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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 post of interest:

Mi-Carême: An Explosion of Joy in the Midst of Gloom

 

 

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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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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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LeRéveillon by Edmund Morin (1824-1882)

Le Réveillon by Edmund Morin (1824-1882)

The Réveillon is a night-long feast that celebrates the birth of Christ. It starts after the midnight mass in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. Thankfully, I experienced the French Réveillon only once. When children are involved – hungry, tired, over-excited and cranky children – the celebration may not be all that joyous. In my humble opinion, the cultures East of the Rhine manage far better by celebrating the Christmas Eve with both dinner and gifts dispatched before midnight. When the little angels fall asleep, replete and hugging their new toys, the adults can enjoy merrymaking on a new level.

This personal experience served me to a degree when I wrote the Christmas chapter in my novel Fame and Infamy, set in the 1870`s Paris. In the following short excerpt cultures clash over the Réveillon:

Dissent was brewing in the kitchen where Julie sat in a corner with a goose between her knees, plucking the feathers, while Célestine chopped onion with more vigour than the task required.

“Some people I could name have no respect for tradition,” the cook said provocatively as Nelly wheeled Géraldine through the door.

“Listen Célestine,” Nelly said, while parking the wheelchair by the kitchen table, “as far as traditions go, I had to give up mine as well. In America, there’s no midnight feast. If I can adjust, then you can too. It’s unhealthy to eat a heavy dinner past midnight. By the time you’d get back from church, we’d be half-asleep. We’ll eat at nine. That’s late enough.”

“Have it your way,” Célestine grumbled. “As for me and Julie, we’ll wait until after the midnight mass. Won’t we, Julie?”

Julie ripped off the last fistful of feathers and closely studied the goose for any she might have overlooked. She would not be drawn into the dispute.

“I don’t know why you are making such a case of the Réveillon,” Nelly said. “It will be just us and Monsieur Goubert. Thirteen desserts for five people is excess. I must’ve been brain-damaged when I allowed such an expense.”

“That’s for Jesus and his twelve apostles. They must not be denied. Nuts, raisins, almonds,” Célestine counted on her fingers, “figs, dates, nougat, apples, pears, prunes, oranges, and three different tarts.”

Nelly fanned herself. “I feel already stuffed just from listening to you. So what do you want us to do?”

Célestine distributed the tasks and they settled down to work. Potato peels dropped into the waste bucket, chestnut shells cracked, a knife rhythmically stroked the chopping board, accompanied with dull thumps from underneath the table, where Schnitzel wagged his tail, repeatedly hitting a chair leg.

Later on, in the same chapter, Célestine—a former courtesan fallen on hard times— has the last word on what a Réveillon should be like:

The aperitif finished, they entered the dining room. The first bottle of wine was uncorked and Julie served a plate of oysters on a bed of ice, accompanied with lemons and vinaigrette. The company had worked their way through a series of canapés and hors d’oeuvres before the stuffed goose made its appearance, surrounded by a multitude of garnishes. Her back bent under the weight of the giant platter, Julie put it on the table, and a second bottle of wine was opened in its honour. Tongues loosened by degrees and faces glowed with the kind of well-being only a good meal can generate. At the end of the meal, Célestine was coaxed out of the kitchen to hear a well-deserved praise for her culinary art.“It was only a modest dinner,” she said, reaching for a glass of wine. “You should see the réveillons I used to give! Up to eighteen courses. Guests would eat and drink all night long. Those were the times! Ah, life was good under the Empire.”

_*_

 Fame and Infamy is available in print and in all digital formats (see the side bar).

More posts about local customs:

Feared and Despised: The Parisian Concierge

The Dead of Paris

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What follows here is still done to some degree in today’s France. A few years ago, I watched an eye-popping French TV documentary on the subject. I cannot say for sure whether the athletes of the TV food marathon were actually members of the original Club des Grands Estomachs, but they certainly maintained the tradition of ritual overeating. Remarkably, none of the participants showed any visible signs of ill-health or obesity.

Recently, I came across the Club of Grand Stomachs in an article written in 1867, which describes one of that year’s menus. The twelve club members met each Saturday in the Parisian restaurant Chez Pascal for an 18-hour session that would be lethal for the majority of today’s health- and diet-conscious individuals.

The pantagruelic meal, lasting from 6:00 PM to noon, was divided into three acts. Act One began with Potage à la Crécy (a puréed vegetable soup) preceded by several glasses of bitter wine and followed by several glasses of madeira. Then came a turbot with caper sauce, a beef sirloin, a braised leg of lamb, fattened chickens encased in pastry, maraschino sherbet, creams, pies, and small cakes, all of it washed down by six bottles of Burgundy per person.

Act Two lasted from midnight to 6:00 AM. It began with one or several cups of tea preceding a turtle soup and featured Indian six-chicken curry, salmon with spring onions, deer cutlets with peppers, sole fillets with truffle sauce, artichokes with Java pepper, rum sherbet, Scottish partridge in whiskey, rum puddings, and strongly spiced English pastry. Drinks served with this session consisted of three bottles of Burgundy and three bottles of Bordeaux for each participant.

