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Paris Street on a Rainy Day  (1877)

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Gustave Caillebotte was born in 1848 in a wealthy environment. His father grew rich in the sale of cloth to the armies of Napoleon III. The family fortune allowed him to freely choose activities (painting, boating, boat building) in which he excelled.

He studied law and obtained a license in 1870, the year in which he began to paint. He entered the École des Beaux-Arts but only stayed there for a year. The death of his father, in 1874, brought him a comfortable fortune at the age of twenty-six and allowed him to devote himself to painting without commercial concerns.

Gustave Caillebotte did not consider himself a great painter, which he nevertheless is. Although he approached painting as a hobby, he reached the level of the greatest. He is recognized today in art history as an important realist and impressionist painter of the 19th century.

Caillebotte’s merits in helping the struggling impressionist movement are undeniable, both as a financial supporter and a propagator. He was involved in the organization of exhibitions. This help was invaluable because the Impressionists were by no means organizers whereas Caillebotte, besides his remarkable artistic talent, was also a good administrator. He also bought paintings from Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, and Manet who needed to sell in order to live. He thus built up an exceptional collection which he would bequeath to the State upon his premature death from pneumonia in 1894.

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 Lunch (1876). This well-to-do bourgeois interior is the dining room of the Caillebotte mansion, rue de Miromesnil, in Paris. A valet serves the painter’s mother and his brother, René.  The backlighting from the windows allows Caillebotte to study the reflections of light on the crystal dishes and the black table.

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Many of Caillebotte’s paintings exude melancholy and isolation. In an age, when gay men had to stay in the closet, it was wise to keep a distance. Lone observers were a frequent theme:

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Young Man at His Window (1875)

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Continue Reading »

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Eating in style for a reasonable price is still possible in Paris, as attractive historical interiors abound in the city. They have been revamped with care and, unless they had been invaded by the nonsensical cuisine nouvelle, they serve hearty traditional meals at affordable prices. They are usually called bouillons or brasseries. These establishments were meant to serve simple dishes to people on a budget, yet they did it in sumptuous interiors. We are used to minimalism, which forces us to eat in a simple environment and often without the slightest comfort for the eye. In the eateries of our ancestors, every surface was an invitation for an artist to leave his mark. To eat in those places brings pleasure to both the body and the soul. You can still enjoy the same well-being in the following places:

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BRASSERIE JULIEN

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The restaurant is a masterpiece of Art Nouveau. Admire remarkable craftsmanship while eating at equally remarkable low prices. If you are a fan of Edith Piaf, request table # 24, where she used to meet the tragic love of her life, the boxer Marcel Cerdan.

Métro: Strasbourg Saint-Denis or Bonne Nouvelle

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BEEFBAR PARIS

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Under this harsh name hides the former La Fermette Marboeuf.  A fermette (little farm) indeed! In this luxurious glass and art tiles interior, you would feel like a precious plant in a Victorian winter garden. As the current name indicates, the restaurant is meat-focused with Kobo and Black-Angus steaks as the key items on the menu. According to the current reviews, the service is not entirely satisfactory for the prices asked.

 Métro: Alma-Marceau

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BOUILLON CHARTIER GRANDS BOULEVARDS

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Founded in 1896, this was the first of a chain of popular eateries operated by brothers Edouard and Camille Chartier. This restaurant has already served fifty million meals for relatively cheap prices. The fare is simple and there is always a line outside.

Métro: Grand-Boulevards

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BOUILLON CHARTIER MONTPARNASSE

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There was a plain restaurant in the same place since 1858 before Eduard Chartier scooped it up in 1904 to make it into another of his successes. He gave the interior an Art Nouveau facelift with a stained glass ceiling, floral tiles, and a profusion of intricate mirror frames. Simple cuisine at very reasonable prices.

Métro: Montparnasse – Bienvenüe or Saint-Placide

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LA BRASSERIE VAGENENDE

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Located on Boulevard Saint-Germain, this jewel box of Art Nouveau was created in 1904 as one of the Chartier restaurants. A superb Belle Époque style reigns throughout with mirrors and remarkable woodwork. The place was saved in time from being turned into a supermarket. Restored with the utmost care, it is now classified as a historic site. The main dishes are priced between 21 and 40 Euro.

Métro: Mabillon or Odéon

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BOUILLON RACINE

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You’ll find this enchanting creation of Cartier brothers tucked away in a quiet street near the Luxembourg Garden. It has been carefully restored to its former beauty. The main dishes are priced between 14.50 and 21 Euro.

Métro: Cluny – La Sorbonne or Saint-Michel Notre-Dame

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MULLARD

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August 1837 marks the departure of the first train from the Saint-Lazare railway station. The Saint-Lazare district was then a suburb, almost the countryside. The Mullard family opened a bar across the street from the railway station and in thirty years amassed enough money to transform the venue into a restaurant for prosperous businessmen. The interior design dates from 1895 and features marble columns, a mosaic ceiling, and painted tiles picturing countryside attractions that could be reached by train. Despite the apparent luxury, Mullard offers a 3-course menu for a mere 32 Euro.

