Old Maps of France: Exploring a Rich History

Old Maps of France: Exploring a Rich History

France is a country steeped in history and culture. One of the best ways to delve into its past is through the study of antique maps. In the 19th century, France underwent significant changes, both politically and geographically. One of the most interesting aspects of this era is the creation of departments, administrative divisions that are still in use today.

In this blog post, we will take a journey back in time to explore the first 10 departments of France through the lens of beautifully preserved 19th-century maps. These maps are not only pieces of art but also invaluable tools for understanding the historical, cultural and geographical evolution of this fascinating country.

Click on the images to buy each map.

1. The 19th Century: A Time of Transformation

The 19th century was a period of immense change for France. The French Revolution, which began in 1789, had already laid the groundwork for a new administrative structure. In 1800, the revolutionary government introduced the concept of departments as a way to break down the centralized power of the monarchy. These administrative regions were designed to promote equality and efficiency in governance. With the establishment of the Consulate and, later, the Napoleonic Empire, these departments became a permanent fixture in France's administrative landscape.

All French schoolchildren are required to learn by heart the names and capitals of each of those 101 departments. That process is easily one of the most prominents memories of my own school days!

They are identified by their number in the alphabetical order... except for those that aren't, because as with everything French, there are always many exceptions to every rule. 

2. The First 10 Departments

The initial set of departments, created in 1790, consisted of 83 divisions. France was divided into more departments during the course of the 19th century, but in this blog post, we'll focus on numers 01 to 10, which includes some of the most historically significant areas in the country. The capital city for each is given in brackets.

** 01 - Ain (Bourg-en-Bresse)**

Located in the eastern part of France, the Ain is known for its diverse landscapes, including the Jura Mountains and the Rhône River. It was a critical region for the silk industry in the 19th century.

** 02 Aisne (Laon)**

Aisne map

Situated in the northern part of the country, Aisne played a vital role during both World Wars. It is home to several historical battlefields. As with many other French départements, it was named after a river which runs through it.
Other notable towns are Soissons and Guise, both famous names in French history.

** 03 Allier (Moulins)**

1892 Allier map

Located in the Auvergne region, Allier is known for its picturesque countryside, charming towns, and the mighty Allier River. If you know your French waters, you've no doubt heard of the town of Vichy, which has a a famous brand of mineral water. 

** 04 Alpes-de-Haute-Provence / Basses Alpes (Dignes-les-Bains)**

Basse Alpes map

Nestled in the southeastern part of France, on the Italian border, this department boasts stunning natural beauty, including the Verdon Gorges and lavender fields.
It is now called Alpes de Haute Provence but was  called Basses Alpes until. 1970. Manosque, Sisteron or Forcalquier are among its notable towns. 

** 05 Hautes-Alpes (Gap)**

 1892 Hautes Alpes map

Another department in the southeastern part of the country, the Hautes-Alpes is famous for its dramatic mountain scenery and outdoor recreational activities. The main towns are Gap and Briançon, an area loved by trekkers for its magnificent mountain trails. The map mentions the site of La Grave, a mythical slope among ski free-riders.

** 06 - Alpes-Maritimes (Nice)**

 Alpes maritimes map

Home to the glamorous French Riviera or Côte Azure in French, this department is celebrated for its stunning Mediterranean coastline, luxury resorts, and cultural richness.

** 07 - Ardèche (Privas)**

 1892 Ardeche map

Located in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, Ardèche is known for its beautiful gorges, including the famous Ardèche Gorge. It is bordered on the East by the Rhône river. The capital is the town of Privas.

** 08 - Ardennes (Charleville-Mézières)**

 1892 Ardennes map

Situated in the northern part of France, the Ardennes is renowned for its dense forests, historic towns and the Meuse River. The name of the department comes from the remnants of a mountain chain, now the plateau des Ardennes, irrigated by the Meuse river. Many WW1 and WW2 battles took place in this area.

** 09 - Ariège (Foix)**

 1892 ariege map

Found in the southwestern part of the country, the Ariège is celebrated for its rugged terrain, including the Pyrenees Mountains. It includes the town of Tarascon, well known thanks to French literature.

** 10 - Aube (Troyes)**

1892 Aube map

Located in the Grand Est region, Aube is famous for its champagne vineyards and the charming city of Troyes. The name of the department comes from the river Aube, which translates to Dawn. Isn't that poetic?

3. Exploring the Maps

Old maps serve as time capsules, offering a unique glimpse into the past. These 19th-century maps of the first 10 departments of France provide a detailed visual representation of the region at that time. Each department's unique characteristics, topography, and historical landmarks are beautifully illustrated, offering a window into the past.

Take the mountain areas for instance. The major ski resorts were all created during the 20th century so unless they were named after existing villages, they don't usually appear on these 1892 maps. Isn't it fascinating? 

4. Historical Significance

These maps are more than just decorative pieces. They are valuable historical documents that shed light on France's transformation during the 19th century. Each department has its own story to tell, from its role in the industrial revolution to its contributions to the arts and sciences.

For example, Aisne, with its strategic location, played a pivotal role in both World Wars. The maps of this region can offer insights into the battles that took place there and the enduring impact of those conflicts on the landscape.

Ariège, nestled in the Pyrenees, is a treasure trove of natural beauty. These maps can help you trace the evolution of the region's tourism industry and its emergence as a destination for outdoors enthusiasts.

5. Cultural and Geographical Insights

The cultural diversity and geographic richness of these first 10 departments are striking. From the lush vineyards of Aube, which produce some of the world's finest champagne, to the picturesque landscapes of Allier, these maps allow you to explore the unique character of each region.

For instance, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and Alpes-Maritimes, both located in the southeast, offer a glimpse into the allure of the French Riviera. These maps can take you on a journey along the stunning Mediterranean coastline, showcasing the cities and towns that have drawn artists, writers, and travelers for centuries.

Plus you can now play the favorite game of travelling children in France, which is to identify the departments neighbouring cars come from as the numbers are written on every licence plate.

6. An Artistic Journey

The 19th-century maps of France are not just historical documents; they are works of art. The attention to detail, the artistic flair in the cartography, and the use of vibrant colors make these maps visually captivating. They are a testament to the craftsmanship of the cartographers of that era, so much so that the publisher included on each map not only the name of the engraving company but also the name of the person who personally engraved each of those little treasures.

These maps can serve as unique and aesthetically pleasing decor in your home, office or study. They are conversation pieces that can ignite discussions about history, geography, and the beauty of France.

7. A Treasure for Collectors

If you're a collector of antique maps, these 19th-century maps of the first 10 departments of France are a must-have. They are not only collectibles but also mementos, to remind you of every significant trip you took in those beautiful regions.

The scarcity of maps from this era makes them even more desirable among collectors. Owning a piece of history, in the form of a well-preserved antique map, is a gratifying experience for any map enthusiast.

Exploring the first 10 departments of France through 19th-century maps is like taking a step back in time. These maps provide a unique perspective on the historical, cultural, and geographical evolution of this fascinating country. They are not only valuable historical documents but also exquisite pieces of art.

Whether you're a history enthusiast, a collector, or simply someone who appreciates the beauty of antique maps, these 19th-century maps of France are a treasure waiting to be discovered. They offer a tangible connection to the past and a deeper understanding of the rich tapestry of France's history and culture. So, embark on this historical and artistic journey through the first 10 departments of France, and let these maps transport you to a bygone era of exploration and discovery.


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