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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.

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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

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Carriages returning from a Sunday parade in the Bois

 

A previous post described the random free spectacles of the Paris streets. The largest and most ostentatious free show had a steady schedule. Every day, between 2:00 and 4:00 PM, the wealthy shamelessly exposed their luxury to each other, and to the unwashed masses, in the Bois de Boulogne parade.

 

Going to the Bois on a workday

 

Before becoming the favorite place of all social Paris in the 19th century, the Bois de Boulogne had a history. Originally, the forest extended on the plains and hillsides of the right bank of the Seine. A landmark of brigands and vagabonds, the ancient forest was also the favorite place of royal hunts. At the end of Napoleon I’s regime, it was devastated by the occupying troops who encamped there. Although in poor condition and crossed by narrow roads of bad quality, it became nevertheless, around 1830, the rendezvous of all Paris society.


In 1852, the State yielded the wood to the city of Paris with the charge of its development and maintenance. Emperor Napoleon III had envisioned the creation of a large landscaped park similar to Hyde Park. The project was entrusted to the engineer J.J. Alphand who created two lakes, the largest of which measures 19 hectares. Various amenities: large alleys, the racecourse of Longchamp (opened in 1858), the Garden of Acclimatization, and several restaurants completed the whole landscape.

 

Riding in the Daumont style
Riding in the Daumont Style


During the Second Empire (1852-1870), the equestrian rendezvous of the Bois de Boulogne was rated as a meeting of the supreme social chic. The chroniclers of the time tell us of its splendor:

“At the height of luxury was the attelage à la Grand Daumont, with its postilions in livery— of sober or bright colors according to the tastes of the masters—the footmen behind the hood, arms crossed, the two men in a row on horses of the same dress as the four draft horses. Then there came the eighth-spring, the queen of the passenger carriages. There was also the elegant half-Daumont of a duke with horses very close and absolutely under the whip of the gentleman-coachman who drove almost standing. The tandem cabriolet was another fantasy designed to bring out the talent of the gentleman-coachman. Then came a cute cart dragged by two pretty ponies under the hand of the elegant lady who also wanted to show that she could hold the reins.  All aristocratic, luxurious and worldly Paris was there, struggling with elegance and sumptuousness … “

 

 

Romance, or the carnal desire, also played its part. The poet Beaudelaire best describes the mood:


“Sometimes a horseman gallops gracefully beside an open carriage, and his horse appears, by his bows, to salute in his own way. The carriage carries away, in an alley streaked with light and shade, the beauties lying as in a boat, indolent, vaguely listening to the gallantries fall into their ears and indulging themselves lazily in the wind of the promenade. The fur and muslin rise to their chins and overflow like a wave over the door. The servants are stiff, perpendicular, inert, and all alike; it is always the monotonous and featureless effigy of punctual, disciplined servility … “

Cora Pearl

On the side of the great courtesans, luxury was no less brilliant. The famous Madame Musard had a half-Daumont, whose postilions were dressed in violet livery and mounted black horses of admirable beauty. Cora Pearl had set up her stable and was leading it with an authority that made the gossips tell that she must have been brought up by a groom. Adele Courtois, Caroline Letessier, the Barucci, famous for the baccarat affair, all had their car driven to the Daumont, and their livery could compete with those of the oldest houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.

Empress Eugenie

Lady Harriet, the courtesan who financed the emperor while he was waiting for his crown, approached by her colors the imperial livery. Madame Lejeune had the audacity to do better. She took the imperial colors outright. One day, her Daumont went out, preceded by two scouts in green and gold, with a hunter on horseback at the left door and two carriage boys following also on horseback. As she had a certain resemblance to the Empress, all the sergeants of the town who saw the arrival of this crew on the Place de la Concorde, rushed forward, made room for them, and finally raised the chains of the Arc de Triomphe, so that the sovereign could pass. She went in this style to the entrance of the Bois. This adventure made a big noise. As a consequence, it was expressly forbidden to employ a livery which, even approximately, recalled that of the Emperor.

This luxury only grew from year to year. It was at its peak in 1867 at the time of the World Exposition. With the fall of the Empire, the splendor would gradually fade: the walks in the Bois and participation in the various events took a different look.

