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Posts Tagged ‘life in Victorian Paris’

You are in Paris and you are in the mood for some entertainment. Nothing too heavy on the intellectual side nor do you want to explore the seedy aspect of the city. You are simply looking for clean fun with an edge.
If you don’t mind loud noise, you can stop at the Hippodrome to see The Live Projectile, Miss Zazel de Farini, blasted out of a cannon:

spectacle projectile vivant
Amateurs of the bizarre, go to the Folies Bergère, where Captain Constentenus, tattooed at the order of Yakoob Beg, the Chief of the Tartars, will show you his body decorated with 2 million needle jabs and 325 animal figures:

spectacle tattooed man
Equally bizarre, but more graceful are Rosa-Josepha, the phenomenal Siamese twins at the Théâtre  de la Gaîté:

spectacle siamese
For even more grace, with the added bonus of fantasy, and an eyeful of exposed female legs, head for the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin to see the Snow Ballet in the show The Voyage to the Moon:

spectacle ballet de la neige

Should you find the ballet too tame, there is an additional excitement when dance is performed in a lion cage like here at the Olympia Théâtre:

spectacle danse avec lions

The sight of the most ferocious beasts occupying a single cage will titillate you at the Paris Zoo:

spectacle cage des betes feroces
For a taste of faraway cultures, see the exotic Tuareg tribe from the sands of Sahara at the Vélodrome d’Hiver:

spectacle tuaregs
The Théâtre des Variétés, on the other hand, will take you back in history in a sumptuous play with a cast of druids and pretty heroines on live horses:spectacle theatre des varietes

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Mark Twain and the Cancan

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mont de piete

Excerpt from Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles (1873) by Charles C. Fulton:

Mont-de-Piété is one of the most important and extensive establishments connected with the city government of Paris. It is a municipal pawnbroker establishment for the relief and protection of the poor, and, indeed, of all classes who may by either poverty or misfortune be compelled to borrow money on their personal effects. That the extent of this establishment may be understood, it is only necessary to state that it has two principal offices in opposite section of the city, twenty auxiliary offices in different wards or arrondissements, and has three hundred officers connected with it.

The average number of articles pledged daily is three thousand, but no pledges are received from anyone unless they are known to be householders, or produce a passport or papers en règle, showing who they are and that the property they offer is their own. The privilege of loaning money on deposits is enjoyed exclusively by this establishment: hence thieves have but little opportunity of disposing of their plunder. Out of two millions of articles pledged per annum, the average number delivered to the police on suspicion of theft is three hundred and ninety-one, representing loans to the amount of eight thousand nine hundred francs. Thus this establishment, instead of encouraging theft, leads to detection, punishment, and restoration of stolen goods.

The Mont-de-Piété is under the authority of the Minister of the Interior and the Prefect of the Seine and is managed by a Director, appointed by the former. It has a Council or Board of Managers, consisting of three members of the City Council, three citizens of Paris, and three members of three Council of Public Assistance. The number of officers employed in its management is over three hundred, and they are kept busy for twelve or fourteen hours per day.

Everything that is brought to be pledged is carefully appraised, and the amount loaned is four-fifths of the value of gold and silver articles, and two-thirds of the value of other effects, provided no loan at the two central offices exceeds ten thousand francs, and at the branch establishments five hundred francs. From this, it will be seen it is not used entirely by the extremely poor, but all classes at times avail themselves of its advantages to enable them to ride over temporary difficulties.

mont-de-piete

The pledges of the previous day are brought every morning to the central establishments or the two storehouses and it would be difficult to find in the whole of Paris a scene of more stirring business activity. The system with which the whole business is managed is wonderful, there being one department where borrowers are enabled to refund by installments the sums advanced: even one franc is received.

Whilst the work of redeeming pledges is constantly in progress in one part of the establishment, another is crowded with men, women, and children with bundles to offer for small advances, which continues from nine o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. In another section, an auction is daily held for the sale of forfeited pledges, which have not been redeemed within the time specified. After a year, or rather fourteen months, the effects, if the duplicate be not renewed by paying the interest due upon it, are thus sold, and the auction room is a scene for a painter. Here all the old-clothes establishments are represented, and at times the bidding is very lively, nothing being sold and no bids received for less sum than the amount advanced.

