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duel sable

“Le Petit Journal” November 1st 1902:

There are Apaches of both sexes as seen recently in the rue du Général-Morin. Louise Henin, a beautiful girl of twenty, became mortally angered by Andrée Merle, twenty-three years, for reasons difficult to specify. They resolved to meet in a single combat, but refused to choose common weapons such as knives or revolvers. They sought and found the most unusual. Each took a single sock – probably emptied of their savings – and filled it with sand. Then they went into battle with all the wham! and splash! to the amusement of the street. The fight, however, ended abruptly when Louise Henin collapsed after a blow so violent that she had to be transported – in a very poor shape – to the Hotel-Dieu hospital. As for her terrible adversary, she quickly melted into the crowd.

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The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches

Street People

 

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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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The Scarcity of Water

 

 

 

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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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Mending heir manners

 

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Hôpital_de_la_Salpêtrière

Source: Paris from the Earliest Period to the Present Day by William Walton, published in 1899

The immense army of the helpless and sickly poor—paupers, paralytics, scrofulous, consumptive, idiotic, cancerous—demands a complex machinery from the State or the municipal administration. For a multitude of these unfortunates the words of Victor Hugo are true: They begin in the hospital, and end in the hospice.” “The child comes into the world in a Maternité, and, later, if life has not been generous to him, he finishes his days in one of the asylums for the aged, at Bicêtre, at the Salpêtrière, at Debrousse, at Brévannes, at Ivry, after having more than once paid his tribute to sickness in the wards of some hospital! And still more, at intervals, during certain difficult hours, he has been obliged to ask aid of the Bureau de Bienfaisance, so that, during the whole of his life, this unlucky one has been the pensioner of the Assistance Publique.”

Very fortunate are those who succeed in obtaining a bed at the hospice in which to end their days; the number of applicants each year exceeds by three or four thousand the number of vacancies. The crippled and incurable paupers, for whom all labor is impossible, are admitted without regard to age; the octogenarians, cancerous, blind, and epileptic, and the sick transferred from the hospitals to the hospices, are always eligible; but the slightest misdemeanor recorded on their civil papers, even though atoned for by a long life of honesty, is fatal to the hopes of the unfortunate aged;—for them there is no asylum but the Dépôt de Mendicité. The most celebrated of these hospices of Paris are the Bicêtre and the Salpêtrière; the former at Gentilly, about a kilomètre from the southern fortifications, and the latter on the Boulevard d’Hôpital. The Bicêtre especially, under the ancient régime, represented everything that was abhorrent in a mediæval hospital, asylum, and jail combined; it was “at once a prison, a dépôt de mendicité, an asylum for the aged, a special hospital, a lunatic asylum, a political Bastille, an establishment for receiving sick children.”

It is organized in two great divisions—a hospice for old men, and an asylum for the deranged; but the latter includes an infirmary for idiot, epileptic, and feeble-minded children. The buildings of the hospice proper are arranged around four rectangular courts, planted with trees and gardens, in which the aged inmates sun themselves, and when it rains they take refuge under arcades known as the Allée des Bronchite and the Rue de Rivoli de Bicêtre. For a considerable distance around the establishment these pensioners may be seen in fine weather taking the air; they have this privilege for the whole of the day on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and from eleven o’clock in the morning to four in the afternoon on the remaining days of the week.

All the sounder ones, to the number of some four hundred, are obliged to work at one of the many useful trades practised in the various ateliers, and they gain, for their own use, from forty centimes to a franc a day, money which goes to provide them with various small creature comforts. Those who are not strong enough, or capable enough, to work in the ateliers are obliged to pick vegetables for the culinary department, for which they receive no pay;—from this obligation no one is free excepting the octogenarians, the sickly, and the active workers. The administration also encourages the enterprise of those who wish to work on their own account; it provides them with a locality and facilities, for which they pay a monthly rental of from twenty centimes to one franc twenty centimes a month. Some of these petty industries are very curious and ingenious.

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apache

In the Parisian Prostitutes series we met la gigolette. ( …She is the mistress of the garroters of La Vilette or the stabbers of Grenelle. She it is who beguiles the passer-by, decoys him into an ambush, and she whistles for her souteneur, who rushes up with his companions “to do for the cove”…) Now let me introduce you to la gigolette’s male counterpart: the Apache.

In the Victorian times, Paris suffered an overwhelming criminality – 48 times stronger than that of today. Eight thousand policemen faced some 30 thousand mobile gang members in addition to other criminals. Known for their fierceness, the gangs were called Apaches. Moving only in groups, these young men from disadvantaged neighborhoods employed swindle, street robbery and pimping. They were recognizable by the “doe eye”, a small tattoo around the eyes and their attire consisted of bell pants, a half-opened jacket revealing a jersey or a crumpled shirt, cap on head, and meticulously polished shoes.

