A target to hordes of tourists, the Moulin Rouge is one of the most emblematic monuments of Paris. Before becoming a mythical place, the cabaret was a den of debauchery – a symbol of the Belle Époque madness.



The establishment opens in October 1889 with the owners labelling it a temple of music and dance. It’s founders, Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler (already patrons of the Olympia), know well what appeals to the Parisian public and do not skimp on the means. They invest in extravagant decoration, a gigantic dance floor, and fantastic shows inspired by the circus world. Everything is ready to entice the All Paris to come and have fun in this small Montmartre corner. There is even a huge elephant, recovered from the Universal Exhibition of 1889.


The famous elephant of Moulin Rouge was used as an opium den



If the cabaret is at this point the temple of entertainment, it is also thanks to the success of the French cancan. This famous dance with raised petticoats will delight the Parisians and turn the Moulin Rouge into a sanctuary for festivities and debauchery. Foreign travelers flock in for an unforgettable experience, and the fame of the French cancan spreads worldwide.



This 1894 drawing suggests that shady deals were concluded at the entrance to the Moulin Rouge


The Moulin Rouge is celebrated in many works of art, particularly in those of the painter Toulouse-Lautrec, who was a fixture there. His most famous poster (below) pictures two of the early Moulin Rouge stars: La Goulue and her dance partner Valentin-the-Boneless (in silhouette). The sad stories of la Goulue and of the dancer Mad Jane, are well-worth reading in Louise and Jeanne: The Antipodes of Moulin Rouge, an earlier post here.



Today, the Moulin Rouge has lost nothing of its grandeur except for the moral casualness of its beginnings. It remains a magical place of the cabaret world.


Related posts:

Louise and Jeanne: The Antipodes of Moulin Rouge

Mark Twain and the Cancan

The Opera of Paris: We Procure Our Ballerinas to Wealthy Men




Very few liquors deserved so much attention in literature, painting, and poetry as did the absinthe, the favorite drink of the Parisian artistic community. Absinthe drinking involved an ever-fascinating ritual, best described in one of Marcel Pagnol’s novels (Le Temps des Secrets):

“The poet’s eye shone suddenly, and then, in a deep silence, began a kind of ceremony. He installed before him a glass, which was very big, after checking its cleanliness. He then took the bottle, uncorked it, smelled it, and poured an amber liquid with green reflections, whose dose he seemed to measure with suspicious attention, for, after examination and reflection, he added a few drops. He then took from the tray a kind of small silver shovel, which was narrow and long, and pierced with cut-outs in the shape of arabesques. He put this device, like a bridge, on the edges of the glass, and charged it with two lumps of sugar.

With a hand resting on her hip at the end of her gracefully rounded arm, the Infanta lifted the pitcher high enough, then with an infallible address, she dropped a very thin stream of fresh water on the sugar cubes, which began to fall apart slowly.

The poet, whose chin was almost touching the table, between his two hands laid flat, watched closely the operation. The Infanta’s jug was as motionless as a fountain, and Isabelle was no longer breathing. In the liquid, whose level was rising slowly, I saw forming a kind of milky haze, in twisted twists that eventually joined, while a penetrating scent of anise was refreshing my nostrils. ”

Absinthe was also called the Green Fairy as it was believed that it opened the door to a fairyland

The effect of absinthe varies from person to person but it can be described as mind and eye-sharpening.  Some consumers mention impressive dreams. The active ingredient in absinthe is a plant called wormwood.  The most persistent misunderstanding about wormwood is that it is a drug. Although not true, this vision of absinthe as a dangerous intoxicant and hallucinogen grew until the liquor got banned.

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

Paintings of absinthe drinkers usually depict melancholy and resigned individuals:

The Absinthe Drinkers Au Café By Edgar Degas, 1876

The Absinthe Drinker by Pablo Picasso, 1901

Absinth Drinkers by Jean Béraud, 1908

Absinthe got popular under the Second Empire (1852-1870).  At the beginning, it was a fashionable drink for the wealthy. Around this time, it became normal to start the meal with an aperitif, and between the 1500 liquors available, absinthe accounted for 90% of aperitifs consumed.

A cozy middle-class moment with absinthe

The consumption of absinthe crested in the years 1880-1910, when its price fell and it became accessible to all, rivaling in popularity with wine. During this time, everyone drank absinthe, from  society ladies to workers. In 1874, France consumed 700,000 liters of wormwood, but in 1910 this figure reached 36,000,000 liters a year. By that time, absinthe was already a major French export. The French colonies were important markets, followed by South American countries like Argentina and Chile.

