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Posts Tagged ‘19th century Paris’

10.

Health care counts as one of the main reasons why you would not want to live in the 19th century. It is easy to be seduced by paintings and movies. From our point of view of ragged jeans, tattoos, and messy hair, the elegance of tall hats, snow-white shirts, and gloves for the gentlemen, or the lace, silk, and sculpted hairdos for the ladies, paint a picture of the lost perfect word. Ah, if only…

Wake up to the reality of our ancestors’ lives. The snow-white shirts and the lace got rapidly dirty in the polluted air. Heating was provided by wood and coal, both producing ashes. In addition to soot covering every urban surface, the streets reeked of urine and other byproducts of horse transport. Read  Life in the Age of Decay. (All links below)

The beautiful, elaborate gowns were unwashable because they were composites of too many materials, each needing special care. They were maintained by brushing and spot-cleaning; they never saw water. As for the poor, who formed the vast majority of the population, their water came in buckets, often from a faraway source, and had to be heated. Keeping clean was both time-consuming and expensive. In short, if the streets reeked, horses were only one part of the problem.

Food could kill you. No refrigeration meant that animal products spoiled rapidly. Little or no food control made eating  hazardous to your health. Adulteration with unhealthy substances was not uncommon. The post Extreme Food Recycling depicts the brutal situation. (Warning: do not read it before, during, or immediately after a meal.)

This lack of hygiene had consequences. Illness and premature death were ever present, with the average life-span only a half of what it is today. If you were unlucky enough to fall ill, you would stay in bed and send for a doctor. He would, in all probability, bleed you and prescribe some drops or powders to take in your drink. The rest was up to you.

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goiter

Medical knowledge was still rudimentary. Easily treatable diseases like the goitre disfigured people. This woman is not scared, and her contemporaries would know that, as they were used to the sight. Bulging eyes and swollen throat were the result of a malfunctioning thyroid gland.

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Hospitals were for the utterly destitute and no one in their right mind would go near one. Except perhaps for an urgent amputation, which in many cases resulted in death by sepsis, or a heart failure because of the searing pain for which there was no relief. Instead of washing their hands and wearing protective clothing, surgeons operated in their street clothes and an apron coated with dried blood. They washed their hands after the surgery.

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amputation

Amputation of a shoulder joint

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The plodding history of French hospitals/hospices under the Ancient Regime was interrupted by the radical hand of the Revolution.  In the Year II (1794), these institutions were nationalized. Only four years later, the revolutionaries realized they were unable to cope with the overwhelming task of poverty, and they dropped hospitals into the care of the municipalities who housed them. There they remained. Two centuries later, the mayor is still the chairman of the hospital’s board of directors.

Of the Ancient Regime hospitals in Paris, the largest was La Salpêtrière. It was an infamous women’s asylum, which was operated more like a prison, housing prostitutes, the mentally ill, and the disabled. It had a terrible reputation. During the Revolution, in 1792, the hospital was stormed with the intention of releasing the detained women. However, the situation got out of hand. Instead, the mob dragged out thirty-five of the women and murdered them. In the next century, the female inmates were exploited in the study of hysteria. (Professor Charcot and the Amplification of Hysteria and The Ball of the Folles.)

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massacre

The La Salpêtrière Massacre  

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Around the mid-century, things began to change with the invention of anaesthesia. It was now possible to cut patients open and repair them from the inside. Thanks to scientists Semmelweiss, Lister, and Pasteur, the knowledge of harmful bacteria resulted in improved cleanliness. Now it made more sense, even for the moneyed, to seek help at the hospital. And money you did need when you had the bad luck to be admitted into a secular establishment.

In the hospitals run by the religious authorities, and staffed by dedicated nuns, the patients were more or less equal. Not so in the secular hospitals, where those who could pay received all the attention while those who had no money got next to none. It took many years and many changes before patient care reached anything close to today’s standards.

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hospital

The visiting hour at a 19th century hospital ward

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In his book, The Modern Parisienne, Octave Uzanne looked at women earning their living in relatively new professions. His portrayal of nurses is damning. The book was published in 1912 and it is only reasonable to think that the bad manners and lack of professionalism were even worse in the preceding fifty years.