The final part of the food marathon began at 6:00 AM and ended at noon. They started with an extremely peppered onion soup, followed by a quantity of savory pastries and four bottles of champagne per head. Then they passed to coffee with a pousse-café of an entire bottle of cognac, kirsch or rum.

I will restrain myself from any commentary on the ill effects of overeating. One can only marvel at the extraordinary endurance of the human body under such onslaught of food and drink.

Related posts:

The French art of drinking without getting drunk

Extreme Food Recycling

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Edgar Degas: The Bellelli Family

 

Excerpt from How to Enjoy Paris in 1842 by F. Herve

Amongst the middle-classes, both husband and wife keep very steadily to business, particularly the latter, and as they live frugally, they generally calculate upon retiring from business in ten or twelve years, and mostly effect their object, as they are perfectly contented when they have amassed enough capital to produce three or four hundred a year, which is the case with the major part of them; many are not satisfied until four or five times that sum; but they are seldom ambitious, nor care to get out of their class, as the persons with whom they associate and are intimate, are mostly relations and connexions to whom they are attached, and do not seem to fancy any pleasure in extending their acquaintances. But before they retire from business they have their occasional recreations; in fine weather they are very fond of spending their Sundays in the country; in the winter they frequently visit the theatres, but very rarely have company at home or pay visits, except on the New Year, and in the Carnival they give one ball, and go to several others given by their relations; this description alludes to what may be termed the respectable class of shopkeepers.

 

 

Related posts:

Without a Dowry: The business of marriage

Mending their Manners

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James Tissot: Without a Dowry (1883)

James Tissot (1836 – 1902) was the story-teller of elegant Victorian life. Without a Dowry is one of Tissot’s paintings in a series called La Femme à Paris. The picture is also known as Sunday in the Luxembourg Garden. The Jardin de Luxembourg was a popular recreational area on the Left Bank protected from the undesirables by a tall forged-iron fence. Here one could rent a chair to enjoy fresh air in comfort. The chair rental is probably the only Sunday pleasure the two women in the painting can afford. Both the mother and the daughter are in mourning – one can guess that the father, probably a poorly-paid government clerk,  is gone and they are living on a small pension. Without a sufficient dowry, the young woman has no hope for a happy future. Maybe, just maybe, she will marry a widower with six children or an old man in need of a nurse. Until then, genteel poverty is her fate. The newspapers in this picture story play a significant role: mothers assiduously read marriage offers published by individuals or by agencies.

Marriage was a serious business in France and, as with all business, money was its essence.  The following text, written by Charles C. Fulton, was published in 1873:

The matrimonial agencies of Paris do a thriving business. They are located in all sections of the city, and are of different classes, according to the wealth and standing of the families of the parties they deal with — young men who are looking for a wife with a good dowry, the money consideration being the main incentive, and parents who have marriageable daughters, being the principal customers. The agents, when they effect a marriage, stipulate that they shall receive five percent of the dowry, and generally manage also to get a good retaining-fee from both parties. The larger establishments are in correspondence with similar agencies on all parts of the continent and have become a necessity to parents who are looking out for eligible wives for their sons and responsible husbands for their daughters. The successful tradesman who has accumulated a fortune desires his daughters to marry in a higher circle than that in which he associates: hence the necessity of an agent to make the necessary advances. Then elaborate papers must be prepared and signed before the marriage is consummated, and unless the dowry is paid down at the stipulated time the engagement is off. To manage all these preliminaries requires practical knowledge and experience which few parties in private life could be expected to possess.

The agency of Madame St. Just only does openly what hundreds of others have for ages been doing secretly, and she has at once risen to the head of the profession. She is one of those business geniuses who believe in advertising, and she is, of course, pushing aside all the old fogies who have transacted their business as if secrecy was necessary to all their movements. Madame St. Just says the French law of marriage, and the national custom, render matrimonial agencies a necessity, and in a recent trial the courts have sustained the position she has taken. No one under twenty-five years of age, either son or daughter, can marry without the consent of his or her parents, or, if the parents are dead, without the consent of the grandparents, if any are living. If none of them are living, applicants must substantiate the fact by bringing certificates of their death and burial.

Thus it will be seen that parents make all the arrangements for marriage, and, as they do not know who are the eligible parties in the matrimonial market, they must apply to those who make it a business to keep a record, with the pedigree and pecuniary standing or prospects, of all the young men and girls who are similarly eligible. If John Smith should have settled on his daughter a dowry of twenty thousand francs, he has a money interest in securing for her a husband similarly endowed, and he awaits the guarantee of a responsible agent that there is no false pretense being practiced upon him. How would he be able to ascertain that Tom Brown, who applied for the hand of Miss Smith, was all that he represented himself to be, and whether his father was responsible for the twenty thousand francs which he had promised to give his son on the morning of his marriage, or how would he know that there were twenty or thirty young men of good family and good money-standing who are anxious to secure a wife with the twenty-thousand-franc charm possessed by Miss Smith, if there were not an agent to apply to who kept a record of all such young-aspirants for matrimony? Or how would the parents of these young men know that there was such an eligible party as Miss Smith in existence if they had not applied to Madame St. Just for the information?

Related post:

James Tissot and the Women in Paris

The Marriage Market (Newspaper ads.)

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