Category Archives: Paris

The vendor of pleasures

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Postcard of a ‘Marchand de plaisirs’, late 19th or early 20th century

‘Marchands de plaisirs’ were cookie vendors in France. They announced their arrival into villages and markets by rattling a metal handle on a wooden board: clac-clac!  They carried and protected their cookies in a large cylindrical container. On the lid of the drum was a roulette wheel. Children, but also elder customers, paid a few coins to spin the wheel that would tell them how many cookies they won.

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A more luxurious cookie container than the one photographed on the postcard above.

The cookies were called plaisirs, which is the French word for ‘pleasures’. These were simple very thin wafers rolled into a cylinder or cone.

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Wafer-thin rolled cookies, called ‘plaisirs’ (also known as ‘oublies’ or ‘oublis’).

Recently I saw a wooden variant of the container at The House of Alijn, a museum dedicated to everyday life. It thus appears that the game or treat was also popular in Belgium during the late 19th and early 20th century. But in the Flemish variant no wafers were involved: one could win roasted hazelnuts or almond-vanilla flavoured macaroons instead. The device though was cleverly rigged: the odds were higher to win nuts rather than the more prized macaroons.

Belgian container 'Makaronkast' at the House of Alijn museum
Belgian container ‘Makaronkast’ at the House of Alijn, Ghent (click on image to view the museum’s description).

Marchands de plaisirs or ‘pleasure vendors’ have been active in France since the Late Middle Ages. They were then called oublieurs or vendors of oublies, the original name for the cookies of which the origin is closely linked to the bread used in catholic liturgy. Their trade was to wander through the streets of Paris every night and to go into the bourgeois households after supper to offer their wafers as desert. However, under the pretext of an innocent cookie-lottery, many of them organised illegal high-stakes gambling and some of them even robbed their patrons. So oublieurs became known as rascals, crooks and thieves. Soon the police forbade these con men to enter the houses at night and imperceptibly the oublieurs vanished. They were succeeded by the marchands de plaisirs who sold their wafers in the public space.

'Le Marchand de Plaisirs', partition musicale illustrée par Poulbot
‘Le Marchand de Plaisirs’, waltz composed by Marcel Lattès and cover illustrated by Poulbot

The lifestyle of the vendor of pleasures inspired the imagination of songwriters and storytellers. Le Marchand de Plaisirs is a waltz composed in 1923 for a silent movie with the same name. The dashing actor Jaque Catelain, who also played the leading role of the vendor named Gosta, directed it. Gosta is a poor young man with an alcoholic father and a ragged mother. He falls in love with a beautiful and rich lady. When his father breaks into her home to steal, Gosta shoots him dead and returns the loot to the beautiful lady. She is thankful to Gosta but marries her rich fiancée –also played by Catelain- who is the spitting but nonetheless more sophisticated image of Gosta. In short, the perfect plot for delicious late night television.
The composer of the waltz is Marcel Lattès who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. The sheet music cover for Le Marchand de Plaisirs was illustrated by the Montmartre personality Francisque Poulbot who also designed the film poster.

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Jaque Catelain as illustrated by Poulbot for the movie ‘Le Marchand de Plaisirs’ (left) and a still of Jaque Catelain (right).

The cover for Gaston Maquis’ song about the female vendor of pleasures was created by one of our favourite illustrators: Léon Pousthomis. His sharp drawing makes it perfectly clear that her all-male clientele is not interested in buying cookies but in another kind of pleasure. Are they game enough to spin her wheel?

'La Marchande de Plaisirs', illustrated by Pousthomis
‘La Marchande de Plaisirs’, illustrated by Pousthomis (La Chanson Moderne, ca. 1905)

De Valerio and Foujita

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A Montparnasse! A Montparno!, illustrated by Roger de Valerio, 1929

For this song about Montparnasse the French illustrator Roger de Valerio sketched a portrait of the person who was the quintessence of Montparnassian nightlife in the Twenties: the Japanese painter Foujita. He was a hipster avant la lettre, tatooed, with earrings and easily recognisable by his tortoiseshell glasses and straight fringe. Foufou, as he was referred to, was an eccentric who made his own clothes and sometimes adorned his haircut with a lampshade claiming it was his national headdress.

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Tsuguharu Foujita, 1886-1968

Foujita was a womanizer and according to the song performed by Marie Dubas and Pizella, women flocked to the Montparnasse bars (La Rotonde, Le Dôme, La Coupole) to admire Foufou’s two rings and his brush stroke.

A Montparnasse! A Montparno!
Tout’s les femm’s ont l’coeur qui bat
Pour l’étrange Foujita
A Montparnasse! A Montparno!
Ell’s admir’nt sa tignasse
Ses deux p’tits anneaux
Ell’s veul’nt tout’s, c’est rigolo
Connaître son coup d’pinceau
A Montparnasse! A Montparno!

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A. Harlingue – Foujita and Youki, 3 square Montsouris, Paris, 1926

The smoking woman on the sheet music cover next to Foujita, is probably Youki (Lucie Badoud) with whom Foujita was married at that time (1929). But Youki already had a love interest in the poet Robert Desnos, her later husband. Foujita, who was broadminded and aware of his wife’s relationship with Desnos, tattooed a mermaid on Youki’s thigh and a bear on Desnos’ arm to strengthen their connection. Roger De Valerio, being a good friend of Robert Desnos, must have frequented the same crowd and probably knew Foujita. De Valerio was the most prolific illustrator of sheet music in France, but still nothing can be found about his life. We intend to make amends to this scandalous lack in our following posts…

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Robert Doisneau, Youki Desnos showing off the siren tatooed on her leg by Foujita, around 1950 © Atelier Robert Doisneau

Montparnasse was the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s. If Kiki de Montparnasse was the queen, Foujita was the king amidst the countless writers, artists and personalities frequenting the bohemian Left Bank. I scanned the net for contemporary documentary films of Montparnasse. I found two and of course Foujita makes his cameo appearance in both.

The first is an experimental short film by Eugene Deslaw dated 1929. At around 12:30 you get a glimpse of the car (a Ballot) that was a birthday present to Foufou’s 21-year-old bride Youki. The camera zooms in on the bronze miniature of Rodin’s Man with a Broken Nose, fixed on the hood. Then appears Foujita smoking a cigarette.

The second film is a short documentary. At around 0:54 Foujita is announced as a ‘well-known painter of women‘. We see him walking down a Montparnasse street in kimono, and later at work: smoking while he draws a portrait of Kiki de Montparnasse.

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Man with a broken nose by Rodin

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