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diaz-albertini

Giovanni Boldini: Signora Diaz-Albertini

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What woman would not wish to be highly desirable? Anyone able to bring on that dream would be well-rewarded. Giovanni Boldini, with his magic brush, made a lucrative career out of injecting voluptuousness into his sitters’ portraits. Everything in his paintings exuded sensuality: not only the woman herself but also her outfit. Jewels gleamed against bare flesh, satins glistened while embracing curves, slick silks slithered, exposing a shoulder, fluffy furs invited a caress.

boldini photo

The Italian painter Giovanni Boldini (born in 1842) settled in Paris in 1872. He died there, a very wealthy man, in 1931

Boldini’s racy paintings touched the extreme limit of convention. His work was the talk of the high society dinners. In the last years of the Belle Époque, at the height of his fame, the demand was so high that he chose his sitters. To have a portrait painted by Boldini was a defining sign of eligibility. It was known that the artist did not deign to honor a portrait commission below one million francs – except for a privileged relationship with the model. (For comparison, the wage of a maid was one franc a day.)

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As the Belle Époque sped toward the end of the century, the hefty beauties of the Second Empire gave way to slim, ethereal beings. Not every fashionable woman was able to fit that image. It took the clever brush of a painter to stretch bodies lengthwise and refine features. Boldini was the master of flattery.  

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alice regnault

From chubby to lascivious: Alice Regnault, a popular actress, became a red hot item thanks to Boldini’s art

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wertheimer

Madame Wertheimer (1902): One of the daring décolletage portraits that made Boldini’s fortune

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In the past, before Boldini’s time, a high-ranking courtesan’s ambition—when she had a portrait painted—was to look like a grande dame. Now fashionable titled women wanted to look like courtesans. Below are the portraits of two women, coincidentally both named Marthe, who were vastly apart on the social scale. One is a wealthy prostitute, the other a Romanian princess. Which is which?

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marthes

Princess Marthe Bibesco and Marthe de(*) Florian

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Boldini’s portrait of Marthe de Florian was recently discovered in her Parisian apartment that had remained locked for seventy years. The story was published in an earlier post here: How the Courtesans Lived – A Time Capsule

(*) Celebrated courtesans often appended the aristocratic particle de to their chosen names.

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Related posts:

Could You Be a Salonnière?

Bois de Boulogne: The Rendezvous of Wealth and Opulence

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If you like these posts, support the author by buying her books (also available in print):

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The legacy of yesteryear, the recall of the skilled hands of painters, carvers, stonemakers, wood turners, tile-makers, sign-makers and other artisans, old storefronts still grace the streets of Paris. Around two hundred of them are protected by the Status of Historical Monuments. The most numerous among the survivors are shops selling food: bakers (boulangerie/ pâtisserie), confectioneries (confisserie), butchers (boucherie/ charcuterie), and bistros or restaurants.

Enjoy this old-charm gallery!

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Under the sign At the Cooked Herbs Renown this busy storefront combined the sale of dairy products and grilled meat

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This bakery still attracts shoppers with decorative tiles and hand painted panels

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The elaborate stonework and hand-painted tiles of this sign are the last remnants of a coffee-importer’s business

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Expensive marble panels and an intricate wood lace embellish this horsemeat butcher’s shop

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Made entirely of mosaic, this former horse butcher’s storefront still carries a sign announcing the purchase of horses for meat. Horse butcheries abounded before the arrival of the automobile. Horses served in transport before they ended as food. More about the growing troubles with horse transport here

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With its original merchandise still swimming on the tiles surrounding the shop window, this former fish shop is now a cosher fast food restaurant. It’s a pity that Jonathan did not put more care into marrying the new lettering with the old style

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All bells and whistles announce this old grocery shop

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The quality woodwork of this elegant restaurant storefront suggests the gourmet food inside

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Artwork by talented painters was a sign of success and the shopowner’s pride

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Beautiful panels seduced shoppers, Here, the gold lettering announces hot croissants inside. Who could resist the lure?

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Marrying art, skillful craftwork, and expensive materials, these ancient storefronts add beauty and charm to the streets of Paris

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Related posts:

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The Birth of Mass Shopping

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Many ate poorly in a city that was famous for its fancy food. Wages for the unskilled were low and even the skilled workers had to turn every coin twice before spending it. Men could make anywhere from 50 centimes to 4 francs a day. Unskilled women would earn as low as 25 centimes and children even less.

