The scavengers

Major nineteenth-century cities such as Paris or London depended on complex ecosystems in which the showiest sometimes obscured underlying layers. Consider a city in which by 1900 it was said that as many as 300,000 cigars (perhaps the number included cigarettes) were consumed daily.

Paris cigars001

In 1890, Saint-Juirs, author of La Seine à Travers Paris (from which the illustration above is taken) warned readers that in La Place Maubert and its surroundings, “all the vices were represented” in the dives (bouges) frequented by “the worst specimens of the human species.” And yet, in these shady quarters, there were also honest people making a living. These were practitioners of les petits métiers or small trades. One group made a living from discarded cigars and cigarette butts.

In this shady milieu the honest people are represented by the scavengers of cigar butts, who have an industry that is respectable, even if not lucrative. Badly dressed in grimy, ragged clothes, the scavengers go into the rich areas, on the boulevards when café terraces are filled with guests; they watch intently around the theatres. Their eyes on the ground, they chase after bits of tobacco. The most well-off have a hook to grab the cigars thrown away by the smoker; the poorer ones pick up the remains with their hands. All of them have large pockets or bags to gobble up their harvest. The prodigality of the rich feeds their small earnings. In fact the streets give to those who exploit them more tobacco than that produced from ten fine plantations. Cigarette butts, cigar ends, either common or high-priced, the orphans abandoned on the sidewalks and carefully collected each day give a harvest of appreciable value. There are often pieces of good fortune, for the most expensive cigars, the havanas worth three francs, were rare finds.

In today’s currency three francs would be around €7. “All this debris is washed, then cut and formed into a special tobacco, superior in quality to caporal tobacco. The gatherers dry it by putting it in the sun on the banks of the river; then they retrace their steps to  Place Maubert,  where they run their market.”

4309fc1b3e66ab505919ad69e5372084-2 In the photo above, taken about 1900, photographer Louis Vert has captured some men processing their tobacco finds on one of the embankments. The results would eventually end up as pipe tobacco or in roll-your-own cigarettes.

According to Gustave Macé, a former chef de la police de Sûreté, cigarette-butt and cigar-end scavengers were organized into groups with their own territories. Each had a leader whose many tasks included keeping track of potentially good picking sites such as well-to-do weddings, important funerals, and church festivals.

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In this 1900 photo by Jacques Boyer, a lone worker is unpacking and sorting his finds. As with any product sold on the open market, prices varied according to supply and demand as well as quality. A cigar barely smoked fetched a better price than a short butt. The former could simply have the ash cut off and be sold as a small cigar, whereas those smoked down to a short stub had to be cut up and the tobacco mixed with other scavenged bits.

The top of the food—or tobacco—chain was occupied by those described as “moneybags” (richards) who specialized in cigars bought from waiters in cafés who kept an eye out for those precious barely smoked ones that could be resold immediately.

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If you look closely at this caricature of a night of excess, you will spot the treasure trove of cigar and cigarette butts that scavengers sought.

One wonders what the tobacco tasted like and who bought it. Saint-Juirs claimed it to be superior to caporal, which was a strong dark tobacco. The reclaimed street tobacco was probably not renowned for either sweet aroma or gentle taste. However, it served its intended market of the  poverty-stricken elderly (vieillards indigents) or poor workmen. For those of us of a certain age, the smell of street tobacco might bring back memories of the would-be-poets and budding philosophers of our university days who proclaimed their pretensions with the strong aroma of Gauloise cigarettes.

In his 1867 book Les petites industries, Edmond Texier explained the origins of some of the little ways of making a living that were “not listed in the dictionary.” Nobody grew up with the dream of living off cigar and cigarette butts. Rather, such an occupation was “the conquest of the imagination by stomach cramps.” The need to eat threw one into such careers.

As Jean-Michel Le Corfec reminds us in Les petits métiers de Paris, those who were excluded from the mainstream of society either had to depend on public charity or find some kind of work to be able to eat. Living off discarded cigars and cigarette butts was one way.

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As for the smokers, the photographic archives yielded this photo, taken during the Commune of 1871. The woman looks as if she is enjoying a well-earned smoke and there will be little left for the scavengers.

The rich photographic and artistic history of Paris has captured some of the little trades that made up the functioning city. In a later blog I will describe some other petits métiers of Paris. They were essential parts of a complex city and a now-vanished way of life.

Text and translations by Norman Ball

Photographic images courtesy of Paris en Images, except for the first image, which is from Saint-Juirs,  La Seine à Travers Paris, Illustrée de 230 Dessins et de 17 Compositions en Couleurs par G. Fraipont. Paris: Librairie Artistique, 1890.

Additional information from Jean-Michel Le Corfec, Les Petits Métiers de Paris. Bordeaux: Éditions Sud Ouest, 2008.

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About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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7 Responses to The scavengers

  1. Teresa E says:

    I never knew such a metier existed. Here in New York City, I don’t see many partially smoked cigarettes on the sidewalk. Sort of speaks to the (deservedly) high cost of tobacco products these days.

    • Just today, on the streets of Toronto, we saw a man combing through recycling boxes in search of liquor bottles that can be returned for a refund. In some ways, this is a 21st-century “petit metier.” Probably there are others, if we just keep our eyes open.

      Norman and Philippa

  2. Fascinating! Thank you for this post which now has me wondering if other cities at the time encouraged similar enterprises. And I’m very much looking forward to your next post on another little métier.

    • We wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that similar metiers existed elsewhere…but Paris was a particularly fertile territory for those who lived off scraps, like all wealthy cities.

      Norman and Philippa

  3. Fascinating post. I always find it interesting how in history or less wealthy countries people found ways of making a living out of so little. Another example is the mudlarks of the Thames who would search in the muddy shores of the river during low tide.

  4. Pingback: Eking out a living on the streets of Paris | Parisian Fields

  5. Pingback: Les Petits Métiers: Yesterday There Were Shoelace Sellers, Today There are Food Truck Traders | FrenchNewsOnline

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