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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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jacques

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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doggieCharles C. Fulton was one of the American travelers who visited Paris in the second half of the 19th century when overseas travel was made safer and comfortable. Life in Paris provided the Americans with many curiosities worthy of their pen.

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

All over Europe the love of dogs among both sexes is remarkable, although they are made to work in Switzerland and some parts of Germany. Here in Paris it is quite common to see a mother dragging her almost infant child by the hand, weary and fretful, and carrying a dog in her arms, which she will occasionally stop to kiss, or dispense of so as to make it more comfortable.

This trait is peculiar to no one class, but all seem to have a strong affection for the dog. To see a lady at her door or window without dog is almost a novelty, whilst many of them carry them in their arms or lead them by a ribbon in the streets. The corners are posted with handbills of hospitals for dogs, where the best medical attendance can be had, and dog-medicines and dog-soaps are placarded in all directions. On the boulevards, at night, the dealers in dogs are constantly perambulating with two or three pups in their arms, and ladies will stop and bargain for them on the public thoroughfare. They teach them all manners of tricks, and they are valued according to the education they have received and the intelligence they display. When they travel they take a nurse with them to attend to the wants and comfort of the dog, and these nurses can be seen in the public squares airing and exercising the dogs, and leading them by the ribbons.

Some idea of the extent of this mania may be obtained from the fact that the dog-tax paid into the city treasury last year was four hundred and twenty thousand francs, or nearly one hundred thousand dollars. The men, also, have their dogs, but not to such a great extent as the ladies. The lap-dog are mostly beautiful little animals, as white as snow, and are kept scrupulously clean, more care being evidently bestowed on them in this respect than many of the children receive from their mothers.

Related posts:

The Scarcity of Water

Food Not So Good

Mending heir manners

 

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balconyF. Hervé, and Englishman visiting France in the early 1840’s, has this to say – in his long-winded way – about the strong family attachments in the mid-19th century France:

 

For the sympathies of the heart I have found the French females most keenly alive, no mothers can be more devotedly attached to their children than they are, and it is repaid to them with interest by their offspring, as a devotional affection towards parents is carried to an extreme; in some instances I should say to a fault, as a daughter in general looks up entirely to them, in regard to the man that they may choose with whom she is to pass the rest of her life, without presuming that she ought to make a selection for herself, considering that her marriage is the affair of her parents, and that she has but to obey their wishes in that, as well as in all other cases; hence it is rarely found that a French young lady has thought of romance in her composition, but is on the contrary the mild, docile, obedient, and affectionate pupil, and often imitator of her mother. The English young lady is a little more rebellious; possessing a more independent spirit, she very soon takes the liberty of thinking for herself, particularly on that subject; and could she totally have her will would act for herself also.

Families are much more united in France than in England, and agree together in a most astonishing manner; thus when a daughter marries, instead of quitting her home, the husband arranges his affairs so as to go and live with her parents, and in many cases several families live together and form one little community, which spares the pain of separation of parent and child. The numerous offspring of the celebrated Marquis de Lafayette was a remarkable instance of how whole families can live and agree under the same roof; at his seat called La Grange, his married children and their children and grandchildren were all residing together, whilst he, like one of the ancient patriarchs, was the revered head of his people. I know a case at Boulogne, where in one house there are living together, two great grandfathers, one grandfather and grandmother, two fathers and two mothers and their four children, and what renders it more curious is that they are half English and half French, but all connected by their sons and daughters intermarrying; but strange to say that the English could not agree to live together in that manner, and it is a most extraordinary circumstance much remarked by the French, that wherever the English are settled in any town in France, they always contrive to quarrel with each other, and find employment for the French lawyers; at Boulogne they have at least twice as much practice for the English as for the natives.

Related posts:

Parisians in 1842: The working class

Parisians in 1842: The middle class

Parisians in 1842: The upper class

 

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etrennes

In France, Christmas is called Noël. Noël means la bonne nouvelle or “the good news”. Of the visible signs of Christmas in the 19th century Paris, the Christmas tree was not a common sight, but no home was without a crèche, the Nativity scene.
On Christmas Eve, children left their shoes by the fireplace to be filled with gifts from Pere Noel. Adults received no gifts until the New Year’s Étrennes.

The Christmas log is now symbolized by “la bûche de Noël”, the unavoidable festive dessert

The Christmas log is now symbolized by “la bûche de Noël”, the unavoidable festive dessert

Evergreens, such as ivy and mistletoe, decorated the mantel piece and the dinner table readied for Le Réveillon, the after Midnight Mass feast. That’s right: the French have to wait until after midnight to celebrate Christmas with food. What food and how much of it (lots!) is described in The Réveillon: Christmas the French Way.

A Joyeux Noël to all!

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big stomachsThe 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, seen through American spectacles (1852). His humor and the clarity of his writing vividly portray the living conditions in mid-century Paris.

