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Let me justify an excursion to New York in this Victorian Paris blog. The movie, you are about to see, is neither Victorian nor French but it is history as you have never seen. So let’s make this exception to the blog content by showing images of slightly post-Edwardian America in a lively and unusually realistic version. They are worth your attention.
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In 1911, a team of Swedish filmmakers visited New York to bring back to the Old World images of daily life in America. Like all footages of the time, the speed and the visual quality allowed a lot of room for improvement. When we watch the early movies, we see black and white ghosts rather than people. Not with this film-restoration. It brings us a perfect image, with color and sound. Have a look at this realistic slice of history and watch it with awe.

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Related posts:

Americans in Paris and the Kissing Protocol

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In the old days, the month of February brought the unavoidable Lent: a period of penance, dietary restrictions, and prayers.  For those not familiar with religious traditions, Lent is a mobile Christian observance lasting for forty days. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday before Easter.

Austerity is not something human beings crave. Since forty days of gloom proved to be too much to ask, the religious authorities allowed a pause to let out the pent-up human foibles after twenty days of duration.

 

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The origin of Mid-Lent (Mi-Carême) is lost in the mists of time. According to several historians, the celebration was born in the Middle Ages. The essence of the feast was a mini carnival that embraced the spirit of joy, laughter, and derision to contrast with the period of austerity, severity, and penance of Lent. A parade of elaborate floats characterized this celebration.

 

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In France, the Mi-Carême was also the feast of laundresses, described in the post From Washerwoman to Queen of Paris, of charcoal dealers, and water carriers.

 

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The float of the Queen of Queens. Elected from among the laundry queens of every city district, a simple washerwoman enjoys her one-day fame

 

Celebrated on a large scale in Paris, the Mi-Carême disappeared from this city during the WWII years. It made a comeback under the name of Carnival of Women in 2009 and gives rise to a parade again every year.

 

Related post:

From Washerwoman to Queen of Paris

 

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Bistrot! Bistrot!

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Today, we’ll talk about a 19th-century Parisian institution of social importance: the bistrot. Not to be confused with a café—which is a frequent occurrence today—the bistrot/bistro was a waiter-less establishment where you ordered your refreshment from the “patron” who ran the place from behind a zinc-covered counter. The birth of Parisian bistros, as the legend would have it, goes back to the defeat of Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo (1814). As a consequence, Paris was overrun by various victorious armies, including the always-thirsting Russian Cossacks. They wanted a drink and they wanted it fast: Bistro! Bistro! The legend is embraced by all, except for the etymologists who still discuss the origin of the world as it does not appear in literature before 1884.

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While they take various forms today, Parisian bistros were small unpretentious joints run by so-called “bougnats” – the immigrants from Auvergne who left their poor lands during the Industrial Revolution to settle in Paris. These establishments were recognized for their very popular atmosphere. Designed for the poorer classes, bistros offered a drink and a quick bite. It was in the bistro that the neighborhood problems were discussed. It was a place for the morning coffee and croissant, for an apéritif before lunch and, again, for one before dinner; the bistro was also a haven for working-class lovers to meet during inclement weather and a recreation room for the local prostitute.

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Related posts:

Absinthe: The Rise and Death of the Green Fairy

Drink and Prostitution: The Belle Epoque Hooters

The Guide to Gay Paree (1869) – Part 4: Restaurants and Cafés

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The Santa Claus, as we know him today, is an American import created by immigrants of European origin. He crossed the ocean to conquer the Old World where Catholicism fought with Protestantism for Christmas symbols. The Father Christmas in these 19th century pictures is either a catholic bishop called Saint Nicholas or the fairy-tale figure of Père Noël, a mythical old man, probably of Scandinavian origins. These confusing, and sometimes fusing, figures have in common an abundant white beard. The Père Noël of old came in many colors, mostly in green and blue, before the red and white color combination became the standard look. In this Edwardian image, the blue Santa is already a minority:

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Vive Saint Nicolas or Joyeux Noël : Both translate as Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to Victorian Paris readers and see you next year!

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Related posts:

The Good News

The Réveillon: Christmas the French Way

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“He who broke the glass will pay!” This painting depict an ambulant lemonade seller in conflict with a customer. The art of Jean Geoffroy is a humorous witness to the ups and downs of the late 19th century childhood.

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Henri-Jules-Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924) became the painter of children because during his studies he shared a room with two teachers. When they opened a private school, he found his inspiration there. It was a good choice. The paintings pleased and Geoffroy’s career blossomed under the simple pseudonym of Géo. In 1882, he received his first major commission from the Ministry of National Education and, in 1887, he was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit.  

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Related posts:

James Tissot and the Women in Paris

Paris Markets in Victor Gilbert’s Paintings

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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

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