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Giuseppe de Nittis: The Salon of Princess Mathilde, 1883

 

One of the largest differences between the Brits and the French was their attitude toward women. The British gentleman suffered women where he could not avoid them and avoided them where he could by seeking refuge in men-only clubs. The Frenchman, on the contrary, did not feel bright unless there were women around. He did seek them out during his leisure time and he was keen to converse in their company. The French were never afraid of clever women and they allowed them to rule as the salonnières.

 

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A 17th-century literary salon.

 

The tradition of the Parisian Salon was an old one. It began in the seventeenth century and was largely abandoned during the WW1. The salonnières, who hosted these gatherings in their homes, held power. Political plots were hatched, new literary trends were started, scientific discoveries were publicized, and new artistic talents were launched under their influence.

Could you, yourself, become a salonnière?

Who knows? Maybe you already have every asset to revive this ancient tradition. Let’s see what it takes:

You must be a woman. Salons were always run by women. It did not matter whether they were respectable or not. A princess could compete with a courtesan for the same guests.

You must be rich. Your house must offer an agreeable background for the sophisticated exchange of ideas. A well-run Salon may provide a Wednesday dinner for some thirty seated guests and a Saturday reception for about one hundred. Quality wine was a must. Good food was expected as well.

You must have a complacent husband or no husband at all. Very rarely, a husband would hang around and co-host the events. The ideal husband would content himself with a visit to his mistress and allow his wife to rule the crowd.

You must have a great man. Salons were built around a great man who served as a magnet to attract other desirables. He could be a philosopher, a politician, a music composer, or a famous author. Often, the great man was the salonnière’s lover and her goal was to make him even greater.

You must be attentive to new trends and courageous enough to start one. Depending on the type of your salon, you must be aware of what goes on in politics, culture, or science. You must read the latest novel, meet the latest polar explorer, or recognize the right time to introduce new talent.

You must be a social expert. It is important to be well-informed about your guests and careful not to invite two bitter enemies. Knowing the latest gossip is always helpful in that matter and having your spies in competing salons is a clever way to stay on top of things.

You must be a woman of authority. Your salon, your rules. If the conversation does not go the right way, you stop it politely, but without any room for appeal. It is your choice whether you allow an uncontrolled flow or, on the contrary, whether you choose a subject of conversation and insist that the guests stick within the limits.

You must be ready to make it a full-time job. Seeing new trends coming, finding the right guests, sending out invitations, supervising the staff, choosing wines and menus, listening to all relevant gossip, and all the plotting and scheming that goes into it, will take your entire waking time.

 

Related posts:

How to Succeed in Paris

The Goncourts: Gossip Inc.

 

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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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bistro.

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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bistrot

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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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lovers

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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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beraud

The Arrival of the Midinettes by Jean Béraud

In the earlier Parisian fauna, we met the grisettes and the gigolettesThe former were independent working-class girls often romantically involved with students. The latter, the equivalent of gangsters’ molls, were mostly full-time prostitutes. Generally speaking, while the grisettes centered in the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank, which housed the Sorbonne, the Polytechnic School, and other important educational institutions, the gigolettes inhabited the working-class neighborhoods on the city periphery.

The Right Bank, around the rue de la Paix, saw a rapidly-growing number of couture houses and luxury accessories workshops populated by young and fashion-conscious female workers. At noon -midi – these girls hurried out to take a light meal – dinette – in a cheap restaurant or simply on a public garden bench. The age of the midinette extends from around 1850 to the 1960s, when the haute-couture business began to fade.

la modiste

The Milliner on the Champs Elysées by Jean Béraud

Both the grisette and the midinette were steady figures in the romantic imagery of Paris. They acted as the muses for writers and painters. Poems, songs,  novels, and later movies, paid homage to them. The tragic Mimi, from the opera La Bohêmeimmediately comes to mind.

