Bébé Cadum is just over a hundred years old and after a long absence, recently made a reappearance in the streets of Paris where once it was a ubiquitous presence. It made a powerful impression on the writer Joseph Roth, who in 1925 commented thus.
Over the rooftops of Paris there is a smiling baby colossus of rude health. It is there to promote, to advertise, a soap whose appalling effects it represents in exaggerated form. This huge disembodied baby, whose mouth is fifty feet across, and whose round, vacant eyes perhaps ten, is attached to walls and fences. It’s a robust monster – a smile today but a grin tomorrow – a sporty infant with a football for a face, the image of the coming man.*
It’s impossible to improve on this description – Roth has identified the sinister radiance that this hideously inflated infant bestows on the populace in the streets below. Not only does its scale remind the consumer that it’s a tiny pawn in a very big game but the ambiguous and over-confident expression is deeply unsettling. This is the countenance of a dictator-in-waiting.
Bébé Cadum’s presence in French life climaxed in the 1930s in the great age of outdoor advertising and vintage postcards from the period recorded how the Bébé triumphed over its competitors, outperforming them at every major street intersection. The examples here come from Place de Clichy in Paris and the Canebière in Marseille.
* Extract from The White Cities, Reports From France 1925-39, Granta Books 2004