Posts Tagged ‘19th century Paris’


Jean and Hortense Kinck with their youngest children

By annexing its bordering villages in 1860, Paris also swallowed the community of Pantin, then a quiet rural location. In 1869, the village became a pilgrimage destination for the curious after an extraordinary crime was committed there. 100,000 people visited the infamous field where opportunistic refreshment stalls owners made a brisk business in a macabre and sensational atmosphere. The case, known as the Massacre de Pantin, made a lasting impression in the history of crime reporting.

Up to that date, the journals published accounts of court cases. With this particularly heinous crime, the papers brought news of the investigation process, and their profits soared. When the murderer was guillotined, the press owners celebrated him by uncorking champagne. He was their benefactor.

The infamous criminal case inspired poems and ballads sung on street corners by ambulant musicians, and also caught the attention of many successful authors, including Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola, Dumas, Rimbaud, and even Victor Hugo, then in exile.

What happened?

On the morning of September 20, 1869, Jean Langlois, a farmer, saw traces of blood in the grass of his alfalfa field. These stopped at a trench surmounted by a small mound of earth.

The farmer dug into the center of the mound with his spade. A handkerchief stained with fresh blood appeared, then a child’s arm. Continuing to dig with his hands, he unearthed a bloodied child’s head. He ran to the authorities, who sent a commissioner and a medical examiner.

In the hours that followed, the systematic search by the police led to the discovery of six bodies: a two-year-old girl, four young boys, and their pregnant mother. The mutilated corpses buried in the pit were later identified by the labels of their clothes. They were the Kinck family, originally from the industrial town of Roubaix. The instruments of crime, a bloody shovel, and ropes, were buried nearby.


The discovery immediately caused a stir. The next day, the investigators received the testimony of the coachman of a hired vehicle who drove the presumed murderer and the Kinck family from the railway station Gare du Nord to the place where they were massacred. The police now had the description of the suspect and the manhunt could begin.

Since the coachman described the man as young and slim, the suspicion focused on the missing eldest son, Gustave Kinck. Did he commit these multiple murders at his father’s request? Nobody knew then that Gustave had been killed two days prior and was buried in the same field. As for the father, dead of poisoning, his body was hidden far away in his native province of Alsace.

The police followed the suspect’s trail to Le Havre from where he planned to embark for America. His hounded attitude betrayed him during a routine check by Constable Ferrand, who was informed of the sinister news item. Instead of answering incriminating questions, the suspect preferred to flee in panic to the port where he jumped into the water and almost drowned. Ferrand, who was pursuing him but could not swim, alerted a caulker named Hauguel who dived in.

After searching the captured man’s belongings, the police discovered his correspondence, various papers, and objects stolen from his victims. The suspect was identified as Jean-Baptiste Troppmann, aged 20, and was handed over to justice.

A child of frail stature but of uncommon energy, intelligent but introverted, Jean-Baptiste was spoiled by his mother, who preferred him to his two older brothers. His father, Joseph Troppmann, an ingenious and prolific inventor, held several patents relating to the improvement of various spinning machines and accessories. The future of the boy seemed all mapped out: to promote these materials throughout France.

Despite his clever inventions, Joseph Troppmann was not a good role model for his children. Under the permanent influence of alcohol, he spent lavishly and compromised the future of his business. The situation weighed on Jean-Baptiste’s mind. He had already understood that his father’s affairs would never be up to his ambition. The boy remained taciturn and unsociable. When he deigned to speak, it was about money and riches he would one day enjoy. According to the testimonies collected, he was already feeding on sensational and macabre news items related to criminal acts. 

At the end of 1868, he left for the capital to install new machines sold by his father to a Parisian industrialist. He found accommodation in Pantin and remained there until May of the following year. Later, he went to Roubaix for another installation, which allowed him to meet the Kinck family.

Kinck’s wife, Hortense, a bourgeoise from Roubaix, was raising six children and was six months pregnant with the seventh. Jean Kinck happened to be Troppmann’s compatriot, originally from the province of Alsace. For a young man of barely twenty, Kinck was a model in the trade: by dint of seriousness and skill, he went from worker to foreman, to become the boss of a prosperous spinning establishment.

The complicity between a middle-aged man experienced in business and a young man just out of adolescence surprised many. Troppmann didn’t have a particularly friendly face, but his nonchalant attitude, his strong Alsatian accent, his impassiveness – in reality, his lack of emotions – gave him the good-natured air of a thoughtful boy and managed to inspire confidence. Troppmann spoke little, but he spoke well. He succeeded to involve the pragmatic and circumspect Kinck in a shady scheme.

