The Not So Belle Époque: personal ads, la zone and La Goulue

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Zone inhabitants of Ivry in front of their ‘roulotte’, 1913, press photograph, Agence Rol.

The exhibition Paris 1900, the City of entertainment has opened its doors to the public at Le Petit Palais. An iconic Toulouse-Lautrec image is used as the face of the exhibition. It plays on what many people already think of when they think of Paris 1900: carriages, elegant salons, theatres, cafes, the Moulin Rouge, sumptuous art deco design, the world exhibitions. According to the website the collection on display is ‘an invitation to the public to relive the splendour of the French capital.’ The exhibition aims to show the other side to this as well (prostitution, drugs), already present of course in Toulouse-Lautrec’s images. Yet the focus does appear to be very much on the glamorous and luxurious aspects, on this idea of a cultural bloom before the First World War altered everything. It made me think about the backgrounds of the people in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, about the less glamorous, everyday lives of Parisians at the time. And it made me remember the few glimpses of their lives I have come across in newspapers. Image Such as here in L’Écho de Paris from 31 March 1886 where I was struck by the personal ads on page 4. Click here for the original on Gallica and a better resolution. Most of these are for jobs in service, not surprising considering the paper’s bourgeois audience. Demand for work greatly outnumbers the jobs on offer though and some of these ads are quite a depressing read: a 10 year old boy, a young single woman, an unemployed married man, all looking for a job. There’s a whole life behind these few words. What was their story? Did they get a job in the end? Life in service was not easy. Employers only had to give domestic servants 8 days notice if they wanted to get rid of them.[1] Salaries varied. Valets, coachmen and especially cooks could earn between 60 and 120 francs a month, but a ‘bonne à tout faire’, the general help, often earned little more than 1 franc a day.[2] The ‘fille de cuisine’, the kitchen maid, ‘should preferably never be seen.’ Still, it was better compared to many other options. Le Journal’s Saturday edition also had similar job and personal advertisements. Some are quite dubious. In the edition from 5 October 1895 an individual is advertising his range of ‘plusieures jeunes filles veuves et divorcées’ (several widowed and divorced young women). It is apparently up to the reader to guess what exactly these women were for. In other ads we encounter people who offer their money to make an investment or are seeking money from others to invest. Several are also from women who have fallen on hard times (or claim they have) such as in this one: jeune femme, du meill monde, honorable, tres gênée  moment. Par suite de malheurs, dés. Empr. 300 fr. d’une pers. Sér. Et discr. Rembours ! Ecr. G.K.E. Jnal. young woman, from very good family, honourable, very short of money at the moment, due to misfortunes, seeks to borrow 300 fr. From Serious and discreet person. Will repay! Write G.K.E. Jnal. (Le Journal, Saturday 5 October 1895) I wondered how many reactions she would have received. Was it a scam? Who knows. Either way, what this ad and others show was the continuous quest for some sort of social and economic stability, whether through employment, marriage or slightly more questionable transactions. There was no safety net, no security. One event – a divorce, a family death, a bad investment, redundancy – could plunge anyone into instant poverty. The festive colours of many well-known Belle Époque images also stand in great contrast to contemporary press photographs or Eugen Atget’s  album Zoniers (1913). See the original album here. Paris was expanding rapidly and couldn’t deal with the amount of people arriving in the capital looking for work. Photographers such as Atget and press agencies had begun to document the living conditions of people in the infamous zone, the slums all around the outskirts of the city. For an excellent visual, historical overview of the expansion of ‘la zone’ and Paris see Avant le périph’, la zone et les fortifs’ on the wonderful French blog Orion en aéroplanePhotography made these people visible to newspaper readers. Domestic servants were well off compared to the ‘zoniers’ who earned their money from recycling and selling small goods. One of the zone’s inhabitants was a woman who had once been a celebrated figure in the music-halls of 1890’s Paris. The singer Louise Weber, better known as La Goulue, was depicted at the height of her fame by Toulouse-Lautrec in several of his most famous posters. She went from being a celebrated Moulin Rouge star to spending the last years of her life in a caravan in one of the zones in Saint-Ouen, earning some money from selling snacks in nightclubs. Her obituary in Le Petit Parisien on 31 January 1929 movingly captures her trajectory from celebrity to poverty.

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Le Petit Parisien, 31/1/1929, Gallica

Often the images we see of the period uphold this myth of a carefree, optimistic, fabulous period in the history of the city of Paris. And that was certainly part of the city’s life. Yet personal ads, photos of ‘la zone’, La Goulue’s personal story also show us the other side of the splendour; the socio-economic insecurity many experienced around 1900. This was also the Belle Époque. Not so ‘belle’ for most people.

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Louise Weber in her glory years. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, La Goulue arriving at the Moulin Rouge, 1892.