A previous post A Camel Steak Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris mentioned that the poorest inhabitants of the French capital saw meat only on major holidays – if ever. Their basic diet consisted of bread, potatoes, pork fat, and milk. An average restaurant meal would begin at two francs, and such a price would turn away most of the working-class people. Fuel was costly, too, so they did not do much cooking at home. Cheap hot meals could be purchased from street vendors and men of gambling nature would try their luck with meat at the most bizarre establishments ever: the potluck kitchens.

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Potluck Eateries

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In his book Paris with Pen and Pencil (published in 1858) American David W. Bartlett left us a vivid description of a meal at a fortune du pot restaurant:

“Pot-luck, or the fortune du pot, is on the whole the most curious feeding spectacle in Europe. There are more than a dozen shops in Paris where this mode of procuring a dinner is practiced, chiefly in the back streets abutting on the Pantheon. About two o’clock, a parcel of men in dirty blouses, with sallow faces, and an indescribable mixture of recklessness, jollity, and misery—strange as the juxtaposition of terms may seem—lurking about their eyes and the corners of their mouths, take their seats in a room where there is not the slightest appearance of any preparation for food, nothing but half-a-dozen old deal-tables, with forms beside them, on the side of the room, and one large table in the middle. They pass away the time in vehement gesticulation, and talking in a loud tone; so much of what they say is in argot, that the stranger will not find it easy to comprehend them. He would think they were talking crime or politics—not a bit of it; their talk is altogether about their mistresses. Love and feeding make up the existence of these beings; and we may judge of the quality of the former by what we are about to see of the latter.

A huge bowl is at last introduced, and placed on the table in the middle of the room. At the same time a set of basins, corresponding to the number of the guests, are placed on the side-tables. A woman, with her nose on one side, good eyes, and the thinnest of all possible lips, opening every now and then to disclose the white teeth which garnish an enormous mouth, takes her place before it. She is the presiding deity of the temple; and there is not a man present to whom it would not be the crowning felicity of the moment to obtain a smile from features so little used to the business of smiling, that one wonders how they would set about it if the necessity should ever arise.

Every cap is doffed with a grim politeness peculiar to that class of humanity, and a series of compliments fly into the face of Madame Michel, part leveled at her eyes, and part at the laced cap, in perfect taste, by which those eyes are shrouded. Mère Michel, however, says nothing in return, but proceeds to stir with a thick ladle, looking much larger than it really is, the contents of the bowl before her. These contents are an enormous quantity of thick brown liquid, in the midst of which swim numerous islands of vegetable matter and a few pieces of meat.

Meanwhile, a damsel, hideously ugly—but whose ugliness is in part concealed by a neat, trim cap—makes the tour of the room with a box of tickets, grown black by use, and numbered from one to whatever number may be that of the company. Each of them gives four sous to this Hebe of the place, accompanying the action with an amorous look, which is both the habit and the duty of every Frenchman when he has anything to do with the opposite sex, and which is not always a matter of course, for Marie has her admirers, and has been the cause of more than one rixe in the Rue des Anglais.

The tickets distributed, up rises number one—with a joke got ready for the occasion, and a look of earnest anxiety, as if he were going to throw for a kingdom—takes the ladle, plunges it into the bowl, and transfers whatever it brings up to his basin. It is contrary to the rules for any man to hesitate when he has once made his plunge, though he has a perfect right to take his time in a previous survey of the ocean—a privilege of which he always avails himself. If he brings up one of the pieces of meat, the glisten of his eye and the applauding murmur which goes round the assembly give him a momentary exultation, which it is difficult to conceive by those who have not witnessed it. In this the spirit of successful gambling is, beyond all doubt, the uppermost feeling; it mixes itself up with everything done by that class of society, and is the main reason of the popularity of these places with their habitués; for when the customers have once acquired the habit, they rarely go anywhere else.”

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Harlequin Food

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The poor had an opportunity to eat above their means and taste second-hand luxury food by making a purchase at the harlequin merchant’s food stand. The harlequin merchants sold at low prices leftover food they had collected in the kitchens of wealthy Parisian houses from cooks who were happy to make extra money.  The merchants were called “harlequins” because they dished out food as composite as the dress of the Harlequin character from the Commedia Dell’Arte: an ever surprising medley of poultry, fish, and roast beef bits mixed with various side dishes, and sweet desserts, all sharing a single plate.

