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Posts Tagged ‘19th century France’

 

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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Jean Béraud: Boulevard St. Denis

Jean Béraud: Boulevard St. Denis

 

William Walton, author of Paris from the Earliest Period to the Present Day (published in 1899) writes:

Paris may be said to be a very well-policed city. The police regulations are intelligent, and cover all those points in which the safety, or comfort, or peace of mind of the majority of well-meaning citizens may be menaced or disturbed by the inconsiderate action of individuals, and yet these strict ordonnances, which might become harsh or tyrannical, are generally administered with discretion and, in the case, for example, of the peripatetic vendors of vegetables, the marchands and marchandes des quatre-saisons—with due consideration for the difficulties of the poor.

Great care is taken to assure the free circulation in the streets, with one very important exception: the householder must not deposit any garbage, or mud, or broken bottles on the sidewalk, he must wash his shop-windows only between certain hours in the morning, he must not beat nor shake carpets out the window nor in the streets, he must not put his flower-pots in the windows where there is any danger of their falling on the passer-by, he must not keep domestic animals in such numbers or of such a kind as to be disagreeable to his neighbor, he must not burn coffee, nor card the wool of his mattresses, on the public highway, and he must not set out chairs or tables on the sidewalk. This last regulation, however, is practically a dead letter, all the cafés, big and little, on the wide trottoirs of the boulevards and on the two-foot sidewalks of the narrow streets, monopolize from a half to three-fourths of the pavement for pedestrians. The latter file along cheerfully on the curb-stone, or turn out in the street altogether, and make no protest. In the poorer quarters, a great number of domestic occupations and maternal cares are transferred to the street in front of the dwelling; in fact, the fondness of the French for out-of-doors is one of their most striking characteristics. The women and young girls will sit sewing or knitting in the streets or the public parks, and the men at the open-air tables of the cafés, in the wettest and rawest of days, and the women of the lower orders, concierges, workwomen, small shopkeepers, etc., constantly go with their heads uncovered. This healthy hankering of all classes for the open air contrasts very strongly with their imbecile terror of fresh air, or courants d’air, in a closed vehicle or under a roof.

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The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches

 

 

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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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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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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.

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Parisians in 1842: The working class

Parisians in 1842: The middle class

Parisians in 1842: The upper class

 

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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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bertieThe year is 1855. An enthusiastic crowd lining the boulevards greets Queen Victoria with her husband Prince Albert and the French imperial couple, Napoléon III and the Empress Eugénie, as their open carriages progress across Paris. It is the first visit of a British ruler since 1431 and it has been a tremendous success on several levels. Both monarchs have become firm allies in the Crimean War, the term “entente cordiale” was coined between them, and lasting personal friendships have been born.

Albert is much taken with the elegant Eugénie. “Altogether I’m delighted to see how much he likes her and admires her,” the queen notes in her diary, “as it is so seldom that I see him do so with any woman.” Victoria herself is experiencing a pleasant electric current each time Napoléon III whispers endearments into her ear, compliments her on her dress or tickles the back of her hand with his moustache. No man had ever dared flirt with her and it is all so very French!

If the 10-day visit made such a good impression on the parents, the two children Victoria and Albert brought along were quite smitten. Vicky, the Princess Royal, broke into tears and pleaded for more time in France. Her 13-year old brother Bertie, the future king Edward VII, took a more direct action. The day he found himself alone with Napoléon III, he said: “You have a nice country and I would like to be your son.” When his proposal met with no success, he tried again, this time with Eugénie. “You parents cannot do without you,” she replied. “Not do without us?” Bertie exclaimed. “Don’t fancy that, for there are six more of us, and they don’t want us.”

The unloved Bertie grew up into a playboy. The Prince des Galles, as he was known in France, returned many times, enthusiastically sampling all the pleasures Paris could offer.

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Mark Twain on Napoleon III

 

 

 

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