The Apache culture included original weapons and combat techniques best described in the website The Dirty Tricks of the French Apache.

apaches armes

The Apache Danse is a cultural heritage equal to the famous cancan. The performance of a dominating male and an abused female was very violent and sometimes caused injury to the dancers. Here is a 1935 version (click on the link below the picture):

apache dance

http://youtu.be/-rX_SHIZaRI

 

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Mark Twain and the Cancan
 

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femme de menageOf the old Parisian servant types we have met the soubrette and the nourrice, both of whom are described with some condescension in Octave Uzanne’s book “The Modern Parisienne”. While he may be mocking the two, he has nothing but respect and sympathy for the hard-working femme de ménage:

The femme de ménage (charwoman) is at “six sous per hour” a godsend to the bachelor. She has come from some little provincial town with her husband, who works in a factory in the suburbs, or she is the wife of a cab driver or of a porter at the Bonmarché or the Louvre magazines. Her life is a hard one. After she is swallowed in the whirlpool of Paris, she can rarely return to the country. She dies exhausted by hard work, worn-out by poverty and child-bearing. Sometimes, when the children are self-supporting, she can go out to service.

She is generally from thirty to fifty-five years of age. In the morning at about seven o’clock—as soon as her husband has left for his work and her children for school—she goes to her “Monsieur”, carrying his milk, his morning rolls and other provisions, calling for his newspapers and letters from the concierge, with whom she exchanges gossip. Being good at heart, as are all the working people who do not come too much in contact with the bourgeoisie, she is interested in her Monsieur’s welfare, although she allows herself a bit of gossip with the concierge on the terrible “creatures” who come to see him. She is attentive to his wants, sees that his breakfast is good, and that his boots shine like mirrors. She is amiable and willing, and he would have no occasion for finding fault if she had not, unfortunately, a mania for tidying away all his things into places where he can never find them.

If Monsieur is a painter, a journalist, or an author, she has the greatest respect for his work. She considers his manuscripts and books, his canvasses and engravings, as things to be treated with boundless veneration. She is immensely proud to serve an “artist”. Sometimes she will venture to ask him to write a letter for her. She will consult him about her family affairs, especially on any legal question, for the law terrifies her beyond measure.

When she returns home she has to see to her children’s dinner, to wash their clothes, to mend for the entire family. In the evening she must cook supper for her husband, who frequently comes home drunk, having spent all his wages, and turns to beating her. She endures everything passively, and she must go on enduring as long as her strength lasts. She is honest, tender, and devoted and all this for twenty or forty sous per day. She is typical of the working woman.

“The femme de ménage,” says a physiologist of 1840, “belongs exclusively to Paris. In the provinces she loses all her distinctive character.” It is from Paris alone, the Paris of resources and deceptions, that the femme de ménage springs. She is the servant of those who cannot afford any other, and who are not poor enough to dispense with one altogether. It is service at a discount, a bastard kind of servitude which sells itself by retail, which submits to the pains of slavery without any of its advantages, which suffers a change of master, humour and work at every moment of the day. She is, in fact, a poor woman who is hired either by the hour or the job just as one hires a cab. The femme de ménage is the most enslaved of all servants. However, this cruel dependence on every one and no one in particular is still independence in her eyes.

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Feared and Despised: The Parisian concierge

Parisians in 1842: The middle class

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soubretteOf all the domestic employees in Paris, only a small percentage was the natives of the city. Parisians had always been naturally free-spirited and insubordinate. Employers seeking servants knew this and preferred to hire applicants from the provinces. These proved to be more dependable, obedient and steady.

Whether they come from Auvergne or Poitou, from La Vendée or Gascony, from Provence or even from Flanders, the servants of Paris scarcely ever lose the tone of their native places, the accent of their provinces, or the traces of their origin,” wrote Octave Uzanne in his book The Modern Parisienne (1912). Long working hours, little opportunity to socialize and the sense of being a miniscule clog in the crushing machinery of a metropolis forced the provincials to seek each other for moral support, to hang together, and to preserve their native culture. Of all the newcomers to Paris, servants were the least amenable to change their ways. Native Parisians, on the other hand—and pretty girls especially— sought to climb the social ladder.

The following excerpt from The Modern Parisienne , introduces us to la soubrette, the shrewd lady’s maid, so typical to Paris that no light comedy could do without one:

[A Parisian girl] will take a situation as maid, especially with the demi-monde, in the hope that through one of these ladies or her gentlemen friends she will make her fortune. She reflects that her mistress’s origin, probably Belleville or some other poor quarter, is no better than her own, and that she is certainly not any prettier or more charming. This hope is frequently realized, particularly if the maid is pretty and treats the guests with discretion. In any case, this kind of situation is only a stepping-stone, and very often the girl who begins her career as a maid in the chic quartiers may be seen subsequently figuring as a star at the Moulin Rouge, as a singer in a fifth-rate café or (the last resource of old age) the proprietress of some shady house at Batignolles or near the École Millitaire.

She has learnt from her mistress the great game of getting the most possible out of Monsieur, and she plays it with remarkable success – within the limits of the law. But in the first instance she is more of a soubrette than a maid-servant, the pretty smart girl who always has an answer for the Fantins and Scapins of the servants’ hall. She has the advantage over them of the natural duplicity of her sex, and the unassailable position of being in all her mistress’s secrets. She is her agent in trickery; she knows all her mysteries, her deceptions, her debts, her intrigues, her dressmaker’s bills. Nothing is hidden from her. She is on the watch, observes everything, and succeeds in accumulating sufficient materials to make her position absolutely secure. She is coquettish, scrupulously clean, scented, affects a superior accent, and seasons her conversation with a spice of racy slang. She is very sentimental, and loves, above all, the feuilletons in the papers. If she is not as successful as she hopes with her mistress, she tries her hand on some old bachelor, and becomes his confidential housekeeper.

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Quiet Demoiselles and Proud Servants

Parisians in 1842: The working class

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