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Related posts:

A Camel Steak, Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris

Extreme Food Recycling Caution! Do not read during or immediately after a meal.

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Yes, it’s the giveaway time here at the Victorian Paris blog!

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Dear readers!

I seldom use the blog for personal matters, but the launch of my second novel is a rare exception.

The Boarding House for Single Gentlemen fits the category of the BBC’s popular series Downton Abbey with the addition of French flair, tasty cuisine, and subtle humor.

The year is 1886. Not far from the Champs-Élysées, on a boulevard that leads to the Bois de Boulogne, stands a mansion belonging to the twice-widowed Estelle de Chavignon, a former high-ranking courtesan. Estelle, now in her sixties, acquired the property through her charms, and the house is still the crossroads for her former lovers and admirers.

The quirky residents hide many secrets, not least Estelle herself who has withheld from her orphaned grandchildren the truth about their parents. And then there is Mariette, a kitchen scullion, who ascends the social ladder with meteoric speed. But will she escape her servitude? Many of the envious servants hope not. The cast of characters also includes a retired world-famous hypnotist who still occasionally alters people’s minds. With all this happening, the arrival of American guests adds a clash of cultures.

The chapters are illustrated with pictures from the 1877 album Les Boulevards de Paris.

(300 pages, available in print and ebook)

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Here is what the early reviewers say about the novel:

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Be prepared for a rollicking good read

With a cast of characters that will stay with you after you’ve finished reading and a plot with as many ups and downs as a roller-coaster ride, be prepared for a rollicking good read. This story has everything you could wish for an entertaining read: intrigue, love affairs, secrets, deceptions, even a touch of magic in the form of mind-altering hypnosis, all played out in Paris of the Belle Époque. Polansky’s smooth prose lavishly laced with humour is a joy to read.

Delicious, devious, and delightful

The Boarding House transports you back to Paris during the enchanting Belle Époque period with a diverse ensemble of players: young and old, servants and socialites, French and foreign, polite and ill-mannered. It seems that everybody has something to hide. It’s delicious, devious, and delightful. Iva Polansky writes with a style and authenticity you might wonder if she was there in another life.

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For a limited time (July 1 to 5), the e-book version is available free (see below). If you like the story, please leave a brief review on Amazon to help with the sales. With millions of books, the competition is stiff and every recommendation helps.

Thank you for visiting, and enjoy the read!

Iva Polansky

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To obtain a copy, click on the picture:

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halles

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Les Halles were the commercial heart of Paris, a place of exchange and supply to the abundant life that had developed over the centuries. An entire chapter in Paris history was closed in 1971 with the destruction of this central market. Author Emile Zola closely described this anthill of human activity in his 1873 realistic novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). It is a must read for researchers of this period, as are all Zola’s novels. (All twenty of them in one e-volume are available on Amazon for the ridiculous price of US 2.99).

A close look at the famous marketplace before it disappeared forever is provided by the 1950s documentary Twelve Hours in Halles posted below. No English translation is available, so here is what we see:

At midnight, when the Halles open, the first delivery trucks arrive. The merchandise is displayed, awaiting auctions. Around 4:00 AM, the Paris elite drops in for the famous onion soup, to rub shoulders with the market workers after having drunk champagne at some glitterati party. At 9:00 AM the market opens for shoppers. Old people from the neighborhood rummage through the organic garbage to gather ingredients for their soup. At noon, following a feverish trading, the market closes for cleaning, to be reopened again at midnight.  In the twelve hours of the never-changing routine, thirty thousand tonnes of merchandise have changed hands. Let the pictures talk and enjoy the forever-gone local color:

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Since the first video is no longer available, here is a replacement:

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The History

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halles pilori.

The marketplace supplied Paris for 800 years before it closed down. In medieval times, it housed a pillory. Convicts, mostly crooked traders using false weights, pimps, and blasphemers, were exposed there, and passers-by could throw all kinds of garbage at them. The executioner had his accommodation on the ground floor.