Both were dissatisfied men. Kinck dreamt of amassing a large fortune before retiring to his native country. Troppmann, for his part, was eager to succeed, and, measuring the long professional path of his new friend, he did not find the legal way to riches fast enough. 

The two accomplices had openly agreed on two objectives. Troppmann would visit his father in Alsace and obtain from him an agreement so that Jean Kinck could exploit his patents abroad. At the same time, he would seek an Alsatian property for Kinck’s retirement. In fact, both men had something else in mind: easy money.

About a week after the young man’s departure, Jean Kinck announced to his family, not without some mystery, that he was leaving for business in Alsace. On August 24, he arrived at a rural railway station where Troppmann was waiting for him. In order to lure Jean Kinck, Troppmann made him believe they were visiting a clandestine counterfeit money factory. During the hike in the deep woods, he made his unfortunate companion drink a deadly potion based on Prussic acid and buried him in this remote place. The corpse of Jean Kinck was the last to be found on November 25, 1869.

Troppmann hoped to earn 5,500 francs in cash by killing Kinck, but was sadly disappointed. The older man was cautious and his murderer found only 212 francs on the body. It was the first setback, but he now had his victim’s identity papers and his gold watch, as well as two checks.

Troppmann reviewed his plan and wrote to the wife, “under the dictation of Jean, wounded in the hand”, so that she would withdraw the amount of the checks from the bank and send him a mandate. The lie was crude, but the wife, kept in complete ignorance, complied with the demand. This resulted in a new disappointment for Troppmann, who was found too young to cash the mandate in the place of a man supposed to be of respectable age. He was forced to imagine another strategy: he would involve Gustave, Kinck’s eldest son, aged sixteen.

Troppmann removed himself to Paris. Pretending to be Kinck, he wrote a letter to the family, still under the alleged dictation. He told them of a marvelous gain of half a million francs won thanks to his young partner; then, in an enthusiastic and optimistic tone, gave Troppmann the full power of attorney. The latter established himself as a trustworthy man. In the same letter, he demanded that young Gustave leave Roubaix with an authenticated power of attorney to recover the money. 

On September 15th, the boy arrived in Paris, but without money or a valid document. He had left in haste, eager to see his father. Suppressing his rage, Troppmann asked him to send a telegram inviting his mother to join them in the capital, with “all the papers”. Then he took the boy to Pantin, supposedly to meet his father. Gustave did not suspect that to join his father, he would have to die by stabbing. He was the first family member to be buried in the alfalfa field.

The family—except for the youngest child placed in foster care—responded confidently to the eldest son’s call. They arrived in Paris, and believing that the head of the family was now living in Pantin, in an isolated new residence, they boarded a cab, accompanied by Troppmann.

It was late at night. The cab left the fortifications of Paris, and the company dismounted in a deserted countryside. As soon as the cab disappeared from view, Troppmann went to work. The mother and two children had their throats slit, and the other three were strangled. All were finished off with a shovel.

The investigation of the massacre was led by Antoine Claude, the chief of the Paris Sûreté, who initially thought that the father and eldest son killed the family. He only suspected Troppmann because of the report given by the cab driver who took Madame Kinck and her children to Pantin. This suited Troppmann who pretended to be only an accomplice and accused Kinck and his son of the murders.

The tale of his innocence was ruined on September 28, when a butcher’s apprentice discovered Gustave Kinck’s body. To extract a full confession, Troppmann was tricked into believing that Jean Kinck’s remains had been found as well. He admitted guilt. He would later indicate the location of the body in the ruins of the castle Herrenfluh in Alsace.

Now it was time for a sensational trial. Troppmann appeared before the Assize Court of the department of the Seine, on December 28, 1869. In the packed courtroom, the front seats were reserved for political and intellectual VIPs, including celebrated authors.

According to Antoine Claude, the head of the Security Police, Troppmann could not act alone. In his opinion, there were accomplices to the murders. He believed in the widespread idea of a counterfeiters’ gang operating along the Franco-German border, and even of a German spy network. It was, after all, a time of unrest on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War.

Claude’s suspicions could not be proven and forensic experts, who studied the blows given to the victims, admitted the possibility of a single man. The Court rejected the hypothesis of any complicity, and Troppmann was sentenced to capital punishment.