The lay staff of the hospitals includes the ward maids, the

probationers, and the superintendents. The ward maids do

all the hard work. They sweep, make the beds (as badly as

possible), distribute and change the plates at meal-times,

cut up the bread, and live in a perpetual state of hostility to

the probationers, with whom they desire to be on an

equality. From this feeling arise continual quarrels and

complaints, in which the patients are often compelled to

take part, to their great disadvantage.

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The ward maids are strong girls from the country, stupid,

coarse and rough, inconceivably awkward, if by an evil

chance they are called upon to give any help to a patient.

Their aim is to get through their work as quickly as possible,

to meet and gossip in their refectory. They are inveterate

beggars, and are always on the look-out to wring a few sous

from the patients. Everything must be paid for — a commis-

sion, a letter to the post; they smuggle in tobacco

and alcohol — in spite of a rule which absolutely forbids

gratuities. They are utterly indifferent to the patients, as

are nine out of ten of all the lay hospital assistants.

One of our friends knew an unfortunate man with a wound

in the leg, unable to go to the lavatory, and who for three

days asked in vain for a basin of water — he had no money.

The ward maids are boarded and lodged at the hospital.

They earn twenty to twenty-five francs per month, and

they have a free day once a fortnight.

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The probationers (boursières) are young girls of from

twenty to twenty-five. Very often they are pretty. They

have influence, and are recommended to their posts. They

receive some rudimentary training in dispensing, obstetrics,

and medicine, also in dressing and bandaging. In theory,

they are on the same footing as the ward maids, but not in

practice. As the superintendents are recruited from their

ranks they receive superior consideration. Their duties are

to give out the medicine, &c., at fixed hours, to renew

dressings, to apportion to the patients their proper food,

and to watch the serious cases at night. They are required

to make the rounds frequently, to watch the dying, lay out

the dead, open and shut the windows at fixed hours, and

see that everything is clean. They fulfil these duties with

great indifference. If they dislike a patient they manage

to forget the hour for his medicine, and it is a lucky

chance if they do not make mistakes and poison some poor

creature committed to their care.

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These statements are not exaggerated, and may be proved

any day in every hospital in Paris. The probationers spend

most of their time laughing and flirting with the house-

surgeons, dressers, or visitors. In this they are particularly

successful. They do not behave much better during the

doctor’s visits and as they pay little or no attention to his

orders, it is not surprising if they make blunders. They

take their meals outside, except when they are on duty,

which is twenty-four hours in three days, and sleep at home

except when on night duty. They are dressed like the ward

maids and superintendents, in a black dress, white apron

with bib, white sleeves, and a white cap with white bow.

The head-superintendents have a black bow on the cap.

Their name of boursières comes from the remuneration,

called a bourse, given by the Municipal Council, of 125

francs per month. They have a free day once a week.

When they are on night duty, they take part in convivial

parties given by the house-surgeons, and have a gay and

merry time. In a certain hospital which we will not name,

where a poet friend was a patient, the house-surgeons and

boursières on Shrove Tuesday romped in fancy dress through

the wards where men were dying — a most edifying spectacle.

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The superintendent is an old probationer nominated

after several competitive examinations. She has the direction

of a ward and entire command of all the male and female

staff attached to it, under the control of the house-surgeon.

Her duties are not heavy, consisting only in the distribution

of wine and the dressing of some cases where the relatives

have paid her specially. She is, as a rule, a sharp, scolding,

authoritative person. She has no love for the boursières

and annoys them as much as possible. She worries

the ward maids without any mercy. She has a small room

to herself at the entrance of the ward, where she keeps her

notes and where she retires to gossip with the superinten-

dents of the other wards. She, like all the others, has no

real compassion in her. She does what is strictly necessary

— nothing more; she has no love for her patients. Her

profession is, for her, both dull and disagreeable — and she

takes all the hours of liberty she can get. She is often

married and receives a salary of about 1200 to 1600 francs

a year. Like the probationers, she leaves the task of

laying-out the dead to the ward maids.

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We are not exaggerating the state of things, and moreover it is quite

comprehensible — these women have their interests outside

the hospital, their family, their friends. They go out often,

they draw a salary necessary to them for their living. It is

therefore a logical conclusion that they are not specially

enthusiastic about a very depressing profession, which

demands constant devotion of the most exalted kind.

