Eking out a living on the streets of Paris

Paris has a reputation as a city of glitz and glamour. But in the early 20th century, beneath the glamour, many barely survived from day to day. In London, journalist and reformer Henry Mayhew had written a multi-volume study, London Labour and the London Poor in 1851, a fascinating but depressing study of people living on the margins in that city. Mayhew, who had earlier lived in Paris, said of the self-employed poor: they “don’t find a living, it’s only another way of starving.” He could have been speaking about those in Paris who eked out a meagre existence through “Les petits métiers.”

The term referred to those who made their way in the world without the stable structure of apprenticeships, journeyman status, and achievement of mastery. Some were talented at what they did; others did jobs that required only perseverance. They may have worked hard, put in long hours, and acquired specialized skills, but their efforts were not officially recognized as “métiers.” Let’s meet a few of them in the photographs of the collection Paris en Images.

Ice cream has long been an important part of Paris life. This beautifully decorated pushcart is a cut above average. However, it is still typical with two large spoked wheels, and handles projecting from one end. On the same end one finds two spigots (taps) to let out water and for cleaning and a fold-down leg to support or balance the cart. Some vendors also sold hot chocolate.

This street vendor has a heavier load and a greater variety of goods. She is dressed like the typical market or street vendor. The cart has only two wheels, but instead of one support to balance the wagon when it is stationary, there is a heavy metal folding support or leg on each side of the cart. The advertising posters on the wall behind her were the work of another specialized trade: the bill poster.

The bill poster is shown with his pot of glue into which he dips a brush and covers the wall surface. He smoothes the poster out and the job is done. On my first trip to Paris, I was in awe of the advertising posters in the Metro. An even greater treat was watching them being put up. I was astounded at how quickly and neatly the workers did the job.

Not all bills or posters went on walls. At the beginning of the 20th century, one could hire sandwich men who, unlike traditional sandwich men, walked with a poster held aloft in a frame attached to his shoulders. If adjusted properly, it was probably more comfortable and more visible than the traditional sandwich board, which hung from the shoulders.

Most days, a meal might be little more than a crust of bread and with luck a bit of cheese. On better days there might be soup, such as that from this soup seller at Les Halles. You ate the soup on the spot and gave the bowl back to the seller to use for the next customer. This is a lovely scene, almost like something from Central Casting. The advertising posters on the wall add an interesting touch, as does the variety of clothing on the people in the photograph.

The quest for art works and antiques draw many tourists to Paris. But some of the most interesting finds—particularly if one is not too flush with cash—are secondhand goods. Here we find another street vendor with his trusty pushcart. The vendor is dressed roughly and one can imagine the weight of the cart and the effort required to push it. With iron-spoked wheels it seems built for heavy loads.

Today when we think of vendors of goods on the banks of the Seine, it is the bouquinistes that come to mind. Identified as the secondhand bookseller Chonmoru on the Quai des Grands Augustins, this stand also sells music. The contrast between the garb of the vendor and the cleric speaks of different positions on the social scale.

This small businessman with the walrus moustache looks stern. These are not hats he is selling on the Pont d’Arcole; they are lampshades.

5638a53542037db4aaa80c17babf7884The narrow specialization of some vendors is astounding. This man in front of the Caserne Labeau sold shoelaces. Yes, shoelaces. It seems an unlikely way to make a living. But it was probably not much of a living.

e21815e22aea9426237628eb112bbbf6I am not sure how they work – probably with some form of adhesive paper – but this vendor on rue Saint Antoine is selling flytraps. He does not need a pushcart for such lightweight products; the ingenious folding one-legged stand seems to work well.

cb3ae74529b602840048404c72bb55afThis merchant of small flags in front of the Church of Saint-Paul Saint-Louis intrigues me. The stand holds small tricolor flags. Perhaps it is a special holiday such as Bastille Day. What else does he sell? Is he a regular at the site? What did he do on non-festive days?

b343d2825b30da79d178526e6066e8d5Here we clearly have a festive occasion and a good showman who can attract a crowd. I love his hat. He seems to be holding a large knife in his left hand. According to photographer Louis Vert, he is selling a paste or compound for sharpening razors. At a time when shaving generally meant using a straight razor, sharpening it was important. I remember watching my grandfather sharpening a straight razor on a leather strop. It was quite an art. One assumes that the paste was put on the strop.

However, for pure street drama, it was hard to beat the act of an itinerant tooth puller. And at a time of limited attention to oral hygiene, there were toothaches aplenty. This photo, taken about 1900 by Louis Vert at Place de la Bastille, captured a tooth puller who offers the extra inducement of a raffle. Sometimes a few musicians would be part of the show. The first job was simply attracting a good crowd. Tooth pullers often started with an associate planted in the crowd. Feigning a terrible toothache, the associate would approach the tooth puller and the two would put on an act in which the puller stressed the difficulty of his task and the stoical patient proclaimed that it had hardly hurt at all. And a much-used tooth was brandished for all to see.

