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Archive for the ‘local customs’ Category

 

balconyF. Hervé, and Englishman visiting France in the early 1840’s, has this to say – in his long-winded way - about the strong family attachments in the mid-19th century France:

 

For the sympathies of the heart I have found the French females most keenly alive, no mothers can be more devotedly attached to their children than they are, and it is repaid to them with interest by their offspring, as a devotional affection towards parents is carried to an extreme; in some instances I should say to a fault, as a daughter in general looks up entirely to them, in regard to the man that they may choose with whom she is to pass the rest of her life, without presuming that she ought to make a selection for herself, considering that her marriage is the affair of her parents, and that she has but to obey their wishes in that, as well as in all other cases; hence it is rarely found that a French young lady has thought of romance in her composition, but is on the contrary the mild, docile, obedient, and affectionate pupil, and often imitator of her mother. The English young lady is a little more rebellious; possessing a more independent spirit, she very soon takes the liberty of thinking for herself, particularly on that subject; and could she totally have her will would act for herself also.

Families are much more united in France than in England, and agree together in a most astonishing manner; thus when a daughter marries, instead of quitting her home, the husband arranges his affairs so as to go and live with her parents, and in many cases several families live together and form one little community, which spares the pain of separation of parent and child. The numerous offspring of the celebrated Marquis de Lafayette was a remarkable instance of how whole families can live and agree under the same roof; at his seat called La Grange, his married children and their children and grandchildren were all residing together, whilst he, like one of the ancient patriarchs, was the revered head of his people. I know a case at Boulogne, where in one house there are living together, two great grandfathers, one grandfather and grandmother, two fathers and two mothers and their four children, and what renders it more curious is that they are half English and half French, but all connected by their sons and daughters intermarrying; but strange to say that the English could not agree to live together in that manner, and it is a most extraordinary circumstance much remarked by the French, that wherever the English are settled in any town in France, they always contrive to quarrel with each other, and find employment for the French lawyers; at Boulogne they have at least twice as much practice for the English as for the natives.

Related posts:

Parisians in 1842: The working class

Parisians in 1842: The middle class

Parisians in 1842: The upper class

 

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etrennes

In France, Christmas is called Noël. Noël means la bonne nouvelle or “the good news”. Of the visible signs of Christmas in the 19th century Paris, the Christmas tree was not a common sight, but no home was without a crèche, the Nativity scene.
On Christmas Eve, children left their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts from Pere Noel. Adults received no gifts until the New Year’s Étrennes.

The Christmas log is now symbolized by “la bûche de Noël”, the unavoidable festive dessert

The Christmas log is now symbolized by “la bûche de Noël”, the unavoidable festive dessert

Evergreens, such as ivy and mistletoe, decorated the mantel piece and the dinner table readied for Le Réveillon, the after Midnight Mass feast. That’s right: the French have to wait until after midnight to celebrate Christmas with food. What food and how much of it (lots!) is described in The Réveillon: Christmas the French Way.

A Joyeux Noël to all!

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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.’

Related posts:

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869 – Part 4: Restaurants and Cafés

Food – Not so good

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1840

 

The following text, published in 1842, offers an interesting look at the mid-19th century Frenchwoman and, surprisingly, at the French esteem of quietness:

A stranger would not appreciate the degree of praise which is contained in the word quiet when used by the French, who appear to consider it as comprising all the cardinal virtues; when seeking a house or apartments, if you say anything favourable or unfavourable of them, they never fail to remind you that they are so quiet. The same eulogy they will pronounce on their daughters with peculiar pride and energy, when they wish to extol them to the skies, and in good truth their demoiselles are quiet enough in all conscience, for it requires often a considerable degree of ingenuity to extract from them more than monosyllables. We have been accustomed to consider the French as a restless, capricious, volatile people, and so I suppose they might have been formerly, but now they are undoubtedly the reverse, being a quiet routine plodding sort of people, particularly as regards the provincials; and even amongst the Parisians there are thousands that reside in one quarter of the city, which they seldom quit, never approaching what they consider the gay portion of Paris, but live amongst each other, visiting only within their own circle, consisting almost entirely of their relations and family connexions.