Related posts:

Life in the Age of Decay

Extreme Food Recycling

Professor Charcot and the Amplification of Hysteria

The Madwomen’s Ball: A Flattering Invitation.

 

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The legacy of yesteryear, the recall of the skilled hands of painters, carvers, stonemakers, wood turners, tile-makers, sign-makers and other artisans, old storefronts still grace the streets of Paris. Around two hundred of them are protected by the Status of Historical Monuments. The most numerous among the survivors are shops selling food: bakers (boulangerie/ pâtisserie), confectioneries (confisserie), butchers (boucherie/ charcuterie), and bistros or restaurants.

Enjoy this old-charm gallery!

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Under the sign At the Cooked Herbs Renown this busy storefront combined the sale of dairy products and grilled meat

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This bakery still attracts shoppers with decorative tiles and hand painted panels

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The elaborate stonework and hand-painted tiles of this sign are the last remnants of a coffee-importer’s business

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Expensive marble panels and an intricate wood lace embellish this horsemeat butcher’s shop

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Made entirely of mosaic, this former horse butcher’s storefront still carries a sign announcing the purchase of horses for meat. Horse butcheries abounded before the arrival of the automobile. Horses served in transport before they ended as food. More about the growing troubles with horse transport here

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With its original merchandise still swimming on the tiles surrounding the shop window, this former fish shop is now a cosher fast food restaurant. It’s a pity that Jonathan did not put more care into marrying the new lettering with the old style

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All bells and whistles announce this old grocery shop

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The quality woodwork of this elegant restaurant storefront suggests the gourmet food inside

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Artwork by talented painters was a sign of success and the shopowner’s pride

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Beautiful panels seduced shoppers, Here, the gold lettering announces hot croissants inside. Who could resist the lure?

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Marrying art, skillful craftwork, and expensive materials, these ancient storefronts add beauty and charm to the streets of Paris

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Related posts:

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The Birth of Mass Shopping

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Many ate poorly in a city that was famous for its fancy food. Wages for the unskilled were low and even the skilled workers had to turn every coin twice before spending it. Men could make anywhere from 50 centimes to 4 francs a day. Unskilled women would earn as low as 25 centimes and children even less.

A previous post A Camel Steak Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris mentioned that the poorest inhabitants of the French capital saw meat only on major holidays – if ever. Their basic diet consisted of bread, potatoes, pork fat, and milk. An average restaurant meal would begin at two francs, and such a price would turn away most of the working-class people. Fuel was costly, too, so they did not do much cooking at home. Cheap hot meals could be purchased from street vendors and men of gambling nature would try their luck with meat at the most bizarre establishments ever: the potluck kitchens.

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Potluck Eateries

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In his book Paris with Pen and Pencil (published in 1858) American David W. Bartlett left us a vivid description of a meal at a fortune du pot restaurant:

“Pot-luck, or the fortune du pot, is on the whole the most curious feeding spectacle in Europe. There are more than a dozen shops in Paris where this mode of procuring a dinner is practiced, chiefly in the back streets abutting on the Pantheon. About two o’clock, a parcel of men in dirty blouses, with sallow faces, and an indescribable mixture of recklessness, jollity, and misery—strange as the juxtaposition of terms may seem—lurking about their eyes and the corners of their mouths, take their seats in a room where there is not the slightest appearance of any preparation for food, nothing but half-a-dozen old deal-tables, with forms beside them, on the side of the room, and one large table in the middle. They pass away the time in vehement gesticulation, and talking in a loud tone; so much of what they say is in argot, that the stranger will not find it easy to comprehend them. He would think they were talking crime or politics—not a bit of it; their talk is altogether about their mistresses. Love and feeding make up the existence of these beings; and we may judge of the quality of the former by what we are about to see of the latter.

A huge bowl is at last introduced, and placed on the table in the middle of the room. At the same time a set of basins, corresponding to the number of the guests, are placed on the side-tables. A woman, with her nose on one side, good eyes, and the thinnest of all possible lips, opening every now and then to disclose the white teeth which garnish an enormous mouth, takes her place before it. She is the presiding deity of the temple; and there is not a man present to whom it would not be the crowning felicity of the moment to obtain a smile from features so little used to the business of smiling, that one wonders how they would set about it if the necessity should ever arise.

