The following text by Octave Uzanne comes from the book The Modern Parisienne, published in 1910. Although Edwardian instead of Victorian, Uzanne’s book describes Paris that had hardly changed since Queen Victoria’s death in 1901.
Many prostitutes of the lower orders, in order to protect themselves from the activities of the police, pretend to have a trade. This is particularly the case with girls under age. Some of them are as young as fifteen, some even younger. The disgraceful evil of the small flower-girl is everywhere; you see them passing by the terraces of cafés and stopping opposite those whom with their precocious perspicacity they judge to be susceptible to their attractions.
Others, again, instead of selling flowers, pass themselves off as work girls. You will often meet these impostors in the Avenue de l’Opéra, in the Rue du Quatre-Septembre, or on the boulevards. They dawdle along in couples, with hatboxes or baskets on their arms and their eyes alert. Contrary to the practice of real workgirls, who do not receive such attentions kindly, they accept invitations without any display of annoyance, are perfectly willing to have a drink, and do not require to be pressed to enter a providential cab.
There are grades and degrees in all this peripatetic prostitution. Better turned out and also older are the bands of women who wear hats with extravagant feathers and loudly coloured dresses, and who are to be seen at any hour of the afternoon, but principally at dusk, on the boulevards and in the adjacent streets. They promenade slowly, or else pretend to be in a hurry, jostle you as they pass, or launch a significant ogle which invites you to follow them. If you mend your pace and overtake them they take you to some squalid hôtel garni in the quarter which extends from the Rue des Martyrs to the Boulevard Rochechouart.
Since the beginning of the last century they have had their headquarters there, especially in the Rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, from which comes the obsolete term lorette by which they were still designated so recently as twenty years ago. The Rue de la Bruyère, the Rue Chaptal, and the Rue Bréda are also much affected by them, and there they form colonies which fill whole houses. These places, known as boîtes à femmes, are veritable pandemoniums crowded with women who sleep till near noon, and go about all the rest of the day in frowsy undress, smoking cigarettes and drinking absinthe. Until the hour of business—that is, till about five in the afternoon—they sit playing with each other or with their favourite lovers interminable games of cards, at which they lose the money they have extracted from the passing visits of the previous night. The souteneur properly so-called is rare in these surroundings. He is replaced by the amant de coeur, some shopwalker or clerk who is chosen for himself and his companionship.
These ladies must be in straits indeed, or their landlord must be unusually exacting on the subject of arrears for rent, food, and drink, before they can be induced to go out before the night, but every evening the man-hunt recommences. Their first care is to dine, and for this purpose they take conspicuous places at a café sometimes accompanied by their favourite female friend. They reckon up the men present with a glance, question the waiters, with whom they are on good terms, and talk and laugh loudly. If a gentleman, excited by their manoeuvres or by the number of his drinks, yields to the temptation, all is well; the evening’s amusement is provided for and also the earnings of the night. If not, there begins a long pilgrimage through the cafés. They go from one to another, making the circuit of the tables, brushing by the customers and looking well in their faces in order to sound their inclinations. If by ten o’clock they found nothing they try to get around the waiter in order that in exchange for their favours he may pay for the two or three sandwiches and the glass of beer which will be all the dinner they will get. If even this fails they do without food and go to a place of amusement, and if no one comes to the rescue they try the night clubs; and she who toward three in the morning succeeds in getting the offer of a modest choucroute garnie sups and dines in one.
The prostitute always hopes to meet some generous person who will take a fancy to her and launch her on a great career, but this happy chance rarely occurs. She prays for it daily, and the fortune-teller has no more devoted client. If it does not come to pass she continues the same vicious circle of the daily hunt.