 

Courses in the Bois de Boulogne by Eduard Manet 1872

During the siege of Paris, part of the food of fish and game came from the Bois. More destructive authorization was given to the trade of timber dealers to exploit the Bois de Boulogne. The devastation increased during the battles between Versailles and the Communards. After the war, the southern part, the most devastated, was transformed into the racecourse of Auteuil. From 1872, social life resumed and we could see again the parades of carriages crossing the Bois for the Grand Prix de Longchamp.

 

 

After the Great War ended in 1918, this activity declined. The prodigal nobility of the nineteenth and early twentieth century no longer existed. Only the profiteers of war, the new rich, held the high ground and the automobile had taken over. An époque ended.

Related posts:

The English Courtesan that Made a French Emperor

The Guide to Gay Paree 1868: Sightseeing

 

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A Belle Epoque courtesan of the first magnitude, Marthe de Florian (1864-1939) has been well forgotten since her “sentimental retirement”. But the reopening of her apartment, seven decades after her death, reminded her to our good memory by the brilliance of her treasures.

 

Monsieur Olivier Choppin Janvry is not close to forgetting the spring day of  2010 when he was mandated by a provincial notary to open a Parisian apartment which remained hermetically sealed since the beginning of WW2. This real estate of fifteen hundred square feet located in the Pigalle neighborhood was a frozen in sanctuary. Under a thin layer of dust, a whole world of high gallantry began to revive through the correspondence carefully classified and color-coded with silk ribbon ties according to the sender.

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France during WW2

The owner of the place died in Trouville-sur-Mer on August 29, 1939, bequeathing the apartment to her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, then aged 20. During the German occupation, soon after, Solange left Paris to join the Free Zone in the south of France and settled down in the Ardèche. She never returned to the capital but, for the next seventy years, she scrupulously paid the quarterly dues on this Parisian apartment.

When she died in May 2010,  aged 91, the apartment revealed its Art Nouveau treasures, and especially a superb life-size portrait of its former owner clad in a vaporous evening dress of pale pink satin.

 

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An expert identified the author of the portrait: Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931). Executed in 1898, this masterpiece remained an unknown in the work of the famous portrait painter and later sold for more than two million euros. It was common knowledge that the artist did not deign to honor a portrait commission below one million francs – except for a privileged relationship with the model. The wealthy Italian buyer of the painting was offered as a bonus a package of correspondence enlightening the personality of the said model and the gallant history of the Third Republic.

 

Who was Marthe de Florian? From a midinette to a high-end courtesan, read her story here.

Update: Some details in this article are disputed here.

Related posts:

The Noon Girl: La Midinette
The Gallery of Achievers: The Inescapable Sarah Bernhardt

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The colorful Belle Epoque posters make the joy of collectors. Not only are they highly decorative and amusing in their occasional naïveté but they also inform us about the changing lifestyle. New alimentary products appear, such as chemical taste enhancers and food substitutes. Maggi, powdered milk, and margarine became regular ingredients of people’s diet. Chocolat, previously only served as drink, acquired the solid form of tablets as we know them today. Biscuits were produced industrially.

 

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“The French Sardine Says Hello!” Food talked to people before the advertising industry discovered that humanizing animals we eat was not a good idea.

 

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Sausages that “One Eats with Pleasure and Without Fatigue”. A prodigious pig (cochon prodigue) indeed! An animal that happily slices itself for the consumer’s delight would probably turn off today’s viewers. The Belle Epoque folk were made of a tougher stock.

 

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Seen only in greasy spoons today, a bottle of Maggi was a novelty worthy of a bourgeois table.

 

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A bowlful of chemically enhanced soup before the bedtime was a sign of good parenting

 

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Bonjour! Do you eat Maggi soups? Sold in every grocery

 

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This margarine obtained gold medals in Amsterdam {1883) and Le Havre (1887)

 

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Be it cheese, beer, champagne or herb liquor, monks were trusted to produce quality food and drink

 

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In this boy’s mind, solid chocolate is better than solid gold

 

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Biscuits to be served with champagne. A beautiful poster by Alphonse Mucha, 1896

 

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A boy in a typical school uniform is enjoying sweet biscuits

 

 

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Cookies could start a romance (1896)

 

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“No arms, no chocolate”. This bizarre advertising depicts a well-known French saying. One could think that this cruelty hides a wisdom of some sort; that it can be interpreted as “no effort, no reward.” That is not so. This replica is passed on in popular language and is serving to highlight the absurdity of a ban or to make fun of someone faced with a physical impossibility:

“Mom, can I have chocolate?”
“There’s some in the closet. Go serve yourself.”
“But Mom, I can’t, you know I don’t have arms.”
“No arms, no chocolate!”
Obviously, it makes some sense to the French.

