The Vendor of Pleasures

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.

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.

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 in Ghent 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

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 (published by Eschig, Paris, 1923).

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.

gezicht le marchand de plaisirs
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‘, music by Gaston Maquis, cover illustrated by Pousthomis (La Chanson Moderne, Paris, ca. 1905)

A Picture (or Two) is Worth a Thousand Words

Previously we told the story about double items in our illustrated sheet music collection. In that post we showed how publishers boldly used lithoshopping. What follows are more images that leave us slightly puzzled (and amused) as to the how and why of certain changes. Which image came first? Was the modification in print inspired by a surge of creativity? Who ordered the change? Is the result an improvement or a pictorial disaster?

But can you spot all the differences? Ready, steady, go!

Sphinx?‘, a mysterious woman or statue. The 1906 edition (right) accentuates the hypnotic stare or music by Francis Poppy. Illustration by H. Viollet-Douhin.


Toboggan‘, lithographed by L. Marci (Brussels, 1907). The adult version (on the left) and the children’s version (right) tried to target different audiences.


‘Der letzte Walzer‘, illustrated by W. Ortmann (1920). In the American version on the right the lady has lost her colour and subtlety.


La Valse Chaloupée‘ from the Moulin Rouge revue in 1908. On the right the dancers Max Dearly and Mistinguett are prominently in the picture. On the left it is Paul Dalbret‘s turn to make his partner swoon. Both images by Léon Pousthomis.


Epous’ là‘ (Marry Her), the 1923 Parisian revue. The pointing arrows in the right version to indicate which star interprets the song, was probably too much of a hassle with later reprints. The original idea was abandoned (left) in favour of an inappropriate lacework.


For this polka the dangerous game on the banister (left) was wilfully (?) censored on the right. Better safe than sorry.


The beautiful drawing by Swedish illustrator and caricaturist Nils Melander for the world-wide success ‘The Match Parade‘ has largely been respected in the French version (right) save for some details and texts.


The version of ‘Les Bouquets‘ (s.d.) on the right is a complete makeover of the drawing of poster designer Robert Gazay. No signature on the second one, so maybe a ‘lesser’ artist was hired a couple of years later to design a more contemporary variation of the cover.


Ell’ s’était fait couper les cheveux‘, the ode to the bob haircut, immortalised by Choppy in 1924. While publisher Maillochon payed the printer the cost of at least 5 colours for the version on the right, only 3 colours were necessary to achieve the same catchy effect on the left. In fact I do prefer the left one. 


The ‘Sérénade Divine‘ by Pierrot on the left might look divine, but the lady on the right is probably in for a ghostly surprise when she opens her eyes… Published by Louis Aerts in 1922.


Hab’ ein blaues Himmelbett!‘ – The man on the left, luring ladies with his blue canopy bed, resembles the Austrian operetta tenor Hubert Marischka. For the Italian version of the famous song of Léhar’s Frasquita on the right, illustrator von Ferenchich had to re-engineer his drawing with… another head.  (1922)


Czech sheet music cover variations (1919, illustrator unknown): at least the dog doesn’t seem to be surprised by the child’s change in hair dress.


Ninette!‘, the naughty version on the right (rattling teacups!) was probably to attract the more daring monsieurs. Clérice must have had a laugh redrawing this collector item in the stone (published by H. Christiné, Paris, 1909)