Update 5 May 2014:

Today I took a stroll around the Cimetiére Montmartre where La Goulue is buried. Go left on the roundabout close to the entrance and her grave is almost immediately on your left. It is maintained. And judging from the little bracelet and the fresh flowers left there, she still has admirers today.

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Louise Weber’s grave at the Cimetiére Montmartre. Photo taken on 5 May 2014.

References:

[1] Paris-Parisien 1899, Paris, Ollendorff, p. 222.

[2] Ibid., p. 222

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Real-life gothic horror: The Vampire of Saint-Ouen in L’Écho de Paris (1886)

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In L’Écho de Paris from 1 April 1886 I came across this intriguing headline announcing the arrest of the Vampire of Saint-Ouen accused of violating a corpse at a cemetery.  At first I thought it was some sort of macabre April Fool’s joke. The definition of a vampire is also a bit different from the one in contemporary, popular mythology. But apparently the term vampire also covered necrophilia in the nineteenth century, according to Montague Summers’ introduction to the history of vampires in his scholarly classic The Vampire, his Kith, his Kin (1928), which you can read here.

A slightly disturbing Google search taught me that this article was in fact about an actual crime. On the 25th of March 1886 someone had opened the grave in the Cimetière de Saint-Ouen of an eighteen-year old woman buried only the day before and had desecrated her corpse. The April 1st article in L’Écho de Paris triumphantly writes that the police has arrested the ‘auteur de ces actes monstreux’ [author of these monstruous acts], a young 25 year old man names Charles Duhamel who confessed to the crime and who was obviously ‘en proie des horribles hallucinations’ [in the grip of horrible hallucinations]. You can read the newspaper article here.

But there was a twist. Duhamel didn’t do it. Charles Duhamel turned out to be a mentally unstable copycat who had confessed to this crime that had in fact been committed by a man named Henri Blot (1860-1898). He was the real vampire of Saint-Ouen:

‘On 12th June Blot again violated a tomb, he fell asleep, was discovered and arrested. On 27th August, when brought to trial, and the judge expressed his horror of such acts, he replied callously: “Que voulez-vous, chacun a ses passions. Moi le cadavre, c’est la mienne!” [What do you want, we all have different desires. Mine is the cadaver!] Dr. Motet was unable to certify him insane, and he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.’ (Summers, 1928, p.69)

On 29 August 1886 L’Écho de Paris also informed their readers that the real vampire had been caught and convicted, this time in a report of the court case tucked away on page two under Chronique des Tribunaux which you can read in full here.

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Two months after his arrest Charles Duhamel had been declared insane and released on 1 June. Blot then committed his second crime in June. He dug up the corpse of a recently buried young girl, which he hid in a shed on the cemetery. When police investigated the building, Blot –no mention of him sleeping here – fled through the window. Officers managed to arrest Blot and later discovered the girl’s body in the shed. The article also tells us that twenty-six year old Henri Blot was a day labourer who had previously worked at the cemetery just as his father had before him. He had a child and a wife who had left him because was abusive towards her.

In this second article in L’Écho de Paris the reporter also mentions that the first female victim was well known in ‘la vie galante de Montmartre’ (read: prostitute). This was of course completely irrelevant, but added a bit of sexiness to a story that, well, wasn’t very sexy. The story suited L’Écho de Paris’ obsession with sex and crime perfectly of course; a fascination also reflected in many of their serial novels. It also fitted the zeitgeist of the late nineteenth century. Vampires, prostitutes, violated corpses: a great gothic horror story served up with a bit of outrage to the evening newspaper’s readers while they were having their dinner. Bon appétit!

Sidenote: The British author of the 1928 vampire book, Montague Summers (1880-1848) was an eccentric and controversial figure in his own right: Catholic clergyman, author, scholar, vampirologist. Google him at your own risk.

Forgotten Serial Novels: Catulle Mendès – La Femme-Enfant (1891)

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In my previous post we already met Catulle Mendès seen through the eyes of Colette. Here is a colourful and evocative publicity poster for Catulle Mendès’ novel La Femme-Enfant. Roman contemporain (The Child-Woman. A Contemporary novel) published as a serial in L’ Écho de Paris: a strange, melodramatic soap opera judging from this representation, but this scene does make the reader curious. See Gallica for a better look. Many of the serial novels in L’Écho de Paris sported the subtitle ‘contemporary, modern or Parisian novel’ which was perhaps supposed to give the novels an air of trendy urgency, but also seems to have been code for ‘contains spicy content.’ Most of Mendès’ work has now been completely forgotten, but his novels provide a great insight into late nineteenth-century literary tastes and what it took to write a best seller.

