The Good Life France's podcast

#27 - The Eiffel Tower in a podcast

November 06, 2023 Janine Marsh & Olivier Jauffrit Season 2 Episode 27
#27 - The Eiffel Tower in a podcast
The Good Life France's podcast
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The Good Life France's podcast
#27 - The Eiffel Tower in a podcast
Nov 06, 2023 Season 2 Episode 27
Janine Marsh & Olivier Jauffrit

The Eiffel Tower isn’t just a symbol of Paris, but a symbol of France. But this wasn’t supposed to happen. The Tower shouldn’t even be there. 

We have to go back in time to the beginning of her story, she is known as the Iron Lady, la Dame de Fer in French, to find out why this towering icon is even there in the first place! 

And then we'll share some of the incredible facts about this towering icon, how she was almost sent to Montreal in Canada all 2.5 million rivets and 18,000 pieces! How a conman 'sold' her for scrap. And how Gustave Eiffel made an absolutely fortune from her!

Plus a whole heap more! It’s an amazing story… 

Follow us:

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

The Eiffel Tower isn’t just a symbol of Paris, but a symbol of France. But this wasn’t supposed to happen. The Tower shouldn’t even be there. 

We have to go back in time to the beginning of her story, she is known as the Iron Lady, la Dame de Fer in French, to find out why this towering icon is even there in the first place! 

And then we'll share some of the incredible facts about this towering icon, how she was almost sent to Montreal in Canada all 2.5 million rivets and 18,000 pieces! How a conman 'sold' her for scrap. And how Gustave Eiffel made an absolutely fortune from her!

Plus a whole heap more! It’s an amazing story… 

Follow us:

Thanks for listening!

Podcast 27 - The Eiffel Tower in a podcast

Janine: Bonjour and a very warm welcome to The Good Life France podcast. I’m Janine Marsh, I’m a writer and editor of The Good Life France Magazine and website. Born in London, I now live in the middle of nowhere in Pas-de-Calais, rural northern France. I have a split life – writing and travelling around France for part of it, caring for a a ton of animals the rest of the time. At the moment we have 4 puppies, 8 previously stray cats, one of which is very feral – we call him Rudolf Valentino as he’s black and white, like a black and white film actor! Plus I have chickens, ducks and geese. Occasionally we take in sick animals – last year we had a hedgehog over winter in the house and a dove with a broken wing lived on the windowsill for several months. When I’m not writing, travelling, feeding and cleaning up after animals – I love to share this podcast with you alongside my podcast partner Olivier Jauffrit


Oli: Bonjour, salut, ca va, coucou – they’re all ways to say a great big hello in French to you all, and yes indeed a big welcome to this podcast in which we share with you everything you want to know about France and more. And if there is something you want us to chat about on the podcast – at the end of this episode I’ll give you some details of where to send your questions and requests for topics – we love to hear from you. 


But for now, let’s get chatting about today’s topic - Janine tell us what is on the topic list for today! 


Janine: Something very special today. A world record breaker. An unusual, unique beauty. A towering icon that’s as hard as iron… I am of course talking about the Eiffel Tower in Paris. 


Oli: Ah the Iron Lady, or La Dame de Fer as we French say. Oh yes, she has so many stories to tell… 


Janine: The Eiffel Tower isn’t just a symbol of Paris, but a symbol of France. But this wasn’t supposed to happen. The Tower shouldn’t even be there. But let’s go back to the beginning of her story to find out why she’s even there in the first place! 


At the end of the 1700s fairs began in France known as Expositions des produits de l’Industrie Francaise – an exhibition of French industry and products basically. Fairs where you could buy products from around the world have been held in France and other countries since way back in the Middle Ages. The fairs were held regularly in France until the mid 1800s. Then in 1851 a new type of fair was held in London - the Great Exhibition - which was visited by 6 million people and featured the famous crystal palace. But after mid 1800s, the fairs in France were held only on rare occasions because they simply didn’t make enough of a profit to continue, in fact the fair of 1878 made a horrible loss. But in 1889 it was decided to commemorate the anniversary of the French Revolution starting 1789, with a huge Exposition Universelles, a Universal Exhibition, to be held in Paris from May to November 1889.


Now this caused a problem because several countries weren’t happy to take part in something that celebrated cutting the heads off of kings and queens on account of them having royal families, and for that reason some countries officially boycotted taking part in the exhibitions – including Great Britain, though funnily enough, the British royals did go to the event as visitors. And some British exhibitors used private funding to have stands. 


Now what’s this got to do with the Eiffel Tower you might ask? 


