This is another, equally well cared-for aspect of tourism in the Meuse. On the roads which cross the département, there are many picturesque and interesting constructions. They have served the everyday life of the people, and still do today. They are entitled to a full place in the heritage of the Meuse. Washhouses, fountains and bridges: these historic places take you back in time through the local architecture. They recall a recent past; they are the product of local craftsmanship; they are well worth taking time out to investigate. They blend stone, wood, and metal from the early Lorraine steelworks, as the washhouses, for example, show. The variety in the methods of water supply (using running water or capturing rainwater), the ornamentation with its old-fashioned style, and the comfort facilities available to the washerwomen all add to the attraction of what is there to be discovered. All this is full of life and fires the imagination. The many fountains built across the département confirm this. You will find Neptune at Andernay, Caryatids at Lacroix-sur-Meuse, an Egyptian god at Mauvages, a life-sized ox at Villotte-devant-Louppy. The villages of the Meuse are full of such unexpected and whimsical discoveries that are so attractive and add to their picturesque quality. And don't miss the stone bridges of the valley of the Saulx either, especially those at Bazincourt, Haironville (twelve arches protected by a cross) and Rupt-aux-Nonains (twelve arches protected by a cross raised in the centre).
The 18th and 19th centuries were marked by a number of epidemics, often caused by the bad quality of the water. Without wells, at times a drinking trough on the "usoir" (front yards on the street) was used for everything. Drinking water was drawn from there, clothes were washed there, and people and animals all used it indiscriminately. All this encouraged the spread of disease. That is why in 1789, after municipalities were created, the State became aware of the overwhelming need for legislation to establish standards of public hygiene. The elected representatives of the nation decided "that towns and villages must guarantee conditions for good health, and they are responsible for providing the necessary facilities". This was a major political gesture, showing that the State considered all its citizens to be of equal worth, even in the depths of the most rural areas. During the 19th century, other laws were brought in to complete these measures.
Over the years, mayors became keen to provide the necessary facilities for the wellbeing of their communities. This was how they fulfilled their role as politicians: doing good work while adding to the heritage of the nation.
The Washhouse in the urban landscape
The washhouse combined its utilitarian role with the expression of a national policy, and the local municipality was the last, local link in the chain. The citizens all benefited from progress in science (hygiene), technology (capturing rainwater, construction) and comfort, thanks to political will.
In the villages of the Meuse where houses were close together, wherever possible, the washhouse was given a central position. Its architecture was often showy, and it became a fundamental link in the urban landscape. In communities that were more spread out, the water captured was used to feed the fountains. In the different areas of the community, they were seen as so many reminders of the washhouse itself, and carry a similar symbolic value.
The washhouse, the woman's domain
Away from the men, the washerwomen chatted at their ease and felt free. Everything was debated, from the most general subjects to the most private secrets.
But it was not always necessary to speak. Dirt on a sheet or tears in a garment bluntly revealed the realities of life: the washhouse was the public stage on which these accounts were offered up for all to see. Rivalries and jealousies were fed from comments about the laundry: fabric too sumptuously embroidered, material worn and patched, different kinds of dirt on a garment, all had a story of happenings to tell for those who could decipher them.
Who better than another washerwoman could interpret these signs? No lies, no evasion was possible. The malicious gossip flowed, quarrels abounded, fed by a vocabulary arising from the circumstances. The prattling of washerwomen was notoriously vulgar. It was not unusual for quarrels to degenerate into physical fights where the washing-bat took on another function! But the washhouse was above all a place of suffering: kneeling in the damp, the woman would beat, brush and soap for hours on end.
Doing the laundry was a real test of strength which brought on cramp, aches and pains, chilblains and chapped hands, among other afflictions.
Inevitable meeting places, fountains were constructed above all to make life easier for the inhabitants by bringing water into the middle of the villages.
To this function was added another: to provide the village with something which embellished it. It was these different functions that led to the diversity of construction in fountains, some more monumental than others. Free-standing fountains are built on a central distribution block flowing into a circular or polygonal basin that one could walk around. They needed a lot of space. They were part of the work of town planning and the creation of squares in villages from the end of the 18th century (examples: Void, Boviolles, Montmédy, etc).
Fountains built against a wall are characterised by their distribution block being built against or as part of a wall or a building, particularly a washhouse.
Decoration in most fountains built against a wall was concentrated on the stone niche or the construction where water was drawn. The ornamentation was directly inspired by archaeological discoveries, more especially domestic temples at Pompeii and certain Roman funeral monuments. A single pediment, in the centre, crowns the niched constructions to draw the water, such as that of the fountain at Brixey aux Chanoines constructed by MERDIER in 1847, or the washhouse at Laneuville-au-Rupt, built by LEROUGE in 1817.