Every cap is doffed with a grim politeness peculiar to that class of humanity, and a series of compliments fly into the face of Madame Michel, part leveled at her eyes, and part at the laced cap, in perfect taste, by which those eyes are shrouded. Mère Michel, however, says nothing in return, but proceeds to stir with a thick ladle, looking much larger than it really is, the contents of the bowl before her. These contents are an enormous quantity of thick brown liquid, in the midst of which swim numerous islands of vegetable matter and a few pieces of meat.

Meanwhile, a damsel, hideously ugly—but whose ugliness is in part concealed by a neat, trim cap—makes the tour of the room with a box of tickets, grown black by use, and numbered from one to whatever number may be that of the company. Each of them gives four sous to this Hebe of the place, accompanying the action with an amorous look, which is both the habit and the duty of every Frenchman when he has anything to do with the opposite sex, and which is not always a matter of course, for Marie has her admirers, and has been the cause of more than one rixe in the Rue des Anglais.

The tickets distributed, up rises number one—with a joke got ready for the occasion, and a look of earnest anxiety, as if he were going to throw for a kingdom—takes the ladle, plunges it into the bowl, and transfers whatever it brings up to his basin. It is contrary to the rules for any man to hesitate when he has once made his plunge, though he has a perfect right to take his time in a previous survey of the ocean—a privilege of which he always avails himself. If he brings up one of the pieces of meat, the glisten of his eye and the applauding murmur which goes round the assembly give him a momentary exultation, which it is difficult to conceive by those who have not witnessed it. In this the spirit of successful gambling is, beyond all doubt, the uppermost feeling; it mixes itself up with everything done by that class of society, and is the main reason of the popularity of these places with their habitués; for when the customers have once acquired the habit, they rarely go anywhere else.”

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Harlequin Food

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The poor had an opportunity to eat above their means and taste second-hand luxury food by making a purchase at the harlequin merchant’s food stand. The harlequin merchants sold at low prices leftover food they had collected in the kitchens of wealthy Parisian houses from cooks who were happy to make extra money.  The merchants were called “harlequins” because they dished out food as composite as the dress of the Harlequin character from the Commedia Dell’Arte: an ever surprising medley of poultry, fish, and roast beef bits mixed with various side dishes, and sweet desserts, all sharing a single plate.

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Related posts:

A Camel Steak, Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris

Extreme Food Recycling Caution! Do not read during or immediately after a meal.

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halles

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Les Halles were the commercial heart of Paris, a place of exchange and supply to the abundant life that had developed over the centuries. An entire chapter in Paris history was closed in 1971 with the destruction of this central market. Author Emile Zola closely described this anthill of human activity in his 1873 realistic novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). It is a must read for researchers of this period, as are all Zola’s novels. (All twenty of them in one e-volume are available on Amazon for the ridiculous price of US 2.99).

A close look at the famous marketplace before it disappeared forever is provided by the 1950s documentary Twelve Hours in Halles posted below. No English translation is available, so here is what we see:

At midnight, when the Halles open, the first delivery trucks arrive. The merchandise is displayed, awaiting auctions. Around 4:00 AM, the Paris elite drops in for the famous onion soup, to rub shoulders with the market workers after having drunk champagne at some glitterati party. At 9:00 AM the market opens for shoppers. Old people from the neighborhood rummage through the organic garbage to gather ingredients for their soup. At noon, following a feverish trading, the market closes for cleaning, to be reopened again at midnight.  In the twelve hours of the never-changing routine, thirty thousand tonnes of merchandise have changed hands. Let the pictures talk and enjoy the forever-gone local color:

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Since the first video is no longer available, here is a replacement:

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The History

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halles pilori.

The marketplace supplied Paris for 800 years before it closed down. In medieval times, it housed a pillory. Convicts, mostly crooked traders using false weights, pimps, and blasphemers, were exposed there, and passers-by could throw all kinds of garbage at them. The executioner had his accommodation on the ground floor.