Things were different when a genuine sufferer of toothache took the bait to have a painful tooth removed. The puller usually used what was known as a dental key. This appalling device did not pull the tooth out vertically, but tended to turn it or bend it sideways and break off the top of the tooth. The roots and lower parts of the tooth remained to cause continuing pain and infection. And the promise of painless extraction? The answer is found in a French saying “mentir comme un arracheur de dents.” To lie like a tooth puller.

Unloading boats was strenuous work and if there no boats that day or too many others vying for too few jobs, there might be little or no money for food that evening or the next day. But they were not necessarily on the lowest rung of workers.

The woman shown here is described as a mender of plaster sacks. The limestone underneath Paris was quarried for building material or turned into plaster that was shipped in large sacks. There was a tiny amount of money to be made turning tattered sacks into something that could be used for a few more loads. It is hard to imagine a less rewarding and remunerative job than this.

Like those who survived by gathering up used tobacco, many Parisians in the early 20th century made a meagre living providing food, repairs, cheap goods, and conveniences to other city dwellers and to tourists. They were part of the scenery and often overlooked. Have they disappeared?

Not entirely. Some modern-day petit métiers remain, such as Métro musicians, souvenir sellers, some of the more marginal flea-market vendors, and those who sell old telephone cards or coins on the fringes of stamp and postcard markets. If someone will pay, there is always someone willing to sell, if only to keep body and soul together.

Text by Norman Ball; photos courtesy Paris en Images

Posted in Paris history, Paris markets, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

A lost member of the not-so-lost generation

The hero in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, is thrilled to go back in time to the 1920s, where he meets his literary idols Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and members of their circle. Today, many visitors to Paris fantasize about time-travelling to that golden age of jazz and gin and flappers and meeting these larger-than-life characters. But what were they really like? Are Woody Allen and Ernest Hemingway reliable guides to the so-called “lost generation”?


Commemorations of the First World War remind us that French, British, and Commonwealth soldiers who survived the war were often scarred by the experience, even if they were not maimed or blinded. Men who had fought in the trenches, if they came back at all, came back with horrific memories and possibly survivor guilt. And when they returned, many civilians resented them: why did you survive and not my son / brother / lover / friend / husband?

Meanwhile, young (often working-class) women who had taken on full-time employment during the war were being told that men needed their jobs and they should return to domestic life. But what was there left for them? Marriage was no longer a certainty; according to some estimates, they had about a one-in-ten chance of finding a husband, because of the death toll of young men in the war.1

The hectic pace of life in the 1920s, the jazz, the gin, and the flappers, reflected unease as much as release. And although the Americans had participated only in the last 18 months of the war and had not suffered the same catastrophic loss of life, they too felt the anxiety underneath the gaiety.

Ostensibly, this is why Gertrude Stein called those who were still young in the 1920s the “Lost Generation.” But were they really? It’s an odd epithet. In fact, Stein did not invent the expression. According to one account:

During one of their regular talks, Stein told Hemingway of having taken her Model T Ford to a garage to have the ignition repaired. The young mechanic who did the work bungled it in some way, and his patron scolded him for his incompetence. The young man had served in the war and the patron said to him in exasperation, “You are all a génération perdue.”

“That’s what you are,” Gertrude Stein assured Hemingway. “That’s what you all are. All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”

Ernest began to object. “Don’t argue with me, Hemingway,” Stein said. “It does no good at all. You’re all a lost generation, exactly as the garage keeper said.”2

I’m not surprised Hemingway objected. He had come to Paris to find his voice as a writer – and he succeeded. So did many other writers and artists. Stein may have liked the sound of the expression, but it didn’t fit Hemingway, nor did it fit others he knew. Still, he used it as an epigraph for The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. Perhaps it was to please Stein. It was his first novel, after all, and he needed the goodwill of his influential friend.

I admit I am not a huge fan of Hemingway’s work. Reading The Sun Also Rises, based on real events in 1925 in Paris and Spain, I cannot help thinking that with friends like Hemingway, nobody needed enemies. He depicts his contemporaries in a generally unfavourable light, while making the first-person narrator seem the only decent chap in the bunch.

But were they “lost”? The group that went to Pamplona, Spain, in 1925 is captured in a contemporary photograph. Who were these people? I went looking for them.


First on the left is Hemingway himself, looking smug and far from lost.

Next, in the background, with glasses and bow tie, sits an unsmiling Harold Loeb. He later wrote his own account of that trip to Spain. He seems to have risen above Hemingway’s unkind depiction of him in the character of Robert Cohn, who falls for the femme fatale, but is later ejected from the group. Loeb eventually became a successful writer and his only loss was that of the woman he had fallen for. But in the end, he was probably better off without her.

The femme fatale in question sits beside Hemingway. Lady Duff Twysden looks like a cat who has just polished off a tasty canary. She appears in the book as Lady Brett Ashley, sleek as a Bugatti, breaking hearts wherever she went, accustomed to having men pick up the tab for her. When she left Pamplona in 1925, her friends paid her hotel bill. As usual. Duff was not her real name. She was born Mary Smurthwaite. Early on she realized it wouldn’t do for a femme fatale, so she changed it.

