Towering high above the Paris skyline, La Tour Eiffel is one of the most recognizable monuments in the world and one of the most popular things to see in Paris. An engineering marvel, it speaks to me for other reasons though. As a U.S. historian who generally looks at issues of labor and gender during the fin de siècle, I spend a lot of time thinking about the late 19th century and industrialism. This is why I couldn’t wait to visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris last summer. Since I can remember I dreamed of visiting Paris, then the dream got pushed to the back of mind. I fell in love with ancient ruins in Rome, archeological sites in Ephesus, the Acropolis in Athens. For a while the Eiffel Tower just seemed too new; I thought that it was cliche…overdone…too touristy–until I taught a class in Chicago on the 1893 World’s Fair.
Gustave Eiffel had awed the world with his design for a tower to dominate the landscape of the Universal Exposition in Paris. As I researched the 1893 Columbian Exposition, I realized the magnitude of the Tower’s importance. This structure had changed the game when it came to world fairs. When it was produced for the 1889 World’s Fair it was the most magnificent structural achievement of the time. And Chicago had to beat it in 1893–so a guy named Ferris designed a wheel, but that’s a story for another day. Back to Paris.
As I walked along the pebble-strewn walkway along the Champ de Mars, the Tower loomed large. My heart started to beat a little faster and my legs started moving quickly. I was in the presence of man-made greatness. As I drew near, my thoughts were not with Gustave Eiffel though—they were with all the workers who risked life and limb to build a tower that they thought was going to be torn down after the fair. Don’t get me wrong, I respect Eiffel. He was a man who seemed to care about the safety of his workers, which is more than I can say about most of the capitalists of that day. But it was the workers who built this magnificent structure–it was their tower.
The Eiffel Tower ended up touching me profoundly. I felt such pride in my working-class lineage knowing that it was my kind of people who have created such beauty. After over 30 years of not caring if I ever saw the Eiffel Tower, I can’t wait to see it again. It stands tall as a symbol of the era of history that I love. All I can say is: J’aime la tour Eiffel.
Location: Champs de Mars, 5 Avenue Anatole (7th arrondissement)