The women consider, even down to a housemaid, that their sex demands a certain tone of deference, however humble their position, and if a nobleman did not touch his hat to them when they open or shut the door for them, with the usual salutation of good day or good morning, they would pronounce his manners brutal, and say, that although he was a man of title he was not a gentleman; hence the very unceremonious manner that an Englishman has of addressing servants, whether male or female, has kept them very much out of favour with that class of the French community. A scullion, or what may be termed a girl of all work, that has not met with that degree of respect from some of our countrymen to which she considered herself entitled, will remark, that the English may be very rich, but they certainly are not enlightened as we are, with a little drawing up of the head, implying their consciousness of superiority over us semi-barbarians; your charwoman, your washerwoman’s drudge, fish woman, or girl that cries turf about the streets, are all Madame and Mademoiselle when they speak of each other, and with them there is no such word as woman; if a female, she must be a lady, even if her occupation be to pick up rags in the street.

Source:

HOW TO ENJOY PARIS IN 1842,

INTENDED TO SERVE AS A

COMPANION AND MONITOR

Indicating all that is useful and interesting

IN THE FRENCH METROPOLIS,

Containing

HISTORICAL, POLITICAL, COMMERCIAL, ARTISTICAL, THEATRICAL AND STATISTICAL INFORMATION.

AS ALSO A DESCRIPTION

Of the manners and customs of the Parisians of the present day;

WITH INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE STRANGER.

In Respect to Economy, and Advice to his general proceedings with the French.

By F. Hervé

Author of A Residence in Turkey and Greece, etc, etc.

 

 Related post: Mending their manners

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LeRéveillon by Edmund Morin (1824-1882)

Le Réveillon by Edmund Morin (1824-1882)

The Réveillon is a night-long feast that celebrates the birth of Christ. It starts after the midnight mass in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. Thankfully, I experienced the French Réveillon only once. When children are involved – hungry, tired, over excited and cranky children – the celebration may not be all that joyous. In my humble opinion, the cultures East of the Rhine manage far better by celebrating the Christmas Eve with both dinner and gifts dispatched before midnight. When the little angels fall asleep, replete and hugging their new toys, the adults can enjoy merrymaking on a new level.

This personal experience served me to a degree when I wrote the Christmas chapter in my novel Fame and Infamy, set in the 1870`s Paris. In the following short excerpt cultures clash over the Réveillon:

 Dissent was brewing in the kitchen where Julie sat in a corner with a goose between her knees, plucking the feathers, while Célestine chopped onion with more vigour than the task required.

“Some people I could name have no respect for tradition,” the cook said provocatively as Nelly wheeled Géraldine through the door.

“Listen Célestine,” Nelly said, while parking the wheelchair by the kitchen table, “as far as traditions go, I had to give up mine as well. In America, there’s no midnight feast. If I can adjust, then you can too. It’s unhealthy to eat a heavy dinner past midnight. By the time you’d get back from church, we’d be half-asleep. We’ll eat at nine. That’s late enough.”

“Have it your way,” Célestine grumbled. “As for me and Julie, we’ll wait until after the midnight mass. Won’t we, Julie?”

Julie ripped off the last fistful of feathers and closely studied the goose for any she might have overlooked. She would not be drawn into the dispute.

“I don’t know why you are making such a case of the Réveillon,” Nelly said. “It will be just us and Monsieur Goubert. Thirteen desserts for five people is excess. I must’ve been brain-damaged when I allowed such an expense.”

“That’s for Jesus and his twelve apostles. They must not be denied. Nuts, raisins, almonds,” Célestine counted on her fingers, “figs, dates, nougat, apples, pears, prunes, oranges, and three different tarts.”

Nelly fanned herself. “I feel already stuffed just from listening to you. So what do you want us to do?”

Célestine distributed the tasks and they settled down to work. Potato peels dropped into the waste bucket, chestnut shells cracked, a knife rhythmically stroked the chopping board, accompanied with dull thumps from underneath the table, where Schnitzel wagged his tail, repeatedly hitting a chair leg.

