The origin of cancan, the wild whirl of petticoats and kicking legs, can be traced back to the 1830’s. The dance was born in the public balls and guinguettes where the working class men and women discharged their energy in a rough display of seduction on the dancing floor. The cancan was later choreographed for the stage and became the chorus dance we now associate with the Belle Epoque Paris. To the 19th century public, the dance was scandalous to the extreme, hence the word cancan (scandal). Mark Twain, visiting Paris in the 1860’s, left us the following account:
One night we went to the celebrated Jardin Mabille, but only stayed a little while. We wanted to see some of this kind of Paris life, however, and therefore the next night we went to a similar place of entertainment in a great garden in the suburb of Asnières. We went to the railroad depot toward evening, and Ferguson got tickets for a second-class carriage. Such a perfect jam of people I have not often seen – but there was no noise, no disorder, no rowdyism. Some of the women and young girls that entered the train we knew to be of the demimonde, but others we were not at all sure about.
The girls in our carriage behaved themselves modestly and becomingly all the way out, except that they smoked. When we arrived at the garden in Asnières, we paid a franc or two of admission an entered the place which had flower beds in it, and grass plots, and long, curving rows of ornamental shrubbery, with here and there a secluded bower convenient for eating ice cream in. We moved along the sinuous gravel walks, with the great concourse of girls and young men, and suddenly a domed and filigreed white temple, starred over and over and over again with brilliant gas jets, burst upon us like a fallen sun. Nearby was a large, handsome house with its ample front illuminated in the same way, and above its roof floated the Star-Spangled Banner of America.
“Well,” I said. “How is this?” It nearly took my breath away.
Ferguson said an American–a New Yorker–kept the place, and was carrying on quite a stirring opposition to the Jardin Mabille.
Crowds composed of both sexes and nearly all ages were frisking about the garden or sitting in the open air in front of the flagstaff and the temple, drinking wine or coffee or smoking. The dancing had not begun yet. Ferguson said there was to be an exhibition. The famous Blondin was going to perform on a tightrope in another part of the garden. We went thither. Here the light was dim, and the masses of people were pretty closely packed together. [...]
The dance had begun, and we adjourned to the temple. Within it was a drinking saloon, and all around it was a broad circular platform for the dancers. I backed up against the wall of the temple and waited. Twenty sets formed, the music struck up and then–I placed my hands before my face for very shame. But I looked through my fingers. They were dancing the renowned “cancan”. A handsome girl in the set before me tripped forward lightly to meet the opposite gentleman, tripped back again grasped her dresses vigorously on both sides with her hands, raised them pretty high, danced an extraordinary jig that had more activity and exposure about it than any jig I ever saw before, and then, drawing her clothes still higher, she advanced gaily to the center and launched a vicious kick full at her vis-à-vis that must have infallibly removed his nose if he had been seven feet high. It was a mercy he was only six.
That is the cancan. The idea of it is to dance as wildly, as noisily, as furiously as you can; expose yourself as much as possible if you are a woman; and kick as high as you can, no matter which sex you belong to. There is no word of exaggeration in this. Any of the staid, respectable, aged people who were there that night can testify to the truth of that statement. There were a good many such people present. I suppose French morality is not of that straightlaced description which is shocked at trifles.
I moved aside and took a general view of the cancan. Shouts, laughter, furious music, a bewildering chaos of darting and intermingling forms, stormy jerking and snatching of gay dresses, bobbing heads, flying arms, lightning flashes of white-stockinged calves and dainty slippers in the air, and then a grand final rush, riot, a terrific hubbub, and a wild stampede! Heavens! Nothing like it has been seen on earth since trembling Tam O’Shanter saw the devil and the witches at their orgies that stormy night in “Alloway’s auld haunted kirk.”
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
The working people in Paris are extremely frugal in their mode of living; bread being full seven-eighths of their food, what they eat with it varies according to the season; if in summer, mostly such fruit as happens to be ripe, and perhaps once in the day they take a bit of soft white-looking cheese with their bread. In winter they often add instead a little morsel of pork or bacon, but more frequently stewed pears or roasted apples. On Sundays they always put the pot-au-feu, as they call it, which means that they make soup, or literally translated, that they put the pot on the fire. Many of the wives of the working people contrive to muster some soup for their husbands when they get home at night, and almost all manage to have a little wine in the course of the day.