In 1925, she was in the process of divorcing her second husband, Sir Roger Twysden. They had a seven-year-old son back in England, but she doesn’t seem to have considered him in her plans. Supposedly she was engaged to the man on the far right. But a few years after the photograph was taken, she met an American artist and moved to the United States with him instead.

Hemingway depicts her as a beautiful but aimless airhead, dependent on the narrator’s strong-shouldered support, but there was much more to her in real life. She had her flaws, but she wasn’t an airhead, and I wouldn’t call her lost.

Hadley Hemingway, Ernest’s (then) wife, beams in the middle of the photograph. The book was dedicated to her, but she was written out of the narrative – that way, the narrator could openly express his attraction for Duff Twsden / Brett Ashley and still appear to be a swell guy. Hadley was certainly lost to literature in this book. She eventually parted from Ernest (in hindsight, a wise move) and married a well-respected journalist. She may have felt lost at the time, watching her husband dancing attendance on Duff, but she found herself in the end.

Only just visible beside Hadley is Donald Ogden Stewart, who went on to have a successful career as a screenwriter, and is probably best remembered for The Philadelphia Story. He appears in the book as the narrator’s buddy Bill, an affable fellow with no heartaches and no apparent inner life. He wasn’t lost.

And finally, on the far right is Patrick Stirling Guthrie, the one and only utterly lost person in the group. Hemingway immortalized him as “Mike Campbell” in The Sun Also Rises, and depicts some of Patrick’s real-life characteristics. (1) Mike is an undischarged bankrupt. So was Pat. (2) Mike receives an allowance from his family. Pat was indeed a remittance man. His bankruptcy papers list him as having “No occupation.” (3) Mike drinks heavily. That squares with the record. (4) Hemingway calls him “Scotch.” Well, his family was Scottish, although he was born in London and seems to have spent most of his life in England. (5) He was engaged to marry Duff. Hm, unclear. Others believe he was gay3 and he may just have been a convenient escort. He was a distant relative (fourth cousin) of Duff’s and it seems that they were emotionally close, but the real nature of their relationship is lost to history.

In 1927, two years after the trip to Spain and a year after the publication of his first novel, Hemingway noted in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald that Duff and Pat had parted company. Pat was rescued to some extent by an older American freelance journalist, Lorna Lindsley, who seems to have paid his debts and kept him out of trouble, at least for a while. But he died in 1932, aged 37, either by suicide or from a drug overdose; nobody is sure. And nobody seems to have cared, except his mother, who came to Paris to settle his affairs and pay off his debts.4

All the other characters have made some kind of mark on literary history, and been written up in various ways, from academic treatises to Wikipedia. Not Pat. He disappeared into oblivion, other than a short memoir about him by a barman who served him at the famous Dingo Bar on the rue Delambre.5 And most of that document is about Duff.

I found a few traces of Patrick in official records. His father was a merchant banker and MP who died in 1911 and his mother was the daughter of an Irish baronet; they were part of high-society London and owned an enormous house in London and a castle on the Isle of Mull. Pat was educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Sandhurst, served in the First World War in the First Life Guards, a cavalry regiment, and became a lieutenant in 1915, when he was 20. The regiment served at Mons, Ypres, and Passchendaele and presumably Pat was there, too. If so, he must have had some appalling experiences. But in those days one didn’t talk about such things. He just drank a lot.

In a generation of hardy survivors, good-time girls, and emerging writers, most of whom found themselves in Paris, Pat was truly lost, poor fellow.

As for that hapless garage attendant, I hope he got his act together, bought out the patron, married, had a family, and lived a long and prosperous life. If only to prove Gertrude Stein wrong.

Text by Philippa Campsie; cinema still from http://theweek.com/article/index/251479/the-9-best-ways-to-time-travel-ranked; 1920s photograph from Wikipedia.


  1. Judith Mackrell, Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 73.
  2. Lyle Larsen, Stein and Hemingway: The Story of a Turbulent Friendship, McFarland and Company, p. 52.
  3. Michael Reynolds, Hemingway: The Paris Years, Basil Blackwell, 1989, p. 301.
  4. Apparently his mother was something of a character. When Patrick’s father died in 1911, she remarried, but later divorced, and ended her days living in Torosay Castle in Scotland with a Pekinese and a foul-mouthed parrot.
  5. James Charters, “Pat and Duff: Some Memories,” in Hemingway and the Sun Set, NCR/Microcard Editions, 1972, pp. 241–246.


Posted in Paris history | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Paris in the year 2000, viewed from 1900

It seems that humans cannot resist dabbling in predicting the future. We have an innate need to ignore Yogi Berra’s clear warning, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” So what did the year 2000 look like from a vantage point 100 years earlier? Let’s look at a few examples from a series of cigarette cards designed to be given away at the International Exposition of 1900 in Paris.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Electric_scrubbingOur parlour maid has a wonderful-looking machine to clean her wooden parquet floor. The machine looks a bit awkward, but has a traditional scrub brush and bar of soap. Indeed, it seems to be electrically powered, but the cord leads only to the wand the maid is holding.