Later on, in the same chapter, Célestine—a former courtesan fallen on hard times— has the last word on what a Réveillon should be like:

The aperitif finished, they entered the dining room. The first bottle of wine was uncorked and Julie served a plate of oysters on a bed of ice, accompanied with lemons and vinaigrette. The company had worked their way through a series of canapés and hors d’oeuvres before the stuffed goose made its appearance, surrounded by a multitude of garnishes. Her back bent under the weight of the giant platter, Julie put it on the table, and a second bottle of wine was opened in its honour. Tongues loosened by degrees and faces glowed with the kind of well-being only a good meal can generate. At the end of the meal, Célestine was coaxed out of the kitchen to hear a well-deserved praise for her culinary art.

“It was only a modest dinner,” she said, reaching for a glass of wine. “You should see the réveillons I used to give! Up to eighteen courses. Guests would eat and drink all night long. Those were the times! Ah, life was good under the Empire.”

_*_

 Fame and Infamy is available in print and in all digital formats (see the side bar).

More posts about local customs:

Feared and Despised: The Parisian Concierge

The Dead of Paris

 

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What follows here is still done to some degree in today’s France. A few years ago, I watched an eye-popping French TV documentary on the subject. I cannot say for sure whether the athletes of the TV food marathon were actually members of the original Club de Grands Estomachs, but they certainly maintained the tradition of ritual overeating. Remarkably, none of the participants showed any visible signs of ill-health or obesity.

Recently, I came across the Club of Grand Stomachs in an article written in 1867, which describes one of that year’s menus. The twelve club members met each Saturday in the Parisian restaurant Chez Pascal for an 18-hour session that would be lethal for the majority of today’s health- and diet-conscious individuals.

The pantagruelic meal, lasting from 6:00 PM to noon, was divided into three acts. Act One began with Potage à la Crécy (a puréed vegetable soup) preceded by several glasses of bitter wine and followed by several glasses of madeira. Then came a turbot with caper sauce, a beef sirloin, a braised leg of lamb, fattened chickens encased in pastry, maraschino sherbet, creams, pies, and small cakes, all of it washed down by six bottles of Burgundy per person.

Act Two lasted from midnight to 6:00 AM. It began with one or several cups of tea preceding a turtle soup and featured Indian six-chicken curry, salmon with spring onions, deer cutlets with peppers, sole fillets with truffle sauce, artichokes with Java pepper, rum sherbet, Scottish partridge in whiskey, rum puddings, and strongly spiced English pastry. Drinks served with this session consisted of three bottles of Burgundy and three bottles of Bordeaux for each participant.

The final part of the food marathon began at 6:00 AM and ended at noon. They started with an extremely peppered onion soup, followed by a quantity of savory pastries and four bottles of champagne per head. Then they passed to coffee with a pousse-café of an entire bottle of cognac, kirsch or rum.

I will restrain myself from any commentary on the ill effects of overeating. One can only marvel at the extraordinary endurance of the human body under such onslaught of food and drink.

Related posts:

The French art of drinking without getting drunk

Extreme Food Recycling

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Edgar Degas: The Bellelli Family

 

Amongst the middle-classes, both husband and wife keep very steadily to business, particularly the latter, and as they live frugally, they generally calculate upon retiring from business in ten or twelve years, and mostly effect their object, as they are perfectly contented when they have amassed enough capital to produce three or four hundred a year, which is the case with the major part of them; many are not satisfied until four or five times that sum; but they are seldom ambitious, nor care to get out of their class, as the persons with whom they associate and are intimate, are mostly relations and connexions to whom they are attached, and do not seem to fancy any pleasure in extending their acquaintances. But before they retire from business they have their occasional recreations; in fine weather they are very fond of spending their Sundays in the country; in the winter they frequently visit the theatres, but very rarely have company at home or pay visits, except on the New Year, and in the Carnival they give one ball, and go to several others given by their relations; this description alludes to what may be termed the respectable class of shopkeepers.

How to Enjoy Paris in 1842 by F. Herve

 

Related posts:

Without a Dowry: The business of marriage

Mending their Manners

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James Tissot: Without a Dowry (1883)

James Tissot (1836 – 1902) was the story-teller of elegant Victorian life. Without a Dowry is one of Tissot’s fifteen paintings in a series called La Femme à Paris. The picture is also known as Sunday in the Luxembourg Garden. The Jardin de Luxembourg was a popular recreational area on the Left Bank protected from the undesirables by a tall forged-iron fence. Here one could rent a chair to enjoy fresh air in comfort. The chair rental is probably the only Sunday pleasure the two women in the painting can afford. Both the mother and the daughter are in mourning – one can guess that the father, probably a poorly-paid government clerk,  is gone and they are living on a small pension. Without a sufficient dowry, the young woman has no hope for a happy future. Maybe, just maybe, she will marry a widower with six children or an old man in need of a nurse. Until then, genteel poverty is her fate.

