Joan DeJean by Candace diCarlo (3)Joan DeJean is Trustee Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Joan DeJean is the author of nine books on French literature, history, and material culture, including most recently The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began and The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. She lives in Philadelphia and, when in Paris, on the street where the number 4 bus began service on July 5, 1662.

Paris has been known for its grand boulevards, magnificent river views, and endless shopping for longer than one might think. While Baron Haussmann is usually credited as being the architect of the Paris we know today, with his major redevelopment of the city in the 19th century, Joan DeJean reveals that the Parisian model for urban space was in fact invented two centuries earlier. In her new book, HOW PARIS BECAME PARIS: The Invention of the Modern City (March 4, 2014; Bloomsbury hardcover), DeJean uncovers that the first full design for the French capital was implemented in the 17th century, and with her characteristic verve and careful research fully brings to life a city in the midst of reinvention.

How Paris Became ParisWith new kinds of residential architecture and unprecedented urban infrastructure, this vibrant century ushered in a new model for urban space and life, a blueprint for all great cities to come. Now designed to grab visitors’ attention, the modern city became oriented to the future rather than the past, with speed and movement as its hallmarks. Using 17th-century maps and images, DeJean walks readers step by step through the creation of such iconic Parisian monuments as the Ile Saint-Louis and the Marais district to show just how innovative these urban planners were. For more information about Joan DeJean, visit: (Bloomsbury)(Purchase)(Excerpt from How Paris Became Paris)

Portrait photo: Candace diCarlo

“Illuminating… Dejean obviously knows and loves Paris, and she provides coherent history that effectively explains the evolution of a city built by a few prescient men.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[An] engaging history of the growth of Paris into a modern city.”—Booklist

“Although 19th-century Baron Haussmann often receives credit for Paris’s iconic features, this witty and engaging work shows that it was the 17th-century Bourbon monarchs who first transformed Paris into the prototype of the modern city that would inspire the world… With panache and examples from primary sources, guidebooks, maps, and paintings, she illustrates how Paris changed people’s conception of a city’s potential.”—Publishers Weekly


In exactly a century, Paris transformed itself. During the 1600s, the first modern bridge, a new model for streets, and the first public parks and recreational spaces all came into existence. Travel guides were written for tourists, shopping for luxury goods became a pastime, street lighting was considered necessary, citizens rode omnibuses, and walking the city became fashionable.

“Every capital has a poem in which it expresses itself, sums itself up, and is most fully itself,” Balzac concluded. “No other city has anything comparable to the Boulevards of Paris.”

Excerpt: Joan DeJean’s “How Paris Became Paris” – Capital of the Universe (excerpt), published on A Woman’s Paris®.

AWP: Why is now the right time to publish your book, How Paris Became Paris? Did you feel a need to share a particular time and place in the style of today?

JD: I can only hope it’s the right time. One never knows! I wanted to publish this material because I felt the need to set the historical record straight. There is simply not enough emphasis on the city Paris became over the course of the 17th century and on the role played by certain individuals, particularly Louis XIV, in this transformation.

AWP: Were you on a quest to uncover the dramatically new social trajectories and aesthetics of the urban space in Paris at the beginning of the 17th century

JD: I was digging and uncovering material for years. I think I only realize what is coming out of that when I’m finally writing up my research, and that is always rather late in the process. For How Paris Became Paris, for example, I became fully aware of how different the life of a woman in 17th-century Paris was from that of a woman in contemporary London or Amsterdam only when the chapters started to pile up. That was one of the biggest surprises of my research for me. Women truly began to live a life we would now recognize only in Paris and only in the course of the 17th century.

AWP: You entrench your work in a different part of Paris’ past, taking stock of the scene and mapping the transformation of a new type of city. What challenges did you encounter, and how did you unfold the story you wanted to tell?

JD: The challenges? The biggest one was getting hold of the material. It’s not always easy to do research in French institutions. Sometimes I feel that archivists there are determined to keep the material in their care out of the hands of researchers. I often spend as much time getting access to material as I do working on it. The Internet helps somewhat, but in general French institutions are very slow to scan material and make it available online.

AWP: Each chapter covers a different model for urban space—residential architecture, urban infrastructure, the first modern bridge, model for streets, public parks and recreational spaces—such different iconic features. Why did you decide to write about them together? 

JD: I felt that it was only by putting the parts of the city’s infrastructure together that a full picture could be painted. Squares, bridges, streets—each was important. Together, they added up to a completely new model for the city.

AWP: Tell us about the research for How Paris Became Paris. What were the challenges, and how did you unfold the story you wanted to share?

JD: The first challenge was simply getting access to material. Next came the problem of finding the kind of details that I rely on. I feel a sense of responsibility: I have to tell the stories of individuals from the 17th century in a way that will make them memorable for readers today. So I constantly reread documents to try to find telling details, something that might stick in a reader’s mind.

AWP: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Paris?

JD: Without a doubt that was the story of the boulevard—the decision in 1669 to tear down the fortifications that had shut Paris off from the world for centuries and to replace them with a beautiful thoroughfare designed to help Parisians both get around in the city and to enjoy the city. When you see the boulevard on the 17th-century maps I show in How Paris Became Paris you see what I mean!

AWP: When you started writing How Paris Became Paris, did you have a sense of what you wanted to do differently from other authors whose work you had seen?

JD: Above all I wanted to keep the emphasis on the 17th-century city. I also wanted to use material of different kinds—visual material (maps, engravings, paintings); histories from the period (letters, memoirs)—and to blend these various historical and archival strands together as best I could to try to tell the story not only of how the city changed but of the impact that that change had on the lives of those who lived through it. I wanted as much as possible to give a sense of what it might have been to be a Parisian at the time—what plays they might have seen, what paintings they could have looked at, where they might have walked and shopped, when and with whom. I even wanted to give a sense of the new words they would have been conscious of hearing and using for the first time.

AWP: What makes Paris such an incomparably wonderful city to visit?

JD: It remains what it became in the 17th century: a great walking city. You can visit so much of Paris on foot, and in a single walk you can take in so many different things. Guidebook authors began to point this out in the 1680s; How Paris Became Paris opens on this idea.

AWP: Which iconic feature or urban space offers a perfect snap shot of modern Paris?

JD: That depends on what you mean by modern Paris—do you mean Paris today? I think one could say that the banks of the Seine have remained characteristic of Paris across the centuries. They have changed but retained a quite distinct and identifiable character. For example, “Paris plage,” the beach set up every summer by the river, seems so much a part of Paris today. But I have an image in my book that shows the first Parisian beach in the mid-17th century. That kind of relaxation has been associated with the Seine since the 17th century.

AWP: In your research of travel guides written for tourists, that were designed to grab visitors’ attention, what kind traveler did one find in the 17th century? In Baron Haussmann’s 19th century? What kind of traveler does one find today?

JD: We can’t know exactly who the travelers were in the 17th century, for the most part at least.  Some travelers left accounts of their visits to Paris; I rely on all of those to evoke the city then. So I quote and describe all known visitors. Each guidebook gives the image of the visitor that it saw as its ideal reader—Italian or English, for example; interested in the arts or in fine food; someone who liked to walk, and so forth.

AWP: More than any other historic figure behind the transformation of Paris, who best knew how to unlock the emotional content of a modern city oriented to the future?

JD: The artists, often anonymous, who painted the wonderful canvases that depict the monuments and the street life of 17th-century Paris. I use a number of them to illustrate How Paris Became Paris.

AWP: Is there one particular cultural, social or aesthetic attribute that has remained constant throughout the history of modern Paris from the 17th century?

JD: Paris has always been a green city—a city known for its parks and square and its walking places with fantastic views.

AWP: Iconic Paris: are there 10 quintessentially public spaces that Parisians love best?

JD: I could never speak for all Parisians! Who would? People from different neighborhoods live the city so differently. Here are few that would probably turn up on all lists: the Place des Vosges; all the great bridges over the Seine; the Île Saint-Louis, Notre-Dame Cathedral; the quais or embankments along the Seine.


AWP: At times you intimately describe the selling of dreams—the dream of shaking one’s past and starting afresh, the notion that if you bought the right clothes and wore them correctly, people might indeed look at you in a new way—its ebb and flow, its grasp. How do you unfold this story of transformation?

JD: There are so many accounts of different kinds of life in 17th-century Paris: periodicals and newspapers, correspondences, memoirs, even political pamphlets. If I kept running into the same story in many accounts of many different kinds, I felt that so much smoke had to mean fire!

AWP: You have great insights into human nature and the sublime experience of social connectivity; a theme that runs throughout your book. What is the most surprising thing you learned about Parisians?

JD: I assume you mean Parisians in the 17th century. I’d say how open they were to social and gender mixing. Great aristocrats in particular chose NOT to remain removed from the urban crowd in their carriages; they often stepped down and went for walks in public places. Contemporaries remarked that this simply did not happen in other European capitals.

AWP: In Paris, you spend time with family and friends and you visit alone. How do you make visiting Paris alone into a pleasant experience? Is there a story behind your first time?

JD: I first visited Paris so long ago that I can’t really remember! And I don’t think of myself as visiting anymore. I have a particular kind of life, so I wouldn’t generalize from my experience. Research and writing are at the center of my daily life in Paris. I’m not really visiting—unless I’m  showing friends around, that is.


AWP: What inspired you toward a life and career so dependent on scholarship and the ability to communicate?

JD: I love to do research. I realize that this is totally crazy in some way, but I am very happy to spend the better part of the day in a library or an archive. You never know what you’ll turn up!

AWP: Your books, The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began and The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour have had a huge impact on Francophiles, travelers and expatriates living in France. What do you think it is about your books that make readers connect in such a powerful way?

JD: I’m very happy to hear this; it’s not something I would have guessed, and I’ve truly not heard this before. Since no one has talked to me about this impact, it’s hard for me to guess what particular element or elements in my books inspired it!

AWP: You have great wit and an engaging style. What inspired you to write these books?

JD: I have enormous devotion to Paris and to French culture. I’m not always sure that the French are proud of their history, so I decided it was time to try to tell some of the stories I had been collecting for decades.

AWP: Could you talk about your process as a writer?

JD: I’m an academic so I’ve always done research and published it. And I’ve always done archival research, so this means that I’ve always done a particular kind of writing. Extensive research is essential for me; only once that is done can I begin finding the voice I need for a book.

AWP: How did your interest in France unfold?

JD: I grew up in a French family, in a largely French-speaking community in Louisiana. My French heritage was all around me. I chose to become a specialist of 17th- and 18th-century France because those were the centuries that provided the foundation for the world in which I grew up.

AWP: Have you become a “little bit” French?

JD: I’m no more and no less French than I was growing up—often in fact I think I’m less French today than I was in my family in Louisiana. But then most of the French I know well are probably less “French” than they were a few decades ago. Look at how meals have changed, at how family life has changed!

AWP: Describe your own “Paris.”

JD: I live my daily life mostly in the Marais; I walk to “work”—the National Archives, several libraries and Carnavalet. I shop on the walk home. So for me Paris remains a walking city and a city in which the 17th and 18th centuries are still alive.

AWP: Tell us something we don’t know about Paris—its style, food, culture or travel.

JD: I had so many surprises when I was researching How Paris Became Paris—I learned things about Paris that, even after all these years of working on the city, I had never heard before. I hope that some of them will be interesting for your readers as well.