Oli: Well, the organisers of the Exposition Universelle drew up grand plans for a truly spectacular event. They needed to attract millions of visitors to their fair so as not to lose money, and they wanted to improve the French economy by showcasing the skills of French engineers, designers, chefs, artists – everything and anything, as well as products from all around the world – in one of the world’s great cities – Paris. Although it was about the Centenary of the French Revolution, it was also very much for economic reasons, they hoped that French companies would find new customers.


And the organisers wanted to show case something so incredible that people wouldn’t be able to resist seeing it for themselves. They needed what they called a ‘clou’ – a spike, or a hook, basically they wanted a signature structure that would be seen as a symbol of French culture. A competition was announced in 1886 for an architectural design that would make the Paris Exposition irresistible – it required the entrants to submit a design for a tower that was three hundred metres high. More than 700 designs were submitted to the committee…


Janine: Wow, that must have taken a while to judge! 


Oli: Well some of them were easy to discount – for instance there was one which was a 300 metre high watering can which the designer said would be good for hot days.  And there was another that was for a 300-metre guillotine…


Janine: Ooh that’s proper creepy! I don’t think they would have quite the same effect as the Eiffel Tower. Now, a tower for an exposition wasn’t a new idea, in Philadelphia which had held a centennial exposition in 1876, the tower proposition had been discussed but went nowhere. But the idea was out there and known about. Some people even think that Gustave Eiffel may have suggested the idea to the Exposition Universelles committee himself, he was a prominent businessman with a construction company that specialised in building metal bridges, railways, cranes and lifting equipment, so it’s very possible. And some say that he had even begun working on the idea before the contest was announced.


Oli: It was actually two of Eiffel’s engineers who came up with the original concept of an iron tower. They sketched out the tall, metal tower and Gustave bought the exclusive rights to the draft ideas. He then developed the idea to completion.


Janine: On May 12, 1886, Eiffel’s design was announced as the winner of the of the contest. At first he felt it was a bit of a no-win situation. The deal was that he would have to provide most of the money to build it himself, the committee would only provide 1.5m Francs which was less than a quarter of the overall cost. To sweeten the deal the committee agreed that Eiffel would have exclusive rights to keep all income for 20 years created by the tower –from the entry fees and the operation of restaurants and viewing platforms. Eiffel took a risk as he didn’t know if it would be a successful but ultimately it was a brilliant deal for Eiffel. He recuperated his entire input in less than a year and the tower made him a very rich man. 


Oli: But his design wasn’t always popular. When the plans for the towering monument were published, many people complained. Another committee was formed – this time composed of artists and celebrities in France, they called themselves the Committee of 300 and they campaigned to have the tower cancelled. They wrote that it was ‘a ridiculous tall tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black factory smokestack, crushing with its barbaric mass Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the dome of Les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all our humiliated monuments, all our dwarfed architecture, which will be annihilated by Eiffel's hideous fantasy. For twenty years, over the city of Paris still vibrant with the genius of so many centuries, we shall see, spreading out like a blot of ink, the shadow of this disgusting column of bolted tin’.


Janine: Blimey that’s a bit harsh. But Eiffel had the last laugh. The Tower was built. It took two years, two months and five days. 500 workers assembled 18,000 iron pieces and put them together with 2.5 million rivets. The building of the tower was completed on 31 March 1889 though the lifts weren’t complete for around another 2 months. Gustave raised a French flag and announced:


Oli: "I have just experienced a great satisfaction – that of having flown our national flag upon the tallest building man has ever built"


Janine: Eiffel’s monument opened to the public 5 weeks later on 15 May – it formed the entrance arch to the fair – it must have been a jaw dropping sight. 


Right from the start, excuse the pun, a towering success. It opened to the public on 15 May 1889 although the lifts weren’t ready until May 26. The first visitors were the British Royal Family and William F Cody, AKA Buffalo Bill. In the first week, when the lifts weren’t even working, nearly 30,000 people paid to climb to the viewing platform.


It wasn’t cheap to get into the Paris Exposition– it cost 40 centimes, which doesn’t sound much except at that time, you could get a meal for 10 centimes. 


And to climb the Eiffel Tower cost a whopping 5 Francs – a huge amount of money in those days. 

By day people flocked to climb it. By night they flocked to watch it glow. It was one of the first tall structures in the world to have passenger lifts – and tourists absolutely loved them. By the time the exposition was over after 173 days, almost 2 million people had paid their 5 Francs to mount Eiffel’s tower. The views from the top, in the days before air travel, were astonishing. On a clear day, it’s possible to see 42 miles in every direction from the top of the Eiffel Tower. There were four restaurants on the first floor, each seating up to 500 people, they were constantly booked out. You could even buy a mini parachute or balloon and tie a message to it to toss over the side. Eiffel made an absolutely fortune.