 

 

Related post:

The Belle Epoque Lifestyle: Personal Hygiene

 

 

 

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The most popular soap in France, an olive oil-based one, came from Marseille

 

In Jacques Takes a Bath, posted here in October 2014, the American humorist Irvin S. Cobb sank his teeth into the French reluctance to bathe. Although exaggerated to the point of absurdity,  Cobb’s article had a grain of truth in it. Bathing was not central in the mind of the ancestors and the history of the bathroom is a very recent one. The air in public places was not always filled with deodorant fragrances. Quite the contrary, the 19th-century streets were pungent with horse dung and various unmentionable odors emanating from many of the passers-by.

The French being French, they do find in their vocabulary something glamorous for the simplest or lowest of things and occurrences. Thus, a mole is the grain of beauty (le grain de beauté), les Petits Pois Bonne Femme is French for peas with butter and la crise de foie (the liver crisis) is a dramatic euphemism for indigestion. By the same token, the body odor becomes l’odeur du sable chaud. The scent of hot sand. We can’t beat the French at the savoir vivre, can we?

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The bidet

The Americans visiting Europe justly complained about the lack of modern comfort but, to be fair, the French had their bidets to stay clean where it counted. The sight of the bidet as part of the bathroom furniture scandalized the Anglo-Saxon Puritans. The luxury cruise ship Le France, built in 1957 (yes, there were still Puritans in 1957!) for carrying passengers between Le Havre and New York, remained bidet-less for the very reason.

The first bathrooms—that is rooms fully devoted to personal hygiene—appeared at the beginning of the century but they remained the privilege of the very rich for the next one hundred years. The discovery of harmful microbes by Louis Pasteur accelerated the shift toward better personal care.  Toward the end of the century, the idea of a fully equipped bathroom entered the advertising business.

 

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This ad offers complete bathroom equipment starting at 250 francs. For this price, you would get a bathtub, a sink, a water tank, a foot bath, a sitting bath, and a Scotch shower

 

 

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Dating from the turn-of-the-century, this ad humorously conceives the bathroom as a luxury reception room

 

We can hardly imagine life without a bathroom, but this state of things remained a reality for many Europeans well into the 20th century.

 

Related posts:

The Belle Epoque Lifestyle: Alimentation

The French Art of Peeing without Getting Wet Feet

 

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If you lived during what the French call the Belle Epoque (1871-1914) in any literate country, you would have stumbled upon Sarah Bernhardt. There was no way of avoiding her name in print. She would shock you with her latest extravagancy or sell you a product of some sort.  Wherever you lived,  on whatever continent—except for Antarctica—Sarah’s feet would have touched it and she would have died on it. People around the world would pay good money to watch Sarah die in French. She was very good at it. Never mind that you did not understand a word she was saying for there was plenty to look at for the price and you could tell with pride that you have seen the Greatest Tragedy Queen Ever.

 

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Just to show you the international weight of Sarah’s personality, here she is as an old lady in the US: urging America to enter World War One

 

What Bernhardt, also known as The Divine Sarah, meant to her own country is demonstrated in this video which shows that the French Republic staged a funeral worthy of a queen:

 

 

A sighting of Sarah Bernhardt in all her glory was a memorable event:

“…Into the gallery one day, as our obscure party moved about, there entered a Personage; a charming figure, with a following of worshippers. The lady was dressed in black lace, strangely fashioned. Though she was small, her step and carriage, slow and gracious as she moved and spoke, were queenly. She was a dazzling blonde, somewhat restored and not beautiful, as one saw her nearer. The striking point in her costume — and there was but one — was that the upper part of her corsage, or yoke, was made entirely of fresh violets, bringing their perfume with them. Everyone, artists and their friends, ceased their examination of the pictures, and openly gazed, murmuring their pride and joy in their idol, Sarah Bernhardt…”

Excerpt from the memoir of the American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux

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Quand Même, the motto of Sarah Bernhardt, can be translated in different ways but, in this case, it means Nevertheless. There may be difficulties on the path of life. Nevertheless, they will be overcome.

 

 

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One of the reasons for Sarah’s early success was that she was different in appearance.  While the beauty canon favored women of substance, she was thin. Where fashion dictated sculptured hairdos, Sarah’s hair was an uncontrollable puff of frizzy hair. Her Jewish nose was a little too prominent and her complexion a little too white. This difference, instead of being a burden, made her stand apart and therefore be noticed. Her thespian talent, along with her flamboyant personality, both on and off the stage, did the rest. In fact, there was no difference between the theater and the off-stage for wherever she was, Sarah never ceased to perform.

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Seduction was  Sarah’s main weapon on the road to fame. Seduction of the theatre critics, seduction of the theatre-goers, seduction of the press. And if the press reacted in a contrary way, that was good too. She was the first one to understand that bad publicity was better than none.

 

Capture

 

A true Renaissance woman, Sarah had a second source of income: painting and sculpture. She was an excellent sculptor, to the point of making Rodin jealous. “She has the audacity to show this filth,” he was heard saying at one of her shows.  Really, Monsieur Rodin? Let’s scroll down to see what the venerable Master considered filthy:

 

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The Death of Ophelia by Sarah Bernhardt

 

Like the queen she was, Sarah had her court. Every change of place meant the shifting of a great many objects, animals, and people. In her Paris apartment, she kept a small zoo, which accompanied her on her travels. The live alligator Ali Baba and a coffin featured among her luggage.

 

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Sarah in her coffin. A publicity stunt, no doubt about it, the photo made the round of the world. Sarah kept the coffin in her bedroom and claimed she slept in it.  She died for real some forty years after this picture was taken.

 

Sarah was a woman of prodigious energy. As the manager of a theatre of which she was the principal attraction, she had little time for rest. She would see the author of a new play at two in the morning because that was the only time she could find in her busy schedule. Trips abroad meant careful planning and exercise in logistics. While everything was done to make travel as comfortable as possible—a special train containing a luxury wagon for Sarah alone was the standard—the conditions in the place were often primitive. She would play in circus tents, suffer cold in unheated dressing rooms, go hungry when food was not readily available, and she would forge ahead quand même. Her support staff might suffer from exhaustion but Sarah would take it all in a stride with one lung, one kidney and, toward the end of her life, with only one leg.

 

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Sarah during one of her overseas travels

 

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In the American West, cowboys greet Sarah (on the right, in the dark coat) on her arrival. Later, during the performance, they would manifest their enthusiasm with aiming shots at the ceiling

 

Sarah lived long enough to appear in the early movies. She hated to see herself on the screen: stripped of her voice, of her three-dimensional personality, and her interaction with the public, she was nothing more than an unappetizing shadow of her true self. By that time, she already suffered from excruciating pain in her leg. Furniture had to be strategically placed on the scene so that there would always be a point of support where she could take the weight off her aching leg. As her agony grew beyond endurance, she opted for amputation.

 

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Being without a leg at the age of seventy did not slow Sarah down. She purchased a portable chair and off she went to war.  Since the Franco-Prussian War, forty years earlier, Sarah harbored a hatred for the Germans. The French troops needed to be cheered up with a good tragedy play.

 

Sarah died of uremia after an agony that was partly caught on film. She left behind an unfinished movie she was making during her last illness. Ever the hard worker, she took only three days off work to die. She was seventy-eight.

I purposefully left out Sarah’s rich private life which would need a separate post. To understand her drive for success, it is necessary to say that she was the neglected child of a Dutch courtesan. Her father could have been any of the rich and famous men her mother had serviced, among them Rossini, Dumas the Elder, or the Emperor’s half-brother, the Duke de Morny. It was to the latter that the mother turned for advice concerning the future of her awkward teenage offspring. It was he who suggested the stage.  And it was there, on the stage, that Sarah found the love, the adoration, she missed in her childhood.

In my opinion, the truly successful women of that age had this in common: they were mostly illegitimate, without the father’s authority figure. They had a wide range of freedom and their talent was not stifled by the bourgeois set of morals.

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And now some free advertising: The model in the picture Sarah is painting is the protagonist of the novel Fame and Infamy by the author of this post. More on the sidebar.

 

 

 

 

Related post:

The Franco-Prussian War is described in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

 

 

 

 

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