The midinette is painted as she trots the streets delivering a dress or a new hat. She is immortalized dancing in public balls or enjoying a Sunday picnic. Little is said about a 12-hour day and insufficient wages. The girl, who wants to be fashionable, may resort to prostitution to pay for her finery.

The temptation is ever-present. At noon, the predators are waiting. Old men in the pursuit of youth gather at the entrance of the couture houses, offering the treat of a luxury lunch; men with dark intentions roam the public gardens, where the girls rest.

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“With no regard for your white hair, you run after the midinettes. Merry Spring finds Winter scary – don’t bother the young girls,” says this postcard

Paris honored her working girls. The washerwomen became queens for a day.  As for the midinettes, once a year, they participated in a grueling competition known as The Race of the Midinettes.

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The course started on the Place de la Concorde and led up the Champs Elysées, and past the Arc de Triomphe, to end after 12 kilometers (approx. 8 miles) in Nanterre. A newspaper describes the event in 1903:

All these young ladies, competing first, in the most varied costumes, some, not all, very successful: then the crowd of relatives, friends, and finally innumerable, thick, the troop of the curious. The departure was laborious. At last, at half – past eleven, a real army sprang from the Place de la Concorde towards the Arc de Triomphe; cars, cabs, bicycles, motorcycles, struggled in the midst of all this and, although preceded by Paris guards on horseback, the Midinettes sometimes had to play fists to make their way. The first arrival was Miss Jeanne Cheminel, a pleasant twenty-four-year-old brunette who shot her 12 kilometers in 1:10, which is meritorious. This sturdy walker is a milliner, and that somewhat upset a few seamstresses, who, behind her, nevertheless obtained the best places. Here, in fact, were the first: Jeanne Cheminel, milliner; Lucie Fleury, seamstress; Marie Touvard, seamstress; Louise Balesta, seamstress; Alice Brard, seamstress; Mathide Mignot, seamstress; Kugel, seamstress; Marguerite Pradel, seamstress; Jeanne Brederie, seamstress.

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A competitor in the race offered a pleasant sight: a chic naval hat sitting on freshly curled hair, a dress with a lace collar, the waist squeezed with a corset. A bouquet of fresh flowers pinned at the shoulder completed the outfit

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The end of the race shows considerable damage to the outfit and the hairdo. The sport was in its infancy and so was the fashion for the competitors. See how men dressed in Sporting Events and Men’s Fashion

Related posts:

From Washerwoman to Queen of Paris

La Grisette

Parisian Prostitutes (2): La Gigolette

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noel 0It’s that time of the year again, so Merry Christmas or Joyeux Noël as the French say. Instead of going to bed, looking forward to Christmas morning like the Americans do, the French people will stay wide awake to engage in an eating marathon called le réveillon which starts right after the Midnight Mass.  As for the gifts, they will be delivered by Père Noël. Don’t expect him to come down through the chimney for he is not that keen on getting his outfit dirty. The gifts are dropped from the roof, and that’s that. These days, the Père Noël’s look is pretty much standardized, the red being the only choice, but the old Père Noël came in different colors and had a slimmer frame as you can see in the following fashion show:

 

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Related post: The Good News

 

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Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830. As seen here, men can lose their pants when they are led by a woman with a relaxed sartorial attitude.

It’s the Fourteenth of July today, the anniversary of the French Revolution and, traditionally, the day of flag-waving, of a military parade on the Champs Elysées, and of public celebration. Somewhere between the celebratory speeches and the all-night partying, La Marseillaise will be played and sung with hearty enthusiasm or at least with a respectful attitude.

It is safe to say that there never was a song with more power to arouse the enthusiasm of the masses. Napoleon did not like to hear it after he proclaimed himself the Emperor, and the rabble-rousing song was outright forbidden under the monarchs who followed him on the French throne.  Despite that, it was publicly sung in 1830, in 1848, and in 1871 as revolution followed revolution.

