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jacques

Taking a bath was considered a dangerous undertaking in the not so distant past. It was generally believed that, subjected to a prolonged contact with water, body organs would liquefy and therefore a proper rest was needed to restore them to their normal consistency. We all know the good Queen Bess would bathe once a month “whether she needed it or not”. Her contemporary, the French king Henri IV, having summoned his Minister of Finance, and upon learning that the man had just taken a bath, exclaimed: “Then I must go to him for he must not leave his bed!”

Only at the beginning of the 19th century did the idea of taking a regular bath as a part of personal hygiene begin to take shape. It made a slow progress in the upper classes, but the common people remained blissfully dirty.  The appearance in the mid-century of moneyed American tourists and their constant complaints about the lack of hygienic facilities accelerated the pace.

COBBIrvin S. Cobb (1876-1944), the American author, humorist and columnist, was one of the loud critics of European shortcomings in the matter. Having found the British bathroom arrangements lacking in comfort, he endeavored to compare the situation on the Continent. It must be said that none of the countries he visited met with his American standards, but his lashing tongue was especially sharp when describing the French approach to cleanliness:

I can offer no visual proof to back my word, but by other testimony I venture the assertion that when a boulevardier feels the need of a bath he hangs a musk bag round his neck and then, as the saying is, the warmer the sweeter. His companion of the gentle sex apparently has the same idea of performing daily ablutions that a tabby cat has. You recall the tabby-cat system, do you not? Two swipes over the brow with the moistened paw, one forward swipe over each ear, a kind of circular rubbing effect across the face – and call it a day! Drowning must be the most frightful death that a Parisian sidewalk favorite can die. It is not so much the death itself – it is the attendant circumstances.

Across the river, in the older quarters of Paris, there is excitement when anybody on the block takes a bath – not so much excitement as for fire, perhaps, but more than for a funeral. On the eve of the fatal day the news spreads through the district that tomorrow poor Jacques is going to have a bath! A further reprieve has been denied him. He cannot put it off for another month, or even another two weeks. His doom is nigh at hand; there is no hope – none!

On the morrow the condemned man rises early and sees his spiritual adviser. He eats a hearty breakfast, takes an affectionate leave of his family and says he is prepared for the worst. At the appointed hour the tumbrel enters the street, driven by the paid executioner and bearing the dread instrument of punishment, a large oblong tin tub.

The rumble of the heavy wheels over the cobbles seems to wake an agonized chord in every bosom. Today this dread visitation descends upon Jacques, but who can tell—so the neighbors say to themselves—when the same fate may strike some other household now happily unconscious! All along the narrow way sorrow-drooped heads protrude in rows; from every casement dangle whiskers, lank and stringy in sympathy – for in this section every true Frenchman has whiskers, and if by chance he has not his wife has; so that there are whiskers for all.

From the window of the doomed wretch’s apartments a derrick protrudes – a cross arm with a pulley and a rope attached. It bears a grimly significant resemblance to the gallows tree. Under the direction of the presiding functionary the tub is made fast to the tackle and hoisted upwards as pianos and safes are hoisted in American cities. It halts at the open casement. It vanishes within. The whole place resounds with low murmurs of horror and commiseration.

Ah, the poor Jacques – how he must suffer! Hark to that low, sickening thud! ‘Tis the accursed soap dropping from his nerveless grasp. Hist to that sound – like unto a death rattle! It is the water gurgling in the tub. And what means that low, poignant smothered gasp? It is the last convulsive cry of Jacques descending into the depths. All is over! Let us pray!

The tub, emptied but stained, is lowered to the waiting cart. The executioner kisses the citizen who has held his horse for him during his absence and departs; the whole district still hums with ill-supressed excitement. Questions fly from tongue to tongue. Was the victim brave at the last? Was he resigned when the dread moment came? And how is the family bearing up? It is hours before the place settles down again to that calm which will endure for another month, until somebody else takes a bath on a physician’s prescription.

Even in the sanctity of a Paris hotel a bath is more or less a public function unless you lock your door. All sorts of domestic servitors drift in, filled with morbid curiosity to see how a foreigner deports himself when engaged in this strange, barbaric rite. On the occasion of my first bath on French soil, after several of the hired help had thus called on me informally, causing me to cower low in my porcelain retreat, I took advantage of a comparative quiet to rise drippingly and draw the latch. I judged the proprietor would be along next, and I was not dressed for him.