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Les Halles at the beginning of the 1800s

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Around 1850, the cramped conditions and lack of hygiene forced the city council to vote for a reconstruction. At the same time, Napoleon’s ambitious nephew, Louis-Napoleon, seized power and crowned himself an emperor. With Napoleon III came the forceful “hausmanization” of Paris described in this post.The emperor had a look at the building plans and halted the project of heavy stone pavilions. Inspired by the Crystal Palace in London, and enthusiastic about the recently built spacious Gare de l’Est, he said to Prefect Haussmann: “I need large umbrellas, nothing more!”

halles design

Architect Victor Baltard’s light-weight pavilions won the emperor’s approval. The construction started in 1854, and took 15 years to complete. The market covered an area of 135 thousand square feet

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halles interior

The airy cast iron and glass interior

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Each pavilion had its specialty: number 3 for meat, number 9 for fish, and so on. Fruits and vegetables were also sold in the covered alleys and on the surrounding streets. The volume of the merchandise was enormous. As an example, each day, the butter, egg, and cheese pavilion took in a delivery of one hundred wagonloads of eggs, each wagon carrying seventy crates. Each of these cases contained 1,440 eggs.

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halles eggs

Inspecting eggs with the help of candlelight in the Dairy Pavillion cellar. The City of Paris employed one hundred egg inspectors to guarantee freshness. They were sworn in and placed directly under the supervision of the Prefecture de Police. 

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A postcard shows the feverish morning activity at Les Halles

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Someone had to move all this merchandise, and not just anyone. The task was performed by the Forts. These strongmen were easily identifiable thanks to their large hat, the coltin, with a built-in lead disc helping to support heavy loads carried on the head. The Forts formed a famous brotherhood, created under the reign of Louis IX during the 13th century.

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halles forts

Two Forts wearing their coltin hats 

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The organization was hierarchical. The chiefs were recognized by their silver medal, while the simple Forts wore a copper one. Their motto was Strength and Honor. Not everyone could become a Fort. The hiring conditions were strict and the applicant had to fulfill all five of them:

  • To be of French nationality
  • To have done military service
  • To have a clean criminal record
  • To measure at least 1.67 meters (5,5″)
  • To be able to carry a load of 200 kg (circa 450 pounds) over a distance of 60 meters (65 yards)

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halles forts 2

The Forts at work

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With the constantly growing population, Paris suffered circulation problems. Around 1960, it became clear that the current food distribution had to be changed to ease the cramped conditions. It no longer made sense to bring all the food into the city to be redistributed afterwards. The decision to transfer the market to two suburban locations, Rungis and La Vilette, became official in 1962.

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halles end

This photo by Pierre Doisneau, taken after the destruction of Les Halles, fits the mood of the place at the end of an era in the city’s history

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Related posts:

Camel Steak, Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris

Extreme Food Recycling Caution: Not for weak stomachs!

Paris Markets in Victor Gilbert’s Paintings

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If you like these posts, support the autor by buying her books:

This blog has quietly passed the 10-year anniversary. We met many remarkable personalities along the way, and I want to recall some of them in this post. Not all were paragons of virtue, but they were bursting with enthusiasm, perseverance, and unlimited energy. The combination of all three is what leads to high achievement. Here then is a collection of five exceptional go-getters:

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Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III

(1808-1873)

His megalomaniac uncle ravaged Europe, wasted a whole generation of Frenchmen on battlefields, and caused untold suffering to people across the continent, from Spain to Russia. Napoleon III, on the contrary, ruled for eighteen prosperous years with modernization and progress as his goals. For some strange reason, Napoleon the Great found his historical place among the admired personalities instead of being sent to hell along with Hitler. His industrious nephew, on the other hand, is called Napoleon le Petit (Napoleon the Small) by the ungrateful French. And yet! Where are the glorious conquests of Napoleon I now? Gone, long gone. Only the legend remains. The legacy of Napoleon III, far less glorious, but far more useful, is still with us. It’s time to do this remarkable man justice. His life story is just as colorful as his uncle’s. Read The English Courtesan Who Made a French Emperor

Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man who transformed Paris

(1809-1891)

Better known as Baron Haussmann, this man was chosen by Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a massive urban renewal of Paris. Never before had a city been transformed so fast and so completely. Never again will we see such a ruthless urban upheaval for greater good. What was possible then, under the imperial absolutism, is no longer doable in a democratic state. Nevertheless, whichever way we look at it today, we cannot deny Baron Haussmann’s genius. Read more…

