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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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The Dead of Paris

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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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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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The Birth of Mass Shopping

An advertising leaflet of the word’s first department store

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Christmas time is also shopping time, so let’s talk about the history of shopping. The oldest shopping malls were the weekly, monthly, or annual fairs open to all kinds of weather. The rest of the time people had to do with local products. What the shops offered was further restricted by a law that permitted selling only one type of commodity. For instance, umbrella merchants could not sell eye-glasses and vice versa. Poor choice of merchandise was common even in large cities until the appearance of public transport. The first omnibuses in Paris started operating in 1828, and they allowed people to venture out of their neighborhoods.

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The precursor of shopping malls. Toward the first half of the 19th century, glass-ceilinged passages equipped with gaslights and lined with shops and restaurants, married retailing with leisure

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The first shopping malls began as narrow streets provided with glass ceilings. These were called passages, and many are still functioning in Paris. The 1830s saw the birth of magasins des nouveautés. These were novelty shops that offered various commodities organized in distinct departments on several floors around a glass-ceilinged courtyard.

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Railways were the agents of change in shopping

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Past the mid-century, the railway changed all that. Trains brought provincials and foreign visitors, who would have never left their home otherwise. They all wanted to see the sights and to shop, shop, shop. Unfortunately, all Paris had to offer these avid shoppers was the lack of retail space. The rise of the giant department stores begun.

Aristide Boucicaut

The first on the market–and in the world–was Au Bon Marché. Founded in 1838, it survived the competition of the other novelty magazines by shrewd display tactics and remained the leader in innovations. The genius behind modern shopping science was Au Bon Marché’s next owner, Aristide Boucicaut who took over the magazine in 1852. He had many tricks up his sleeve, including placing related merchandise at the opposite ends of the store. You bought fabric in one corner, and to get a sewing thread to put the fabric together, you had to cross the store passing seductive displays of fashion accessories that would enhance the new dress. Nearly all the shopping strategies, including the orgiastic sales that influence us today, were invented by Boucicaut and his clever followers in these early days of mass shopping.

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The most important strategy, still employed today, was to bring people in by promises of a good deal (bon marché in French) and keep them there by offering luxury surroundings and classless hospitality. People came, both wealthy and poor. Upper-class women, for whom the streets were not safe, found there a pleasant change from the confinement of home. For the lower classes, never before invited into a palace, it was a self-esteem building experience. Here, they could enter freely and be waited upon, the same as the rich.

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At the time of Boucicaut’s death in 1887, the Au Bon Marché covered nearly 100,000 square feet, employed 1,788 people, and was earning 77 million francs a year, making it the largest retail business in the world.

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Galleries Lafayette

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Other spectacular shopping temples rose in the streets of Paris, such as Au Printemps and Galleries Lafayette. Both are still on the same level of attraction as the Eiffel Tower.

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Crinolines and Impériales: Public Transport in Paris

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869 – Part 5: Shopping

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Victor Gabriel Gilbert A Cup of Coffee

 

The Victorian dress had many layers, and the body remained fully covered except for the evening dress where deep cleavage and short sleeves were tolerated. As for domestic servants, hot weather or not, they remained stuck in their long-sleeved uniform. Shirt, corset, corset protector, bodice and an apron on top: that’s the crosscut of the Victorian maid’s outfit.

The following video shows the maid’s clothing in every detail. Besides watching the model adding layer after layer, you’ll learn many interesting facts about the working condition of Victorian servants.

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Many thanks to the Prior Attire for this video and their fine work!

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Fashion Enigma: The Secrets of the Victorian Restroom

Paris Downstairs: The Upper Servants

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While Sunday in the Anglo-Saxon world–in London and in New York–meant only godly thoughts and strict rest with church, prayers, and roast beef for entertainment, Parisians were out for serious fun. Sunday, especially a summer Sunday, meant a trip beyond the city limits. For many, the goal was their favorite guinguette (‘gang-ette), an establishment with music and dance on the outskirts of Paris where wine and food were significantly cheaper than in the capital.

One of the Parisian favorite guinguettes was the Moulin de la Galette, a medieval windmill standing on the Montmartre hill and offering a magnificent view of the city. Before electricity made them obsolete, there were some three hundred windmills in Paris, of which only four remain today.

Pierre-August Renoir’s famous painting Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1876) depicts the jovial and comfortable atmosphere that reigned on the outdoor dance floor:

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What better way to perceive the mood in this ball than testimonials! Thanks to the press, it is still possible to read them again. Extract from the Intransigeant of May 28, 1882:

Last Sunday I was at the ball. At the Moulin de la Galette ball. I went there – with two friends, the big big X… the devil’s innkeeper, and the big little B… librettist and dominotier, a bearded, illuminated, pot-bellied like a monk of Rabelais; the other bald like an egg and yellowed like old ivory.

I adore this bastringue, with its large rectangular hall, with a polished floor, all shining – its orchestra with bellowing trombones, squealing flutes – its youthful couples whirling in the waltz, hopping in the polka, swaying in the quadrille; it’s tables where other lovers consume, hand squeezing the hand with tenderness, the classic salad bowl of sweet wine or absinthes to which the bland addition of barley gives a sickly, chlorotic tint, a pale greenness or a greenish whiteness – the color of drowned faces …

The enduring popularity of this guinguette is best illustrated with a photo from 1938

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Other popular guinguettes dotted the banks of the rivers Seine and Marne, where Parisians went to enjoy water sports. Again, Renoir is here to show us what it was like. We see the company digesting lunch, but there is a dance floor somewhere and musicians waiting to strike a quadrille.