 Métro: Gare Saint-Lazare

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Mullard’s mosaic ceiling

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LE TRAIN BLEU

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This palatial restaurant can put Versailles to shame. It was opened in 1900 to serve the visitors of The Grand Exposition. It is located in another railway station, the Gare de Lyon. Regardless of the Art Nouveau fashion overwhelmingly used at the time, this interior recalls the excessive splendor of the Second Empire. Le Train Bleu refers to the legendary overnight train, which first left in 1868 and still links Paris to Nice and the azure blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

The prices are high but not excessive. However, if you think of going in for just a cup of something cheap, they are ready for you. The price for tea or coffee is 18 Euro.

Métro: Gare de Lyon

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The ornate ceiling of Le Train Bleu restaurant

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The above list is not exhaustive. There are more fabulous and budget-accessible restaurants in Paris. If you know of one that should be mentioned here, let us know in the comments.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Related posts:

Merry Noël from Paris

The Many Faces of French Santa

Les Halles: The Belly of Paris

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Health care counts as one of the main reasons why you would not want to live in the 19th century. It is easy to be seduced by paintings and movies. From our point of view of ragged jeans, tattoos, and messy hair, the elegance of tall hats, snow-white shirts, and gloves for the gentlemen, or the lace, silk, and sculpted hairdos for the ladies, paint a picture of the lost perfect word. Ah, if only…

Wake up to the reality of our ancestors’ lives. The snow-white shirts and the lace got rapidly dirty in the polluted air. Heating was provided by wood and coal, both producing ashes. In addition to soot covering every urban surface, the streets reeked of urine and other byproducts of horse transport. Read  Life in the Age of Decay. (All links below)

The beautiful, elaborate gowns were unwashable because they were composites of too many materials, each needing special care. They were maintained by brushing and spot-cleaning; they never saw water. As for the poor, who formed the vast majority of the population, their water came in buckets, often from a faraway source, and had to be heated. Keeping clean was both time-consuming and expensive. In short, if the streets reeked, horses were only one part of the problem.

Food could kill you. No refrigeration meant that animal products spoiled rapidly. Little or no food control made eating  hazardous to your health. Adulteration with unhealthy substances was not uncommon. The post Extreme Food Recycling depicts the brutal situation. (Warning: do not read it before, during, or immediately after a meal.)

This lack of hygiene had consequences. Illness and premature death were ever present, with the average life-span only a half of what it is today. If you were unlucky enough to fall ill, you would stay in bed and send for a doctor. He would, in all probability, bleed you and prescribe some drops or powders to take in your drink. The rest was up to you.

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goiter

Medical knowledge was still rudimentary. Easily treatable diseases like the goitre disfigured people. This woman is not scared, and her contemporaries would know that, as they were used to the sight. Bulging eyes and swollen throat were the result of a malfunctioning thyroid gland.

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Hospitals were for the utterly destitute and no one in their right mind would go near one. Except perhaps for an urgent amputation, which in many cases resulted in death by sepsis, or a heart failure because of the searing pain for which there was no relief. Instead of washing their hands and wearing protective clothing, surgeons operated in their street clothes and an apron coated with dried blood. They washed their hands after the surgery.

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Amputation of a shoulder joint

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The plodding history of French hospitals/hospices under the Ancient Regime was interrupted by the radical hand of the Revolution.  In the Year II (1794), these institutions were nationalized. Only four years later, the revolutionaries realized they were unable to cope with the overwhelming task of poverty, and they dropped hospitals into the care of the municipalities who housed them. There they remained. Two centuries later, the mayor is still the chairman of the hospital’s board of directors.

Of the Ancient Regime hospitals in Paris, the largest was La Salpêtrière. It was an infamous women’s asylum, which was operated more like a prison, housing prostitutes, the mentally ill, and the disabled. It had a terrible reputation. During the Revolution, in 1792, the hospital was stormed with the intention of releasing the detained women. However, the situation got out of hand. Instead, the mob dragged out thirty-five of the women and murdered them. In the next century, the female inmates were exploited in the study of hysteria. (Professor Charcot and the Amplification of Hysteria and The Ball of the Folles.)

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The La Salpêtrière Massacre  

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Around the mid-century, things began to change with the invention of anaesthesia. It was now possible to cut patients open and repair them from the inside. Thanks to scientists Semmelweiss, Lister, and Pasteur, the knowledge of harmful bacteria resulted in improved cleanliness. Now it made more sense, even for the moneyed, to seek help at the hospital. And money you did need when you had the bad luck to be admitted into a secular establishment.

In the hospitals run by the religious authorities, and staffed by dedicated nuns, the patients were more or less equal. Not so in the secular hospitals, where those who could pay received all the attention while those who had no money got next to none. It took many years and many changes before patient care reached anything close to today’s standards.