Oli: In September 1889 the famous inventor Thomas Edison visited the tower and wrote in the guestbook:

“To Monsieur Eiffel the Engineer the brave builder of so gigantic and original a specimen of modern engineering from one who has the greatest respect and admiration for all Engineers including the Great Engineer the Bon Dieu, Thomas Edison”.


Oli: The fair itself was a resounding success. There were 61,722 official exhibitors, 25,000 of them from outside France including from Argentina, Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand and the United States. The whole fair cost 41.5 million Francs to put on. And they made a profit of 8 million Francs. They were also left with an improved public transport system, their reputation was enhanced – and they had all these amazing buildings created for the fair.  


Janine: But the buildings were only supposed to be there for 20 years – including the Tower. It’s incredible to us now to know that the authorities destroyed almost all of the incredible monuments created for this humongous exposition. Only a few are left – the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais, both now museums and they are extraordinarily wonderful, by the way if you are ever in Paris and want a relaxing cup of tea or coffee, the Petit Palais is free to enter and has the most gorgeous garden café. Anyway, Eiffel was a very clever man. He proposed to the French Military that the tower could host a radio transmitter – and they agreed. So when the 20 years was up, the tower was saved.


Janine: It was the tallest man-made building in the world for the next 41 years until the Chrysler Building in New York took the title.

Nowadays the Eiffel Tower is now 330 metres tall (including antennas, the latest one was put on top last year) - that’s more than three times the height of the Statue of Liberty.

Oli: The tower weighs a whopping 10,100 tonnes.


Janine: The names of 72 French scientists, engineers and mathematicians are permanently affixed to the sides of the tower in 60-centimeter letters just beneath the first platform, with 18 names per side. They were chosen for their discoveries and inventions which Eiffel considered to have increased the frontiers of knowledge – and also because none of them had names more than 12 letters long – which was a necessity to fit into the space he had to place them! 


Oli: Counting from the ground, there are 347 steps to the first level, 674 steps to the second level, and 1,710 steps to the small platform on the top of the tower. Every year there is a contest to run to the top up 1665 stairs, the fastest do it in 10 minutes. 


Janine: I think it would take me a lot longer!


Oli: How about by bike then? Yes There is a man who holds a world record for climbing the tower by bike! He basically locks the brakes and hops up the stairs – the record is 19 minutes!


Janine: Repainting the tower, which happens every seven years, as Gustave Eiffel himself recommended. The old paint has to be scraped off, rust-proof paint applied and then paint – 66 tonnes of paint to cover the 2.5 million square feet of the structure and takes 50 painters up to 3 years to complete because they can only work in the right weather conditions. And it’s painted a different colour each time. Once it was yellow. When it was first created it was ‘Venetian red. The last paint job was finished in November 2022 and it’s called “yellow brown” the same colour it was between 1907 and 1947. The colour is darker at the bottom, it gets lighter as they go up, three different shades which creates an impression of uniformity! 

Oli: The tower has had many different businesses installed – Le Figaro newspaper had an office and printing press on the second floor during the world fair, on the first floor there used to be a post office and a theatre. 

Janine: Here’s a strange fact – in 1925 the Eiffel Tower was almost sold by a conman by the name of Victor Lustig from what is now the Czech Republic. He made a living selling boxes that printed $100 bills. Or at least seemed to. Actually the boxes were filled with counterfeit notes which emerged very slowly, taking about 6 hours to print each one. Apparently people fell for it. Anyway, Victor read in a newspaper that the Eiffel Tower was getting a bit rusty and the government were reluctant to deal with the cost of repairs. And he had an idea to try to sell it pretending that he was working on behalf of the government who wanted to dismantle it but it had to be kept confidential. He had headed paper printed up with a fake company name, and invited the bosses of 5 big salvage companies to the swanky Crillon hotel in Paris and told them they’d been chosen to bid on this important government project. He treated them to lunch, had them driven to the tower, flashed a fake id and gave them a tour. He even picked out a patsy, monsieur Poisson, one of the bosses who was keen to bid but wanted guarantees. Victor told Msr Poisson if he paid him a little bit in advance, he’d make sure that Poisson won the bid. Since bribes were fairly standard with government officials (not going to make a comment there), Poisson agreed and handed over the bribe and the bid advance. Victor scooted off to Vienna with a suitcase of money. Mr Poisson went with his bill of sale to ask when he might begin dismantling the tower and was laughed at. He was so embarrassed he kept quiet. And Victor got away with it. 

Oli: But Victor was greedy. He tried to sell it again. And he got caught. But he managed to escape – he was a bit of a slippery character, and he went to the United States and resumed his counterfeiting activities. The law eventually caught up with him and he was sent to Alcatraz prison, where he even conned Al Capone. 

Janine: It’s said he had a postcard of the Eiffel Tower taped on his cell wall with the words “sold for 100,000 francs” written across it. When Victor died in 1947, his death certificate listed his occupation as “salesman” in tribute to his greatest scam.

