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Posts Tagged ‘Les Halles’

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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hallesold

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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halles interior

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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halles forts

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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halles forts 2

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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