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Les Halles at the beginning of the 1800s

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Around 1850, the cramped conditions and lack of hygiene forced the city council to vote for a reconstruction. At the same time, Napoleon’s ambitious nephew, Louis-Napoleon, seized power and crowned himself an emperor. With Napoleon III came the forceful “hausmanization” of Paris described in this post.The emperor had a look at the building plans and halted the project of heavy stone pavilions. Inspired by the Crystal Palace in London, and enthusiastic about the recently built spacious Gare de l’Est, he said to Prefect Haussmann: “I need large umbrellas, nothing more!”

halles design

Architect Victor Baltard’s light-weight pavilions won the emperor’s approval. The construction started in 1854, and took 15 years to complete. The market covered an area of 135 thousand square feet

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The airy cast iron and glass interior

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Each pavilion had its specialty: number 3 for meat, number 9 for fish, and so on. Fruits and vegetables were also sold in the covered alleys and on the surrounding streets. The volume of the merchandise was enormous. As an example, each day, the butter, egg, and cheese pavilion took in a delivery of one hundred wagonloads of eggs, each wagon carrying seventy crates. Each of these cases contained 1,440 eggs.

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halles eggs

Inspecting eggs with the help of candlelight in the Dairy Pavillion cellar. The City of Paris employed one hundred egg inspectors to guarantee freshness. They were sworn in and placed directly under the supervision of the Prefecture de Police. 

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A postcard shows the feverish morning activity at Les Halles

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Someone had to move all this merchandise, and not just anyone. The task was performed by the Forts. These strongmen were easily identifiable thanks to their large hat, the coltin, with a built-in lead disc helping to support heavy loads carried on the head. The Forts formed a famous brotherhood, created under the reign of Louis IX during the 13th century.

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Two Forts wearing their coltin hats 

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The organization was hierarchical. The chiefs were recognized by their silver medal, while the simple Forts wore a copper one. Their motto was Strength and Honor. Not everyone could become a Fort. The hiring conditions were strict and the applicant had to fulfill all five of them:

  • To be of French nationality
  • To have done military service
  • To have a clean criminal record
  • To measure at least 1.67 meters (5,5″)
  • To be able to carry a load of 200 kg (circa 450 pounds) over a distance of 60 meters (65 yards)

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The Forts at work

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With the constantly growing population, Paris suffered circulation problems. Around 1960, it became clear that the current food distribution had to be changed to ease the cramped conditions. It no longer made sense to bring all the food into the city to be redistributed afterwards. The decision to transfer the market to two suburban locations, Rungis and La Vilette, became official in 1962.

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halles end

This photo by Pierre Doisneau, taken after the destruction of Les Halles, fits the mood of the place at the end of an era in the city’s history

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Related posts:

Camel Steak, Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris

Extreme Food Recycling Caution: Not for weak stomachs!

Paris Markets in Victor Gilbert’s Paintings

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This blog has quietly passed the 10-year anniversary. We met many remarkable personalities along the way, and I want to recall some of them in this post. Not all were paragons of virtue, but they were bursting with enthusiasm, perseverance, and unlimited energy. The combination of all three is what leads to high achievement. Here then is a collection of five exceptional go-getters:

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Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, later Napoleon III

(1808-1873)

His megalomaniac uncle ravaged Europe, wasted a whole generation of Frenchmen on battlefields, and caused untold suffering to people across the continent, from Spain to Russia. Napoleon III, on the contrary, ruled for eighteen prosperous years with modernization and progress as his goals. For some strange reason, Napoleon the Great found his historical place among the admired personalities instead of being sent to hell along with Hitler. His industrious nephew, on the other hand, is called Napoleon le Petit (Napoleon the Small) by the ungrateful French. And yet! Where are the glorious conquests of Napoleon I now? Gone, long gone. Only the legend remains. The legacy of Napoleon III, far less glorious, but far more useful, is still with us. It’s time to do this remarkable man justice. His life story is just as colorful as his uncle’s. Read The English Courtesan Who Made a French Emperor

Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the man who transformed Paris

(1809-1891)

