Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘life in Victorian Paris’

 

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.

Related post:

The Scarcity of Water

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Related post:

The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Related posts:

The Scarcity of Water

Food Not So Good

Mending heir manners

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Related posts:

Parisian Foundlings

The Dead of Paris

 

Read Full Post »

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

 

Related post:

Mark Twain and the Cancan
 

Read Full Post »

victorian-cook1In the following excerpt, Octave Uzanne introduces us to the upper echelon of the Parisian female servants, namely the lady’s maid, the cook and the children’s nurse:

The lady’s maid, who must not be confounded with the soubrette previously noticed, is very often of the same native place as the mistress, sometimes her foster-sister. She is generally from sixteen to thirty-five years old. She dresses her mistress, does her mending, irons small articles, rummages in the drawers on pretext of tidying, reads forgotten letters, annexes any knickknacks lying about, takes advantage of any passing generosity of her mistress in order to get possession of hats and dresses more or less worse for wear.

She is usually plain and prudish, goes to Mass on Sundays, attends her Easter duties, and below stairs gives herself airs of superiority over the other servants. In domestic quarrels she takes Madame’s part against Monsieur, not from any affection, but partly through a sense of esprit de corps, and partly that in a sense she regards Monsieur from Madame’s point of view, i.e. as a husband. An entirely platonic feeling, let us hasten to say, as she carefully keeps aloof from Monsieur’s endearments, more out of prudence than from principle. She desires to keep her place. Her wage amounts to from forty to seventy francs a month. When she returns to her province at thirty-five, she is able to bestow on some obscure clerk her somewhat faded charms, and her equivocal savings; these she can invest in a small business in groceries, fruit, drapery or dressmaking, and so the world is richer for another bourgeoise.

The cook is a middle-aged woman of from thirty-five to forty-five years of age, sometimes married either to the coachman or the chauffeur, if her employers’ means permit them to keep horses or motor-cars; or perhaps to some clerk or policeman who lives elsewhere, and whom she visits on one day in the week, generally on Sunday. She is a tall, stout, imposing person, with a face like a full moon, and very proud of her culinary skill. She is extremely clean, and she will not allow any interference from her mistress. “I won’t have any meddling in my sauces,” she says. A spoilt dish reduces her to despair; she revenges herself on her scapegoat – the poor scullery maid.

She has no hesitation in keeping back some tidbits for her husband. Anything that is left over she sells. She accepts her commission from the tradespeople, and is very indignant if her mistress presumes to assist at the marketings. Frequently she has been known, in such circumstances, to give notice in a burst of righteous indignation.

She is very sentimental, reads assiduously the novelettes in the Petit Journal, and is passionately interested in accounts of kidnapped children or adultery in fashionable quarters. She hums sentimental songs while she trusses a fowl or stirs a sauce. She is a regular Mrs. Malaprop, and mangles hopelessly all the terms in her menus. She is quite absorbed by a desire to make money, and keeps at a distance all the men who may be attracted by her formidable personality. Her wages amount to from fifty to eighty francs per month. The dream of her life is to retire with her husband to the provinces, and keep a small inn.

The children’s nurse is generally German or English. This post is the highest in the profession. The nurse is held in a certain respect, as she is treated somewhat like a governess. Even if she only comes from the provinces, she receives a certain amount of deference; she lives mostly with her employers, and therefore knows how to behave, though this does not prevent her from using the most startling language when the children are not there. She is often pretty, and her ambition is to struggle for precedence with the lady’s maid. If her mistress allows her to wear a hat she is in the seventh heaven of bliss.

She is bored by the children, and often tries to terrorise them, telling them tales of giants and ghosts. It is amusing to see her, in the public gardens, displaying the greatest affection for her little charges, joining in their games, that is, if Madame is present, but cross, haughty, and ready with slaps if she is alone with the “little brats”. Her favourite occupation is to make eyes at the passers-by. As she is generally pretty, she is made much of in the house. She has charming manners, and boasts to the other servants of the fancy Monsieur has for her. She reads quantities of novels, and the most extraordinary adventures appear to her quite reasonable. She dreams of being loved for herself alone, and of eloping, as in the romantic tales at sixty centimes. Perhaps she left some fair Wilhelm in her native country, to whom she writes ardent letters.

The children’s nurses provide a large contingent for the reserve belonging to the great army of Parisian sirens, and many of them are found in the beer-houses (*) of the Latin Quarter. Consumed by a love of luxury and proud of their looks, they can earn as wages of an average thirty-five to fifty francs, which is spent immediately in finery. Nursemaids are an exception to the rest of their class, they are extravagant and hardly save anything.

Related post:

(*) Drink and Prostitution: The Belle Epoque Hooters

Read Full Post »

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.

Related posts:

Feared and Despised: The Parisian concierge

Parisians in 1842: The middle class

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 81 other followers