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The 1848 revolution painted by Alphonse de Lamartine

La Marseillaise was officially resuscitated by Napoleon III when he needed to motivate his troops during the Franco-Prussian War. The song alone could not save France from a thrashing by the Germans, but it was adopted as the national anthem soon after the fall of The Second Empire.  It is, by any measure, a bloodthirsty set of lyrics, but there had been in France a thin line between refinement and brutality as we have seen in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune.

Executing communards

Public executions during the Paris Commune in 1871

However, there is something not quite right about the lyrics.  Let’s see if you agree (see also the video below):

Arise, children of the Fatherland,
The day of glory has arrived!
Against us tyranny
Raises its bloody banner
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The roar of those ferocious soldiers?
They’re coming right into your arms
To cut the throats of your sons and women!
 
 
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let the impure blood
Water our furrows!
 
 
What does this horde of slaves,
Of traitors and conjured kings want?
For whom are these vile chains,
These long-prepared irons?
Frenchmen, for us, ah! What outrage!
What fury must it arouse!
It is us they dare plan
To return to the old slavery!
 
 
To arms, citizens,
Form your battalions,
Let’s march, let’s march!
Let the impure blood
Water our furrows!
 
 
What! Foreign cohorts
Would make the law in our homes!
What! These mercenary phalanxes
Would strike down our proud warriors!
Great God! By chained hands
Our brows would yield under the yoke
Vile despots would have themselves
The masters of our destinies!
 
 
To arms, citizens…
 

Have you read carefully? Strange, indeed. The Children of the Fatherland are supposed to march against foreign cohorts who would make law in the French homes if such a terrible thing would have been allowed. Is that a call to revolution?

Of course not. To begin with, La Marseillaise did not originate in Marseille. It was born in Strasbourg as a war song for the Rhine Army and the author, Rouget de Lisle, was a Royalist.

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Original score of the War Song for the Army of the Rhine (1792)

We are in April 25, 1792, and Rouget de Lisle is dining at the table of his friend Baron Dietrich. France has declared war against Austria and the talk is about patriotism. Dietrich is outraged that the French army does not yet have a hymn worthy of her name. Something is needed to rouse the troops, a song with a mustache, n’est ce-pas? All heads turn to Rouget de Lisle, who is known for his literary and musical abilities. Lightened with wine, Rouget agrees to write the song.

On his way home, he regrets the rash promise. What does he know about war songs? He is into nature and romance stuff. As he walks the streets of Strasbourg he does notice placard posters on the walls.

“To arms, citizens!” they shout.  “The banner of war is displayed! To arms! We must fight, defeat, or die. If we persist in being free, all the powers of Europe will see their sinful plots fail. Let them tremble, these crowned despots! The splendor of Liberty belongs to all men. You will prove worthy children of Liberty! Run to Victory! Defeat the armies of the despots!”

Rouget de Lisle sees this as a formidable source of inspiration for the song he is about to compose. He does not hesitate to seize whole sentences of the poster. To diversify his sources, he also opens a collection of poems by Boileau and shamelessly copies some verses from the illustrious poet. As for the opening phrase of his song, “Let’s go, children of the fatherland,” he does not go far to look for it either as he belongs to the battalion nicknamed “Les Enfants de la Patrie”.

One would think that Rouget de Lisle at least composed the music. Wrong again. A friend of his, who was also present at the famous dinner at Dietrich’s, a certain Ignace Pleyel, set the words to music. Not that he should be celebrated for his contribution because he stole the score of La Marche d’Ahasuerus, a piece composed by Lucien Grisons, some years previously. Thus, by the deed of triple plagiarism, was born the French anthem.

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Auguste Pinelli: Rouget de Lisle Composing the Marseillaise, 1878

The success of the song was immediate. Without delay, the lyrics and score were printed and distributed to the soldiers. A few copies of this print run were scattered all over France and landed by chance in Marseille. The song immediately pleased the Marseille’s revolutionaries who were preparing to march on Paris. And here was an enormous band of rugged Southerners singing at the top of their voices the hymn of Rouget de Lisle in the streets of Paris, even though this one was destined to be sung on the Austrian battlefields.