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Countess of Castiglione, professional beauty, secret agent, and pioneer of photography

(1837-1899)

Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni, the Countess of Castiglione by virtue of her marriage, and the most notorious narcissist of the century, led a busy life. Still in her teens, she became the mistress to a king who then sent her to conquer an emperor. After bedroom diplomacy in her youth, she spent the rest of her life posing for portraits of her gorgeous self. While doing so, she rewrote the rules of photography. Read La Castiglione: The Too Much Countess

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Charles F. Worth, father of the haute-couture and fashion dictator

(1825-1895)

When Charles Worth died, queens and other wealthy women around the world wept. In his egalitarian establishment, Rue de la Paix, royalty met with high-ranking prostitutes and the common language was money. This former printer’s apprentice, ended with 1,200 employees and a huge fortune. How did it all happen? Read it here…

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Sarah Bernhardt, the drama queen who conquered the world

(1844-1923)

The Divine Sarah as she was known worldwide, was a woman of many talents, and even more eccentricities. She possessed the energy of a power plant and an extraordinary courage to fight adversity. When she stood in the US Congress, pleading for America to join the WW1, no one had to ask who was this small, one-legged, old Frenchwoman. If you lived in a civilized country you would have heard her name. She’d made sure of that. Read The Inescapable Sarah Bernhardt here…

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If you like these posts, support the author by buying her publications (ebook or print) :

Just published:

ONE FOR ALL

After twenty years apart, the Three Musketeers reunite to right a wrong.

Madelon-la-Belle left Paris twenty years ago to escape her damaged reputation. She abandoned her infant daughter, Louise, in the care of her sister. Now she is back, a wealthy widow, and she plans to be a caring mother. Her idea of caring motherhood is to make Louise a high-born heiress. It only needs a little deception.

This does not sit well with Louise’s father, Captain d’Artagnan of the Royal Musketeers, who finds Madelon’s plan unsound. He wants to see Louise married as soon as possible, before she becomes a slut like her mother, and has already found a good husband for her. Unfortunately, the formidable Madelon does not agree with d’Artagnan’s choice. A battle of wills ensues, involving d’Artagnan’s long-lost friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.

A screenplay inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel.

When butchers inspired artists: Calf in a Butcher’s Shop Window by Gustav Caillebotte (1882)

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Food in 19th century Paris was a serious matter requiring perfection at all levels including an artful display.

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The Government of Paris kept an attentive eye on the cleanliness of food retailer's shops, particularly the butchers. This poultry shop obtained several awards
The Government of Paris kept an attentive eye on the cleanliness of food retailers’ shops, particularly the butchers. This poultry shop obtained multiple awards

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These cones with sticky surface helped to keep food free from flies.

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Not the usual fare, a camel’s carcass is prominently displayed in this fancy wild game shop

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Seafood was delivered from this shop to your address

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Potato market on the Seine. Meat was for the well-to-do bourgeois. Poorer people made do with bread and potatoes. A piece of salted pork was added on Sundays. Other meat was reserved only for special celebrations

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A mother-and-daughter sidewalk produce shop

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A grocery store, such as this one, was a relative novelty. Until the second half of the 19th century, the Parisian grocery trade had very few fixed premises. Merchandise was sold in bulk from the central market or retailed from pushcarts. The imported and gourmet items sold in the brick-and-mortar shops remained out of reach for the poorest, who mostly subsisted on a monotonous diet of milk, bread, potatoes, and pork fat.

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While today you go shopping to the store, in the past the store came to you in small pieces. Here comes the produce section

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Loaded pushcarts, ready to go

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The street was a noisy place with merchants on wheels shouting their wares

Related posts:

Les Halles: The Belly of Paris

Les Halles were the commercial heart of Paris, a place of exchange and supply to the abundant life that had developed over the centuries. An entire chapter in Paris history was closed in 1971 with the destruction of this central market.

If you like these posts, support the author by purchasing her books:

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Between May 1889 and June 1890, a pandemic of influenza swept over the world. Known as the Asian Flu, or Russian Flu, it was one of the deadliest in history, killing about one million out of the world’s population of circa 1.5 billion. The disease was first reported in the Central Asian city of Bukhara in May 1889, to reach the American continent in December of the same year. Never before had a virus spread so quickly and on such a large scale. With the rapid growth of railway transport and an improvement in sea travel, humanity was no longer entirely safe from a pandemic, no matter the distance.