The marriage was a serious business in France and, as with all business, money was its essence.  The following text, written by Charles C. Fulton, was published in 1873:

The matrimonial agencies of Paris do a thriving business. They are located in all sections of the city, and are of different classes, according to the wealth and standing of the families of the parties they deal with — young men who are looking for a wife with a good dowry, the money consideration being the main incentive, and parents who have marriageable daughters, being the principal customers. The agents, when they effect a marriage, stipulate that they shall receive five per cent of the dowry, and generally manage also to get a good retaining-fee from both parties. The larger establishments are in correspondence with similar agencies on all parts of the continent, and have become a necessity to parents who are looking out for eligible wives for their sons and responsible husbands for their daughters. The successful tradesman who has accumulated a fortune desires his daughters to marry in a higher circle than that in which he associates: hence the necessity of an agent to make the necessary advances. Then elaborate papers must be prepared and signed before the marriage is consummated, and unless the dowry is paid down at the stipulated time the engagement is off. To manage all these preliminaries requires practical knowledge and experience which few parties in private life could be expected to possess.

The agency of Madame St. Just only does openly what hundreds of others have for ages been doing secretly, and she has at once risen to the head of the profession. She is one of those business geniuses who believe in advertising, and she is, of course, pushing aside all the old fogies who have transacted their business as if secrecy was necessary to all their movements. Madame St. Just says the French law of marriage, and the national custom, render matrimonial agencies a necessity, and in a recent trial the courts have sustained the position she has taken. No one under twenty-five years of age, either son or daughter, can marry without the consent of his or her parents, or, if the parents are dead, without the consent of the grandparents, if any are living. If none of them are living, applicants must substantiate the fact by bringing certificates of their death and burial.

Thus it will be seen that parents make all the arrangements for marriage, and, as they do not know who are the eligible parties in the matrimonial market, they must apply to those who make it a business to keep a record, with the pedigree and pecuniary standing or prospects, of all the young men and girls who are similarly eligible. If John Smith should have settled on his daughter a dowry of twenty thousand francs, he has a money interest in securing for her a husband similarly endowed, and he awaits the guarantee of a responsible agent that there is no false pretense being practiced upon him. How would he be able to ascertain that Tom Brown, who applied for the hand of Miss Smith, was all that he represented himself to be, and whether his father was responsible for the twenty thousand francs which he had promised to give his son on the morning of his marriage, or how would he know that there were twenty or thirty young men of good family and good money-standing who are anxious to secure a wife with the twenty-thousand-franc charm possessed by Miss Smith, if there were not an agent to apply to who kept a record of all such young-aspirants for matrimony? Or how would the parents of these young men know that there was such an eligible party as Miss Smith in existence, if they had not applied to Madame St. Just for the information?

Related post:

The Marriage Market (Newspaper ads.)

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The following anecdote from Paris: With Pen and Pencil by David W. Bartlett published in 1854 tells the life story of two women, but the same fate was dealt to an entire class of poor Parisians for whom marriage was an unattainable goal. The author does not mention that the free unions produced children (about 15 thousand a year) which were often abandoned at the door of orphanages.

***

One evening while walking in the Luxembourg gardens, the band playing exquisite music, and the crowd promenading to it, I met a friend, an American, who has resided in Paris for seventeen years. Taking his arm we fell into the current of people, and soon met a couple of quite pretty looking ladies arm-in-arm. They were dressed exactly alike and their looks were very much of the same pattern, and as to their figures, I certainly could not tell one from the other with their faces turned away.

