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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.

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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 vultures 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 for this type of events here

 

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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

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Taking a bath was considered a dangerous undertaking in the not so distant past. It was generally believed that, subjected to a prolonged contact with water, body organs would liquefy and therefore a proper rest was needed to restore them to their normal consistency. We all know the good Queen Bess would bathe once a month “whether she needed it or not”. Her contemporary, the French king Henri IV, having summoned his Minister of Finance, and upon learning that the man had just taken a bath, exclaimed: “Then I must go to him for he must not leave his bed!”

Only at the beginning of the 19th century did the idea of taking a regular bath as a part of personal hygiene begin to take shape. It made a slow progress in the upper classes, but the common people remained blissfully dirty.  The appearance in the mid-century of moneyed American tourists and their constant complaints about the lack of hygienic facilities accelerated the pace.

COBBIrvin S. Cobb (1876-1944), the American author, humorist and columnist, was one of the loud critics of European shortcomings in the matter. Having found the British bathroom arrangements lacking in comfort, he endeavored to compare the situation on the Continent. It must be said that none of the countries he visited met with his American standards, but his lashing tongue was especially sharp when describing the French approach to cleanliness:

I can offer no visual proof to back my word, but by other testimony I venture the assertion that when a boulevardier feels the need of a bath he hangs a musk bag round his neck and then, as the saying is, the warmer the sweeter. His companion of the gentle sex apparently has the same idea of performing daily ablutions that a tabby cat has. You recall the tabby-cat system, do you not? Two swipes over the brow with the moistened paw, one forward swipe over each ear, a kind of circular rubbing effect across the face – and call it a day! Drowning must be the most frightful death that a Parisian sidewalk favorite can die. It is not so much the death itself – it is the attendant circumstances.

Across the river, in the older quarters of Paris, there is excitement when anybody on the block takes a bath – not so much excitement as for fire, perhaps, but more than for a funeral. On the eve of the fatal day the news spreads through the district that tomorrow poor Jacques is going to have a bath! A further reprieve has been denied him. He cannot put it off for another month, or even another two weeks. His doom is nigh at hand; there is no hope – none!

On the morrow the condemned man rises early and sees his spiritual adviser. He eats a hearty breakfast, takes an affectionate leave of his family and says he is prepared for the worst. At the appointed hour the tumbrel enters the street, driven by the paid executioner and bearing the dread instrument of punishment, a large oblong tin tub.

The rumble of the heavy wheels over the cobbles seems to wake an agonized chord in every bosom. Today this dread visitation descends upon Jacques, but who can tell—so the neighbors say to themselves—when the same fate may strike some other household now happily unconscious! All along the narrow way sorrow-drooped heads protrude in rows; from every casement dangle whiskers, lank and stringy in sympathy – for in this section every true Frenchman has whiskers, and if by chance he has not his wife has; so that there are whiskers for all.

From the window of the doomed wretch’s apartments a derrick protrudes – a cross arm with a pulley and a rope attached. It bears a grimly significant resemblance to the gallows tree. Under the direction of the presiding functionary the tub is made fast to the tackle and hoisted upwards as pianos and safes are hoisted in American cities. It halts at the open casement. It vanishes within. The whole place resounds with low murmurs of horror and commiseration.

Ah, the poor Jacques – how he must suffer! Hark to that low, sickening thud! ‘Tis the accursed soap dropping from his nerveless grasp. Hist to that sound – like unto a death rattle! It is the water gurgling in the tub. And what means that low, poignant smothered gasp? It is the last convulsive cry of Jacques descending into the depths. All is over! Let us pray!

The tub, emptied but stained, is lowered to the waiting cart. The executioner kisses the citizen who has held his horse for him during his absence and departs; the whole district still hums with ill-supressed excitement. Questions fly from tongue to tongue. Was the victim brave at the last? Was he resigned when the dread moment came? And how is the family bearing up? It is hours before the place settles down again to that calm which will endure for another month, until somebody else takes a bath on a physician’s prescription.

Even in the sanctity of a Paris hotel a bath is more or less a public function unless you lock your door. All sorts of domestic servitors drift in, filled with morbid curiosity to see how a foreigner deports himself when engaged in this strange, barbaric rite. On the occasion of my first bath on French soil, after several of the hired help had thus called on me informally, causing me to cower low in my porcelain retreat, I took advantage of a comparative quiet to rise drippingly and draw the latch. I judged the proprietor would be along next, and I was not dressed for him.

Related post:

The Scarcity of Water

 

 

 

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