Better known as Baron Haussmann, this man was chosen by Emperor Napoleon III to carry out a massive urban renewal of Paris. Never before had a city been transformed so fast and so completely. Never again will we see such a ruthless urban upheaval for greater good. What was possible then, under the imperial absolutism, is no longer doable in a democratic state. Nevertheless, whichever way we look at it today, we cannot deny Baron Haussmann’s genius. Read more…

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Countess of Castiglione, professional beauty, secret agent, and pioneer of photography

(1837-1899)

Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni, the Countess of Castiglione by virtue of her marriage, and the most notorious narcissist of the century, led a busy life. Still in her teens, she became the mistress to a king who then sent her to conquer an emperor. After bedroom diplomacy in her youth, she spent the rest of her life posing for portraits of her gorgeous self. While doing so, she rewrote the rules of photography. Read La Castiglione: The Too Much Countess

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Charles F. Worth, father of the haute-couture and fashion dictator

(1825-1895)

When Charles Worth died, queens and other wealthy women around the world wept. In his egalitarian establishment, Rue de la Paix, royalty met with high-ranking prostitutes and the common language was money. This former printer’s apprentice, ended with 1,200 employees and a huge fortune. How did it all happen? Read it here…

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Sarah Bernhardt, the drama queen who conquered the world

(1844-1923)

The Divine Sarah as she was known worldwide, was a woman of many talents, and even more eccentricities. She possessed the energy of a power plant and an extraordinary courage to fight adversity. When she stood in the US Congress, pleading for America to join the WW1, no one had to ask who was this small, one-legged, old Frenchwoman. If you lived in a civilized country you would have heard her name. She’d made sure of that. Read The Inescapable Sarah Bernhardt here…

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Just published:

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After twenty years apart, the Three Musketeers reunite to right a wrong.

Madelon-la-Belle left Paris twenty years ago to escape her damaged reputation. She abandoned her infant daughter, Louise, in the care of her sister. Now she is back, a wealthy widow, and she plans to be a caring mother. Her idea of caring motherhood is to make Louise a high-born heiress. It only needs a little deception.

This does not sit well with Louise’s father, Captain d’Artagnan of the Royal Musketeers, who finds Madelon’s plan unsound. He wants to see Louise married as soon as possible, before she becomes a slut like her mother, and has already found a good husband for her. Unfortunately, the formidable Madelon does not agree with d’Artagnan’s choice. A battle of wills ensues, involving d’Artagnan’s long-lost friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis.

A screenplay inspired by Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel.

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Between May 1889 and June 1890, a pandemic of influenza swept over the world. Known as the Asian Flu, or Russian Flu, it was one of the deadliest in history, killing about one million out of the world’s population of circa 1.5 billion. The disease was first reported in the Central Asian city of Bukhara in May 1889, to reach the American continent in December of the same year. Never before had a virus spread so quickly and on such a large scale. With the rapid growth of railway transport and an improvement in sea travel, humanity was no longer entirely safe from a pandemic, no matter the distance.

Distribution of help to the influenza victims

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How did people cope then? The treatment was chaotic. Some used small doses of strychnine, others believed in large quantities of rum or whisky. Linseed, salt and warm water, glycerin or quinine were also used, none of which would be very helpful. Little was known of viral contagion, as even some doctors still believed in the miasma theory according to which disease was spread by bad air, the night air being the worst one.

When even prayers did not bring results, there was always the song. Long, mournful ballads helped our ancestors to deal with their loss. The lyrics sold by street singers conserved the memory of important, often tragic events

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Related post:

The Dead of Paris

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Every year, the Parisian elite received an invitation to the Madwomen’s Ball at the Salpêtrière Hospital

Last year’s February post Mi-Carême: An Explosion of Joy in the Midst of Gloom described the joyous feasts of Mid-Lent during the month of February. Let’s recall that the Mi-Carême celebrations cut in half the forty days of strict and tedious Lent rules of penance, fasting, and prayers. This brief rest from enforced virtue was filled with public and private costume parties. Feverish preparations for the events helped to fill time with pleasant activity in the first part of the Lent, while happy memories did the same service during the second half.