As for the rest of the room, it seems very much of the late 1800s: a large potted plant; the ever-respectable but economical upright piano; heavy curtains and a blind at the window; a statue on a plinth; and two paintings on the walls. Did year 2000 ever look more like the year 1900? At least the maid does not seem to have a strenuous job. Let’s look at some other workers.

France_in_XXI_Century._FarmerClearly our farmer of the year 2000 is living better electrically. He sits on a stool working the controls while the electrically powered machines do what was once done by human labour. An electric harvester cuts the grain and perhaps even ties it in stooks. Another machine piles hay or grain into large mounds.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Air_postmanRapid everyday delivery by postmen who had conquered the air meant one no longer had to depend on those unreliable telegraph delivery boys. All has been arranged. Just lean out from your balcony and grab the letters as he flies by.

Screen Shot 2014-09-15 at 11.22.51 AM

After a hard day’s work, or just to get ready for a night out on the town, a gentleman would need to visit his barber. But in the year 2000, the barber was a machine controller.  Mechanical arms shave the man sitting in the chair on the right. He looks a bit uncomfortable. The customer standing seems finished and the final errant hairs on his coat are being brushed off mechanically. The jolly man in the chair on the left is enjoying a chance to relax. Perhaps he is thinking of a trip to his tailor for a made-in-no-time suit for the opera.

France_in_XXI_Century._Latest_fashionThe man’s measurements are taken mechanically and sent to the forbidding-looking tailoring machine. It begins by gobbling up material from the bolt of fabric to the left of the machine. After  internal machinations, it spits out a completed suit jacket. But the men’s costumes show that fashion has not changed a bit since 1900.

Meanwhile, at home, other preparations are taking place.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Toilette_madameAgain we see the electric wires, control handles, and, above the bathtub, a brush with a strong resemblance to that used by the parlour maid to scrub the parquet floors. Madame is seated comfortably, even seductively, while her hair is done to perfection by electrical apparatus and all manner of other preparations completed. The mirror obscures what is happening to her foot, but the contraption looks fierce.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Air_cabOur happy couple of the future live only a short walk away from the Aero-Cab Station, where one never has to wait long for an aero-cab. The trip is over so quickly that there is hardly time to glance at the newspaper purchased at the newsstand before taking the elevator to the boarding level.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Robot_orchestraThe couple look down from their box at the Opera. Members of the audience are dressed in their finest, the story unfolding on stage is an old one. The music emanating from the orchestra pit comes from familiar instruments, all of which are controlled mechanically. The conductor has been reduced to sitting at a control panel. And without musicians to watch, something seems to be missing from the drama of a night at the opera.

But the next day brings an outing in a highly unusual vehicle.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Rolling_houseWho would have thought that one could put a house on wheels, fit it up with a steam engine, chefs, waiters, and a skilful driver? All of this so one could dine in comfort while heading for an afternoon at the seashore. Such a delightful prospect, part of what makes the future worth waiting for.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._DiversFor the adventurous sort, there was always (sea)horseback riding. But with the boots, breeches, swords, and breathing apparatus, it all seems too energetic. The new underwater breathing apparatus was best reserved for more decorous pursuits.

France_in_XXI_Century._Water_croquetA jolly good game of croquet made for a perfect day. And as the woman’s dress suggests, it was an entertainment for those who knew how to dress. But some who enjoyed an afternoon watching a race beneath the waves seemed to have taken some liberties with their attire.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Race_in_PacificClearly the woman with the scandalously short skirt must have come directly from her work dancing on stage in a club frequented by the…well, by those whose names and stations in society we shall not repeat here.

But much as the world beneath the sea beckoned, there were other opportunities to have fun, high above the mountains.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Little_robbersThese naughty lads have been lucky to escape with their lives when the mother eagle attacks them to protect her baby eaglets. Have little boys not learned anything in the last 100 years? Whatever are they teaching them in the schools?


The new learning machines were perhaps not as effective as they were expensive. The teacher could feed the books into the machine; the least well-behaved boy in the class could turn the crank, but what did the electric wires feed into the young pupils heads? Today we know the expression “garbage in, garbage out.” Perhaps the books were outdated and stale. And how did anyone know if the boys (no girls to be seen in this school) were even paying attention to the lessons coursing through the wires?

Were the lads dreaming of the day when they would have their own airplane? Or a career as a dashing aviation policeman?

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._Flying_policeOr were they imagining a career in surveillance?


Perhaps some dreamed of the day when young boys (note the sailor suits in the image below) went off to war. Some by air…

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._War_plane…and some by land.

800px-France_in_XXI_Century._War_carsAnd perhaps some dreamed that they could rescue those in peril.

France_in_XXI_Century._Air_firefightersAnd as each dreamed of the future, how many would realize what a jumbled mixture of past and present their dreams were made of? While hovering in the air to rescue child and infant, a steam engine on the ground pushed water up through the hose and onto the flames.

