Among the big headaches for municipal authorities of Paris in the second part of the 19th century was the appearance of the brasseries à femmes. Until then, drink and sex were generally served apart. A man looking for a drink would go to a café and, should he feel need for female company, he’d make his choice (and an abundant choice it was!) among the streetwalkers, or he’d visit a brothel. In accordance with the law, the staff of the maisons de tolérance, was kept under a weekly medical supervision and therefore more or less free of venereal disease. However, a licence for opening a brothel was not easy to come by and, should any complaints arise, the business would be mercilessly closed by the authorities. This was not the case with public places offering alcohol. Traditionally, these employed male waiters, but in the 1860’s a few establishments appeared where drink was served by pretty women in seductive garb whose duty was to encourage the consumption of alcohol by being friendly with the patrons. This new way of serving drinks expanded rapidly not only in Paris but in all large cities across France. By the end of the century, in Paris alone, the brasseries employed between 1,500 and 2,000 waitresses. Although the interior of a brasserie might appear above reproach, most of them contained rooms for private encounters.
With the growth of the brasseries à femmes, the statistic of venereal disease shot up accordingly. Unlike registered prostitutes, waitresses were not subjected to medical control and, as there was no shame attached to entering such an establishment, many patrons, who would hesitate to be seen in a brothel, became victims of both drink and disease. Young men were the most at risk. Students and apprentices saw their future dissolve in excesses of drink to the chagrin of their parents and teachers. Patrons became attached to the girls and when a successful waitress crossed the river to “remake herself a virginity” on the opposite bank, some of her clients followed her like faithful dogs.
Serving in a brasserie was no sinecure. Twelve hours a day in the noisy and smoky atmosphere, where the women were required not only to serve, but to sit at the tables and match the patrons drink for a drink, took a heavy toll on their health. Very few lasted more than ten years. The following is a questionnaire filled by an applicant from Marseille seeking a job in Paris:
Have you already served in brasseries?
Yes, in Lyon and here.
Are you young?
Like a jewel.
See my photograph.
With art. I offer, I attract, and I hold.
Do you have a good stomach?
I have a robust constitution and if I don’t have sobriety, the virtue of a camel, by contrast I possess the stomach of an ostrich used to all kinds of drinks, even adulterated ones. I have, like many of my co-workers, begun to practice fraud and today I can drink without getting drunk. You will hear my voice, you will see my chic and you will appreciate my talent for manipulation.
She, no doubt, got the job.
Why were these women so keen to apply for a work in which their health and morals suffered an irreparable damage? The answer, of course, is money. Morals set aside, a smart brasserie waitress made in a day the monthly wages of a factory worker.
After many protests, a law put an end to the brasseries à femmes. With the exception of the owner’s family members, no other female employees were allowed to serve in these establishments. It was also forbidden for a waitress to drink with the patrons.