In which you understand why your paper pad has a drawing of a hot-air ballon on the cover…

I must have been no more than 8 or 9 when I spent a few weeks at my best friend’s family holiday home in Varagnes. I had heard much about it before but somehow that year, for the first and one time, I joined the crazy clan there. My friend Natalia was the youngest of that unruly bunch, then came Alexandre and her elder –quite dramatic– sisters Laurence and Ileana. Their father was Romanian, hence the names, their mother was partly English, maybe Irish I’m not too sure, but she was also the descendant of a mighty family of French inventors and entrepreneurs, the Seguins, successful in textiles, paper, gas-lighting, coal mines, construction… they even had a railroad company and a bridge construction business! Marc Seguin, father of the tubular steam-engine boiler and the suspension bridge system bought Varagnes from his family and proceeded to turn it, perhaps not into chateau, but at least into an elegant residence complete with church (seating 300!), observatory, library, painting studio and a few other more original contraptions such as the famous “bain de mer” in which you could swim in salted water whilst huge rotating blades imprinted a wave movement… Those were the times!

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 5.34.16 PMThat stay remains in my memory as one of pure terror and sheer bliss… The terror was The Witch who lived on the other side of the biggish pond. She was endowed in our young people’s lore (amplified to the max by the elders) with each and every power and, as was intended, she totally, but I MEAN totally, terrified me. Poor woman! Poor us! Was there ever anything beyond a very dirty woman living in a run-down abode? The bliss was the orangerie in which orange trees which should not have been brought under this climate in the first place –and in a previous, more affluent, incarnation would have at least been rolled out in their wooden planter boxes to enjoy the sun every summer– had not. But when there’s a will… so these resilient ones, not receiving any more the care they deserved, pushed their constrained roots through the wood of their boxes to the floor of the orangerie and then through the tiles, the foundations and into the true earth below and… survived! The result was a most magical, if eerie, indoor forest tableau. Above it, to the left if I remember well, was the laboratory. For all intents and purposes –dust aside– it looked like the Montgolfier brothers had it left for a ballooning trip but never returned! There was a world of test tubes and microscopes, of strange things floating in vials, of unfinished and exciting business. Of course we spent hours that summer playing Scientist, mixing the most weird (and probably highly toxic) compounds then pretending to look onto glass plates searching for results and… knowing what we were doing!

In retrospect how sad to have been given a glimpse of so much and to remember so little. BUT, wonders of wonders (and on some days I could just kiss on the mouth the guy who invented the internet) TA DAH… what have I literally just found a minute ago? I will not say “exactly as I remember it” but can hardly believe fragments of such an old memory is brought back to me.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 5.40.11 PM
The lab at Varagnes (participants unnamed)

The story of how Marc Seguin bought Varagnes from his father in law and hence thereafter there were two homes, Varagnes le Haut belonging to the Seguins and Varagnes le Bas to the de Montgolfier is a bit convoluted to tell. But in its understanding is where the confusion I made was revealed to me….

One very hot spring day, a couple of years ago, your very own Mona Lisa, driving per chance more or less that way, decided she could not wait anymore but had to revisit her childhood memories. She had found out you see that it had been turned by Canson into a Paper Museum! Memory lane and blog… double bill!

Apart from the witch, the lab and the orangerie, I rack my brains on my way there but no other recollection of the place comes up. As I proceed down a rather sharp downhill track towards the house-turned-museum, I find it a bit odd though that nothing at all clicks or triggers me –especially this rather intrepid and, I would think, quite memorable little creek on the left. During the guided tour, same, no aha moment whatsoever. Had it not been for a most educated bookseller who explains to me as I linger in the little shop (paper, books about paper… earthly delight!) that I probably remember Varagnes le Haut and not this place, I would have left the place thinking my memories most unreliable. Finally then I come to understand I had been playing precocious –never confirmed by later occurrences!– scientist not in the de Montgolfier’s lab but in Marc Seguin’s. Somehow the confusion, not mine for sure as either would have done just as well for me in those days, probably goes back a long way.