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doggieCharles C. Fulton was one of the American travelers who visited Paris in the second half of the 19th century when overseas travel was made safer and comfortable. Life in Paris provided the Americans with many curiosities worthy of their pen.

Excerpt from Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles (1873) by Charles C. Fulton:

All over Europe the love of dogs among both sexes is remarkable, although they are made to work in Switzerland and some parts of Germany. Here in Paris it is quite common to see a mother dragging her almost infant child by the hand, weary and fretful, and carrying a dog in her arms, which she will occasionally stop to kiss, or dispense of so as to make it more comfortable.

This trait is peculiar to no one class, but all seem to have a strong affection for the dog. To see a lady at her door or window without dog is almost a novelty, whilst many of them carry them in their arms or lead them by a ribbon in the streets. The corners are posted with handbills of hospitals for dogs, where the best medical attendance can be had, and dog-medicines and dog-soaps are placarded in all directions. On the boulevards, at night, the dealers in dogs are constantly perambulating with two or three pups in their arms, and ladies will stop and bargain for them on the public thoroughfare. They teach them all manners of tricks, and they are valued according to the education they have received and the intelligence they display. When they travel they take a nurse with them to attend to the wants and comfort of the dog, and these nurses can be seen in the public squares airing and exercising the dogs, and leading them by the ribbons.

Some idea of the extent of this mania may be obtained from the fact that the dog-tax paid into the city treasury last year was four hundred and twenty thousand francs, or nearly one hundred thousand dollars. The men, also, have their dogs, but not to such a great extent as the ladies. The lap-dog are mostly beautiful little animals, as white as snow, and are kept scrupulously clean, more care being evidently bestowed on them in this respect than many of the children receive from their mothers.

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 Place de l’Opéra

Place de l’Opéra

Charles C. Fulton was one of the incomprehensibly rich American tourists who invaded Paris two years after the twin calamities of the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the Second Empire. In 1871, the city was ruined by Prussian bombardment and the Commune of Paris revolution, both responsible for destroying and damaging many public buildings. It is therefore surprising that Fulton never mentions the wounds Paris had sustained. In the two years that followed, Paris seems to have risen from the ashes to dazzle the foreigners as it did under the reign of Napoleon III.

Excerpt from Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles by Charles C. Fulton.

Paris, August 18, 1873

It is not an easy matter at this late day to write letters from Paris that will interest and instruct. It is a city which everybody is familiar with, it having been so often described, and its attractions and beauties so vividly spread before the general reader that it would almost seem like undertaking to write something new about Baltimore. We have visited it so often, and ridden and walked through its multifarious thoroughfares until all its crooks and turns are as familiar to us as those of any of our leading American cities. Still there is something about Paris that makes it always appear bright, gay, and sparkling to the visitor.

The Parisian does not worship the “dust of ages” or take pride in smoked and begrimed walls as the Londoner does. If he has anything that is handsome he tries to make it handsomer. He is always rubbing, scrubbing, and polishing old things, or tearing them down to make room for something new and more beautiful. The four handsome clusters of gas-lamps in the centre of the Place de l’Opéra are not only kept as bright and elegant as the day they were put up, but the elaborate bronze lamp-posts are polished with as much regularity as the glasses of the lamps. If the slightest defect is observed in one stone in the street, it is relaid or replaced by a new one; and if a flaw in the asphaltum as large as a man’s hand is discovered, a repairing party is at work in a few hours, and the defect removed. Every tenant is held responsible for the cleanliness of the street before his door, and neither dirt nor rubbish of any kind is permitted. As in public matters, so also is those of private concern. They never allow their houses or store fronts to become dull or dingy. They are always arranging and rearranging the goods in their windows and striving to make them more attractive. All these scores of miles of boulevards are planted with sycamore trees. When they plant trees they take good care that they shall have a fair chance to grow, and they are all flourishing beautifully. Around each tree an iron grating, extending three feet each way, is inserted in the pavement, in order that its roots may have breathing-room and water. There are hundreds of thousands of these trees all thus planted, and all tended and watered by the city authorities. If one should happen to die, a tree of similar size is brought to take its place, that the uniformity may be unbroken. These trees are the pride of Paris, and are yearly becoming more serviceable as a shade to the broad sidewalks as well as a grand ornament to the boulevards.

Thus it is that the attractions of Paris are always increasing. No rust or decay is permitted , and old things are swept away as having served their day and generation. Antiquity has no worshipers, and is made to yield to the spirit of improvement. New squares, gardens, and fountains are following the march of improvement in the suburbs, and even in those quarters of the city where the poorer classes mostly reside, these pleasure-grounds are being fitted up as elegantly as in the wealthiest sections. Paris is not beautiful in spots, but every portion of it abounds in attractions.

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Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876

Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1876

I would have a hard time finding the exact source of the following anonymous text, but the writing style points to the early Victorian times. No doubt, the author was one of the American tourists appreciating France’s unabashed joie-de-vivre and the lack of remorse for having good time – a remorse which was so ingrained in the Anglo-Saxon soul:

An American is made for indoors, but a Frenchman’s home is the outside half of his house. It is for the street he sacrifices domestic comfort. He eats and drinks in the street; he reads his newspaper and takes his dram in the street. To appear like ladies or gentlemen in public one day in the week, either sex will economize their personal wants the remaining six to a condition bordering almost on penury, to save sufficient money to hire, if they cannot purchase, the necessary garments. More can be made of a small capital in Paris than in any other city. There is no occasion to buy anything. Whatever is needed of clothing, domestic utensils, or any article whatever, even to a newspaper, can be hired at moderate rates for any period of time.

One of the most striking contrasts between the French and Americans is in their physical appearance. Both sexes of the former look healthy and robust. Their countenances are full and florid, and have an expression of sensual ease and contentment, as if they were on good terms with themselves and the world. They have none of the care-worn, haggard American physiognomy, which gives youth the air of age, and betokens a race in which labor and thought are paramount to all other considerations. On the contrary, the French when old, look young. The pleasures of this life oil the joints of age, so that time slips smoothly by. If any class belie their years it is the children, to whom overdress and physical restraint give an expression of premature gravity or unnatural heaviness. No doubt the outdoor, and “care not for to-morrow,” life of the French, combined with their passion for amusements, has much to do in their fine state of preservation. Something must be put down to their superior toilets. For the English, with perhaps a higher condition of health, look beside them, to use a comprehensive term in the female vocabulary, like frights, or in other words, there is about as much difference of exterior between the two races as between a buffalo and a blood horse. This applies more particularly to the women. I verily believe an English lady to be incorrigible in matters of taste; or else it has become a point of honor with her to make herself as unattractive as possible. If both nations would divide equally their respective pride and vanity, the result would be a decided improvement in each. Add to this composition the go-ahead principle of brother Jonathan, and the world would have a specimen of a race that would soon distance all national competition in the essential points of order, beauty, and energy. For a man whose passions are his slaves, whose sentiments are obedient to his will, whose emotions are made so many sources of epicurean pleasure, who lives only to extract the greatest amount of happiness from the sensual world, regardless of a spiritual life, Paris affords resources which are not to be found elsewhere. It is emphatically the home of the man of the world. All that the head can covet is at his option ; but if he has the faintest suspicion of possessing a heart in which dwells the love of the true and natural, he had better withdraw it from the vortex of Parisian life, before it is sucked in too deep to escape.

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big stomachsThe 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.

To see the French eat one should visit the restaurants of lesser magnitude and fame, particularly of a Sunday, where the rush to dinner, as no one dines that day under his own roof, is absolutely fearful to a lover of a quiet meal. Infants, dogs, and nurses, all have a seat that day, and the amount consumed would indicate considerable preparatory fasting. Eating and drinking, for the moment, becomes the only business of life. The preparations bespeak the seriousness of the operation. A family enters, consisting of father, mother, maiden sister, two children under five years of age, and a dog. All the tables are filled. They turn to go out. The restaurateur rushes forward, intercepts their retreat, and promises a table “toutsuite.” He sees one party have called for their bills, hands them their change, and plumps the new comers into their warm seats, with an array of broken bread, dirty glasses and all the debris of the previous meal before them. Once seated, with bonnets and hats hung up, they are considered as secure as fish fairly hooked. The “garçon,” with a dexterity and rapidity peculiarly his own, whisks away the soiled table-cloth and dishes, and in an instant has replaced them with snow-white linen and porcelain. Now commences the “tug of” eating. Each member of the party, except the dog who gravely occupies his chair, too well-bread to manifest impatience, plants a napkin under his or her chin, of the dimensions of a moderate sized table-cloth. The females pin the extremities to each shoulder, so that in front they have much the appearance of being in their shrouds. The menu card is studied, orders given, and content and pleasure reign. At these family feasts children are literally crammed, indulged with wines and all the delicacies called for by adult taste, their parents delighted in proportion to the quantity they consume. Eating, under almost any circumstances is to a looker-on a vulgar operation. In one of these restaurants it is certainly an amusing one to a veteran traveler, whose sensibilities have long since had their edges blunted. The French from early habit frequently make themselves very much at home at restaurants and cafes, spending their evenings at the latter, reading the journals, and playing chess or dominoes, paying for the same by calling for a bottle of beer or glass of brandy. I have myself seen a woman who had come in by herself, after finishing her repast coolly throw herself back in her chair and proceed to take a comfortable digestive nap, apparently wholly oblivious to the existence and manifold trials of the race denominated “unprotected females.’