The images presented here show colourful visions of the year 2000 when it was 100 years into the future. There are 87 or more known cards in the series started by the French artist Jean-Marc Côté. The artist had been commissioned by a toy-and-novelty company called Armand Gervais et Cie of Lyon to produce images for cigarette cards to be distributed at the International Exposition of 1900 in Paris.

Unfortunately, Gervais died unexpectedly and his company ceased operations. The cards were never distributed. The plant closed down and was left untouched for almost a quarter of a century. Then a toy collector, Monsieur Renaud, visited the premises with the idea of using it to manufacture toys. He discovered instead the untouched inventory of the Gervais company, including the cards. Monsieur Renaud decided not to produce toys, but to buy the entire stock of the company as the basis of a left-bank store called Editions Renaud.

In 1978 the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and his wife were living in Paris. They visited Editions Renaud, hit it off with Monsieur Renaud (who was then quite elderly) and bought a set of cards. According to Asimov, the set was the only one not to have been damaged by water in the abandoned factory. Intrigued with the collection, he wrote a book about it, published in 1986.

Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000 is an astounding piece of work. I recommend it highly. I bought it some years ago, read it with enjoyment, and then somehow forgot about it until I was sorting some books that I had left in storage and rediscovered an old friend. Soon I, too, wanted to learn more.

My discovery of the online images of the Public Domain Review led to this blog. The site is well worth any time one spends there. So I dedicate this blog to Jean-Marc Côté, other unnamed artists who contributed to the series, Armand Gervais, Monsieur Renaud, Isaac Asimov and his wife Mariea (who, like my wife, speaks far better French than her husband).


Let us leave this blog with another improbable image. It reminds me of the many futuristic images and stories that entertained us in our younger years when we were enraptured by Popular Mechanics magazine and the works of Jules Verne. However entranced we may be by the new and different, we seem to seek comfort in novelty and unintentionally lug the past into our visions of the future.

Text by Norman Ball; images courtesy Public Domain Review


Posted in Paris art, Paris popular culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Fifty Ways to Close Your Shutters

On our last visit to Paris in June, we did most of our travelling by bus, which meant time spent waiting at bus stops and journeys on which we gazed out the window at the streets, instead of hurtling through a darkened tunnel on the Metro. And that meant studying Paris facades, ever familiar and ever new, noting details and differences.

This time it was shutters. I started to notice all the different forms and styles and began to photograph them. For example, here is a photograph showing the two most common styles of all – exterior wooden louvred shutters above and folding metal shutters below. Utterly ordinary, and yet remarkable.


When I tried to figure out the correct terms in French, I found myself in a thicket of words – volets, persiennes, contrevents, jalousies, stores, couvre-fenêtres, grilles de défense – plus a host of variations. Volets roulants valenciennes, persiennes à l’abbattant relevé, store cassette

For no particular reason (other than what else are you going to do while waiting at a bus stop?), I decided to create a typology of shutters.

First off, those wooden shutters are called volets (or to be more precise, volets battants, to distinguish them from volets roulants, or roll-down shutters).* Here is a typical Paris façade, photographed as a demonstration passed in front, with residents looking out to see what is going on. But when I looked again, I noticed that these windows are slightly unusual, because they are combined with individual awnings.


These shutters need regular painting to keep them looking this tidy. Many Paris facades, however, do not get that kind of attention.


Most, but not all, shutters have louvres in them to let through light or air. The term jalousie (literally, “jealousy”) was coined for shutters that allow the person inside to look out without being seen.


The ones on the right with large and obvious hinges seem to be a very traditional design for what appear to be fairly modern security shutters.

Inside the shutters, there are other details, all with specific terms. This comes from a helpful website called “lexique des volets,” by a shutter manufacturer.


Such old-fashioned and rather rustic shutters can be found in Paris, if you look.


Notice the hardware on the open shutters. The interior closing mechanism is called an espagnolette. There are several types, shown on the website of a woodworking company.


Just when you thought shutters were simple things.

But I wanted to find the word to describe something we have seen from time to time – the little fixtures on the exterior wall used to hold the shutter and prevent it from swinging back and forth in the wind. Some are plain, but some have faces or other decorations on them. Norman photographed one in the Marais a few years ago.


If you look closely at the next photo, you will see them holding back the shutters. (This is quite a complicated window, with its security grill and frosted glass privacy screen.)


I found that they are called “arrêts de volet” (shutter stops) or “arrêts de vent” (wind stops), and they come in many forms and colours. You can still buy ones with faces on them: arrêts bergère, suggesting that the face with the hat and the long hair is that of a shepherdess. Isn’t French hardware wonderful?

Arrets de vent

But these are modern ones. The oldest are simply bits of metal in a T-shape that project out from the wall and swivel to hold the shutter against the wall. You can see them at the Maison de Balzac, where they are still in use, painted green to match the shutters.


Commercial premises sometimes have wooden shutters that fold right into the wall and don’t need an arrêt de volet. In the next picture, I like the way everything, including the hinges, are flush with the wall. (I am also fascinated by the various metal openings near the ground, but any investigation of them will have to wait for another blog.)