Personal stuff put aside, the museum is truly a little jewel. Not only does it trace back for you the long history of paper made here but there are dozens of heavy duty machines which pulped the rag, then molded, dried and stretched the paper, plus contraptions of all kind for you to admire: folding machines to make envelopes, ruling machines to make school or music paper, a antique five colour process to make playing cards, and on… where there’s a will… there’s a mill!

Back to the Montgolfiers though –and I do hope you are in the mood for a little bit more history– it is said, but of course 12th century sources are slightly unreliable, that Jean Montgolfier whilst a prisoner in Damascus during the crusades learnt how to make paper and brought this secret back to Europe where they had not discovered the process and were still making parchement from animal hides. What is more certain is that in 1557 a  paper mill was founded in Vidalon on the border of the Deume. The river’s water would help propel the machines of course but, more importantly,  it’s exceptional purity would produce the desired result: a very white paper. In 1689 Antoine Chelles, originally from Bordeaux and then owner, accepted as apprentices in his mill two young men, sons of another paper miller in Bordeaux, Jean Montgolfier. Paper and love must go well together because soon enough they married his daughters and from then on the history of paper here is synonymous with the Montgolfier family.


Born into this enterprising family, generations of Montgolfiers came up with inventions and discoveries of their own. Pierre discovered some more sophisticated machines to replace the old rag mallets pounding ones, Joseph discovered Prussian blue and with his brother Etienne invented the first hot air ballon. This ballon, made of paper from the mill of course, was tested on the grounds in 1781 then, in its first official flight in front of the whole town, launched the aviation industry quite officially the next year in nearby Annonay… it seems not much these days perhaps but, Icarus aside, these balloonists were the very first people to have a Google map preview. Their own trees, fields, homes seen from above, how exhilarating it must have all been!

The first flight

When Etienne died, one of his daughters’ husband, Barthélémy Barou de la Lombardière de Canson, takes on the reins of the paper mill. At first Montgolfier et Canson the firm soon becomes Canson et Montgolfier and later simply Canson (what’s in a name!)

IMG_1001They will go on to invent so many machines and so many types of paper I will need another post (or two) to share them all but at least now you know why the logo of Canson is a hot air ballon… a design you can still see in many of their filigranes (from the latin filum, thread and granum, grain), a word translated very explicitly in English as watermark. Both words describing different aspects of the same process, wet pulp resting on a mesh to drip getting imprinted in its core, the grain of paper, by a metallic thread.

Armoiries des Manufactures Royales Montgolfier

PS: Luck or not (you choose) just a few years before the revolution in 1783 Louis XVI impressed both by the ballon and the paper ennobled the family –thereafter de Montgolfier– and elevated their mill to a Manufacture Royale. Their coat of arms, red and gold for the colours of Annonay, proudly displays both paper and ballon. Whilst the device they chose for themselves Ite per Orbem, Travel the World, talks of their ambitions and explains why –probably not delivered by airmail these days– your pad with the logo has found its way into your creative hands!

Stacks of pad in the Canson factory in Melbourne (Australia)

Musée des Papeteries Canson et Montgolfier, Rue de Vidalon, 07430 Davézieux, France

Telephone: +33 4 75 69 89 20

In the mood for sharing above with colleagues, students, friends?
Please do so… I’ll take it as a compliment!

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Edith Ferns says:

    Another extraordinary tale mingled so beautifully with history and told in your impeccable style. Thank you so much for transporting us briefly to a fascinating world we could never have glimpsed.

  2. Fascinating reading – thank you Sabine!

  3. Maritza says:

    Thank you Sabine for taking us on a fascinating journey. Whenever I see the balloon on the Canson pads, I’ll remember your story.

  4. Thank you all it’s my pleasure to tell these little stories behind the bigger names…

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