On the Sunday in the summer time they contrive to have a degree of pleasure, and go to one of the houses round Paris called guinguettes, something in the nature of the tea-gardens about London, but in Paris and most parts of France the husband takes his wife and even his children with him if they are old enough; indeed, you generally see the whole train together. At these houses they mostly take beer which is not very strong, but they make it less so by mixing it with water, as they do almost every beverage; sometimes they have wine, lemonade, or currant juice, which is called groseille, and that from the black currant cassis; there they will sit looking at the dances, in which they sometimes join, and return home about ten o’clock. This is pretty much the routine of a regularly conducted working-man in Paris, and it must be admitted that they form by far the greater number, particularly those who are married.
How to Enjoy Paris in 1842 by F. Herve
Where the Revolutionaries lived (text by Mark Twain)
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.
The following text was published in 1854:
The French generally have been celebrated for possessing no inconsiderable share of conceit, but in regard to a most exalted respect for themselves, the Parisians far surpass all their provincial brethren; the very circumstance of their happening in Paris, they imagine at once confers upon them a diploma of the very highest acme of civilisation, causing them to feel a sort of pity for a person who is born elsewhere; however, as one of these enlightened spirits once observed to me, that a person might by coming to live at Paris in the course of time imbibe the same tone of refinement. Now this was said in all the true spirit of human kindness; he knew that I was not born in Paris, and conceiving that I might feel the bitterness of that misfortune, though it might afford me a degree of consolation to be assured, that there were some means of repairing the disadvantages under which I laboured, from not having made my entrance to the world in the grand metropolis of France.
It matters not how low may be the calling of a Parisian, he will still flatter himself that the manner in which he acquits himself in the department in which he is placed, evinces a degree of superiority over his fellow labourer, and gratifies his amour propre with the thought. Even a scavenger would endeavour to persuade you that he has a peculiar manner of sweeping the streets exclusively his own, and that his method of shovelling up the mud and pitching it into the cart is quite unique, and in fact that his innate talent is such that, it has eventually placed him at the summit of his profession. This may appear, perhaps, to some of my readers rather overdrawn, but the following instance which came under my own observation is not much less extravagant.
A man who was in the habit of cleaning my boots, had a most incorrigible propensity for garrulity, and as I like in a foreign country to obtain some insight into the ideas and feelings of all classes, I did not care to check the poor fellow in the indulgence of his favourite penchant, particularly as his remarks were always proffered with a tone of the most profound respect for my august person. Finding one morning that my boots had not been polished quite so well as usual, the next time I saw the shoeblack I mentioned the circumstance to him. “Ah! Sir,” he exclaimed with a deep sigh, “that is one of the many instances of the ingratitude of human nature; I confided those boots to the boy whom you must have seen come with me to fetch yours and the other gentlemen’s shoes or clothes for brushing, etc. Well, sir, that young urchin is a protégé of mine; I took him, sir, from the lowest obscurity and made him what he is; I taught him my profession, I endowed him with all the benefit of my experience, and with respect to blacking shoes, I have initiated him into all the little mysteries of the art, and can declare that there is not one in the business throughout all Paris that can surpass him, when he chooses to exert his talents; and therefore it renders it the more unpardonable that he should slight one of my best customers.” Judging, I suppose, from the expression of my countenance that I did not appear to be deeply infused with a very exalted idea of what he termed the mysteries of his art, he continued, “You may think as you please, sir, but there is much more ability required in blacking shoes than you may imagine, and that boy is well aware of it; he knows how I began by first instructing him in all the fundamental principles of the art; and gradually led him on until I accomplished him in giving the last polish, and can now proudly say he is a true artist in the profession.”
David W. Bartlett, Paris: With Pen and Pencil
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.
This drawing of tarts in a low-class brasserie provides food for thought. In the Victorian era, destitute women had few choices for making a living: servitude, drudgery in sweat-shops or, failing that, prostitution. I think that in our time the four women in the scene could be a real-estate agent, a hairstylist, a marine biologist and a police officer. Or perhaps they’d be tarts again. Who knows? The difference is that women have more choices now.