This novel tells the story of a painter who falls for a girl from the demi-monde. He hopes to elevate her to the status of saintly muse by trying to grasp the pure essence of her soul -and her body. Poor guy. It wasn’t easy being an esthete in the 1890’s, falling in love with adolescent singers/actresses/prostitutes who turned out to be real human beings when unable to live up to impossible ideals. In the novel the child-woman becomes a metaphor for the painter’s artistic failure to truly capture her essence. Idealized woman. Ruined man. It’s great stuff, very odd, very fin de siècle and if you want to read the full story in French, you can do that here. There is even a more recent, annotated reprint of the novel by Editions Palimpseste who apparently rescue fin de siècle novels from oblivion. So not completely forgotten after all then.

Want to be a successful nineteenth-century writer? Get high on Mariani

I previously wrote about Vin Mariani – the cocaine laced alcoholic drink labeled as a ‘medicinal tonic’ – being marketed to female cyclists. But apparently it wasn’t just women cyclists who were wandering the streets of Paris on a constant buzz. In 1933 Colette recalled her first encounters with the world of journalism in the 1890’s, visiting the offices of newspaper L’Écho de Paris where her then husband Henri Gauthier-Villars aka Willy worked.  She gives a vivid account of the dingy, gas-lit offices on the rue du Croissant filled with:

l’odeur d’encre, d’hommes, de gros tabac, de boue mouillée et de bière… Catulle Mendès  écrivait ses articles de critique en parlant, en fumant, en invectivant, en buvant du Mariani

the smell of ink, men, wholesale tobacco, wet dirt and beer… Catulle Mendès wrote his reviews while talking, smoking, railing against something, and drinking Mariani

(Le Journal de Colette, La Republique, 15 December 1933)

 Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), poet/novelist/ renowned critic, was one of L’Écho de Paris’ most prolific journalists, contributing columns, reviews, poetry and sensationalist serial novels to the newspaper almost non-stop. Now we know his secret. Also, Mendès was not alone. All over the world people were drinking the ‘French tonic wine’ judging from this poster published in Harper’s Weekly in 1894 advertising the drink through endorsements from international celebrities, including Émile Zola (top right) and playwright Victorien Sardou (top left).

Zola, Sardou: all high on Vin Mariani. Harper's Weekly, 1894.

These celebrities were all high on Vin Mariani.  Advertisement Harper’s Weekly, 1894.

Every time I used to read something about these nineteenth-century writers and journalists I have always been amazed by the sheer amount of work they produced. Every single literary figure seems to have been a poet or a novelist as well as playwright, journalist and a critic churning out articles, novels and plays on a daily basis while still having time left to read other people’s work, socialize in cafes and have an interesting life. It has always made me feel incredibly lazy in comparison, but I consoled myself by putting their high productivity down to not having phones, computers or the Internet to distract them from work with Twitter updates or a top twenty of the world’s cutest cat videos. Turns out I was wrong. They were just high all the time.

Catulle Mendès : probably holding a bottle of Mariani outside of the frame.

Advertising on trains, Franco-British rivalry and creepy children

The illustrated supplement of L’Écho de Paris from 24 May 1890 (read it here) has an advert on page 4 that tries to sell the idea of advertising on trains. Train companies knew that people might get annoyed by them or, even worse, ignore them. So they had to pretend these posters were not just there to sell you something and make money. They were making the world a better place.
The three images all illustrate the supposed benefits of publicity posters, but mainly teach us three valuable historical lessons: Franco-British rivalry was exploited as a marketing tool, advertisers have always been good at insulting people’s intelligence, and nineteenth-century children looked disturbing.

L’Écho de Paris, 24 May 1890, illustrated supplement. Source: BNF/gallica

‘Excuse me, Madame’, asks the elderly person in the first image (look here for better quality), ‘does one have to pay a supplement to travel in coaches with publicity posters?’ The question is left unanswered and it seems everybody in the picture is still waiting for an answer. In the second drawing a man in a top hat sporting a monocle wonders whether his son/brother/boyfriend won’t be bored to death during his day-long journey. ‘Oh, not at all!,’ the other man replies, ‘since the Compagnie de Lyon has had this great idea of putting op posters in their coaches, reading them breaks the monotony of my trip, not to mention the useful information they provide.’ The third illustration shows a mother pointing out a poster to a creepy adult-looking child. ‘Thanks to publicity on the train, our children will learn how to read while travelling, making us more practical than our British neighbours.’
Did they really think people had never heard of books or schools? Knowing perhaps that these cartoons were a bit weak, the company resorted to the age-old tactic of invoking a shared enemy to get people on board. Colonial rivalry between France and Britain had reached new heights at the end of the nineteenth century so beating the British at anything was a bonus; even if it was just at being practical. Judging from the illustration the posters on this train would teach children the phrases ‘best chocolate’ and ‘wisdom teeth’. What country wouldn’t be jealous of that level of practicality?