His appeal for clemency having been rejected, Troppmann was brought to the scaffold on January 19, 1870. His face appeared aged by thirty years, but he was calm. Once installed on the guillotine, he had a burst of revolt. He struggled and managed to break the straps holding him down. The executioner had to hold his head forcibly on the half-moon. Before the heavy blade fell on his neck, the condemned man bit his executioner’s left hand, almost severing his index finger.


Troppmann guillotined

The severed head shows the twenty-year-old Troppmann’s incredible aging within four short months. Did he really act alone? It is hard to believe that he could kill six people, five of whom had legs capable of running.  At least the older boys had a chance to save their lives. Or were they too shocked and frozen with fear? The Pantin Massacre remains a difficult and strange case.


Related posts:

Murder Most Horrible: The Bloody Trunk Case

The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches


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Old trades, forgotten trades, trades of yesteryear… Let’s return to old times when small businesses, especially services, had no permanent premises. Their office was the street and their advertisement was the human voice: the louder, the better.

The 19th-century city street was far more vibrant compared to the one of today. It was not a quiet place. In addition to horses’ hooves beating the pavement and the rattle of carriage wheels, the shouts of street vendors assaulted inhabitants’ and passers-by’s ears. 


Petty tradespeople’s shouts attracted children who crowded around. The knife sharpener was a welcome attraction with his heavy stone wheel that produced sparks.

Nearby, a snail vendor would promote her merchandise with a high-pitched voice: “Snails! Buy my snails! Fresh snails, good snails!” A passing produce-seller with a loaded push-cart competed for attention with a sing-song: “Have a look! All fresh! Have a look! All fresh!” Each merchant had his own recognizable cry to be shouted again and again.

The street furnished your home. You could step out to purchase fresh kitchen herbs…

1 kitchen herbes


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Paris’ celebrated Père Lachaise cemetery is the resting place of many world-famous and infamous as well as an outdoor art gallery. This oasis of tranquility and greenery sees one million visitors a year.

The hill, on which the cemetery is established, originally served as a site for the rest and convalescence of Jesuit priests. It was named after the confessor of King Louis XIV, Père de la Chaise.





The Holy Innocents Cemetery

The centrally situated Holy Innocents’ Cemetery, where Parisians buried their dead, was used from the Middle Ages until the late 18th century. It was closed in 1785 when Parisians could no longer bear the repugnant stench emanating from the graves. Serious overcrowding pushed up the price of burial space, and bodies were packed so closely together that many graves collapsed through the cellar walls of surrounding houses. Over the course of six months, day and night, 4,183 bone transports were organized. The transfers were accompanied by a full religious ceremony, complete with chanting Catholic priests. The remains of over six million Parisians were laid to rest in the city’s elaborate catacomb system.



The bones from the Cemetery of Innocents were stored underground. The Catacombes, where you can see them, are part of the regular tourist itinerary


The 1789 revolution disrupted the project of new burial places, which was later carried on under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, who created the Père Lachaise cemetery in 1804. The idea of a long trek to the city outskirts was not well received as Parisians were used to paying homage to their loved ones in the city center.


The Père Lachaise cemetery had a slow beginning


To boost interest, the authorities created a brilliant marketing scheme. The remains of prominent dead celebrities were dug up, and reburied in Père Lachaise, starting with the bones of the 12th century iconic lovers, Héloise and Abélard, followed by other serious celebrities such as the playwright Molière, and writer Jean de La Fontaine. People started buying up plots as it became the height of fashion to spend the eternity amidst the crème de la crème of Parisian society. Today the cemetery is one of the most exclusive places to be buried. To qualify, you must have been born in Paris, lived in Paris, died in Paris, or have an existing family plot.

Some one million people are buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. It is the largest green space in Paris with over four thousand trees and is home to the most varied species of birds in the city.


The Crematorium

Père Lachaise houses a neo-byzantine style crematorium, the first in France. The first cremation in 1889 was quite controversial. While the Protestant faith allowed cremation as of 1888, the Catholic Church did not support the concept until 1966.


Funeral Sculpture

The cemetery is an open-air museum of funeral sculpture best represented by Albert Bartholomé’s stunning Monument for the Dead inaugurated in 1899.




The Monument for the Dead (Monument aux Morts)


Along with the solemn, the pious, and the serious, there are original and sometimes bizarre creations celebrating the dead.



One who doesn’t seem to like his final resting place, it’s Georges Rodenbach, a 19th-century Belgian novelist. We see him extracting himself from his grave.