Then there are persiennes. The term is used for a variety of louvred shutters, but it seems to be the common term for those folding metal exterior shutters that we have wrestled with in various rented apartments. They always seem to be slightly bent, so it is hard to get the closing to engage. Years ago, when I was a student and au pair in Paris, I used to help an elderly lady downstairs with her persiennes in the evenings. She was in her eighties and very bent and frail. She seemed able to open them on her own, but struggled with closing them.

Here is a photo that Norman took of the rusty persiennes in a flat we rented several times in the Marais.


Persiennes of this type have the advantage of tucking neatly into the window embrasure, so when they are open, they do not clutter the façade or obstruct the view. But closed, they are not particularly attractive.


Modern shutters tend to be the roll-down kind (volets roulants), also very dull-looking, but practical. Some are electric and roll down at the push of a button, others have a hand-crank. Many are used as security shutters on commercial premises, and they tend to attract graffiti.


On this Art Deco building, note the frames that allow the shutters to function as awnings, open at the bottom.


Fabric awnings and blinds are known as stores, and the window awnings that stand at an angle to the window seem to be called stores à l’italienne. (Stores also can mean interior blinds, as in stores venétiens or Venetian blinds.) I noticed awnings on quite a few institutional buildings. Here is the Port Royal maternity hospital.


(Note also the interesting half-shutters just under the eaves.)

Exterior window blinds made of fabric seem quite common. Here are some rather dingy ones on a university building in the Latin Quarter. Of course, they would be impossible to keep clean.


Bamboo is similarly used for exterior window coverings.


The more I looked at windows, the more variations I noticed. This row of small shutters intrigued me. With all those huge expanses of glass above and below, what is the purpose of the shuttered windows? And note the persiennes to the left that leave the curved top of the window uncovered. The question of what to do with windows of unusual shapes must bedevil some Parisian homeowners.


Of all the words I discovered in my typology of windows, the most exotic is moucharabieh. This is a word from North Africa for the filigreed window coverings, usually carved wood, on Moroccan buildings. The most outstanding Parisian version is found at the Institut du Monde Arabe, where the openings are designed to respond to changes in the light by opening and closing.

P1150124 2

My typology is hardly exhaustive, and the possibilities are endless. One could compile a further list just of modern window coverings, quite a few of them one-off architectural features.

Next time you are standing at a Paris bus stop, you can pass the time by counting the number of types of shutters and window closings you can see. Chances are, even a single façade will have more than one type. How many do you see in the photo below?


Text by Philippa Campsie, photographs by Philippa Campsie and Norman Ball

*Volet is a word with many, many meanings. This translation website shows the many ways in which this word is used, and “shutter” is mentioned only a couple of times.


Posted in Paris architecture, Paris streets | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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.


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.


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.


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.

Posted in Paris history, Paris popular culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Pippa, Pouch, and a Paris Publisher

We don’t usually make a big deal of birthdays. Norman’s falls in late winter just as the academic term is winding up. Philippa’s falls in early summer, just as everyone is going away. This year we were in Paris for the latter occasion. At one point we contemplated dining in a grand restaurant and or visiting some major attraction, but in the end, we just walked up the boulevard St-Jacques, stopping for lunch at Au Port du Salut, at 163 bis.*

We then wandered on to a bookshop-gallery at 25, rue du Sommerard called, appropriately, Pippa (since Pippa is the short form of Philippa’s name, used by family and old friends). The previous week, at a poetry market in the Place St-Sulpice, we had seen someone with a bag on which was printed the bookshop name and had decided that this would make a good birthday destination.


First, we asked about the name Pippa. The owner told us that the word meant a Chinese stringed instrument rather like a lute (more often spelled pipa). We never did find out why she chose it, though. And the logo is a feather, not a musical instrument.

Meanwhile, we had noticed another familiar name. The gallery in the basement was showing works by the illustrator and cartoonist François Pouch. As it happened, we already owned one of his engravings.

V2 A4 HD

Flashback to, oh, about 2005 or so. We were staying in the Marais and had taken a walk along the Canal St-Martin on a Sunday afternoon, when we came across a little open-air arts and crafts market. As we were admiring some pen-and-ink cartoons, an enormous gust of wind flattened several displays, including the one we were visiting. We immediately set to work helping the stall-holder reassemble the stand and clear away some broken glass from framed pictures that had fallen on the cobblestones. We chatted to him and ended up buying one of the unbroken pictures, an engraving by Pouch. (The glass later shattered inside Philippa’s suitcase on the way home to Canada.)

We’ve enjoyed the picture ever since – of a musician parking his modest bicycle at the bottom of a flight of grand stairs into an baroque opera house with over-the-top decoration. Pouch does a lot of images of musicians.

marché de la poésie

Flash forward again to 2014, and here are more of his pen-and-ink cartoons, with musicians and cats and rooftops. So there was the question of a birthday present settled (an original pen-and-ink work featuring all three), and we bought some books as well. Of course. Our plans to reduce the number of books in our lives always come to naught.