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Election of the Queen

Election of the Queen

Paris of the 19th century was home to a boisterous and hard-working female corporation. Nearly one hundred thousand washerwomen worked either in the brick-and-mortar laundries across the city, or in the bateaux-lavoirs  –  wooden constructions floating on the river.  They labored twelve to fifteen hours a day, six days a week, with no sick leave or paid vacation. Once a year though, Paris treated them like royalty. During the feasts of Mid-Lent, the streets of Paris exploded with the frenzy of carnival, whose principal actors were the washerwomen. With great pomp and circumstance, the women of each lavoir elected a queen and the new sovereigns, escorted by masks, paraded on the boulevards in elaborate floats. Much drinking and merry-making accompanied the procession. In the 1890’s city authorities decided to nominate the Queen of Queens—the best of all the locally elected queens—to represent the spirit of the feast. This custom survived into the 20th century when it was interrupted by the WWII and was never fully revived.

The Queen and her entourage

The Queen and her entourage

The Queen of Queens

The Queen of Queens received by her sponsors

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French-watching in 1850: Feeding time at a popular restaurant

Parisian Lifestyle: Sensual ease and contentment

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As terror stalks the streets of Paris, one is forced to remember the 1890’s when the situation was similar; when men and women infected with extreme ideas and with no regard for human life carried out deadly attacks on innocent people. While the Islamists work for the ideal of the Caliphate—a world-wide state where everyone will be either Muslim or dead—the anarchists of the 19th century advocated a government-free, self-managed society. Have you heard of the anarchists lately? Not so much, I’d say. That’s the fate of all insane movements.

 

aniche bomb au cafe terminus arrestation dynamite a la chambre dynamite au commissariat ravachol

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duel sable

“Le Petit Journal” November 1st 1902:

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

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Street People

 

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jacques

Taking a bath was considered a dangerous undertaking in the not so distant past. It was generally believed that, subjected to a prolonged contact with water, body organs would liquefy and therefore a proper rest was needed to restore them to their normal consistency. We all know the good Queen Bess would bathe once a month “whether she needed it or not”. Her contemporary, the French king Henri IV, having summoned his Minister of Finance, and upon learning that the man had just taken a bath, exclaimed: “Then I must go to him for he must not leave his bed!”

Only at the beginning of the 19th century did the idea of taking a regular bath as a part of personal hygiene begin to take shape. It made a slow progress in the upper classes, but the common people remained blissfully dirty.  The appearance in the mid-century of moneyed American tourists and their constant complaints about the lack of hygienic facilities accelerated the pace.

COBBIrvin S. Cobb (1876-1944), the American author, humorist and columnist, was one of the loud critics of European shortcomings in the matter. Having found the British bathroom arrangements lacking in comfort, he endeavored to compare the situation on the Continent. It must be said that none of the countries he visited met with his American standards, but his lashing tongue was especially sharp when describing the French approach to cleanliness:

I can offer no visual proof to back my word, but by other testimony I venture the assertion that when a boulevardier feels the need of a bath he hangs a musk bag round his neck and then, as the saying is, the warmer the sweeter. His companion of the gentle sex apparently has the same idea of performing daily ablutions that a tabby cat has. You recall the tabby-cat system, do you not? Two swipes over the brow with the moistened paw, one forward swipe over each ear, a kind of circular rubbing effect across the face – and call it a day! Drowning must be the most frightful death that a Parisian sidewalk favorite can die. It is not so much the death itself – it is the attendant circumstances.

Across the river, in the older quarters of Paris, there is excitement when anybody on the block takes a bath – not so much excitement as for fire, perhaps, but more than for a funeral. On the eve of the fatal day the news spreads through the district that tomorrow poor Jacques is going to have a bath! A further reprieve has been denied him. He cannot put it off for another month, or even another two weeks. His doom is nigh at hand; there is no hope – none!

On the morrow the condemned man rises early and sees his spiritual adviser. He eats a hearty breakfast, takes an affectionate leave of his family and says he is prepared for the worst. At the appointed hour the tumbrel enters the street, driven by the paid executioner and bearing the dread instrument of punishment, a large oblong tin tub.

