Archive for the ‘people of Paris’ Category

Jean-Georges Béraud: Street Scene

Jean Béraud: Street Scene

“One of the characteristics of the people of Paris, for which they are known the world over, is their politeness,” wrote David W. Bartlett, an American author, who visited Paris during the Second Empire (1852-1870). Reading this, the immediate reaction of today’s visitors would be an utter disbelief since Parisians are known world-wide for their unpleasant behavior. The only consolation for the foreigner is that they don’t treat each other any better. During my last visit, my Parisian friend was called “une conne” (and a few more choice words) because of a tiny parking mistake she had made. The aggressor was a middle-class, middle-aged man. Things are looking up though. Well-aware of their bad reputation, Parisians are trying to soften their manners. In my experience (compared to ten, twenty years ago) there is a noticeable improvement.

David W. Bartlett

David W. Bartlett

Yet if we are to believe Mr. Bartlett, present-day Parisians come nowhere close to their ancestors’ civility. “I noticed this politeness in all circles and in all places,” he writes, and goes on: “In England John Bull stares at your dress if it differs from his own, and hunts you to the wall. Or if anything in your speech or manners pleases him, he laughs in your face. But in Paris, the Frenchman never is guilty of so ill-bred an action as to laugh at anybody in his presence, however provoking the occasion. If you are lost and inquire the way, he will run half a mile to show you, and will not even hear of thanks. The only time that I ever experienced anything but politeness in Paris, was when in a great hurry I chanced to hit a workman with a basket upon his head. The concussion was so great that the basket was dashed to the pavement. He turned round very slowly, and with a grin upon his countenance said, “Thank you, sir!” This was politeness with a little too much sarcasm. It was spoken so finely that I burst into a laugh, and the Frenchman joined me in it.”

Lucky Mr. Bartlett!

Related posts:

Mending Their Manners

Events in the Street: Female duel with sand-filled socks

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

duel sable

“Le Petit Journal” November 1st 1902:

There are Apaches of both sexes as seen recently in the rue du Général-Morin. Louise Henin, a beautiful girl of twenty, became mortally angered by Andrée Merle, twenty-three years, for reasons difficult to specify. They resolved to meet in a single combat, but refused to choose common weapons such as knives or revolvers. They sought and found the most unusual. Each took a single sock – probably emptied of their savings – and filled it with sand. Then they went into battle with all the wham! and splash! to the amusement of the street. The fight, however, ended abruptly when Louise Henin collapsed after a blow so violent that she had to be transported – in a very poor shape – to the Hotel-Dieu hospital. As for her terrible adversary, she quickly melted into the crowd.

Related posts:

The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches

Street People


Read Full Post »



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




Read Full Post »

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


Read Full Post »


Source: Paris from the Earliest Period to the Present Day by William Walton, published in 1899

The immense army of the helpless and sickly poor—paupers, paralytics, scrofulous, consumptive, idiotic, cancerous—demands a complex machinery from the State or the municipal administration. For a multitude of these unfortunates the words of Victor Hugo are true: They begin in the hospital, and end in the hospice.” “The child comes into the world in a Maternité, and, later, if life has not been generous to him, he finishes his days in one of the asylums for the aged, at Bicêtre, at the Salpêtrière, at Debrousse, at Brévannes, at Ivry, after having more than once paid his tribute to sickness in the wards of some hospital! And still more, at intervals, during certain difficult hours, he has been obliged to ask aid of the Bureau de Bienfaisance, so that, during the whole of his life, this unlucky one has been the pensioner of the Assistance Publique.”

Very fortunate are those who succeed in obtaining a bed at the hospice in which to end their days; the number of applicants each year exceeds by three or four thousand the number of vacancies. The crippled and incurable paupers, for whom all labor is impossible, are admitted without regard to age; the octogenarians, cancerous, blind, and epileptic, and the sick transferred from the hospitals to the hospices, are always eligible; but the slightest misdemeanor recorded on their civil papers, even though atoned for by a long life of honesty, is fatal to the hopes of the unfortunate aged;—for them there is no asylum but the Dépôt de Mendicité. The most celebrated of these hospices of Paris are the Bicêtre and the Salpêtrière; the former at Gentilly, about a kilomètre from the southern fortifications, and the latter on the Boulevard d’Hôpital. The Bicêtre especially, under the ancient régime, represented everything that was abhorrent in a mediæval hospital, asylum, and jail combined; it was “at once a prison, a dépôt de mendicité, an asylum for the aged, a special hospital, a lunatic asylum, a political Bastille, an establishment for receiving sick children.”

It is organized in two great divisions—a hospice for old men, and an asylum for the deranged; but the latter includes an infirmary for idiot, epileptic, and feeble-minded children. The buildings of the hospice proper are arranged around four rectangular courts, planted with trees and gardens, in which the aged inmates sun themselves, and when it rains they take refuge under arcades known as the Allée des Bronchite and the Rue de Rivoli de Bicêtre. For a considerable distance around the establishment these pensioners may be seen in fine weather taking the air; they have this privilege for the whole of the day on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, and from eleven o’clock in the morning to four in the afternoon on the remaining days of the week.

All the sounder ones, to the number of some four hundred, are obliged to work at one of the many useful trades practised in the various ateliers, and they gain, for their own use, from forty centimes to a franc a day, money which goes to provide them with various small creature comforts. Those who are not strong enough, or capable enough, to work in the ateliers are obliged to pick vegetables for the culinary department, for which they receive no pay;—from this obligation no one is free excepting the octogenarians, the sickly, and the active workers. The administration also encourages the enterprise of those who wish to work on their own account; it provides them with a locality and facilities, for which they pay a monthly rental of from twenty centimes to one franc twenty centimes a month. Some of these petty industries are very curious and ingenious.

Related posts:

Parisian Foundlings

The Dead of Paris


Read Full Post »


In the Parisian Prostitutes series we met la gigolette. ( …She is the mistress of the garroters of La Vilette or the stabbers of Grenelle. She it is who beguiles the passer-by, decoys him into an ambush, and she whistles for her souteneur, who rushes up with his companions “to do for the cove”…) Now let me introduce you to la gigolette’s male counterpart: the Apache.

In the Victorian times, Paris suffered an overwhelming criminality – 48 times stronger than that of today. Eight thousand policemen faced some 30 thousand mobile gang members in addition to other criminals. Known for their fierceness, the gangs were called Apaches. Moving only in groups, these young men from disadvantaged neighborhoods employed swindle, street robbery and pimping. They were recognizable by the “doe eye”, a small tattoo around the eyes and their attire consisted of bell pants, a half-opened jacket revealing a jersey or a crumpled shirt, cap on head, and meticulously polished shoes.

The Apache culture included original weapons and combat techniques best described in the website The Dirty Tricks of the French Apache.

apaches armes

The Apache Danse is a cultural heritage equal to the famous cancan. The performance of a dominating male and an abused female was very violent and sometimes caused injury to the dancers. Here is a 1935 version (as I had troubles with embedding this video, you must click on the link below the picture, but the spectacle is well  worth the effort):

apache dance


Related post:

Mark Twain and the Cancan

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 120 other followers

%d bloggers like this: