Paul Lesieur -A database for studying the public roads departement of the Préfecture de la Seine(19th-20th centuries)

Paul Lesieur, Université Gustave Eiffel


Data access on Nakala:

Archival description on AtoM
Archival City, “FR-AD75/PER232-PER232ter[varia]. Administrative yearbooks for the City of Paris and the Seine Department”, ArchivalCity_RG_0016:


The database presented here provides an account of the internal organisation of the Service de la Voie publique (SVP) of the Préfecture de la Seine between 1850 and 1980. It is a potentially useful tool for any researcher interested in the transformation and management of public space in the capital in the 19th and 20th century, making it easier to navigate through the catalogues of archive collections relating to roads. On the other hand, any urban worksite, street furniture and occupation of public space required the approval and supervision of the engineers from the SVP. Consequently, any researcher working on the history of Paris may come into contact with the staff of this technical service in its archives. The database is thus helpful to find out about an agent’s specific unit and his function within it.

Key-words: Paris, 19th-20th century, urban management,  technical services, public roads


The database we are presenting here was produced in the framework of PhD research on Parisian roads, their material evolution during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the conditions of their maintenance[1]. For a capital city such as Paris, its urban services show early investment in technical services. During the 18th century the first technical service was set up to pave the streets. During the 19th century it became the Service de la Voie publique (SVP) when urban requirements obliged the Seine prefecture to manage other technical services, the water supply and plantations. All these services were grouped in the Direction des Travaux (DT) which became especially important with the Haussmann project.

As part of our PhD research, we are mainly studying the archive collections of the SVP. However, for the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the archives were managed by the DT. In 1930 it made a considerable deposit of 8,000 boxes and thousands of registers. They concerned all the technical services, not only the SVP. From 1930 to 1970, this collection was sorted, classified and refined by the archivist. Part of it, such as building permits, forms another collection. The remainder results on the VONC series[2]. This collection gathers many documents essential for understanding how the service works.

Nevertheless, the catalogue of this series is complex to read, as Figure 1 illustrates. The boxes bring together documents that may have little to do with each other, and which may come from different services. Moreover, the variation in administrative terminology used to designate departments (office, section, division, etc.) makes it even more difficult to navigate inside the catalogs. This is why it is important to reconstruct the various organizational charts of the SVP and the DT in order to carry out this research in the best possible conditions. These organization charts make up the database presented here.

Figure 1-Extract from the catalogue reference VONC in the Archives de Paris

The names of identified departments have been highlighted in orange. Box VONC 152, highlighted in green, contains, according to the catalogue, documents from the 1st division, as well as others from the former 2nd division.

In order to reconstruct the organization charts, we have based our work on an analysis of the administrative yearbooks published under the title Organisation et Attributions des Services (OAS) between 1885 and 1980. These documents were produced by the Seine prefecture and are kept in the municipal archives of Paris. They set out the organization of the entire Seine prefecture. They describe the entire administration of Greater Paris. The government of Paris was assigned to the Seine prefecture, which, in addition to its usual duties, also held the office of Mayor, shared with the Police prefecture of Paris. The yearbooks list not only the administrative services that make up the Seine prefecture, but also their managers. Our database includes all the information contained in these documents. Our aim goes beyond simply reconstructing the organizational chart, to highlight what this data tells us about how the administration functioned. In addition to the names of the departments and staff, it included the mission and location of the departments, as well as the positions and honours held by the staff.

Our database and this data paper are therefore aimed at demonstrating the relevance of analyzing this source. We have concentrated on the Public Roads department, but a more global project is underway as part of the Archival City program and the Greater Paris project. This involves reconstructing the organizational charts for the entire Seine prefecture.

The data base described in this paper has been renamed ACP01_PL and , referring to tables xlxs and csv stored in the open access collection Archival City Paris on the Nakala platform (where AC stands for Archival City; P for Greater Paris; 01 indicates the data set on the Public roads department).

The source

The OAS directories are a description of the Seine prefecture administration by itself. As a capital city, Paris is endowed with a specific system of government. Until 1975, policy was implemented by the prefect appointed by the State government. Since 1844, the Recueil des actes administratifs de la prefecture de la Seine[3] (RAA) have brought together the texts of decrees and administrative orders affecting the Seine department. It is produced by the Seine prefecture.