Ironically—and history is loaded with this type of irony—Rouget de Lisle barely escaped the guillotine because of his blue blood. He was released from prison after Robespierre’s execution which marked the end of the Terror. It is also of note that, with the exception of Russia, other European countries achieved Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in a much calmer manner and without shedding the blood of their aristocrats.

You can hear an excellent rendition of La Marseillaise here:

Related post:

The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

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On fine Sunday afternoons, the outskirts of Paris offered cheaper refreshments and popular bals as this one painted by Renoir

On fine Sunday afternoons, the outskirts of Paris offered cheaper refreshments and popular balls like this one painted by Auguste Renoir

 

In his Innocents Abroad Mark Twain divided travelling Americans into the Pilgrims and the Sinners. The Sinners enjoyed all the world had to offer in terms of amusement while the Pilgrims experienced a serious culture shock on several levels. For rock-solid Puritans such as the man who requested that the trans-oceanic steamship engines be stopped to observe the Sabbath, the sight of a  fun-filled Sunday boulevard was a direct path to Hell.  (Not to speak of –horror of horrors!—the nude statues in public places and more ‘nudities’ in the Louvre.)

The following text was written by James Jackson Jarves (1818–1888). This American newspaper editor and art critic visited Paris in the early 1850’s and published his impressions in Parisian Sights and French Principles  (1852). On the subject of Sunday he stands in the middle.

On this day Paris disgorges its population upon the Boulevards, the Champs Elysees, Bois du Boulogne, public gardens, and museums. The throng is interminable, but a more orderly, happier looking and better dressed crowd is nowhere to be seen. The working faubourgs send their population outside the barrier. In fine weather the Champs Elysees present the appearance of a fair. Every species of jugglery, Punch and Judy, concerts and dog shows, booths, games, and mountebank tricks are in full blast, and each becomes the centre of a curious circle. The roll of carriages and pleasure vehicles is incessant. Paris dines ” en ville,” or in other words, as pleasure is a part of a Frenchman’s creed and he is fond of good eating, he dines on that day with his family or friends at a restaurant, takes his coffee and brandy in the open air or on the sidewalk in front, and passes the evening at some theatre or ball. However remiss he may be at mass, this part of his religion is never neglected. The government encourage this mode of its observance by selecting it for grand reviews, races, launches, and whatever can add to the already seemingly superabundant sources of amusement. The grand waters at St. Cloud and Versailles play on Sunday, and the throng of people on the excursion trains of the railways is immense. Sunday is taken literally in the sense of a day of rest from ordinary work; consequently a day of liberty from otherwise the necessary labours of the remaining six might derange.

A Frenchman is as conscientious in defending his manner of keeping the Sabbath as an American would be in condemning it, though there are some, even Catholics, who agree with the latter. Education makes the difference. As the highest authority has declared Sunday was made for man, the surest way to test the relative merits of the two systems is by the effects on national character. The balance of physical happiness, and the enjoyment of the senses in works of art, would seem to be in favor of France ; but in the acquisition of religious instruction and the strengthening of moral principles, the graver course of the United States stands out in strong relief. The former renders the individual more joyous because less thoughtful — the latter more thoughtful and less joyous. The first, like their own champagne, sparkles, exhilarates and is gone ; the last, a solid aliment for the soul, nourishes strength for the hour of trial. A happy combination of the two would temper the one and adorn the other.

Related post:

Americans in Paris and the Kissing Protocol

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mont de piete

Excerpt from Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles (1873) by Charles C. Fulton:

Mont-de-Piété is one of the most important and extensive establishments connected with the city government of Paris. It is a municipal pawnbroker establishment for the relief and protection of the poor, and, indeed, of all classes who may by either poverty or misfortune be compelled to borrow money on their personal effects. That the extent of this establishment may be understood, it is only necessary to state that it has two principal offices in opposite section of the city, twenty auxiliary offices in different wards or arrondissements, and has three hundred officers connected with it.

