned. “Above all he should be strong in the power of waiting. For waiting is of mountaineers, as of mean men, the severest test.”

French tourism bode its time during World War I and flourished anew afterward. The Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean line began publishing tourism posters and guidebooks such as Agenda PLM—collections of essays and paintings by renowned authors and artists, travel-diary pages with highlighted destinations, and ads for food and accommodations. In the 1921 edition, La Meije graced the page for January, with an essay about winter sports. Around that time the railroad republished this poster of Dorival’s to revive the prewar excitement for tourism.

Today France is the world’s top tourist destination and no longer needs posters to advertise its wonders.