With the streets dotted with busy cafés, with the boulevards and city parks alive with unhurried flâneurs, Paris in the 19th century was an immense outdoor living-room where all classes mixed freely. But what homes did they return to when the day was over? To be sure, the wealthiest headed for their mansions called hôtels privés – not to be confused with a real hotel – while the rest, from the well-to-do to the poorest citizens, lived atop each other in mostly six-storied houses. To better understand this class arrangement, view the picture in the post Living Vertically.
The illustration you saw above represents a sitting room of the privileged inhabitants found on the second floor just above the street level and the entresol, both occupied by shops and offices. The rooms on this floor were spacious, the ornate ceilings higher than those on the floors above, the walls and doors treated with elaborate decoration. The large French windows usually lead to a balcony. They provided plentiful light and fresh air in the summer and unpleasant cold drafts in the winter. The only source of heat was the fireplace, where the fire consumed expensive wood logs (coal was not frequently used in Paris) and even the most affluent Parisians occasionally suffered from cold.
In the following picture, we are in a cozy, but reduced dwelling, probably situated on one of the upper floors. A card reader conducts her profitable business in her bedsitter. Notice the old-fashioned built-in bed. If the bed is somewhat shorter than normal, it is for a reason. In the past, Frenchmen used to sleep in a reclining position to ease breathing. The niche in which the bed was inserted was called alcôve and to this day the expression les secrets d’alcôve refers to seduction, adultery, and other spicy activities in the bedroom.
A lower-class room, like the one below, would be home to a skilled worker or a small shopkeeper. A young family, in their Sunday best, are visiting aged parents. The son has done well, he is probably a white-collar, or the daughter has married wisely. The old couple is decidedly working-class. There are signs of mild comfort: a small carpet on the floor, some pictures hanging on the wall, and cheap knick-knacks on the dresser.
The last floor, directly under the roof, was reserved for the poor. It was home to the servants of the house, or—worse—to the near destitute as long as they could afford rent. The illustration below is a picture of utter misery, but life under the roof was not comfortable in the best of cases. In the old houses, water had to be carried up from the courtyard and in the newer buildings the taps ended on the fourth floor because there was no sufficient pressure in the pipes. There was no heating; a portable stove on which a stew would be cooked, was rarely used as fuel was too expensive. Cooked food came cheaper when purchased from the street vendors.