If you received an invitation to the Madwomen’s Ball at the La Salpêtrière Hospital, you would feel flattered. Indeed, only the crème de la crème were thus honored. The celebrated Doctor Charcot, the head of the Neurological Clinic, would not allow a mere rabble to spoil the event. After all, meeting the female patients—there were no men hospitalized in this institution—demanded a certain seriousness and responsible behavior. With the mentally unstable patients, unpredictable accidents could happen. This or that inmate could behave oddly or succumb to a spectacular crisis of hysteria. Invitations were rarely refused for that very reason.

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Nurses stand at the ready among the costumed patients as they mingle with the visitors

The hospital provided a funding of 500 francs for costumes, and the patients got themselves busy with sewing and fitting weeks before the event. On the night in question, the Ball des Folles began at 8:00 PM to be closed at midnight. Finger food was served, but strictly no alcohol. The Tout Paris, as the Parisian elite was known, came to see the patients dance and make merry under the vigilance of the nurses. This curious event was repeated year after year until the early 20th century.

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Some of Dr. Charcot’s star performers

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Jane Avril, charcoal sketch by Picasso

Since Dr. Charcot’s lectures were opened to public every Wednesday, some of his patients enjoyed a celebrity status for their demonstrations of madness. The women usually came from dire poverty or harsh abuse, and many were grateful for the safe home they found at the hospital. One of the former inmates, Jane Avril, recalls in her memoir that her stay at La Salpêtrière was a complete bliss compared to her life at home. Jane became a celebrated dancer. You can read her story in another post here.

Related post:

Professor Charcot and the Amplification of Hysteria

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An advertising leaflet of the word’s first department store

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Christmas time is also shopping time, so let’s talk about the history of shopping. The oldest shopping malls were the weekly, monthly, or annual fairs open to all kinds of weather. The rest of the time people had to do with local products. What the shops offered was further restricted by a law that permitted selling only one type of commodity. For instance, umbrella merchants could not sell eye-glasses and vice versa. Poor choice of merchandise was common even in large cities until the appearance of public transport. The first omnibuses in Paris started operating in 1828, and they allowed people to venture out of their neighborhoods.

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The precursor of shopping malls. Toward the first half of the 19th century, glass-ceilinged passages equipped with gaslights and lined with shops and restaurants, married retailing with leisure

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The first shopping malls began as narrow streets provided with glass ceilings. These were called passages, and many are still functioning in Paris. The 1830s saw the birth of magasins des nouveautés. These were novelty shops that offered various commodities organized in distinct departments on several floors around a glass-ceilinged courtyard.

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Railways were the agents of change in shopping

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Past the mid-century, the railway changed all that. Trains brought provincials and foreign visitors, who would have never left their home otherwise. They all wanted to see the sights and to shop, shop, shop. Unfortunately, all Paris had to offer these avid shoppers was the lack of retail space. The rise of the giant department stores begun.

Aristide Boucicaut

The first on the market–and in the world–was Au Bon Marché. Founded in 1838, it survived the competition of the other novelty magazines by shrewd display tactics and remained the leader in innovations. The genius behind modern shopping science was Au Bon Marché’s next owner, Aristide Boucicaut who took over the magazine in 1852. He had many tricks up his sleeve, including placing related merchandise at the opposite ends of the store. You bought fabric in one corner, and to get a sewing thread to put the fabric together, you had to cross the store passing seductive displays of fashion accessories that would enhance the new dress. Nearly all the shopping strategies, including the orgiastic sales that influence us today, were invented by Boucicaut and his clever followers in these early days of mass shopping.

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The most important strategy, still employed today, was to bring people in by promises of a good deal (bon marché in French) and keep them there by offering luxury surroundings and classless hospitality. People came, both wealthy and poor. Upper-class women, for whom the streets were not safe, found there a pleasant change from the confinement of home. For the lower classes, never before invited into a palace, it was a self-esteem building experience. Here, they could enter freely and be waited upon, the same as the rich.

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At the time of Boucicaut’s death in 1887, the Au Bon Marché covered nearly 100,000 square feet, employed 1,788 people, and was earning 77 million francs a year, making it the largest retail business in the world.

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Galleries Lafayette

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Other spectacular shopping temples rose in the streets of Paris, such as Au Printemps and Galleries Lafayette. Both are still on the same level of attraction as the Eiffel Tower.