The average number of articles pledged daily is three thousand, but no pledges are received from anyone unless they are known to be householders, or produce a passport or papers en règle, showing who they are and that the property they offer is their own. The privilege of loaning money on deposits is enjoyed exclusively by this establishment: hence thieves have but little opportunity of disposing of their plunder. Out of two millions of articles pledged per annum, the average number delivered to the police on suspicion of theft is three hundred and ninety-one, representing loans to the amount of eight thousand nine hundred francs. Thus this establishment, instead of encouraging theft, leads to detection, punishment, and restoration of stolen goods.

The Mont-de-Piété is under the authority of the Minister of the Interior and the Prefect of the Seine and is managed by a Director, appointed by the former. It has a Council or Board of Managers, consisting of three members of the City Council, three citizens of Paris, and three members of three Council of Public Assistance. The number of officers employed in its management is over three hundred, and they are kept busy for twelve or fourteen hours per day.

Everything that is brought to be pledged is carefully appraised, and the amount loaned is four-fifths of the value of gold and silver articles, and two-thirds of the value of other effects, provided no loan at the two central offices exceeds ten thousand francs, and at the branch establishments five hundred francs. From this, it will be seen it is not used entirely by the extremely poor, but all classes at times avail themselves of its advantages to enable them to ride over temporary difficulties.

mont-de-piete

The pledges of the previous day are brought every morning to the central establishments or the two storehouses and it would be difficult to find in the whole of Paris a scene of more stirring business activity. The system with which the whole business is managed is wonderful, there being one department where borrowers are enabled to refund by installments the sums advanced: even one franc is received.

Whilst the work of redeeming pledges is constantly in progress in one part of the establishment, another is crowded with men, women, and children with bundles to offer for small advances, which continues from nine o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. In another section, an auction is daily held for the sale of forfeited pledges, which have not been redeemed within the time specified. After a year, or rather fourteen months, the effects, if the duplicate be not renewed by paying the interest due upon it, are thus sold, and the auction room is a scene for a painter. Here all the old-clothes establishments are represented, and at times the bidding is very lively, nothing being sold and no bids received for less sum than the amount advanced.

 

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This steam engine was used to clean the mattresses that Parisians deposited as a pledge. In the 19th century it was common to put on your mattress. Under the Second Empire there were more than 15,000 of them. In order to avoid contamination, each of them was disinfected in this oven, before being put in stores

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Related posts:

The Government of Paris: A success story

Parisian Foundlings

The Dead of Paris

 

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Election of the Queen

Election of the Queen

 

Paris of the 19th century was home to a boisterous and hard-working female corporation. Nearly one hundred thousand washerwomen worked either in the brick-and-mortar laundries across the city, or in the bateaux-lavoirs  –  wooden constructions floating on the river.  They labored twelve to fifteen hours a day, six days a week, with no sick leave or paid vacation. Once a year though, Paris treated them like royalty. During the feasts of Mid-Lent, the streets of Paris exploded with the frenzy of carnival, whose principal actors were the washerwomen. With great pomp and circumstance, the women of each lavoir elected a queen and the new sovereigns, escorted by masks, paraded on the boulevards in elaborate floats. Much drinking and merry-making accompanied the procession. In the 1890’s city authorities decided to nominate the Queen of Queens—the best of all the locally elected queens—to represent the spirit of the feast. This custom survived into the 20th century when it was interrupted by the WWII and was never fully revived.

The Queen and her entourage

The Queen and her entourage

The Queen of Queens

The Queen of Queens received by her sponsors

 

Other posts of interest:

French-watching in 1850: Feeding time at a popular restaurant

Parisian Lifestyle: Sensual ease and contentment

 

If you enjoy reading these posts, support the author by purchasing her books on Amazon:

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