Librairie Pippa sells books by small and independent publishers, including its own line of poetry, children’s books, and travel books. We picked out several of these, as well as some wonderful facsimiles of 18th and 19th-century books by a publisher called Maxtor.

We struck up a conversation with the owner, Brigitte Peltier, whose husband, André Arnold-Peltier, is a photographer who has contributed to many of the travel books. Brigitte is an editor and publisher who founded Pippa Editions in 2006 and the bookshop in 2008. Like Philippa, she had worked in publishing companies for years before striking out on her own.


It is encouraging to see a new bookshop in the Latin Quartier, where bookshops more often close than open. According to a 2011 article in Le Point, 70 bookshops in this area closed between 2003 and 2008 (we have noticed closures in other quartiers as well).

The main problem is, as always, rising rents vs. ever-narrowing profit margins. The area is becoming trendier and bookshops are being replaced by designer boutiques. Many publishers have moved to the suburbs. After all, fewer university students frequent the area around the old Sorbonne buildings since the Université de Paris was decentralized to campuses throughout the region. And those who remain buy fewer books. Meanwhile, in the cafés, the students who used to make a single drink last all evening as they argued over existentialism are being replaced by tourists.

Nevertheless, the quartier is still a centre for bookselling and a few publishers remain. There are 255 bookshops (down from about 340 ten years ago, but still a good showing compared to other cities). And you can now search their holdings through a single website. The site also lists all 300 bouquinistes by name and includes them in the search function, which strikes us as a lovely mixture of traditional and contemporary methods of bookselling.


We are happy to report that one of those in the forefront of support for the Latin Quarter book trade is Toronto-born: Brian Spence, of the Abbey Bookshop on the rue de la Parcheminerie, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Brigitte, too, works hard to promote publishing and bookselling, through the Salon des éditeurs indépendants du Quartier Latin, held in June (alas, we left Paris the day it opened).


And as if that were not enough, Brigitte explained that some of the bookshop profits go to a charity that she founded, called SEMESanté Etudes Musique Espoir (Health Study Music Hope). SEME supports young people in India, Africa, and Vietnam – she mentioned, for example, helping a young woman in Pondicherry, India, train as a nurse. Doesn’t that just make you want to go out and buy more books?

Note that the shop is closed between July 11 and August 19, 2014. Even booksellers need time off.

Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie.

* We don’t do restaurant reviews, but if we did, we would give this small restaurant as many stars as we were allowed to give. We particularly recommend the “formule de midi” – the set-price lunch menu at 19.50 Euros. Given the genius of the chef, Marius Arranz, this is a stellar example of what the French call “un bon rapport qualité/prix” (good value for money). Michelin describes it as “une cuisine semi gastronomique à base de produits frais.” We’re not sure about the “semi gastronomique” – it seemed wholly gastronomique to us – but we can vouch for the fresh ingredients.


Posted in Paris shops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The contra-flâneur

On Friday, October 18, 1974, at 10:30 in the morning, Georges Perec took a seat in the café known as Tabac Saint-Sulpice, and assigned himself the task of observing what happened in the square in front of him. He wanted to describe the things that usually pass unnoticed – to capture “ce qui se passe quand il ne se passe rien” (what happens when nothing is happening).

His observations were published as an essay called “Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien” (Attempt to exhaust a Parisian place). He made notes on what he saw and what went past – mostly people and buses. He commented on the weather and the behaviour of pigeons, and on how even when the square seemed to be deserted, you could usually see someone somewhere.


I thought I might try something similar with the view from our window, which overlooks the intersection of the boulevard Port-Royal with the rue St-Jacques, which becomes the rue du Faubourg St-Jacques as it crosses to the south side. I have written about this place before, but I wanted to look again, with new eyes.

As Perec did, I will start with an inventory. On the four corners, from the northwest clockwise, we have: La Terrasse St-Jacques (a bistro with some pretensions), a boulangerie artisanale, the Harmony (a bistro with fewer pretensions), and the ancient and now unused 1888 entry to the Port Royal maternity hospital (the hospital is still there, with many old buildings, but the current entry is now to the west).


We also have: a news kiosk, a bottle bank (for recycling glass), a phone booth, a mailbox, two bus shelters with seating, public toilets, public benches, street parking, garbage receptacles, a large container for donating used clothing, and an electronic sign posting helpful information from the Mairie, such as weather and upcoming events. This is a full-service intersection. Rows of mature plane trees provide shade and stanchions separate the sidewalks from the roads at the corners. There is a Velib’ stand, but it is not visible from the window.

Other businesses on the boulevard that I can see from the window include: a pompes funebres (funeral service), a lingerie boutique, an optician, a shop selling electronic cigarettes beside a regular tobacconist, a laundromat, two pharmacies, and a chocolatier that also sells ice cream. A food market sets up on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays on the boulevard to the east of the intersection.

The traffic provides free entertainment because the intersection is complicated. There are four lanes on the boulevard, but they are not, as one would expect, two westbound lanes on the north side and two eastbound lanes on the south. Rather, there are two lanes of regular traffic in either direction on the north side, and two lanes of buses/bicycles/taxis/service vehicles in either direction on the south side.