The purpose of the document is to provide publicity, particularly for the citizens. The organization of the prefecture was presented from the very first issue of this compilation . It takes the form of an ordered list updated each year, which shows the names, missions and the staff of its administrative services.

However, this is not the first description of the internal structure of the prefecture. The Almanach-Bottin du commerce de Paris [from 1798] and the Annuaire général [from 1838], brought together in 1857 under the title Annuaire-Bottin, already provided a description of it as it did of each French ministry. The administrative yearbooks replicate the list form of these early documents, but offer greater reliability in the information provided, as they are primary sources produced by the administration itself.

From 1885 onwards, the part describing the administration was published separately from the rest of the RAA, under the title mentioned earlier: OAS. As a result, the digitization of the RAA available on Gallica[4] does not allow us to go beyond 1885. As part of the Archival City program, the OAS has been digitized. This work greatly facilitates the processing of these documents used to build our database which extends to the early 1980s. However, the series is sadly incomplete. There are many gaps, as shown in Table 1. This explains the lacunae in the database. Some have been filled using the Annuaires-Bottin mentioned above. In this case, the Annuaire-Bottin entry is present on the spreadsheet, in the first cell in the top left-hand corner, where the source is noted.

Table 1 Number of numbers in the database and the proportion of the period represented.

Period Number of recovered and digitized copies
1885-1920 17/36 (≈50%)
1921-1940 6/20 (≈30%)
1941-1968 15/28 (≈50%)
1968-1980 6/13 (50%)

Each change of period corresponds to a reform of the administration. The first two reforms followed the world wars, which had a major impact on urban policies. The 1968 reform corresponded to the territorial reorganization of the Paris region, with the abolition of the Seine department. It can be seen that it was during the inter-war period that the series suffered from the largest number of gaps. Otherwise, the series covers approximately half of the years.

Our database covers the period 1850-1980. To compile it, we used the RAA for the three first decades, then the OAS, supplemented by the Annuaires-Bottins from 1880[5].

The data

In the document

The yearbook lists both the administrative departments that make up the backbone of the organization and the staff who ran it. Figure 2 and Figure 3 illustrate the content of the OAS for the DT and the SVP office respectively. They show the nature of the data contained in the yearbooks.

Figure 2. Extraction of personnel data from administrative directories. OAS, 1885, p. 32.

For each official in the administration deemed appropriate for inclusion in the directory, the document shows their surname and sometimes their first name (in blue), their honors (in yellow), their title and position in the Prefecture (in orange), and finally their address (in green). Several names are sometimes attached to an administrative entity. Here Alphand is the famous Director of Works, and Huet his deputy, who succeeded him on his death in 1891.

Figure 3 Extraction of service data from administrative directories. Source: OAS, 1885, p. 33.

This is the 4th office of the DT. It contains information about the head of the office, Ernest de Beauvoir, his name, position and address. The name of the office is in dark blue, giving information about its remit (public roads, promenades, lighting). The more complete mission is shown in yellow.

The yearbook identifies each administrative unit by its name (in blue-grey in Figure 3). It is used to identify the department’s role and/or place in the prefectoral hierarchy. Sometimes the name is not very evocative and is supplemented by the office’s mission (in yellow in Figure 3), i.e. the set of responsibilities for which it is responsible. This mission is presented in the form of a detailed list. This list can be used to identify the department responsible for a particular function.

Between the name and the mission, the staff heading the department is detailed. In addition to the name, which is sometimes accompanied by the employee’s first name, the yearbook lists the employee’s position within the department, their personal rank and any honors they may have received. The function corresponds to the staff member’s role in the Paris prefectoral hierarchy. The assistants are placed below the head of each service. The rank is associated with the person in addition to their function. This refers, for example, to the position of engineers within the civil engineering corps: the Ponts et chaussées. For example, in Figure 2 Alphand is inspecteur général des Ponts et chaussées, the highest rank. Honors include the medals awarded to each individual (Légion d’honneur, Officier de l’Instruction publique, Officier de l’Académie, Mérite agricole, Croix de guerre, etc.). From 1941, however, they are no longer mentioned in the yearbook. A radical reform of the DT was implemented that year, leading to typological changes in the document.

