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Le Petit Mousse

‘Le Petit Mousse’ by Ad. Rémy & A. Baudeuf, published by Serpeille (Paris, sd) and illustrated by L. Lantier.

A mousse is the French word given to apprentices carrying out chores on a ship. They used to be young boys, usually 12–16 years old but sometimes as young as 7-8 years old, when they were called a mousaillon. It is only by a decree from 1852 that the boys had to be at least 10 years old to enlist on a ship.

‘Moussaillon’ by Demarquette & Henry Min, published by Félix Mackar in Paris (sd). Lithography by Jannin & Denis.

The mousse‘s tasks consisted of cooking meals, sweeping the deck, cleaning the chicken coops, tending the animals, scratching the rust, serving the crew. One other important (and dangerous) duty was to scramble up the rigging, in all kinds of weather, whenever the sails had to be trimmed. It is in this particular role —alone high up in the mast— that the mousse is represented iconographically, time and again.

Left: ‘Le Petit Mousse‘ by F. Plasschaert & J. B. De Baes, published by Charles De Vylder (Gent, SD) and illustrated by N. Heins. Right: ‘La plainte du mousse!’ by Louis Abadie & Anatole Morancé, published by Mayence (Bruxelles, sd).

Tales of spectacular shipwrecks and martyred mousses inspired a certain kind of literature, romantic and moralistic novels with a generous portion of melodramaAlso contemporary songs and magazines mawkishly lamented the miserable existence of these children at sea. In these sentimental stories the mousses were either real examples of virtue who earned a living for their family, after their father, a sailor, had perished at sea or had spent everything on booze. Or they were pitiable martyrs who were treated very badly on board: they were caned, flogged or shackled with the rats.

‘La Mère du Mousse’ by Etienne Arnaud & Anaïs Segalas, published by G. Jacqmain (Gent, sd).

In the Revue des deux Mondes from 1903 an extreme case of maltreatment is described. A mousse was punished for being seasick. He had to stand on deck, with a heavy wooden bar on his shoulders, and was left there for days on end. The child, at the slightest roll, stumbled, slipped on the deck, got soaked to the skin and shivered from the cold. Then, as he did not toughen up quickly enough, his hat and muffler were cut off. The sleeves of his jacket and shirt were lifted up to his elbows, and his trousers up to his thighs. By temperatures below zero his skin turned bluish. He was kicked and clubbed there where wounds began to form. He was deprived of food, and, not surprisingly the poor mite died. In the same magazine, another mousse accused his captain of sexual abuse but as it could not be proven the captain went free.

The normal life for most of the mousses was not as horrendous. Although it was absolutely not an easy living. No laws regulated their working conditions. Captains, usually with a drinking habit, were quite often uneducated and brutal. Luckily for some of the mousses, especially those on local fishing boats and small coasters, the crew knew each other and in many cases the captain, or someone in the crew, was related to the mousse.

Lithograph and picture of a French mousse. Both 19th century.

Nevertheless this kind of apprenticeship was much too harsh and rough for such young boys. They had to act as adults much too early. There were frequent cases of sexual abuse and allegedly a lot of the mousses had syphilis. They smoked and drank alcohol: typically a mixture of coffee, cider, eau de vie and lots of sugar. Apart from a few initiatives in the first half of the 19th century to provide a minimal education, it was not until the 1950s that mousses got a proper schooling.

Now comes the  story of the heroic petit mousse Marcel Rioual. While writing this story, I’m looking at a painting depicting Marcel’s  real-life tragedy at sea.

The sixteen-year old Marcel had registered on board of a dundee called the Bon-Retour’. A dundee was a fast tuna boat with an over-extended stern typical for Brittany. In September 1930 a fierce storm hit Brittany, brutally exposing the weakness of the dundee. Like so many other boats, the ‘Bon-Retour’ was in distress and two sailors were swept away. The water filled the boat but the pumps were broken. The rest of the crew desperately tried to empty the hold with buckets. When Marcel saw that the ship’s wheel was abandoned, he attached himself to it and clang to it during twenty-four hours, thus hoping to survive the raging sea.

At some point the Bon-Retour —I don’t know how— finally touched the port of Concarneau. It was devastated by the storm and its deck was strewn with ropes, pieces of sail and wood. Only its mast was still standing, the flag at half-staff. After being treated by a doctor, Marcel modestly said “I just did what I had to do”.
Marcel was also greeted by the Minister of Merchant Marine. That encounter was related in the press, together with a photograph of the embrace.

Mr Louis Rollin, the Minister of Merchant Marine posing with Marcel Rioual, and giving him a paternal embrace.

Clearly that picture inspired our amateur painter to represent the fatherly embrace in the clouds of the deadly storm.This naive work by an amateur painter may seem clumsy and funny. However it is testimony to the pain and mourning of the whole Finistère region, as 207 sailors died in that storm of 1930.

Stories of spectacular shipwrecks and heroic mousses have inspired young adult novels in pulp magazines, even as late as the fifties.


In Ambleteuse, the small French coastal village facing the English Channel where I am writing this story, there is this fast-food ‘restaurant’.  Au Petit Mousse offers typical French cuisine: pizza, Welsh and kebab.