AWP: Your life is extraordinary. What’s next?

JD: I am working on a new project, the history of a family of embroiderers working first for the court at Versailles and then in Paris, beginning in the late 17th century. It’s early days, but I’ve never before found this much material about a family.


The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual—and the Modern Home Began (2010)

The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour (2006)

Literary Fortifications: Rousseau, Laclos, Sade (1984)

Tender Geographies: Women and the Origins of the Novel in France (Gender and Culture) (1993)

Ancients against Moderns: Culture Wars and the Making of a Fin de Siecle (1997)

Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937 (Women in Culture and Society) (1989)

The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex, Lies, and Tabloids in Early Modern France (2002)

Libertine Strategies: Freedom and the Novel in Seventeenth-Century France (1981)

Acknowledgement: Iona Davidson, student of French and Italian at the University of Oxford, England, and English editor for A Woman’s Paris. 

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post Joan De’Jean’s “How Paris Became Paris” – Capital of the Univers (excerpt). How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by acclaimed author Joan DeJean. Paris has been known for its grand boulevards, magnificent river views, and endless shopping for longer than one might think. While Baron Haussmann is usually credited as being the architect of the Paris we know today, with his major redevelopment of the city in the 19th century, Joan DeJean reveals that the Parisian model for urban space was in fact invented two centuries earlier. Joan is the author of nine books on French literature, history, and material culture, including most recently The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual and the Modern Home Began and The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour.

French Impressions: Barbara Will on Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the intellectual life during wartime France. From 1941 to 1943, Jewish American writer and avant-garde icon Gertrude Stein translated for an American audience thirty-two speeches in which Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of state for the collaborationist Vichy government, outlined the Vichy policy barring Jews and other “foreign elements” from the public sphere while calling for France to reconcile with its Nazi occupiers. In her book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, Barbara Will outlines the formative powers of this relationship, treating their interaction as a case study of intellectual life during wartime France. 

French Impressions: The Angels of Paris: an artistic tour with Rosemary Flannery (part one). Rosemary Flannery’s Angels of Paris: An Architectural Tour through the History of Paris delves into the artistic trends and historic movements that the angels reflect and the stories of the artists who created them and those who commissioned them.

French Impressions: Marilyn Yalom’s “How the French Invented Love” a tradition of courtly and romantic love that reaches back into the 12th century. Marilyn Yalom’s latest book, How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance, shares condensed readings from French literary works—from the Middle Ages to the present—and the memories of her experiences in France. The French have always assumed that love is embedded in the flesh and that women are no less passionate than men. 

French Impressions: W. Scott Haine on the origins of Simone de Beauvoir’s café life and the entry of France into WWII. “Café archives” seldom exist in any archive or museum, and library subject catalogs skim the surface. Scott Haine, who is part of a generation that is the first to explore systematically the social life of cafés and drinking establishments, takes us from the study of 18th century Parisian working class taverns to modern day cafés. A rich field because the café has for so long been so integral to French life. 

French Impressions: Dr. Alan T. Marty on the dark history of the City of Light. Alan T. Marty, MD, armed with an historically-informed exploratory spirit, has often encountered Paris’ endless capacity to evoke a mood, to surprise with similar absent/present paradoxes, as detailed in his A Walking Guide to Occupied Paris: The Germans and Their Collaborators, a book-in-progress. His work has been acknowledged in Paris dans le Collaboration by Cecile Desprairies, Hal Vaughan’s book Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War; and referenced in Ronald Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark, and in an upcoming book about Occupied Paris by Tilar Mazzeo.

French Impressions: Alice Kaplan – the Paris years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, on the process of transformation. Author and professor of French at Yale University, Ms. Kaplan discusses her new book, Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, and the process of transformation. By entering into the lives of three important American women who studied in France, we learn how their year in France changed them and how they changed the world because of it. (French

A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre

We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)

Text copyright ©2014 Joan DeJean. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.