Another unusual grave belongs to journalist Victor Noir assassinated in 1870. The sculptor froze him in time as he fell in the street after the shooting. The sculpture brought him post-mortem glory as Père Lachaise’s fetish of fertility.



Visitors bring tributes to the dead. They leave potatoes on the tomb of Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), an agronomist, best remembered for promoting  the potato as a food source for humans


The Communard’s Wall (Mur des Fédérés)

The Père Lachaise cemetery was not always a haven of peace. During the Commune of Paris, the place saw hand-to-hand combat among the graves, where the Communards took their last stand. At the end of the “Bloody Week”, on May 28, 1871, one hundred and forty-seven Communards were taken prisoner and were shot against the east wall of the cemetery. Their bodies, and thousands more taken from the streets of Paris, were buried in a mass grave. Every May 28, for 150 years, a ceremony takes place by the wall as workers endeavor to remember the tragic event.




A ceremony by the Communard’s Wall marking the 150-year anniversary of the Paris Commune in 2021


Related posts:

The Dead of Paris

The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune


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I had another topic ready for the month of July when I came across the article THE RETURN OF PARISIANS TO THE CAPITAL IN JUNE 1871 translated below. The picture makes me uncomfortable, as does all war propaganda. Although the author of the article claims the painting is the perfect depiction of the situation and a mixture of tragedy and comedy, I beg to differ. No one in Paris laughed at the end of the greatest catastrophe the city suffered in its entire history. There was no place for comedy in June 1871 after Parisians returned to a city in ruins, permeated by the stench of death. The painter stayed anonymous for a reason. The picture is heavily biased toward the sacrifice of the Communards and portrays the bourgeoisie as pitiless villains.

In reality, no one had the guts to laugh. A truthful assessment of the situation comes from the pen of the novelist George Sand, already quoted in another article published in Victorian Paris The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune.

She wrote:

I come from Paris, and I do not know whom to speak to. I am suffocated. I am quite upset, or rather out of heart. The sight of the ruins is nothing compared to the great Parisian insanity. With very rare exceptions, everybody seemed to me only fit for the strait-jacket. One-half of the population longs to hang the other half, which returns the compliment. That is clearly to be read in the eyes of the passers-by.”

For years afterward, foreign visitors roamed Paris clutching printed guides to the ruins. Expeditions were organized to see the destroyed palace of Tuilleries, the gutted City Hall, the scorched Louvre, and other historical buildings set aflame by the Communards in the last days of the Commune called the Bloody Week. The massacres that followed beat by far the Terror years after the 1789 revolution. There was no specific guilty party in these tragic events of the Commune. No good guys against bad guys. The guilt spreads evenly over all actors. The Paris Commune is still a subject of enormous controversy in France, even one and a half-century later.




Bertrand TILLIER, « Le retour des Parisiens dans la capitale en juin 1871 », Histoire par l’image [en ligne], consulté le 27/06/2022. URL : histoire-image.org/etudes/retour-parisiens-capitale-juin-1871


Publication date: March 2016

Author: Bertrand TILLIER


The return of Parisians to the capital in June 1871

After the “Bloody Week” and from the last days of May 1871, Parisians returned in large numbers to Paris, which they had generally left in two massive waves: some after the proclamation of the siege on September 19, 1870, others after the 18 March 1871. Most of them left for the greater suburbs or the provinces. Some have followed the wanderings of governments in Tours, Bordeaux and Versailles. Thus kept away from the capital, the Parisians experience the events through rumors and the press.

On their return, they discover the spectacle of a city in ruins, with rutted streets and burnt buildings, while Versailles repression continues its task.


A synthetic work

This anonymous work is one of the few to depict the confrontation between the communards and their adversaries. But this table is above all a perfect summary of the situation in the first days of June 1871.

The artist located the scene in the middle of ruined buildings and at the foot of a gutted barricade guarded by a Versailles infantryman. On a section of the wall, official posters with the header of the Paris Commune are torn, as if to say again its crushing.

In this environment where destruction and violence reign, the artist distributes the roles to characters so stereotyped that they seem like actors: an elegant couple, a bourgeois and a priest moved by a common curiosity are assembled around the corpse of a federate with a shattered head. Using his cane – should we see an allusion to the military cudgel, an attribute of repression? –, the bourgeois examines the body of the communard, repugnant but fascinating.

The scene is essentially based on this parable-like confrontation.