One of the aims of the yearbook is to enable citizens and officials to contact any prefectoral service. This is why their addresses are also given. However, before 1930, the addresses given were only the staff’s personal addresses. Then, the office addresses appeared, and finally after 1941 all the addresses disappeared. This explains why there are two “address” entries in the database, one for departments and the other for staff.

The order of mention to each service and agents provides their hierarchical position inside the prefectural administration. The senior officer is naturally the first mentioned, followed by his assistant(s)[6], then other positions which have been deemed relevant (controller, inspector). The same logic applies to the services. The divisions of the DT are placed just below, and under each of them the offices attached to them (see Figure 4 and Figure 5). Finally, the typeface also contributes to the hierarchical representation, as can be seen in the typefaces used to designate a department (Figure 2) or one of its offices (Figure 3). This is how we can reconstruct a coherent organization chart of the prefectural administration.

In the database

The database offers a limited description of the prefectural administration. We focus solely on urban road issues. Within the yearbook, we have identified the administrative entities involved. The DT is made up, on the one hand, of administrative offices, which transmit the orders from the senior officer, and on the other hand, of operational services, which carry out these orders. This division applies to all the technical services, including SVP. Thus, we have endeavored to collect information concerning the operational services, and all the administrative offices of the DT. This is why the database is restricted to these two areas. Before the reform in 1941, the administrative offices were mentioned before the active services. After this year, both were gathered within the SVP.

The spreadsheet must be read from top to bottom. Each category from the previous section makes up the database, with the exception of the mission[7]. For this research on the SVP, we are not interested in this level of detail. It would have taken too long to collect. A distinction is made between the administrative units, on the left of the spreadsheet, and the agents of these services, on the right. It therefore consists of two linked tables. Each line corresponds to a different entity (service or agent). The list of agents working in one service is placed in the lines that follow, until the description is complete. Then  the following service appears. The hierarchical level is indicated only for the administrative units, not the agent. The DT is always at level n=1. Each decrement reflects the subordination of the service concerned to the one above it. For example, in Figure 4, the 1er Bureau is subordinate to the 1ère Division, itself under the direct responsibility of the Works Department. Each increment indicates a change of branch in the organization chart. Figure 5 shows another representation of the table, in the form of an organization chart, which is easier to read. For the agents, the hierarchical level within a service is more difficult to assess. That  is why we have chosen to leave it blank.

Figure 4 Screenshot of the database for the year 1885.

The colors have been added to the spreadsheet for this paper to make it easier to read. The orange lines represent the departments, and the green lines the agents. The top left-hand corner shows the source of the information and the year. The spreadsheet must be read from top to bottom. The lead department has been identified at the hierarchical level N=1. Source: OAS, 1885.

Figure 5 Representation in form of organization chart of Figure 4.

This representation has been reconstructed for this paper from the spreadsheet shown above. We proceed from top to bottom. When the hierarchical level increases, the service is placed below in this tree-representation. When it decreases, we open up a new branch. If it is the same number, the services are placed at the same level in the hierarchy. We have only represented a small part of the offices of the DT.

Research perspectives

This database is a potentially useful tool for any researcher interested in the transformation and management of public space in the capital between 1850 and 1980. On the one hand, it provides an account of the internal organisation of the SVP, making it easier to navigate through the catalogues of archive collections relating to roads (see Figure 1). On the other hand, any urban worksite, street furniture and occupation of public space requires the approval and supervision of the engineers from the SVP. Consequently, any researcher working on the history of Paris may come into contact with the staff of this technical service in its archives. The database is thus helpful to find out about an agent’s specific unit and his function within it.

As we have mentioned on several occasions, this database will be considerably extended by the reconstitution of the entire prefectural administration organization chart as part of the Archival City program. The construction and use of this initial database allows us to identify the benefits of such an approach for the research community.

First, it is an essential tool to understand how the archives of the Seine prefecture are classified. By including the service mission, the yearbook allows historians to identify the prefectural departments whose archives provide the sources they need. It is therefore a considerable help in building up a research corpus, without omitting any archive, and over a longer period of time. The organization of the Seine prefecture has varied considerably, the changes ranging from minor administrative reorganizations to major reforms. Examining the structural evolution of the administration may lead researchers to consult other collections. Several missions have been transferred from one service to another. This database will enable a genealogical study within the Seine prefecture. Finally, it can also be used to identify the various entities, services or agents, who worked on the subject.

