The following text was written by James Jackson Jarves (1818–1888). This American newspaper editor and art critic visited Paris in the early 1850’s and published his impressions in Parisian Sights and French Principles, seen through American spectacles (1852). His humor and the clarity of his writing vividly portray the living conditions in mid-century Paris.
In a city where revolutions have become as periodical and necessary as measles, chicken-pox, and the whooping-cough to childhood, this species of architectural communism is very far from being a social one. No one knows his neighbor. There is no door-plate on the several landings, to satisfy curiosity as to who is to be found within. Somehow or other, the occupants never seem to meet on the common stairway. Of the seven families beside my own that occupied No. — of Rue de Foix six months, I knew nothing except that one was English, and another Russian. I could not have distinguished a single member of them all from a casual visitor. It is said that two friends lived for a year in the same house without being aware of the fact, until they accidentally met in the street, and inquired each other’s address.
The apartments usually taken by strangers, for limited periods, are let furnished with every necessary for housekeeping, except linen and silver, which are hired separately. Inventories are taken on entering and leaving; the lodger being responsible for all damage, other than ordinary wear and tear. These inventories embrace a list of existing damages, including grease and other spots on carpets, table-cloths, cracks or fractures in the glass or porcelain, all minutely detailed, as well as injuries to the furniture, &c. If any are added, they are to be paid for according to the tariff of the landlord, which is not of the most liberal character.
French kitchens are more like a ship’s caboose in size, than the domains of an American cook. What room there is, is mainly occupied by numerous little grates, raised upon a brick platform, and adapted in size to the various copper, “casseroles,” or saucepans, so necessary for the preparation of the indispensable “entremets,” of French cookery. A Yankee cook would be as much at a loss in one of these kitchens, as she would over a locomotive. One half of the ingenuities of our American furnishing warehouses would be equally as inexplicable to a French housekeeper. A good broom is not to be found in Paris. Carpets have been introduced into the apartments rented to English and Americans, but the French make but comparatively little use of them, preferring the waxed oak floors, which are cooler and cleaner, but require no little care, at first, for a stranger to preserve his equilibrium. The French use much less fuel than we, warming themselves more by extra clothing and foot-muffs, than by fires.
The search for apartments, which to a novice is a matter of amusement, soon becomes a fatiguing and embarrassing employment. He is ushered without ceremony into any which are taken for a short time, without regard to the convenience of the occupiers; led through disordered bedrooms, unarranged cabinets, and ushered into all the privacy of family matters, lucky for his and their modesty, if among the scattered articles of toilet, he does not pounce upon some fair one in matitutinal dishabille. At first, I hesitated upon these domestic thresholds, but the unceremonious “Enter, Sir,” soon convinced me that the right of the landlord to exhibit his apartments was superior to any considerations of delicacy. It was amusing to contrast the coolness and indifference with which French tenants underwent this scrutiny, often saying a word in favor of the lodgings or landlord, and always frankly courteous; whereas, with English or Americans, one was evidently looked upon as an intruder into their temporary castles, from room to room of which the ladies — like quails seeking cover — dodged about, to avoid meeting a man more frightened than they were themselves. Investigations in the unoccupied apartments are of course pursued under more favorable auspices. But, to believe the assiduous porters, there was not one that had a single fault, or wanted a single comfort, or even luxury. All of any pretensions had just been vacated by Russian princesses, or English “milords.” One proprietor, after a pompous eulogium on the merits of a spacious apartment, whose faded gilt furniture and tawdry splendor, seemed to have descended untouched and almost undusted, from the days of Louis XV., said, as a climax, “The Princess has just been to look at them, and was perfectly charmed; she wished to take them at once.” “Pray why did you not secure so noble a tenant?” ” Because she could not deposit the-required security for rent,” was the reply. Having just seen in the paper the arrest by the police of a Greek prince, for forgery, I came to the conclusion that the title “prince” was no better security for contracts or morals in Europe, than “colonel,” in the United States.
After ascending and descending, in the course of a month, perhaps a thousand pair of slippery stairs, and repeating the same questions, the lodging hunter growing desperate, affixes his signature to a paper, promising to pay from 100 f. to 1200 f. per month, in advance. In consideration of this sum, he finds himself, in one case out of two, in the possession of an apartment, in the inventory of which no mention had been made of smoky chimneys, and various facilities for the circulation of cold air, or odors which savor not of Araby the Blest, but which have now become his heritage for the period stipulated in the contract.
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