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last floorThe 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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Parisian house, January 1st, 1843

Parisian house, January 1st, 1845 – Click Ctrl+ to enlarge

 

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.

The different manner, in which the Anglo-American and the Gaul build their family nests, is pointedly brought home to the former the night of his arrival at Paris. We live in perpendicular strata; they in horizontal. Our houses stand side by side, each like a tub on its own bottom. Theirs, so far as they relate to families, are spread one upon the other, like a pile of gingerbread. With the exception of the principal hotels, and a few recently constructed in the English mode, Parisian houses are arranged after the following fashion. In general, they form a hollow square, allowing a court-yard of sufficient size for a carriage to turn. This shape admits of two ranges of apartments, equivalent in accommodations to houses with us; the one facing the street, the other the court-yard, the kitchen and other conveniences being the two connecting arms. Houses thus constructed accommodate two families on each floor, and are from five to nine stories high. The ground floor is devoted to shops, stables, and he porter’s quarters. It is entered by a huge “porte cochère,” which is always guarded by the family of the concierge, who acts as agent for the proprietors in letting their apartments, and watches all the outgoings and incomings of the mansion. Each range has its wide circular staircase for the gentry, leading as high up as what was once considered the only abode of genius, and another — small, dark, and narrow, like the worm of a ram rod — for the use of domestics. The porter must be on the ” qui vive” at all hours of the twenty-four, to slip back the bolt of the outer door, by means of a string connecting with his office, upon the warning ring or cry, ” Le cordon, s’il vous plait.” Those who enter after midnight, bestow a trifling gratuity upon this Argus, to compensate him for his disturbed slumbers. He replies to all questions relating to his charge, pays postages, receives and distributes all letters and parcels that have owners within his domain, uses your fuel as if it were his own, and is always ready to do the amiable — for a consideration. The floor above the entrance is called the “entresol,” being, as its name indicates, between sun and earth, and it is generally inaccessible to the former, at any season of the year, except in the widest streets or avenues. Being low, it rents low, compared with the floor above, which forms the apartment Number 1, in height, finish, and decoration, and is, consequently, much the dearest. They then progressively decline in price each story, and also in quality, until they terminate under the roof in a series of little chambers, for the servants of the mansion, two or more of these rooms belonging to each apartment. The apartments themselves are of every variety and size, to meet the wants of the diversified positions of the inhabitants of this metropolis. Some are of sufficient grandeur and sumptuousness to rival the interior of the more pretending hotels, while others dwindle to the means of the most economical bachelor or money-saving grisette.

This mode of building has some prominent advantages over ours. Externally the houses are more uniform, of greater size, and being built of a soft gray sandstone, admit of more architectural ornament. They economize also in ground-room and material, consequently in rent. All the rooms of a family being only one floor, much of that stair work of which our ladies complain, is saved. In enumerating these advantages, I have enumerated all, unless it may be considered one to be able to bring together the different branches of a family under one roof. Their disadvantages are more palpable. Each floor having its separate kitchen and drains, contributes its quota to an assemblage of odors, based upon the fragrance of shops or stables beneath, which, in spite of locks and bolts, penetrate with an impartial distribution into every room. This nuisance is not always perceptible, but it is a daily liability; and the plain truth is, that there are few of these gregarious habitations that do not give offense to sensitive nostrils more than once during every twenty-four hours. This fact has doubtless some relation to the enormous consumption of perfumery, which, not infrequently in the street, overpowers all other smells, as the scented individual goes by. Again, no amount of cleanliness in one story can always be proof against a want of neatness in the next. If one family cooks onions, the neighbors above and below are brought into unmistakable cognizance of the fact. If there be a frolic overhead, the family beneath participate in the noise, without the fun.

Next : Looking for an apartment in Paris

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