This database can also be used as a model for other similar databases. We mentioned the Annuaires-Bottins, in which the departments of each ministry are listed. The nature of the information contained in the OAS and this yearbook is the same. The categories used here are therefore entirely transposable. We can also mention the Annales des ponts et chaussées, whose “Décrets et lois” section also provides a description of its administration. The organization of the other prefectures can also be the subject of the same work, based on the RAA for each of them in particular.

Finally, the database is a formidable tool for conducting serial analyses of Parisian administrative history. Studying the evolution of organization charts sheds light on the changes that occurred to administrative structure, and enables us to assess the scale of each change. It is thus possible to identify moments of major reform, as well as periods of stability.

In addition, one of the specific features of the Parisian administration, which is still relevant today, is the diversity of the tasks undertaken and the large number of staff required to run the urban services. This offers significant career prospects within the Seine Prefecture itself, and in particular for its managers. The database makes it possible, to some extent, to track the progress of these agents within the prefectural structure. This study of careers gives another view of the hierarchies between each service, by observing, for instance, from which department each director comes.

This prosopographical analysis can also be carried out at departmental level. Rather than following the career of an individual employee, the aim is to collect the names of successive heads of a chosen department. The presence of the same staff within a service is a mark of stability. On the other hand, frequent changes signal times of uncertainty and could be moments of innovation in administrative practices. When, over a short period, these changes were frequent for a given department, we need to ask ourselves what the consequences were for the way the service operated.

Lastly, the addresses of the agents and departments are an opportunity for the historian. It makes it possible to reconstruct the administrative geography of the Seine prefecture. Over the entire period, we can locate the most important departments, as well as the smaller offices. This study shows the policies of centralization and territorialization of services pursued by the Seine Prefecture from the mid-19th century onwards. These phenomena helped to increase the efficiency of services, especially bearing in mind that before the advent of the telephone, communications were highly dependent on the distances separating officials. From this point of view, spatial studies are an essential component in the analysis of administrative action.

Let us conclude by mentioning the relevance of a contribution by various historians of Paris in order to gain a better understanding of the conditions under which administrative yearbooks were produced. These documents do not, of course, include all the people who worked daily to ensure the smooth running of the prefectural administration. They act as a filter, listing only what the editors considered to be worth. At various points, the degree of precision of the information provided abruptly changes. For example, many services that were absent from the 1940 directory appeared after 1941. This coincided with a reform of the whole Parisian administration, prepared a few years previously. However, we have found mentions to these services prior to this year. Thus, 1941 is not the year of their creation. This reminds us that the yearbook is not a purely objective descriptive document, but depends on the views of its editors and the expectations of its readers. To study each of these two elements, the contribution of other researchers, specialists in different areas of prefectural administration, is necessary. It should be remembered that while historians are accustomed to examining and analyzing a part of this huge administration, in the eyes of the prefect and the governing bodies, it must be as coherent as possible. The OAS is a tool for achieving this cohesion. It is by defining the relationships of subordination between services that the yearbook harmonizes the entire prefectural organization. The document thus has a prescriptive value. This is a highly fertile area of research for urban history, but one that requires the support of other researchers. The creation and publication of this extended database should provide the means to do this, while also initiating the collective work sought by the Archival City teams in charge of this field.

[1] Paul Lesieur, “Voie publique. Une histoire de la maintenance viaire à Paris entre 1850 et 1920”, under the direction of Loïc Vadelorge and Sabine Barles, Université Gustave-Eiffel, PhD thesis in progress.

[2] VONC means VO Non Coté (Unlisted). It consists of the rest of the large deposit after refining.

[3] Collections of administrative acts of the Seine Prefecture.

[4] Recueil des actes administratifs de la préfecture de la Seine, 1844-1942, [online],;2

[5] It was from 1880 onwards that the data of the Annuaire-Bottins could be considered sufficiently reliable. Naturally, we have made comparisons with the OAS for several years.

[6] Until the late 20th century, the administrative decision-making positions were occupied only by men.

[7] The extensive database currently being compiled by the Archival City teams will nevertheless include this data.

Citer ce billet
Annalaura Turiano (2023, 27 septembre). Paul Lesieur -A database for studying the public roads departement of the Préfecture de la Seine(19th-20th centuries). Archival City. Consulté le 13 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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