Distribution of help to the influenza victims

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How did people cope then? The treatment was chaotic. Some used small doses of strychnine, others believed in large quantities of rum or whisky. Linseed, salt and warm water, glycerin or quinine were also used, none of which would be very helpful. Little was known of viral contagion, as even some doctors still believed in the miasma theory according to which disease was spread by bad air, the night air being the worst one.

When even prayers did not bring results, there was always the song. Long, mournful ballads helped our ancestors to deal with their loss. The lyrics sold by street singers conserved the memory of important, often tragic events

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Related post:

The Dead of Paris

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If you like these posts, support the author by buying her books:

Every year, the Parisian elite received an invitation to the Madwomen’s Ball at the Salpêtrière Hospital

Last year’s February post Mi-Carême: An Explosion of Joy in the Midst of Gloom described the joyous feasts of Mid-Lent during the month of February. Let’s recall that the Mi-Carême celebrations cut in half the forty days of strict and tedious Lent rules of penance, fasting, and prayers. This brief rest from enforced virtue was filled with public and private costume parties. Feverish preparations for the events helped to fill time with pleasant activity in the first part of the Lent, while happy memories did the same service during the second half.

If you received an invitation to the Madwomen’s Ball at the La Salpêtrière Hospital, you would feel flattered. Indeed, only the crème de la crème were thus honored. The celebrated Doctor Charcot, the head of the Neurological Clinic, would not allow a mere rabble to spoil the event. After all, meeting the female patients—there were no men hospitalized in this institution—demanded a certain seriousness and responsible behavior. With the mentally unstable patients, unpredictable accidents could happen. This or that inmate could behave oddly or succumb to a spectacular crisis of hysteria. Invitations were rarely refused for that very reason.

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Nurses stand at the ready among the costumed patients as they mingle with the visitors

The hospital provided a funding of 500 francs for costumes, and the patients got themselves busy with sewing and fitting weeks before the event. On the night in question, the Ball des Folles began at 8:00 PM to be closed at midnight. Finger food was served, but strictly no alcohol. The Tout Paris, as the Parisian elite was known, came to see the patients dance and make merry under the vigilance of the nurses. This curious event was repeated year after year until the early 20th century.

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Some of Dr. Charcot’s star performers

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Jane Avril, charcoal sketch by Picasso

Since Dr. Charcot’s lectures were opened to public every Wednesday, some of his patients enjoyed a celebrity status for their demonstrations of madness. The women usually came from dire poverty or harsh abuse, and many were grateful for the safe home they found at the hospital. One of the former inmates, Jane Avril, recalls in her memoir that her stay at La Salpêtrière was a complete bliss compared to her life at home. Jane became a celebrated dancer. You can read her story in another post here.

Related post:

Professor Charcot and the Amplification of Hysteria

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If you like these posts, support the author by buying her books at Amazon:

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André Brouillet – A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière ( 1887)
Professor Charcot in his French Academy uniform

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Hysteria, although no longer a recognized disease, is still a word that refuses to die. We use it whenever someone’s behavior exceeds the norm. In the 19th century, hysteria was often paired with an exceptional scientist. His name was Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot was born in 1825 and began his medical carrier at La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, studying pathological anatomy. He was utterly fascinated by the many strange and seemingly incurable neurological afflictions he would encounter there. At the time, the asylum/hospital of La Salpêtrière was a prison-like institution housing all the human detritus of Paris: all the social outcasts that could cause contamination, either physical or moral. Beggars, prostitutes, and the insane were picked off the street and brought to the asylum by cartloads. Up to ten thousand inmates, caregivers, and guardians populated this city within a city.

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La Salpêtrière


To Charcot, the outcasts represented a treasury of unsolved medical mysteries. He plunged into this unknown territory with the same zeal seen in globe-trotting explorers. In1862, he founded a neurological clinic—the very first of its kind worldwide—where he reigned for the next 31 years. During that time, Charcot made important discoveries and advances in his field of expertise, and his vast merits should not be overshadowed by his exploitation of hysteria.