“They are sisters,” said my friend, “and you will scarcely believe me when I tell you that I saw them in this very garden ten years ago.” I replied that I could hardly credit his story, for the couple still looked young, and I could hardly think that so many years ago they would have been allowed by their anxious mamma to promenade in such a place. I told my friend so, and a smile overspread his countenance. He then told me their history. Ten years ago and they were both shop-girls, very pretty and very fond of the attentions of young men. As shop-girls, they occasionally found time to come and hear the music in the gardens of an evening, and cast glances at the young students. Soon they were student’s mistresses. Their paramours were generous and wealthy young men, and they fared well. For four years they were as faithful, affectionate, and devoted to the young men as any wives in all France. They indulged in no gallantries or light conduct with other men, and among the students were reckoned as fine specimens of the class. Four happy years passed away, when one morning the poor girls awoke to a sad change. The collegiate course was through, and the young collegians were going back to their fathers’ mansions in the provinces. Of course the grisettes could not be taken with them, and the ties of years were suddenly and rudely to be snapped asunder. At first they were frantic in their grief. When they entered upon their peculiar relations with the students, they well knew that this must be the final consummation, but then it looked a great way off. That they really loved the young men, no one can doubt. It would not be strange for a little shop-girl to even adore a talented university student, however insignificant he might be to other people. To her he is everything that is great and noble. These girls knew well that they were not wives, but mistresses, yet when the day of separation came, it was like parting husband and wife. But there was no use in struggling with fate, and they consoled themselves by transferring their affections to two more students. Again after a term of years they were forsaken, until the flower of their youth was gone, and no one desired to support them as mistresses. Then a downward step was taken. Nothing but promiscuous prostitution was before them—except starvation. And still they could not forget their old life, and came nightly to this public promenade to see the old sights, and possibly with the hope of drawing some unsophisticated youth into their net. While my friend repeated their story, the couple frequently passed us, and I could hardly believe that persons whose deportment was so modest and correct, could be what he had designated them; but as the twilight deepened, and we were walking away, I noticed that they were no longer together, and one had the arm of a man, and was walking, like us, away from the gardens.

I do not know as I could give the reader a better idea of a great class of women in Paris, than by relating the brief history of these girls, and certainly I could not sketch a sadder picture. To the stranger the social system of France may seem very pleasant and gay, but it is in reality a sorrowful one. While the mistress is young, she has a kind of happiness, but when she loses her beauty, then her wretchedness begins.

Related posts:

La Grisette

Parisian Foundlings

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Unknown source

If you entered through the double door of the carriage entrance that lead through the front portion of the apartment building to the courtyard and somewhere, usually tucked near the steps, you found a cramped dwelling illuminated by the second-rate light of the vestibule. In this badly-ventilated cubicle there lived the Parisian Concierge. Although considered the lowest of the low on the social scale, she wielded a considerable power over the tenants. The concierge loge was the hub of a spider’s net, its threads reached not only into every apartment in the building but extending out in the street. The tenants were well-advised to remain on her good side. Failing that, their mail could go astray, and their reputation be tarnished by malicious gossip through the neighborhood. Her eagle-eye noticed all the comings and goings, especially past ten o’clock in the evening, when the main door was locked and late comers must ring the bell.

Unavoidable as well as indispensable, she supplemented her meager wages by performing all kind of services for the tenants and often pocketed bribes for keeping secrets. To be at the mercy of a coarse uneducated woman necessarily created resentment. No creature has been more mocked and maligned in literature. Caricatures of the era picture her as a repulsive harridan, either sickeningly self-ingratiating or loftily dismissive, depending on the importance of the tenant.

In fact, the concierge’s lot was not an easy one. Representing the landlord, she had the unpleasant task of extracting past-due rent, evicting non-paying tenants and bear the brunt of their anger. At the approach of the term, her vigilance redoubled, as insolvent tenants tended to slip away. In the old tenements, her quarters–often a single room without running water and ventilation–were nothing more than a stinking cramped hole lacking in privacy. At the beck and call of others every hour of the day, she often had to get up at night to unlock the door. In addition to collecting rent, distributing the mail, cleaning the courtyard, hallway, and the stairs, she scrubbed and cleaned for tenants who could not afford a maid. Running errands, passing on messages, and other innumerable petty services were rewarded by tips, scrapes of food from festive tables, and the occasional discarded piece of clothing. The most profitable day was that of Saint Sylvestre (Dec. 31) when the voluntary–but obligatory!–gratuity was expected.

The repulsive solitary old woman was of course a cliché. The post was often filled by a middle-aged couple. Since the only financial advantage was a free lodging and one per cent of the rental income, the husband had to have an outside job. Scarcely visible, he remained in the shade of the concierge lore.

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