A tragic scene

The opposition between communards and Versailles presented in this work is based above all on the use of the most widespread social types in popular imagery and imagination: the priest, the bourgeois, the miserable…

Thanks to an applied touch, the painter likes to accentuate the contrasts between stereotyped characters, and more particularly between the fat bourgeois and the lean federated, whose respective constitutions are widely connoted: the fat possesses (power, money… ) which the lean lacks. Conversely, the thin is nervous, convulsive, and fragile: “qualities” all the more fatal as the fat who ignores them is the survivor and the winner.

The work is effective through the mixture of tragedy and comedy that permanently governs it, as if the artist could only subscribe to a usual derision in caricature, but intruded in painting, and without managing to renounce ambient violence. It is precisely in this ambiguity of intention – does the scene express sympathy for the Versaillese or for the Commune? – and in this procrastination of means that the work is the most impactful.


Related posts:

The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune

Where the Revolutionaries Lived by Mark Twain


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Louise is a short animated film (6 minutes) produced by GOBELINS, l’École de l’image. It is a realistic picture of the conditions reigning in the greatest shrine of Parisian culture: the Opera of Paris. The year is 1895. Louise can be as young as thirteen, and is permanently short of money, as all the ballet corps girls were at the time.

Before you view the movie (see the link below), read Opera of Paris: We Procure Our Ballerinas for Wealthy Men published here. You’ll gain a deeper insight into what’s happening on the screen.


The Opera of Paris in 1900. Today, a highly respected cultural institution. In the past, an upscale brothel.

Caution: Partial nudity

Related posts:

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Thanks to Denis Shiryaev and his video-enhancing work, we can visit Paris in the last decade of the 1800s and feel like we’re traveling in time. With their heightened authenticity, Shiryaev’s videos bring us a world we know only from low-quality footage. It was always difficult to identify with the ghostlike images of that era but with sound and color, the ghosts revive, as in this video.

Since the video does not provide guidance here is a brief description with links to Victorian Paris posts:

0:00 The Parvis of Notre Dame

1:09 Paris-Expo 1900

1:49 The Bois de Boulogne Parade (see Bois de Boulogne: The Rendezvous of Wealth and Opulence )

2:44 Place de la Concorde

3:34 Firefighters to the rescue

4:07 Fountain in the Tuilleries Garden (see Géo: The Painter of French Childhood)

4:58 Back to the Expo 1900: A moving sidewalk

5:37 The Eiffel Tower (see The Eiffel Tower Story)

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The Boulevard du Temple in the 1830s

Officially known as the Boulevard du Temple, this Paris street was nicknamed the Boulevard du Crime. Day after day, in this street, murder was rampant, poison was administered to unsuspecting victims, virgins were kidnapped, and vengeance immolated whole families. All this is in public view. With the curtain falling after the performance, everyone went home in good health. As you have already guessed, the Boulevard du Temple was the equivalent of New York’s Broadway.

Seven of the numerous theatres and cabarets on the Boulevard du Temple

Despite the name, the “Boulevard of Crime” was not dangerous or unpleasant. In fact, it was one of the most popular places in Paris. Every day more than 20,000 people came to this street to walk and look for fun.

Théâtre Lyrique

Besides the popular murderous melodramas, the boulevard offered a wide range of amusement, including circus performances.

Inside the Théâtre du Cirque

Boulevard du Crime’s heyday ended with Baron Haussmann’s upheaval of Paris infrastructure in the name of urban renewal. In 1862, Haussmann decided to enlarge the Place du Château d’Eau to what’s now Place de la République, ordering all theatres to be torn down. Despite protests and petitions, the ruthless Prefect Haussmann maintained his decision. The last performances were held on July 15th that summer.

Today, the Boulevard du Temple is quite an ordinary street. A historic boulevard nonetheless, since it was here that the first photograph of human beings in history was taken.

The image is a daguerreotype taken early morning in 1836. Due to long exposures, early photography could not reproduce objects in motion. Only immobile people, like this man having his boots polished, remained in the picture.

Related posts:

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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 sooth 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.



Medical knowledge was still rudimentary. Easily treatable diseases like the goiter 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.


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.



Amputation of a shoulder joint


The plodding history of French hospitals/hospices under the Ancient Regime (pre-1789) 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.)



The La Salpêtrière Massacre  


Around the mid-century, things began to change with the invention of anesthesia. 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 you needed money 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.



The visiting hour at a 19th century hospital ward


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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:

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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!



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



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



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



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



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


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


All bells and whistles announce this old grocery shop



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


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



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


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


Related posts:


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 little 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 deter 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.


Potluck Eateries


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.”


Harlequin Food


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.



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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