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Hysteria

Hysteria was one of the oldest and the most mysterious nervous pathologies. The name came from the Ancient Greek word for uterus (hystera). By far, most patients struck with this condition were women. The Ancient believed that the strange behavior of the afflicted was caused by the uterus wandering inside the woman’s body and causing all sorts of problems, such as violent attacks and infirmities without apparent physical cause.

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Before Charcot stepped onto the world stage as the King of Hysteria, this illness was considered to be madness and the place for the mad was the asylum for the insane. Charcot saw the problem in a different light. He diagnosed hysteria as a neurological pathology which could be observed in both sexes. In his opinion, the basis for hysteria was some trauma faced by the patient which left a lesion on the nervous system. He noticed that hysterical attacks would happen several days after a traumatic incident. Further observations lead him to believe that attacks of hysteria occurred in a self-induced hypnotic state, and he decided that the patients should be treated under hypnosis.

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It worked to a certain degree. Under hypnosis, Charcot brought on the hysterical attack, making it visible and treatable. What’s more, he was able to reproduce it on demand in front of an audience of students. Up to this point, hypnosis had been associated with occultism and frowned upon by science. Charcot made it into a scientific and empirical method to study hysteria.

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Hypnosis consists of three stages: lethargy, catalepsy, and somnambulism. To reach the first stage, the patient has to be induced to the hypnotic state. Charcot had several tricks up his sleeve, from the usual swinging pocket watch, to a blinding light, or the loud vibrations of a giant tuning fork. For more resistant patients, he applied metals, magnets, or static electricity.

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Inducing hypnosis with light

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Induction by sound (left) State of lethargy (right)


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If the induction is successful, lethargy sets in. In this state, the patient collapses and has to be supported by assistants to prevent a fall. Lethargy is characterized by complete relaxation, inattention, and amnesia. Charcot would use this stage to test the muscle contractions. Most hysterical attacks were accompanied by strong contractions he would call neuromuscular hyperexcitability. While the patient was unconscious and totally relaxed, Charcot could ascertain whether the case was a legitimate neurological disease or not.

Catalepsy

The next stage is named catalepsy. During this stage the patient is under the hypnotist’s control, obeying his commands, and can communicate to a degree. Free of conscious thought, the person cannot dissimulate and answers with all sincerity. Her limbs can be manipulated by the hypnotist’s commands and the patient is able to stiffen and remain in uncomfortable positions without a sign of fatigue. Many hysterics claimed numbness in certain parts of the body. In their conscious state, they could be poked with sharp objects without feeling pain. Under hypnosis, the numbness was gone and Charcot could demonstrate that there was no physical damage to the body.
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The third stage, somnambulism, opened more communication between patient and doctor. Charcot believed that it represented the self-induced state of hysteria during which the attacks occurred. The patient was more conscious at this point and able to accept healing suggestions.
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All this turned Charcot’s lectures into exciting stage productions with light and sound effects, with half-clad women fainting or screaming, trashing about or slavishly obeying orders, and stiffening in unnatural positions in front of a fascinated masculine audience. As Charcot’s fame grew in medical circles, his neurological clinic saw students from far abroad. By that time he had his stars. Blanche, Louise, Augustine, and others were young, pretty, and skilfully playing the part.

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Charcot and his patient: The show could not go on

Toward the end of his life, Charcot admitted that hypnosis was not really used to treat the symptoms of hysteria. He could alleviate them, but in most cases it was only temporary relief. He used hypnosis to exhibit hysterical symptoms: it was a teaching tool, not a cure. After Charcot’s death, in 1893, hypnosis would continue, but in different forms. It was abandoned as a medical procedure, mainly because very few people had the ability to induce hypnosis the way Charcot could. Sigmund Freud, Charcot’s pupil, and great admirer failed at the task and developed psychoanalysis instead. Hypnosis returned to the occult and the stage entertainment.

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Modern medicine buried hysteria in the 1980s when it was eradicated from the official medical diagnoses list. It’s been replaced by the vague label od dissociative disorders.

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Next: The Madwomen’s Ball at La Salpêtrière. (When the Parisian high-society went to the madhouse for entertainment.)

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Related posts:

Murder Most Horrible: The Bloody Trunk Case (Hypnosis and crime)

Louise and Jeanne: The Two Antipodes of Moulin Rouge (Child abuse and mental illness)

Poor and Helpless in 19th Century Paris

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