In July 1865, one of the Goncourt brothers (more about them in a future post) records his visit to a brothel where both the surroundings and the women were a step above the previous bleak picture:
“Just past the Ecole Militaire, a front shop with white curtains. Another story above a large number on the door. The Big 9. A large room lighted from above by the van daylight. Some tables and a bar lined with bottles of liquor. There are Zouaves (*), soldiers, and workmen in smock and grey sitting at the tables with tarts perched on their knees. The girls wear white or colored blouses and dark skirts. They are young and pretty, with pink fingernails and their hair carefully dressed with little ornaments in it. Smoking cigarettes or drawing on a friend’s Maryland, they walk up and down in pairs between the tables, playfully jostling each other, or else they sit playing draughts. Singers turn up now and then to sing some dirty ditty in a bass voice. The waiters have big black mustaches. The girls call the pimp who runs the establishment “the old marquis”. A negress goes by in a sleeveless dress.
“One the first floor, there is a long corridor with a lot of tiny cells just big enough to contain a little window with broken blinds, a bed, a chest of drawers, and, on the floor, the inevitable basin and jug of water. On the wall there is one of those colored pictures entitled Spring or Summer that you win at a fair and, hanging from the mirror, a little Zouave doll.
“These twenty-sou women are not at all like the terrifying creatures drawn by Constantin Guys, but poor little things trying to ape the language and dress of the higher class prostitutes.”
Moving up the scale of prostitution to the very top, the Goncourts report the following:
“April 7, 1857
“Rose [Goncourts’ housekeeper] has just seen in the concierge’s lodge the night-clothes—or morning-clothes if you prefer—that our neighbor La Deslions (see the post Dinner with Courtesans) sends by her maid to the house of the man to whom she is giving a night. It seems that she has a different outfit for each of her lovers in the color that he prefers. This one consists of a white satin dressing gown, quilted and pinked, with gold-embroidered slippers in the same color—a dressing gown costing between twelve and fifteen hundred francs—a nightdress in batiste trimmed with Valenciennes lace, with embroidered insertions costing three hundred francs, and a petticoat trimmed with three lace flounces at three or four hundred francs each, a total of some three thousand francs taken to any house whose master can afford her.” (For comparison, the daily wage of a maid was one franc.)
(*) Zouaves: Body of light infantry in the French army, composed of Algerian recruits, popular for their exotic uniform.
Posted in Guide to Gay Paree 1869, local customs, manners, morality, people of Paris, prostitution, shopping, tagged cafés chantants, Paris guide, Victorian travel on September 19, 2011 | 2 Comments »
(From Paris Partout! A guide for the English and American Traveller in 1869 or How to see PARIS for 5 guineas)
Beware of the flower girls at the bals publics, cafés chantants, and outside the theatres, as well as the wily advances of well-dressed and spoken women. The uncouth boldness of the street-walker will strike the visitor with immediate amazement and distaste: but how could one expect that under a lady-like appearance and language the Parisian gay woman hides the evil designs of a fallen angel, and laughs inwardly at the gullibility of her victims?
In markets barter is the rule: let an inexperienced lady make her appearance, and she will at once be asked the double the price that would be expected from an obviously sharp-witted French cook. There are no fishmongers in Paris: all fish are sold at the market.
Jews selling lorgnettes, plated jewellery &c., who may also offer you licentious, forbidden literature and illustrations.
The concierge, or caretaker of apartment buildings. This person, if offended, has it in his or her power to give much annoyance, mislaying letters, misinforming callers, and speaking ill of you to tradespeople.
It is desirable to avoid the free discussion of politics. The police are ubiquitous and zealous, with wide powers of arrest and detention. The wiser course must certainly be to express yourself with great temperance in referring to the Emperor and government of France, and not to do or say anything that may serve to lessen the entente cordiale at present existing between our nations.
This concludes the The Guide series. I hope you have enjoyed the trip to the Second Empire Paris. Let me know!
Next: How to succeed in Paris