The first female coach drivers in Paris in 1907

Mme Duffaut and 'badauds'

Mme Dufaut on the Boulevards: the gawkers outnumber the customers. Source: here

Recently I came upon a great set of photographs and postcards showing the first female coach drivers in Paris in the early 20th century. They were called les femmes cocher,  les femmes cochères or simply cochères. The French language was trying to come to terms with this new phenomenon. You can see many of the photos here. According to this website, the novelty of women drivers created a media sensation in Paris. The women drew more journalists, photographers and crowds than customers, and inspired a range of jokes, music-hall sketches, even a movie

I was of course curious to see what some of the newspapers were saying about these pioneers in 1907, the year when the first women passed the coach driving exams. So I did a little digging in BnF/Gallica’s newspaper archives. Rather predictably, the conservative and Catholic newspaper La Croix was anything but positive and saw these women as yet another threat to traditional gender roles, to the family, to society, and the universe. On 6 April 1907 satirical magazine Le Rire – never very subtle in its sense of humour – said the whole thing was funny at first, but now worried about the inevitable increase in deadly accidents with children. A woman would never be strong enough to control a horse. The magazine was joking, but only half-joking. It was not exactly known for its progressive views when it came to women, something the cover, entitled ‘what to do with our baby girls?‘, of that same issue on April the 6th illustrates. It wasn’t all doom and reactionary backlash in the papers though. Positive sounds in the press came from Le Radical, where the editorial simply states that Parisians should just get used to seeing women in different professions, since women in other countries as well as in the French countryside are doing all sorts of jobs and manual labour already. Le XIXe siècle considered women taxi drivers an inevitable development of modern society. The paper backs this opinion up by drawing from history, arguing that women were already driving carriages in Ancient Rome. So there. If it was good enough for the Romans. By 1909 the profession of cab driver seemed to have become accepted enough to be presented as a valid job choice in an official career guide for women, the Guide pour le choix dune profession à l’usage des jeunes filles et des dames, which you can find here on Gallica. choix d'une profession The guide lists the requirements for the job. You had to be over 18 and be a resident of Paris. Women had to register with the Préfecture de Police and have a thorough knowledge of all the streets in order to pass the theoretical exam set by the Préfecture. This was then followed by a practical exam. It is, the guide warns, a tough job, earning on average only 6 francs for long, 16-hour days. Also, beginners are often not hired by the larger companies. Honest advice, though not very encouraging.

Mme Charnier

Mme Charnier. Source: here

On 4 February 1907 Le XIXe siècle had already given an enthusiastic account of one of the first practical exams for women cab drivers. The first two women to pass the rigorous tests were Mme Charnier and Mme Dufaut, or Duffaut, who impressed the newspaper’s reporter. Other women would follow, though they would remain very much a minority over the years. XIXe siecle Mme Dufaut was not just met with curiosity from the public, but also with harassment it seems. Le XIXe siècle reported that a man pretending to be a customer had attempted to cut the leashes of Mme Dufaut’s horse as a sort of practical joke. Luckily Mme Dufaut had been unimpressed, informed the police and continued doing her job. The press meanwhile moved on to the next hype.

Mme Dufaut

Mme Dufaut. Source: here

Femme cocher en 1913

Here to stay: ‘femme cocher’ in Paris in 1913 (Agence Rol). Source: Gallica/BnF

On prostitution: L’ Assiette au Beurre and Kees van Dongen

Following my previous post on illustrated newspaper supplements, I was looking at some other examples of illustrated press around 1900.

One of the more fascinating publications, artistically and politically, was L’ Assiette au Beurre. This weekly satirical magazine had themed issues in which graphic artists gave their vision of politics and society. During its existence the periodical commissioned many well-known artists who were drawn to its anarchist, anti-authoritarian and socialist politics. Most of the artwork is striking, though not always very subtle and at times quite cynical. Yet the magazine tackled many socio-political issues and taboo subjects.

Dutch born artist Kees van Dongen – he later became a French national – was invited to illustrate a special issue of 26 October 1901 on prostitution. See the whole issue here on Gallica.

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Contempt, Poverty, Illness, Death

Kees van Dongen was familiar with the subject. The son of a factory worker, he left home at 18 and rented a room above a brothel in Rotterdam. In Paris he lived in Montmartre where some of the prostitutes shared his bed, posed for him or paid for the young Dutchman’s meals because they thought he was so handsome. At least according to Van Dongen. Though he would become one of Paris’ richest portrait painters and a prominent society figure after the First World War, Kees van Dongen spent his formative years working night shifts in Les Halles and boxing for money on the Place Pigalle while pursuing his artistic career. At the time, doing illustration work was a great way to make money and to build a reputation. Before moving to Paris Kees van Dongen had already worked as a reporter-illustrator for the Rotterdamsche Nieuwsblad.

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The four seasons of a life in prostitution.

