Category Archives: History

Talking about chatterboxes

Chatterbox Polka, sheet music cover illustrated by Brandard
‘Chatterbox Polka’, by Hermann Koenig, illustrated by Brandard.

The British used to sing about almost everything. Even about chatterboxes. The two girls on the cover above, apparently liked their bit of gossip. But so did the French ladies on the cover for the Polka des Commères (commère being the French word for gossip).

Polka des Commères, sheet music cover illustrated by Laporte
‘Polka des Commères’ by Gabriel Allier published by Philippo, illustrated by Laporte.

The French have another beautiful word for a chatterbox: une pipelette.

Bonjour Madame Pipelet, cover illustrated by Pousthomis
A nice looking pipelette, illustrated by Pousthomis
Mme. Pipelet millionaire, petit format sheet music cover
A not so nice looking pipelette, illustrated by… (Can someone identify this illustrator?)

The French word pipelette (feminine) or pipelet (masculine) comes from a character in the novel Les Mystères de Paris (The Mysteries of Paris) by Eugène Sue (1804-1857). Madame Pipelet is the wife of a caretaker. She talks too much and has an unhealthy interest in other peoples private lives. The word pipelet(te) is now used to indicate a caretaker or concierge and by extension a chatterbox or a gossip.

Eugène Sue himself introduces Madame Anastasie Pipelet as follows:
‘When Rodolphe ventured into this den, Monsieur Pipelet, the porter, momentarily absent, was represented by Madame Pipelet: seated near an iron stove which was in the middle of the room, she appeared to be listening to the boiling of the pot. The French Hogarth, Henri Monnier, has so admirably stereotyped la portière that we will content ourselves by begging the reader, if he wishes to figure to himself Madame Pipelet, to recall to his mind the most wrinkled, the most pimpled, the most niggardly, the most ragged, the most quarrelsome, the most venomous of portières immortalized by this eminent artist.’

Thankfully the Bibliothèque Nationale satisfies our curiosity and shows us Monnier’s portière for what she is: ready to quarrel!

Le roman chez la portière, illustration by Lhéritier
Le roman chez la portière, sketch by Henry Monnier and Gabriel : portrait of Jules Brasseur / by Lhéritier

The hippopotamus polka: a royal affair

Sheet Music - The Hippopotamus Polka
‘The Hippopotamus Polka’ by L. St. Mars published by Charles Jefferys (London 1852) and illustrated by Brandard.

In February two giant pandas arrived in Belgium from China with a lot of pomp. On their journey they were accompanied by a team of two animal handlers, a veterinary physician and a plentiful supply of 100 kilograms of bamboo. Their panda house was inaugurated by the Chinese President Xi Jinping and Belgian King Philippe, along with their lovely wives. The pandas are called Hao Hao & Xing Hui.

In 1850 the first hippopotamus arrived in England from Egypt with a lot of pomp. On his journey he was accompanied by two snake charmers, a keeper and a plentiful supply of fresh milk, provided by cows travelling on the same boat. Queen Victoria, along with her lovely children, visited the hippopotamus at the London Zoo. The hippopotamus was called Obaysch.

The British people got The Hippopotamus Polka, composed in honour of Obaysch. The Belgians are still waiting… for The Panda Hop?

obaysch
Obaysch (1852) – Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Chinese President Xi Jinping, his wife Peng Liyuan, Belgian King Philippe and Queen Mathilde visit the panda house at the Pairi Daiza zoo in Brugelette, Belgium March 30, 2014.

Circassian Beauties dancing the polka

Circassian

Circassia used to be a country in the North Caucasus until, in the early 1860s, the Russians won the Russian-Circassian war and ethnic cleansing followed. Sochi, famous for the 2014 Winter Olympics, was its capital. Circassia was legendary for its beautiful women. On the above cover of Victorian sheet music John Brandard depicts two of them dancing ever so lightly the popular polka.

Diderot wrote in his Encyclopédie: ‘Circassian women are renowned for their charms and rightly so.’ Apparently he was quite the connoisseur. ‘They are blessed with white skin, rosy cheeks and raven hair’. So they must have looked like Snow White.

Circasian Polka
Detail from the ‘Circassian Polka’ (composed by Khue Lindoff)

Even Voltaire adds to the mystique of the attractive Circassian women: ‘The Circassians are poor, but have beautiful daughters; and indeed, it is in them they chiefly trade. They furnish beauties for the seraglios of the sultan of Persia, and others who are rich enough to purchase and to maintain this precious merchandise.’ Our enlightened philosopher explains that the girls were trained in the art of seduction as Caucasian geishas: ‘These people bring up their children in virtuous and honourable principles, to flatter the male part of the creation; to master the art of effeminate and lascivious dancing; and lastly how to heighten by the most voluptuous artifices the pleasures of their disdainful masters for whom they are designed.’

ptbarnumslivingcuriosities1
P. T. Barnum’s troupe with on the left side two Circassian Beauties.

Romantic tales of beautiful white sex slaves in the Orient inspired the circusman in P. T. Barnum. He tried to buy a real Circassian slave for his freak show, but in vain. So he started exhibiting Circassian Beauties of his own making. He hired local, light-skinned girls with a weird bushy hairstyle that was skillfully created with a comb and some beer. He told his audience that these young Caucasian women had escaped from a Turkish sultan’s harem where they had been enslaved after their kidnapping. A contemporary journalist compared their afro hairdo with a boll of a ripened dandelion. Soon Circassian Beauties became common in sideshows all over America. Their success lasted until the early 20th century. On stage they wore oriental trousers and slightly revealing dresses. They often sat cross-legged sucking a hookah, thus tintillating the male audience.

Circassian Beauties
Circassian Beauties

The merchandising included the sale of exotic photographs with tropical plants and animal skins as decor. Also offered were pseudo-biographical pamphlets of the women. These stories held an explanation for the ladies’ excellent English skills and how they lost ‘their native tongue’.

To be a genuine Circassian Beauty your stage name needed at least one Z: Zalumma Agra (the first Circassian Beauty ever displayed on stage), Zoe Meleke, Zobeide Luti, Zolula Legrand, Aggie Zolutia, Zula Zarah, Zolrebia Tisseah, Zoe Zuemella, … According to British sheet music they could also dance Ze Polka!


Reading: The Circassian Beauty and the Circassian Slave: Gender, Imperialism, and American Popular Entertainment by Linda Frost