Posters condemning the consumption of absinthe began to appear. Even the dog shows his disrespect for this working class loser

Absinthe contained 75% alcohol and was not always sufficiently diluted with water. When it began replacing wine, the problems with drunkenness grew and so did the backlash against the liquor. Absinthe was blamed for a syndrome, called absinthism, characterized by hyper-nervosity, epileptic seizures, and hallucinations. According to the anti-absinthe activists, the drink even caused the painter van Gogh’s madness and his ear amputation. (Not true.)

The Green Hour
What we know as the Happy Hour was called the Green Hour because absinthe was the drink of choice. This poster shows the effects of absinthe on the working class (left) and on the better class (right)

Discussions followed discussions. Petitions were signed. The vise slowly tightened around absinthe. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a series of particularly brutal family murders for which absinthe was blamed – largely unjustly. Preceding the crime, the murderer drank not only two glasses of absinthe but also a mint cream, a cognac, six glasses of wine to water his lunch, another glass of wine after work, a cup of coffee with brandy, a liter of wine on the way back, then another coffee with brandy. Only absinthe was blamed for his murderous dementia.

Absinthe was banned in Belgium in 1905, in Switzerland in 1910, in the United States in 1912, and finally in France in 1915. It was resurrected in 1987 in former Czechoslovakia and is now available in other countries as well

There are two ways of serving absinthe: the meditative and the flamboyant. Both are depicted in this video:

Related posts:

Drink and Prostitution: The Belle Epoque Hooters

The Scarcity of Water



The fascination with tattoo images swept the Victorian world when Samuel O’Reilly created the tattoo machine in 1891. A torture that could last weeks could be done faster and with less pain. The appetite for tattoos, seen as exotic through their association with the sea travel, was very present in the world of popular entertainment and among the circus people.  Even women without particular talent or beauty could make a living in the show business through displaying their tattooed bodies. However, they were marked for life as persons of low morals and little faith.

In the past, the western civilization associated corporal marking with crime. This reputation was due to the practice of tattooing in prisons. Made with makeshift means, the tattoos had to be hidden because they were forbidden by the church. For the prisoners, it was a way to claim their personality despite the gray reality of confinement. This bad reputation was strengthened by the marking of prostitutes who were inspired by the criminals they frequented. In the world of low-class crime, tattoos displayed the membership of a gang. A discreet mark near the eyes identified at the first sight the Parisian Apache.

It was not until the 1970s that tattooing became popular with the arrival of the hippie movement. Little by little, this practice became more widespread as sports and music stars began publicly wearing tattoos.

Related post:

The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches



Claude Monet: Women in the Garden, 1866



How did they do it? The question occurs to many who see pictures of Victorian women in voluminous skirts. With up to twenty yards of fabric supported by a cage, the call of nature seems to be an insurmountable problem. In the post The French Art of Peeing without Getting Wet Feet published here,  we read about the history of public urinals that served men. Readers wondered, with reason, what provision was made for women. We can only guess that chamber pots were the solution. Other than that, the true manipulation remained a mystery until the Prior Attire came to the rescue. The Prior Attire is the Sixth Cavalry of fashion history. With the video they published on YouTube, we now know the secrets of the Victorian restroom:





Related posts:

The French Art of Peeing without Getting Wet Feet

The Belle Epoque Lifestyle: Personal Hygiene



french watching


The French culinary lifestyle—such as a family eating in a restaurant—surprised many mid-century travelers. In their home countries, eating in a public place made sense only when a person was away from her home and its safe food. This was a habit in France as well until the 1789 revolution. With the aristocrats guillotined or gone to exile, many skilled and creative cooks became unemployed. The only solution was to open public eateries. The well-to-do bourgeois tasted aristocratic cuisine and they liked it.  More than half a century later, when the following text was written, there were hundreds of restaurants in Paris. Eating out made more sense than staying at home. One saved on kitchen fuel, which was a considerable expense at the time, and one could choose from a variety of expertly cooked dishes.

James Jackson Jarves (1818-1888), the author of the text, visited Paris in the early 1850s and published his impressions in Parisian Sights and French Principles, seen through American spectacles (1852). His wit and the clarity of his style vividly portray the living condition in the mid-century Paris.

To see the French eat one should visit the restaurants of lesser magnitude and fame, particularly of a Sunday, where the rush to dinner, as no one dines that day under his own roof, is absolutely fearful to a lover of a quiet meal. Infants, dogs, and nurses, all have a seat that day, and the amount consumed would indicate considerable preparatory fasting. Eating and drinking, for the moment, become the only business of life. The preparations bespeak the seriousness of the operation.

A family enters, consisting of father, mother, maiden sister, two children under five years of age, and a dog. All the tables are filled. They turn to go out. The restaurateur rushes forward, intercepts their retreat, and promises a table toutsuite. He sees one party have called for their bills, hands them their change, and plumps the newcomers into their warm seats., with an array of broken bread, dirty glasses, and all the debris of the previous meal before them.