The rumble of the heavy wheels over the cobbles seems to wake an agonized chord in every bosom. Today this dread visitation descends upon Jacques, but who can tell—so the neighbors say to themselves—when the same fate may strike some other household now happily unconscious! All along the narrow way sorrow-drooped heads protrude in rows; from every casement dangle whiskers, lank and stringy in sympathy – for in this section every true Frenchman has whiskers, and if by chance he has not his wife has; so that there are whiskers for all.

From the window of the doomed wretch’s apartments a derrick protrudes – a cross arm with a pulley and a rope attached. It bears a grimly significant resemblance to the gallows tree. Under the direction of the presiding functionary the tub is made fast to the tackle and hoisted upwards as pianos and safes are hoisted in American cities. It halts at the open casement. It vanishes within. The whole place resounds with low murmurs of horror and commiseration.

Ah, the poor Jacques – how he must suffer! Hark to that low, sickening thud! ‘Tis the accursed soap dropping from his nerveless grasp. Hist to that sound – like unto a death rattle! It is the water gurgling in the tub. And what means that low, poignant smothered gasp? It is the last convulsive cry of Jacques descending into the depths. All is over! Let us pray!

The tub, emptied but stained, is lowered to the waiting cart. The executioner kisses the citizen who has held his horse for him during his absence and departs; the whole district still hums with ill-supressed excitement. Questions fly from tongue to tongue. Was the victim brave at the last? Was he resigned when the dread moment came? And how is the family bearing up? It is hours before the place settles down again to that calm which will endure for another month, until somebody else takes a bath on a physician’s prescription.

Even in the sanctity of a Paris hotel a bath is more or less a public function unless you lock your door. All sorts of domestic servitors drift in, filled with morbid curiosity to see how a foreigner deports himself when engaged in this strange, barbaric rite. On the occasion of my first bath on French soil, after several of the hired help had thus called on me informally, causing me to cower low in my porcelain retreat, I took advantage of a comparative quiet to rise drippingly and draw the latch. I judged the proprietor would be along next, and I was not dressed for him.

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Jean Béraud: Boulevard St. Denis

Jean Béraud: Boulevard St. Denis

 

William Walton, author of Paris from the Earliest Period to the Present Day (published in 1899) writes:

Paris may be said to be a very well-policed city. The police regulations are intelligent, and cover all those points in which the safety, or comfort, or peace of mind of the majority of well-meaning citizens may be menaced or disturbed by the inconsiderate action of individuals, and yet these strict ordonnances, which might become harsh or tyrannical, are generally administered with discretion and, in the case, for example, of the peripatetic vendors of vegetables, the marchands and marchandes des quatre-saisons—with due consideration for the difficulties of the poor.

Great care is taken to assure the free circulation in the streets, with one very important exception: the householder must not deposit any garbage, or mud, or broken bottles on the sidewalk, he must wash his shop-windows only between certain hours in the morning, he must not beat nor shake carpets out the window nor in the streets, he must not put his flower-pots in the windows where there is any danger of their falling on the passer-by, he must not keep domestic animals in such numbers or of such a kind as to be disagreeable to his neighbor, he must not burn coffee, nor card the wool of his mattresses, on the public highway, and he must not set out chairs or tables on the sidewalk. This last regulation, however, is practically a dead letter, all the cafés, big and little, on the wide trottoirs of the boulevards and on the two-foot sidewalks of the narrow streets, monopolize from a half to three-fourths of the pavement for pedestrians. The latter file along cheerfully on the curb-stone, or turn out in the street altogether, and make no protest. In the poorer quarters, a great number of domestic occupations and maternal cares are transferred to the street in front of the dwelling; in fact, the fondness of the French for out-of-doors is one of their most striking characteristics. The women and young girls will sit sewing or knitting in the streets or the public parks, and the men at the open-air tables of the cafés, in the wettest and rawest of days, and the women of the lower orders, concierges, workwomen, small shopkeepers, etc., constantly go with their heads uncovered. This healthy hankering of all classes for the open air contrasts very strongly with their imbecile terror of fresh air, or courants d’air, in a closed vehicle or under a roof.

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The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches

 

 

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