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Related posts:

Crinolines and Impériales: Public Transport in Paris

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869 – Part 5: Shopping

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10

Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809 – 1891)

In 1845, the French social reformer Victor Considerant wrote: “Paris is an immense workshop of putrefaction, where misery, pestilence and sickness work in concert, where sunlight and air rarely penetrate. Paris is a terrible place where plants shrivel and perish, and where, of seven small infants, four die during the course of the year.”

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Paris before Haussman

Indeed, urban reform was long overdue in Paris. Neglected by the kings, who preferred Versailles, the city was overcrowded and dirty. In the narrow crooked streets, diseases spread quickly as did social unrest. Napoleon I made a few attempts at beautifying and sanitizing the capital but, being too busy with disseminating misery across the European continent, he never really got down to it on a large scale. After the Waterloo defeat, plans for a better capital were shelved and it took his nephew, Napoleon III, to begin the greatest urban project ever achieved. Napoleon III might not have been the greatest warrior–the French still prefer his (in)glorious uncle–but he was a mover and shaker of the practical sort. Paris still benefits from his industry while Napoleon I’s conquests are long gone.

Having spent part of his exile in London (see The English Courtesan who Made a French Emperor published here) he brought to France the idea of English urbanism. He found a man with a similar vision and with boundless energy in Haussmann, the Prefect of the Seine. Together, in seventeen years, they made Paris what it is today.

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Piercing a new boulevard during the Haussmannian transformation

Announcing his motto Paris embellished, Paris enlarged, Paris cleaned up, Haussmann didn’t take prisoners in his war against the old. All that was ugly, dirty and disease-ridden became history. He pierced wide avenues and established rules for standardized buildings. He created a square by district and projected dozens of parks, gardens, and woods. He built new churches, bridges, theaters, and railway stations. He enlarged the city, which then went from 12 to 20 arrondissements. Underground, Paris got a sophisticated water and sewage system that – to this day – is one of the tourist’s sights of the city.

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Paris after Haussmann (Place de l’Etoile)

The titanic work has always been controversial in view of the methods used to achieve this incredible result. To modify Paris in this way, Haussmann did not hesitate to destroy nearly 18,000 houses that hampered his vision of straight and wide boulevards. He excluded the working classes for whom the new dwellings were unaffordable. Haussmann was finally deposed in 1870, a few months before the fall of Napoleon III and the Second Empire.

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Notre Dame in 1852

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Notre Dame after Haussmann’s intervention

Thanks to Napoleon III’s vision and Haussmann’s ruthlessness, Paris is the city we know today. Such a colossal project cannot be achieved without a totalitarian approach and would be impossible to realize in a democracy with its many rules and laws.

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The Avenue de l’Opéra, one of the new boulevards created by Napoleon III and Haussmann. The new buildings on the boulevards were required to be all of the same height and same basic façade design, and all faced with pale-ochre stone, giving the city a unified look.

Related posts:

The English Courtesan Who Made a French Emperor

The Eiffel Tower Story

In the Gallery of Achievers:

The Inescapable Sarah Bernhardt

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114

In the old days, the month of February brought the unavoidable Lent: a period of penance, dietary restrictions, and prayers.  For those not familiar with religious traditions, Lent is a mobile Christian observance lasting for forty days. It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday before Easter.

Austerity is not something human beings crave. Since forty days of gloom proved to be too much to ask, the religious authorities allowed a pause to let out the pent-up human foibles after twenty days of duration.

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The origin of Mid-Lent (Mi-Carême) is lost in the mists of time. According to several historians, the celebration was born in the Middle Ages. The essence of the feast was a mini carnival that embraced the spirit of joy, laughter, and derision to contrast with the period of austerity, severity, and penance of Lent. A parade of elaborate floats characterized this celebration.

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In France, the Mi-Carême was also the feast of laundresses, described in the post From Washerwoman to Queen of Paris, of charcoal dealers, and water carriers.

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The float of the Queen of Queens. Elected from among the laundry queens of every city district, a simple washerwoman enjoys her one-day fame

Celebrated on a large scale in Paris, the Mi-Carême disappeared from this city during the WWII years. It made a comeback under the name of Carnival of Women in 2009 and gives rise to a parade again every year.

Related post:

From Washerwoman to Queen of Paris

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