Once seated, with bonnets and hats hung up, they are considered as secure as fish fairly hooked. The garçon, with the dexterity and rapidity peculiarly his own, whisks away the soiled tablecloth and dishes, and in an instant has replaced them with snow-white linen and porcelain.

Now commences the tug of eating. Each member of the party, except for the dog who gravely occupies the chair, too well-bred to manifest impatience, plants a napkin under his or her chin, of the dimensions of a moderate-sized tablecloth. The females pin the extremities to each shoulder so that in front they have much the appearance of being in their shrouds. The menu card is studied, orders given, and content and pleasure reign. At these family feasts, children are literally crammed, indulged with wines and the delicacies called for by adult taste, their parents delighted in proportion to the quantity they consume.

Eating, under almost any circumstances, is to a looker-on a vulgar operation. In one of these restaurants, it is certainly an amusing one to a veteran traveler. whose sensibilities had long since their edges blunted. The French from early habit frequently make themselves very much at home at restaurants and cafes, spending their evenings at the latter, reading the journals, and playing chess and dominoes, paying the same by calling for a bottle of beer or a glass of brandy. I have myself seen a woman who had come in by herself, after finishing her repast, coolly throw herself back in a chair and proceed to take a comfortable digestive nap, apparently wholly oblivious to the existence and manifold trials of the race denominated unprotected females.

Related post:

Extreme Good Recycling  Warning: Do not read during or immediately after a meal!

Traveler’s Bonus:

The Cheapest Gourmet Restaurants in Paris



Grand Prix Day by Frederick Childe Hassam


Abandon all romantic thoughts about horses and think of horse manure. It was a problem that was growing as the large cities grew even larger. Toward the end of the 19th century, the waste product of horse digestion covered the city streets in thick layers.  For the city councils, it was a headache for which there was no soothing pill. Each day in Paris, 90,000 horses needed to be fed and their waste disposed of somehow. London and New York experienced an even worse calamity.

It was generally thought that the first international conference on urban planning would bring a solution. The year was 1898 and the symposium of one-week duration opened with great pomp in New York, the most dynamically growing city in the world. Attendees arrived from many world’s capitals.  The New York’s mayor led the opening speeches at the City Hall and journalists competed in speculation about what would be the outcome of the high-level conference. Horse manure was the main subject. But the meeting of the city planners ended quietly after three days of failure. No solution was found.

At the time of the conference, London could boast of the world’s first ever underground rail system but eleven thousand horse-driven taxis still carried people on the surface. The passenger transport used horse-drawn buses. A standard car, with twenty seats and a pair of horses, worked sixteen hours a day. The animals were not allowed to work for more than four hours, so at least eight horses were needed for one car. During hot weather, it was necessary to use fresh horses more often.  The transport of heavy goods needed a stream of freight wagons pulled by four to twelve horses. The driving force of London was about 190,000 horses, each producing up to 50 pounds of waste per day. Each day, London’s four-legged population yielded about four and a half million pounds of dung. Add to it the hectolitres of horse urine and you cannot be surprised that the turn of the century was called the Age of Decay. A New York newspaper of the time complains that the whole city “is covered with brownish smoking carpet that stinks to high heaven”. On hot days, it was preferable to live behind closed doors and windows.


Horses needed hay feed and straw for bedding. Delivery wagons, such as these, were a common sight in the cities.


Nobody wanted the manure. The farmers had enough of their own. The only people happy about the situation were real estate speculators, who purchased cheap parcels of land and converted them into dung depots. There, the heaps of manure reached up to 15 meters high which did not help the air quality in the cities.

As if that was not enough, there were horse carcasses, each weighing about one thousand pounds. Many horses were left where they died by unscrupulous owners. Their bodies were a paradise for flies and various insects, as well as for rats. In New York, about 15,000 carcasses were removed every year from the streets.

Hygiene and cleanliness seemed to be unreachable goals as the conference ended on a gloomy note. The dire prognosis envisaged that, at the current rate of growth, in 1930 large cities streets would be buried under three meters of manure. No one could imagine cities without horses.  And so, burdened with black thoughts of a bleak future, the participants left for home after only three days. However, as we know, cities eventually did not drown in horse manure. Automobiles and electric tramways saved us just in time.

Related post:

Crinolines and Impériales: Public Transport in Paris



paris cover


When you lay bricks for eight years, you may end up with a house. Or a monument. Two weeks ago, when I decided to make my Victorian Paris blog posts into an e-book, I had no idea that I would end up with over four hundred pages of text and pictures. Yet here it is, and it is for sale at Amazon at a very reasonable price. Even though the blog is a labor of love, I wouldn’t mind getting recompense for feeding it and keeping it alive. Hence this book. There is still plenty to come in the next eight years and  I hope that you’ll stay with me for the ride.

Book description:

The Victorian Paris blog has informed and entertained readers since 2011. The illustrated posts collected in the book deal with every aspect of life in the French capital during the rise and fall of the Second Empire as well as the Belle Époque. Meet the movers and the shakers, discover the dark alleys of Paris where sin lured and gangs ruled, learn about the food (not always good). Follow the ordinary Parisian bourgeois in his daily routine and meet colorful Bohemian characters. Read what the wide-eyed British and American tourists thought of the city and its special inhabitants: the romantic grisettes, the predatory gigolettes,  the formidable Apaches, and other Parisian fauna. Americans began to visit Paris in the mid-century, when sea-travel became more comfortable and, after absorbing the inevitable culture shock, many fell in love with the city. They’ll tell you about it in this book.

E-book edition, 438 pages, 7.50 US       Buy here 


Table of Contents:



(A Guide for the English and American Traveller in 1869 or How to see PARIS for 5 guineas)

How to get there

Arrival in Paris

Find a hotel

Restaurants and Cafés







Mark Twain o Napoleon III

The English Courtesan Who Made a French Emperor

Eugenie, the Tragic Empress

Loulou and the Zulus: The Life and Death of Napoleon IV

The Prince of Wales in Paris: “Please Adopt Me!”

What Mark Twain Got Wrong

The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

The Truth About La Marseillaise

How Germany Was Born in France

Paris of the 1870’s: Rising from the Ashes



The Upper Class

The Middle Class

The Working Class

La Grisette

The Sad story of Two Grisettes

The Noon Girl: La Midinette

The Parisian Clochard: Misery Made Romantic

From Washerwoman to a Queen of Paris



Parisian Lifestyle: Sensual Ease and Contentment

French-Watching in 1850: Feeding Time at a Popular Restaurant

Old When Young and Young When Old

The Pilgrims and the Sinners: Sunday in Paris

Bois de Boulogne: The Rendezvous of Wealth and Opulence

Polite Parisians: Really?

The Love of Dogs

Mending Their Manners

Quiet Demoiselles and Proud Servants

Clever and Bizarre Local Items

The Last Duel in Paris



The French Family Ties

The Marriage Market

Without a Dowry: The Business of Marriage

The Dead of Paris



Parisians at Home and the Secrets d’Alcôve

Living Vertically: Parisian Housing in 1850

Feared and Despised: The Parisian Concierge

Jacques Takes a Bath

The Belle Epoque Lifestyle: Personal Hygiene

Paris in Winter: Not to be Desired

The Worst Season in Paris



La Soubrette

The Wet-Nurse

La Femme de Ménage

The Upper Servants



La Cuisine and the Liver Crisis

Food and Drink Orgy: Le Club des Grands Estomachs

Food: Not so Good

The Scarcity of Water

French Bread, French Teeth

Extreme Food Recycling

The French Art of Drinking Without Getting Drunk

The Belle Époque Catering Extravaganza



The Government of Paris: A Success Story

The Government of Paris Will Sell Your Crinoline

Parisian Foundlings

Poor and Helpless in 19th Century Paris

Paris Morgue in Emile Zola’s Words

Paris Mail: Look for the Blue Light

Crinolines and Imperials: The Public Transport

The French Art of Peeing Without Getting Wet Feet

The Eiffel Tower Story



The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches

1890s Terror in Paris

Order in the Street

The Policeman’s Work is Never Done

Slumming It in Paris

Saint-Lazare: Women in Prison

Murder Most Horrible: The Bloody Trunk Case



The Opera of Paris: We Procure Our Ballerinas to Wealthy Men

The Fortifications Whore

La Gigolette

The Impostor

The Jolie Madame

The Clandestine

The Belle Époque Hooters

Degrees of Prostitution



A Short Guide to the Ups and Downs of 19th Century Fashion

The Fashion Empire of Charles Worth

About Corsets

The Hoop Crinoline: Living in a Cage

The Hoop Crinoline: Dying for Fashion

Sports Events and Men’s Fashion



Jean Béraud: The Most Parisian of the Paris Painters

The Art of Crafty: The Spectacle of Paris Streets

James Tissot and the Women of Paris

Paris Markets in Victor Gilbert’s Paintings

The Goncourts: Gossip Inc.

Disdéri’s Photo Studio: Kings, Queens, and Pretty Legs

La Castiglione: The Too Much Countess



The Inescapable Sarah Bernhardt

Louise and Jeanne: The Antipodes of Moulin Rouge













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