We observe non-locals navigate this complicated space in a car: they emerge from the one-way southbound rue St-Jacques and see a thicket of signs and arrows. The right-hand turn is straightforward, but the left-hand turn requires quick wits or a prior knowledge of the place. We keep expecting to hear the sound of metal crunching on metal, but it is mainly horns and occasional shouts we hear as one more neophyte turns into the bus lane, then laboriously backs out.

Two bus lines serve the boulevard: the 91, which shuttles between the Gare Montparnasse and the Place de la Bastille (unless it short-turns at the Gare de Lyon), and the 83, which arrives less frequently to take people between the Porte d’Ivry at the city’s southeastern edge and Friedland-Haussmann on the Right Bank. The busy 91s are long, articulated, low-floor vehicles; the 83s are ordinary buses. Instead of horns, the buses have bell-like chimes to warn pedestrians or stopped vehicles of their approach. From what we can see, Paris bus drivers seem both observant and patient – people running to catch the bus at the last moment usually succeed.


Perec’s account of what happens when nothing is happening is fairly simple: people pass by with parcels, children, or dogs; there is a funeral, and later a wedding in Saint-Sulpice; it rains and then the rain stops.

This intersection seems to be more animated. So far, we have seen a procession of motorcycles (about 50 or so) and another of rollerbladers (more than 100). There are many emergency vehicles (we live surrounded by hospitals, the Sapeurs-Pompiers are a block away along the boulevard, and the Santé prison is nearby). We are learning to distinguish a police siren from an ambulance siren.

Perec noted many tourist buses, but this is not prime tourist country – although this morning we noted a baffled pair consulting a map on the opposite corner. Rather, we see commuters on Velib’s with briefcases in the baskets, people with shopping caddies going to the market, children on scooters, joggers hooked up to MP3 players, and people with musical instruments in specially designed backpacks (there is a music school nearby).


You can see people carrying all kinds of things: an ironing board, a ladder, a cat in a carrier-box. In a city where many people make their way through life without a car, stuff that would normally be carried (and hidden) in a car suddenly becomes visible.

I am fascinated by what people are wearing. A woman in white with fluorescent orange running shoes and a matching orange scarf. A man in a raspberry-coloured suit. Another woman in a smart coral jacket with a handsome handbag. A man in military khaki with a képi ornamented with gold braid. An older woman in Turkish pants and complicated sandals with many straps.

Norman watches the cars and motorcycles. Renault, Peugeot, Citroen, Toyota, Fiat, Ford. SmartCars. The occasional Porsche or Maserati. Three-wheeled motorcycles. Vespas. Delivery vans. Delivery cycles. Street cleaning equipment. Garbage trucks – one of which got stuck in the intersection for several minutes; cars carefully manoeuvred around it.

The hospital’s presence is indicated not just by the ambulances, but by people with arms in casts, or hobbling along on crutches. We also spotted a man wearing a dark-blue paper hospital gown over his trousers, trailing an IV pole complete with a bag of some liquid, bumming cigarettes from the people at the two cafés. We have seen him twice.

One glimpses bits of other people’s lives. A young woman stops on the corner, hesitates, consults her smartphone, disappears. A few minutes later, she is back at the same corner, this time accompanied by a young man who is also consulting a smartphone. Were there others they were supposed to meet? They confer, look around, and eventually wander off. I guess this is what Perec calls a “micro-évènement” (micro-event).

I watch a little boy rollerblading with his father. Eventually, I realize that two older people nearby watching the boy must be his grandparents.


I spot a couple with a baby emerging from the maternity hospital. A newborn? The woman stopped to kiss the tiny head as they walked toward the bus stop.

Street philosophers occupy the benches for hours at a time, talking to each other or to themselves. One was there for an entire evening, waving his arms and addressing passersby until someone finally stopped and talked to him. He was still there when we went to bed.


The light changes as the day passes. The pillars on the traffic island light up along with the streetlights. Parents walk their children back from school, commuters make the homeward journey, diners congregate in the bistros. This intersection never seems deserted.

Is it worth travelling so far to watch such everyday sights? Yes, if the goal is to understand the city a little better on each visit. And I find that the exercise of writing down what I see makes me notice more.

As I write this, an elderly man is studying something intently in the window of one of the pharmacies, a police car is approaching the intersection with its klaxons blaring, and a 91 bus passes full of people. A woman sits in the café opposite, writing, perhaps, a description of the intersection from the other side. Or a novel. She has been there for some time.

Perec’s essay positioned him as a “contra-flâneur”* – rather than wandering the boulevards looking for interesting literary material, he stayed in one place and let the world come to him. The same approach in mid-June 2014 at a busy intersection gives us a new way to appreciate life in Paris.


Text and photographs by Philippa Campsie.

* I am indebted to Meeka Walsh for this expression, used in her essay, “Georges Perec: Soft Chalk and Pigeons,” Border Crossings.

Posted in Paris streets | Tagged , , , , | 21 Comments