Au Petit Mousse, Ambleteuse – France

Although their logo on the menu might be politically offensive, they were perhaps inspired by an old sheet music cover…

Le Petit Mousse Noir‘ by P. Cheret & Marc Constantin, published by Choudens (Paris, sd).

Kina for your health, hic!

‘Kina-Cadet’ by Eugene Besançon, published by Vve Jules Iochem Paris, 1896, and illustrated by Ernest Buval.

The man looking rather ominously at his bitter is popular French actor, Ernest Coquelin (1848–1909). His older brother was also an actor, and that’s why Ernest was nicknamed Coquelin Cadet. The sheet music title proves that Coquelin Cadet —probably in an effort to turn his notoriety into money— lent his name to a beverage named Kina-Cadet. These quinine-based wines, or kina’s, were very popular during the fin de siècle as aperitif or as ‘medicinal’ wines.

The source of quinine is the bark of the cinchona or fever tree, native to the Andean tropical forests. The Quechua people grounded the cinchona bark into a fine powder that they used as a remedy against fever. The Jesuits in colonial Peru, having learned of this local use, introduced cinchona bark in Europe as a powerful antimalarial around 1640. Although according to some it was the wife of a Spanish viceroy to Peru, the countess of Chinchon, who brought it back with her after being cured of a fever by her Peruvian maid. In 1820 two French pharmacists isolated the active chemical compound, an alkaloid that they called quinine. From then on pure extracted quinine was used to treat malaria instead of the bark.

Image of a French publicity for Coopquina to increase the appetite
French publicity for Coopquina, a quinine concoction that ‘increases the appetite of young and old’.

As a result of 19th century European colonialism, the demand in quinine rose for colonials and soldiers stationed in malaria-infested areas. To make the bitter quinine more palatable it was mixed into a liquid, commonly gin (for the British). Or it was blended with fortified wine, herbs and spices (pour les Français). And of course today quinine still is a flavouring of tonic water, bitter lemon, vermouth, and cocktails.

According to Dubonnet, the French government even held  a contest in the 1840s, looking for a new drink that contained quinine and also could be enjoyed by the troops.

Left: ‘L’Or-Kina’ by Léon Froment & Achille Rouquet (publisher unknown, s.d.). Right: ‘Madaskina’ by G. Frecheville & P. Guiraud, published by Auguste Bosc (Paris, sd).

At the end of the 19th century the number of different quinine wines on the market exploded. To our delight, this commercial competition gave rise to songs and sheet music to promote some of these Kina brands.

‘Je vends du Kina-Tarascon’ by L. Delormel & L. Garnier, published by Répertoire Paulus (Paris, 1887) and illustrated by Faria (Source Gallica).

These quinine wines were not only sold in liquor stores but also in pharmacies. It was recommended to take at least one glass a day, and even a spoonful for children. The Kina tonic wines supposedly had invigorating effects…

The publicity above (for Marsala Kina) was illustrated by Ballester  using an ephemeral sculpture technique which we explained in an earlier post. Vouched for by a doctor Valiès, the advertisement tried to convince the potential user that kina wines were indeed medicinal. The fortified wine was infused with iron salts, quinine, kola, coca, tannins and iodine. It could be used against all kinds of diseases and was infallible to combat chlorosis, anaemia, tuberculosis, rheumatism, pale colours, states of languor and weight loss due to undernutrition, overwork, etc.

And doctor Valiès spared no expense to sell his wine…

We have found in our collection two other Kina covers which promote an Italian amaro: Ferro-China-Bisleri.

Left: Robur, a waltz by Zeno Mattei. Right: Romance, composed by M. Federico Albini and illustrated by A. Ripalta. Both published by Felice Bisleri (Milano, sd).

Ferro-China-Bisleri was the first bitter to claim having also infused iron salts within the quinine drink. Its label shows a lion in which mouth one reads ROBUR —signifying force in Latin, and phonetically evoking the roar of a lion. Signore Bisleri himself resembles a lion. He looks very determined and ferocious indeed.

Left: Volete la salute? (Do you want health?), publicity for Ferro-China-Bisleri. Right: Felice Bisleri, painted portrait by Antonino Gandolfo. (source Wikipedia)

Felice Bisleri had been a freedom fighter under Garibaldi before becoming an inventor and pharmacist. At the tender age of 14, he fled his home to enlist in the Volunteers Corps of Garibaldi. A year later he was decorated with a medal for Military Valour for having distinguished himself in a battle where he continued to fight despite being wounded. It appears that at this young age Bisleri perhaps already drank vigorously from his own Kina wine…

In the sixties and seventies tonic wines knew a revival.  Advertisements in women’s magazines and newspapers targeted a new clientele by promising that it was beneficial for ladies.

Left: ‘Kids are murder!‘, British advert for Santogen, a tonic wine that helps when kids drive you crazy. Right: Dutch advert for Pleegzuster Bloedwijn, a remedy against nervous conditions.

The publicity claimed that by consuming a few glasses a day of the ‘wonderful restorative’ one could avoid a nervous breakdown. One felt so comfortable and life became suddenly more bearable after drinking this ‘medicine’ with an alcohol percentage of 13.5%. 

Dear housewives or mothers, if you can’t cope any more with another day of drudgery, an empty house, doing the dishes and the same old dull household tasks while your husband has all the fun, don’t reach for the booze. Instead listen to Arno with his version of Mother’s Little Helpers and put your feet up.