Oli: In 1960, then President Charles de Gaulle proposed temporarily dismantling the tower and sending it to Montreal for Expo 67. The plan was rejected which must have made a lot of people breathe a sigh of relief – imagine if they had lost one of the 18,000 metal parts or some of the 2.5 million rivets, or if they lost the plans for how it all goes together! 

Janine If you’ve ever been up the tower in the wind and thought it was moving – you’re probably right. Maximum sway at the top caused by wind is around 12 cm (4.75 inches). Maximum sway at the top caused by metal dilation is up to 18 cm (7 inches).

Oli: The Chamber of Commerce of Monza and Brianza in Italy valued the Eiffel Tower at 434 billion euros in August 2012! Must be much more by now. This apparently makes it Europe’s most valuable commodity.

Janine: Today the Eiffel Tower has takeaway food counters, and two restaurants - one is on the first floor and one on the second floor called the Jules Verne after the French writer – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 180 Days. It’s very posh, expensive, and it’s loved by celebrities. Jennifer Aniston, Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Arnold Schwarzenegger – they’ve all dined there. Not together of course – I’m not trying to start any rumours here! There’s also a gift shop, a macaron bar and a Champagne Bar. And at the top you can visit a reconstruction of Gustave Eiffel’s apartment which he used for meetings with VIPS and as a laboratory to study astronomy, meteorology, aerodynamics etc. In 1909 Eiffel installed an aerodynamic wind tunnel at the base of the tower. It was used for thousands of tests including the Wright Brothers airplanes and Porsche cars!  

Oli: At night Madame Eiffel sparkles. 20,000 bulbs twinkle for 5 minutes on the hour. It’s very lovely to see – and if you’re up the tower when it sparkles, the second floor is the best place to be. And the tower brings out the romantic in some people – in fact it’s estimated that there are around 20 marriage proposals a day, between 7000 and 10000 marriage proposals every year up the Eiffel Tower or in the Trocadero, the area below. The Tower is one of the top ten places in the world for asking your loved one to marry you! Actually, there is even a woman who was married TO the Eiffel Tower in a commitment ceremony in 2007 though they have since parted.

Janine: Around 7 million people a year visit the tower, and that’s how it’s a record breaker - it is the world’s most visited, paid monument. I wonder what Eiffel would say if he knew that more than 300 million people had now visited the tower? 

Oli: Zut alors – that’s what he would say! Like “By Jove” in French! 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this Eiffel Tower episode! 

But now it’s time for a reader’s question.

Oli: In every episode of this podcast, we answer one of your questions – and we don’t mind what you ask us! Let’s find out what today’s question is. 

 Janine: Well Oli, we’ve had a question in from Kim Bryant who lives in Kentucky, USA. She wants to know “I’m coming to France for the first time to spend Christmas in Paris and I’m so excited – but I want to know is it true that in France you don’t tip the servers in restaurants?”


Oli over to you for that one – do we tip servers in restaurants in France? 


Oli: Well In France, service is included as part of the bill at restaurants and cafés, so - strictly speaking - it is not necessary to add a bit extra. However, it is a matter of personal choice and you are free to do so. If you’re paying by card and you want to tip, you just tell the server how much you’d like to add on.


Janine: I have to say, I usually do, as it’s customary in the UK where I’m from so it just seems so normal, it’s a habit – and I always do cash, it seems so much more personal to me to give cash and say thank you as I do. But I definitely don’t tip if I’m not that impressed.


And we have time for just one more question –– Pastor David Knotts of Pennsylvania says with Halloween just round the corner – how do you say ‘Boo’ in French?!  


Oli: Hou !


Oli: Thanks so much for those questions Kim and Pastor David. If you also have a question for us – feel free to send it to or via our podcast newsletter.

Thank you, a huge merci beaucoup, to everyone for listening to our podcast from all around the world! And an enormous thank you for sharing the podcast with your friends and family, we’re truly grateful when you do that. 


And before we go – I just want to say congratulations on your new book Janine! Yes Janine has written her 4th book – it’s called How to be French and it’s a celebration of the French way of life, art de vivre, gastronomy, fashion and everything French! If you love France – you will love Janine’s book! 


Janine: Thank you so much Oli, I’m blushing! 


Oli: You’ve been listening to Janine Marsh and me Olivier Jauffrit. You can find me at 


Janine: And you can find me  and heaps of information about France – where to visit, culture, history, recipes – everything France - at where you can subscribe to the podcast, my weekly newsletter about France and our totally brilliant, totally free magazine at 


But for now, it’s au revoir from me.


Olivier: And goodbye from me.


Janine: Speak to you soon! 

The Eiffel Tower
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