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Pierre-August Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881)

The popularity of guinguettes, which took a dive in the second half of the twentieth century, is now on the rise again.

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Absinthe: The Rise and Fall of the Green Fairy

Parisians in 1842: The Working Class

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Victorian Passion

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If we judge by the vintage photographs, our ancestors appear to be stiff and unsmiling individuals. It’s hard to see how–with all that propriety–they managed to give way to their feelings. Only paintings and illustrations allow us to see that our great-great-grandparents’ hormones worked at full capacity and that they, too, got caught in the swirl of passion.

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Here is how we know them…

…and it is not hard to believe that all these children came via the stork delivery

Fortunately, art took another approach and here is a gallery of Victorian passion that proves it was not so. From seduction to conclusion:

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The Jolies Madames

We Procure our Ballerinas to Wealthy Men

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Working Class Clothing

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Léon Frédéric: The Boys

An excellent article on the My Daily Art Display blog—where you’ll always find excellent articles—focusing on the Belgian painter Léon Frédéric (1865 – 1940), offers a rare look at the 19th-century peasant clothes. For those who research the history of fashion, such images are uncommon as the material they find prevailingly depicts upper-class clothing. Yet peasants formed the overwhelming part of the 19th-century’s population, and the newly-built railways brought them into cities in large numbers. Their simple clothing, mostly of somber colors, did not differ from that of the working-class city dwellers.

In his cycle, The Age of the Peasant, Frédéric’s portrayal of four peasant generations gives us the opportunity to follow the working-class people as the hardships of life wrote wrinkles on their faces. More about this realistic painter and his work here.

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The Girls

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The Betrothed

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Married Couples

1 the elderly

The Elderly

Related post:

Fashion Enima: The Secrets of Victorian Restroom

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liberty

Eugène Delacroix: Liberty Leading the People, 1830

 

During the Industrial Revolution, many children and adolescents worked in the suburbs of Paris. When out of work, they evolved in bands. Ragged and hungry, they roamed in the streets of the capital. The titis or gamins of Paris laughed at everything, didn’t hesitate to steal, and were adepts at vulgarity.

titi 2

 

The Parisian titi is embodied in the guise of Gavroche, a street child full of banter, mischief, and resourcefulness in Les Miserables. Victor Hugo moreover fondly calls him “this little great soul” when he collapses under bullets, during the barricades of 1830.   The child brandishing pistols in Eugène Delacroix’s painting  Liberty Leading the People (1830) is often cited as the main source of inspiration for Victor Hugo’s Gavroche.

 

Today, this heroic figure has been reduced to a kitschy character to charm tourists. Titi’s postcards can be purchased in every souvenir shop. Like all the Parisian fauna, the titi/gamin has been immortalized on film and in songs. Here is the most popular one along with other versions of the tacky art:

 

 

 

 

Related posts for People of Paris:

La Grisette  

Where the Revolutionaries Lived

 

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Giuseppe de Nittis: The Salon of Princess Mathilde, 1883

 

One of the largest differences between the Brits and the French was their attitude toward women. The British gentleman suffered women where he could not avoid them and avoided them where he could by seeking refuge in men-only clubs. The Frenchman, on the contrary, did not feel bright unless there were women around. He sought them out during his leisure time, and he was keen to converse in their company. The French were never afraid of clever women and they allowed them to rule as the salonnières.

 

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A 17th-century literary salon.

 

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The tradition of the Parisian Salon was an old one. It began in the seventeenth century and was largely abandoned during the WW1. The salonnières, who hosted these gatherings in their homes, held power. Political plots were hatched, new literary trends were started, scientific discoveries were publicized, and new artistic talents were launched under their influence.

Could you, yourself, become a salonnière?

Who knows? Maybe you already have every asset to revive this ancient tradition. Let’s see what it takes:

You must be a woman. Salons were always ran by women. It did not matter whether or not they were respectable. A princess could compete with a courtesan for the same guests.

You must be wealthy. Your house must offer an agreeable background for the sophisticated exchange of ideas. A well-run Salon may provide a Wednesday dinner for some thirty seated guests and a Saturday reception for about one hundred. Quality wine was a must. Good food was expected as well.

You must have a complacent husband or no husband at all. Very rarely, a husband would hang around and co-host the events. The ideal husband would content himself with a visit to his mistress and allow his wife to rule the crowd.

You must have a great man. Salons were built around a great man who served as a magnet to attract other desirables. He could be a philosopher, a politician, a music composer, or a famous author. Often, the great man was the salonnière’s lover and her goal was to make him even greater.

You must be attentive to new trends and courageous enough to start one. Depending on the type of your salon, you must be aware of what goes on in politics, culture, or science. You must read the latest novel, meet the latest polar explorer, or recognize the right time to introduce new talent.

You must be a social expert. It is important to be well-informed about your guests and careful not to invite two bitter enemies. Knowing the latest gossip is always helpful in that matter and having your spies in competing salons is a clever way to stay on top of things.

You must be a woman of authority. Your salon, your rules. If the conversation does not go the right way, you stop it politely, but with no room for appeal. It is your choice whether you allow an uncontrolled flow or, on the contrary, whether you choose a subject of conversation and insist that the guests stick within the limits.

You must be ready to make it a full-time job. Seeing new trends coming, finding the right guests, sending out invitations, supervising the staff, choosing wines and menus, listening to all relevant gossip, and all the plotting and scheming that goes into it, will take your entire waking time.

 

 

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How to Succeed in Paris

The Goncourts: Gossip Inc.

 

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