Van Dongen would also illustrate Het rosse leven en sterven van de Zandstraat, a best-selling book by Dutch journalist M.J. (Marie Joseph) Brusse on the rosse buurt, the red light district, of Rotterdam. Brusse attempted to show the realities of life in prostitution without the usual moralising. The book’s second edition (1917) –for those who read Dutch – is freely available here and well worth a read for its vivid, often enthusiastic portrayal of a life in the margins that Brusse opposes to the stuffy hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. Brusse’s book as well as L’ Assiette au Beurre reflect the radical politics and social reform movements of the early 20th century, drawing attention to the underlying causes of prostitution such as poverty. As Brusse writes in his introduction: ‘you can’t blame women for turning to a profession where they are paid a lot more than a maid or a factory worker.’

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Illustrations by Kees van Dongen for M.J. Brusse, Het rosse leven en sterven van de Zandstraat, 1917 (2nd edition)

Of course, these are all visions of prostitution through the eyes of others. The women themselves don’t really get a voice. Van Dongen’s illustrations for L’ Assiette au Beurre are a bit sentimental and his drawing of a naked, stretched out, dead cocotte is stereotypical if not exploitative -the magazine had to sell copy after all. Yet ultimately Van Dongen’s illustrations do side with the prostitutes: he shows the crippling shame of an illegitimate child, the threat of illness, death, and the vicious circle of poverty. L’ Assiette au Beurre was clear in its critique of a society that gave women very few choices and then condemned them for it.

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Note: Details on Kees van Dongen’s life are taken from Rudolf Engers, Het kleurrijke leven van Kees van Dongen, Schiedam, Scriptum, 2002.

Women in bed with snakes and other news. The year 1900 in Le Petit Parisien’s illustrated supplement.

 

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Snakes: ‘Why is no one actually looking at us?’

‘A difficult arrest’ is the understated subtitle of this slightly farcical cover of Le Petit Parisien‘s literary illustrated supplement from 25 February 1900. Despite the seven snakes crawling out of her bed, the woman seems more preoccupied with adjusting her hair and striking a pose. She also doesn’t really seem to notice the people standing in her bedroom door. Was the illustrator just not very good at drawing people’s expressions? What is going on here?

The weekly, Sunday illustrated supplements of Le Petit Parisien – and other popular newspapers – were known for their sensational, visual representations of currents events and fait divers. These were the days before photography became widely used in newspapers so illustrators could let their imaginations run wild. And they did. The covers had to be eye-catching and action packed to draw the attention of potential buyers. The articles inside were often a lot less sensational and more balanced, but the cover drawings were basically the 1900 version of click-bait. Obviously it worked, because they managed to catch my attention 114 years later. Check out the covers from 1900 and other years here on Gallica.

Even though there is some gruesome violence pictured in many of them, there is a very odd, emotionless distance in these drawings as well as in the expressions of the people pictured. Even when an individual is in the midst of being murdered. Is this due to poor artistic skills or was this done to avoid too much realism? Dehumanised violence for sensitive viewers? In any case, some truly horrible events end up looking very staged and artificial, if not unintentionally comical. At least I hope it was unintentional.

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‘I am not going to stop arresting this man just because there is a knife stuck in my head’

 

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More murders, accidents and disasters

In between all these horrors, when there were no freak events to report, other things happened as well in 1900: a horse getting ready for some parade, the fire brigade getting an electric car, another horse at a race with a lot of flag waving, the president at a very important ceremony, 6 officers with bicycles protecting 3 French citizens, a laboratory being opened. The underlying message of these rather boring events is clear. Look how wonderful the French Republic is: just waving some flags, having fun parades, making scientific discoveries, with non-threatening officers taking care of citizens.

Other things that also happened

Things that also happened and made the government look good.

And then there were actual historical events happening in far away places: the Boer war, a bit of French colonial expansion and fighting in Africa, Europeans being attacked by angry Chinese rebels, friendly foreign imperial rulers who were supportive of France.

Meanwhile far away...

Meanwhile far away…important historical events were taking place. The emphasis is of course on the bravery of France and its foreign allies.

Back to the most important event of the year though: the female snake charmer. I was of course curious to find out who she was. Medusa reincarnated? Just a woman with an unfortunate choice of pets? Well, neither really. Her name was, depending on the newspaper, either Zalemma Keardy or Neardy. But who cares about futile facts when there is a juicy story to be told. Apparently this 24 year old Swedish woman claimed to be a snake charmer, but was in reality a swindler with an international arrest warrant. The police visited her at her Paris hotel room where they found her asleep in between her snakes. She threatened the officers, but of course the courageous French detective was not afraid of her snakes. A brave man. According to newspaper articles Zalemma ended up in the Saint-Lazare prison. I have no idea what happened to the poor snakes or what happened to her, but the story was picked up by newspapers everywhere. Below you can see how the same story was represented in the illustrated Sunday edition of regional newspaper L’Express de Lyon (Source: BM de Lyon). Le Petit Dauphinois used the same cover illustration as you can see here.

So what is the overall sentiment in 1900 according to these covers? Mostly a bit of scare-mongering mixed with some human interest, foreign news and a dose of chauvinism. Not just in Le Petit Parisien, but also in the regional papers. Dangers are obviously everywhere: criminals, scary foreigners, nature. Luckily brave police officers, soldiers and other heroes are busy trying to protect French citizens from harm everywhere in the world. And it’s probably best to buy illustrated supplements to read all about it.

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‘Laugh all you want, scary foreign woman, but your snakes are no match for the French Tricolour I have in my hand!’

 

 

 

 

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

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.