To see the French eat one should visit the restaurants of lesser magnitude and fame, particularly of a Sunday, where the rush to dinner, as no one dines that day under his own roof, is absolutely fearful to a lover of a quiet meal. Infants, dogs, and nurses, all have a seat that day, and the amount consumed would indicate considerable preparatory fasting. Eating and drinking, for the moment, becomes the only business of life. The preparations bespeak the seriousness of the operation. A family enters, consisting of father, mother, maiden sister, two children under five years of age, and a dog. All the tables are filled. They turn to go out. The restaurateur rushes forward, intercepts their retreat, and promises a table “toutsuite.” He sees one party have called for their bills, hands them their change, and plumps the new comers into their warm seats, with an array of broken bread, dirty glasses and all the debris of the previous meal before them. Once seated, with bonnets and hats hung up, they are considered as secure as fish fairly hooked. The “garçon,” with a dexterity and rapidity peculiarly his own, whisks away the soiled table-cloth and dishes, and in an instant has replaced them with snow-white linen and porcelain. Now commences the “tug of” eating. Each member of the party, except the dog who gravely occupies his chair, too well-bread to manifest impatience, plants a napkin under his or her chin, of the dimensions of a moderate sized table-cloth. The females pin the extremities to each shoulder, so that in front they have much the appearance of being in their shrouds. The menu card is studied, orders given, and content and pleasure reign. At these family feasts children are literally crammed, indulged with wines and all the delicacies called for by adult taste, their parents delighted in proportion to the quantity they consume. Eating, under almost any circumstances is to a looker-on a vulgar operation. In one of these restaurants it is certainly an amusing one to a veteran traveler, whose sensibilities have long since had their edges blunted. The French from early habit frequently make themselves very much at home at restaurants and cafes, spending their evenings at the latter, reading the journals, and playing chess or dominoes, paying for the same by calling for a bottle of beer or glass of brandy. I have myself seen a woman who had come in by herself, after finishing her repast coolly throw herself back in her chair and proceed to take a comfortable digestive nap, apparently wholly oblivious to the existence and manifold trials of the race denominated “unprotected females.’

Related posts:

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

Food – Not so good

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1840

 

The following text, published in 1842, offers an interesting look at the mid-19th century Frenchwoman and, surprisingly, at the French esteem of quietness:

A stranger would not appreciate the degree of praise which is contained in the word quiet when used by the French, who appear to consider it as comprising all the cardinal virtues; when seeking a house or apartments, if you say anything favourable or unfavourable of them, they never fail to remind you that they are so quiet. The same eulogy they will pronounce on their daughters with peculiar pride and energy, when they wish to extol them to the skies, and in good truth their demoiselles are quiet enough in all conscience, for it requires often a considerable degree of ingenuity to extract from them more than monosyllables. We have been accustomed to consider the French as a restless, capricious, volatile people, and so I suppose they might have been formerly, but now they are undoubtedly the reverse, being a quiet routine plodding sort of people, particularly as regards the provincials; and even amongst the Parisians there are thousands that reside in one quarter of the city, which they seldom quit, never approaching what they consider the gay portion of Paris, but live amongst each other, visiting only within their own circle, consisting almost entirely of their relations and family connexions.

The women consider, even down to a housemaid, that their sex demands a certain tone of deference, however humble their position, and if a nobleman did not touch his hat to them when they open or shut the door for them, with the usual salutation of good day or good morning, they would pronounce his manners brutal, and say, that although he was a man of title he was not a gentleman; hence the very unceremonious manner that an Englishman has of addressing servants, whether male or female, has kept them very much out of favour with that class of the French community. A scullion, or what may be termed a girl of all work, that has not met with that degree of respect from some of our countrymen to which she considered herself entitled, will remark, that the English may be very rich, but they certainly are not enlightened as we are, with a little drawing up of the head, implying their consciousness of superiority over us semi-barbarians; your charwoman, your washerwoman’s drudge, fish woman, or girl that cries turf about the streets, are all Madame and Mademoiselle when they speak of each other, and with them there is no such word as woman; if a female, she must be a lady, even if her occupation be to pick up rags in the street.

Source:

HOW TO ENJOY PARIS IN 1842,

INTENDED TO SERVE AS A

COMPANION AND MONITOR

Indicating all that is useful and interesting

IN THE FRENCH METROPOLIS,

Containing

HISTORICAL, POLITICAL, COMMERCIAL, ARTISTICAL, THEATRICAL AND STATISTICAL INFORMATION.

AS ALSO A DESCRIPTION

Of the manners and customs of the Parisians of the present day;

WITH INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE STRANGER.

In Respect to Economy, and Advice to his general proceedings with the French.

By F. Hervé

Author of A Residence in Turkey and Greece, etc, etc.

 

 Related post: Mending their manners

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