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hospital

The visiting hour at a 19th century hospital ward

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In his book, The Modern Parisienne, Octave Uzanne looked at women earning their living in relatively new professions. His portrayal of nurses is damning. The book was published in 1912 and it is only reasonable to think that the bad manners and lack of professionalism were even worse in the preceding fifty years.

The lay staff of the hospitals includes the ward maids, the

probationers, and the superintendents. The ward maids do

all the hard work. They sweep, make the beds (as badly as

possible), distribute and change the plates at meal-times,

cut up the bread, and live in a perpetual state of hostility to

the probationers, with whom they desire to be on an

equality. From this feeling arise continual quarrels and

complaints, in which the patients are often compelled to

take part, to their great disadvantage.

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The ward maids are strong girls from the country, stupid,

coarse and rough, inconceivably awkward, if by an evil

chance they are called upon to give any help to a patient.

Their aim is to get through their work as quickly as possible,

to meet and gossip in their refectory. They are inveterate

beggars, and are always on the look-out to wring a few sous

from the patients. Everything must be paid for — a commis-

sion, a letter to the post; they smuggle in tobacco

and alcohol — in spite of a rule which absolutely forbids

gratuities. They are utterly indifferent to the patients, as

are nine out of ten of all the lay hospital assistants.

One of our friends knew an unfortunate man with a wound

in the leg, unable to go to the lavatory, and who for three

days asked in vain for a basin of water — he had no money.

The ward maids are boarded and lodged at the hospital.

They earn twenty to twenty-five francs per month, and

they have a free day once a fortnight.

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The probationers (boursières) are young girls of from

twenty to twenty-five. Very often they are pretty. They

have influence, and are recommended to their posts. They

receive some rudimentary training in dispensing, obstetrics,

and medicine, also in dressing and bandaging. In theory,

they are on the same footing as the ward maids, but not in

practice. As the superintendents are recruited from their

ranks they receive superior consideration. Their duties are

to give out the medicine, &c., at fixed hours, to renew

dressings, to apportion to the patients their proper food,

and to watch the serious cases at night. They are required

to make the rounds frequently, to watch the dying, lay out

the dead, open and shut the windows at fixed hours, and

see that everything is clean. They fulfil these duties with

great indifference. If they dislike a patient they manage

to forget the hour for his medicine, and it is a lucky

chance if they do not make mistakes and poison some poor

creature committed to their care.

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These statements are not exaggerated, and may be proved

any day in every hospital in Paris. The probationers spend

most of their time laughing and flirting with the house-

surgeons, dressers, or visitors. In this they are particularly

successful. They do not behave much better during the

doctor’s visits and as they pay little or no attention to his

orders, it is not surprising if they make blunders. They

take their meals outside, except when they are on duty,

which is twenty-four hours in three days, and sleep at home

except when on night duty. They are dressed like the ward

maids and superintendents, in a black dress, white apron

with bib, white sleeves, and a white cap with white bow.

The head-superintendents have a black bow on the cap.

Their name of boursières comes from the remuneration,

called a bourse, given by the Municipal Council, of 125

francs per month. They have a free day once a week.

When they are on night duty, they take part in convivial

parties given by the house-surgeons, and have a gay and

merry time. In a certain hospital which we will not name,

where a poet friend was a patient, the house-surgeons and

boursières on Shrove Tuesday romped in fancy dress through

the wards where men were dying — a most edifying spectacle.

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The superintendent is an old probationer nominated

after several competitive examinations. She has the direction

of a ward and entire command of all the male and female

staff attached to it, under the control of the house-surgeon.

Her duties are not heavy, consisting only in the distribution

of wine and the dressing of some cases where the relatives

have paid her specially. She is, as a rule, a sharp, scolding,

authoritative person. She has no love for the boursières

and annoys them as much as possible. She worries

the ward maids without any mercy. She has a small room

to herself at the entrance of the ward, where she keeps her

notes and where she retires to gossip with the superinten-

dents of the other wards. She, like all the others, has no

real compassion in her. She does what is strictly necessary

— nothing more; she has no love for her patients. Her

profession is, for her, both dull and disagreeable — and she

takes all the hours of liberty she can get. She is often

married and receives a salary of about 1200 to 1600 francs

a year. Like the probationers, she leaves the task of

laying-out the dead to the ward maids.

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We are not exaggerating the state of things, and moreover it is quite

comprehensible — these women have their interests outside

the hospital, their family, their friends. They go out often,

they draw a salary necessary to them for their living. It is

therefore a logical conclusion that they are not specially

enthusiastic about a very depressing profession, which

demands constant devotion of the most exalted kind.

Related posts:

Life in the Age of Decay

Extreme Food Recycling

Professor Charcot and the Amplification of Hysteria

The Madwomen’s Ball: A Flattering Invitation.

 

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

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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!”

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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.

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