Category Archives: History

Pandemic & Panic in Paris

V’là l’Choléra qu’arrive’ by Aristide Bruant, published by Le Mirliton (Paris, 1893) and iIlustrated by Théophile Steinlen.

The song V’la le Choléra qui arrive by Aristide Bruant is an ironic and anticlerical hymn to the cholera pandemic that scared Paris. The illustration is by Theophile Steinlen. We have no idea why he chose to dress this very contagious and devastating disease like a stereotypical Englishman. In a previous Bruant publication Steinlen had rather chosen for the image of the cholera as a travelling salesman or a polite caretaker.

V’là l’choléra qu’arrive‘, illustration by Théophile Steinlen, in ‘Dans la rue : chansons et monologues. Volume 1’, published by Aristide Bruant (Paris, 1889-1895). source: Paris Musées (CC-0)

And for a third edition Steinlen chose to represent the cholera as a murdering phantom hovering over the capital, the frightening sign of divine vengeance: “Here comes the cholera! From shore to shore, everyone will die. Here comes the cholera.”

V’La l’Cholera qu’arrive’ by Aristide Bruant, published by Aristide Bruant (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Steinlen. Source WikiArt.

Aristide Bruant created the song in 1884 when cholera was diagnosed in Toulon. Allegedly it had arrived by boat from Saigon and quickly spread to Marseille and Arles. People started to flee from the Midi to Paris. The memory of the huge epidemic wave of 1853-1854 —with more than 143,000 dead— was still vivid: the people from Paris, the municipality and the press panicked!

Le Cri du peuple, 25 juin 1884. Source: Gallica.fr.

Quickly, prophylactic measures were prescribed. Special train wagons were reserved for travellers coming from Toulon and Marseilles. On arrival in Paris, at the Gare de Lyon, these travellers had to descend into a special waiting room where the floor was covered with sawdust impregnated with thymol and copper salts. Large containers with nitrosylsulfuric acid were left to burn, in the belief that inhaling the hazardous vapours could disinfect. Travellers had to stay there for half an hour, meanwhile their luggage was fumigated in another room.

A newspaper of the time tells the anecdote of a wealthy merchant, arriving from China, who lands in Paris with a collection of parakeets and turtles. The birds sat in an open trunk and the unfortunate animals were poisoned by the spreading vapours of the disinfection ( Le Matin 11 July 1884). Soon however the Academy of Medicine dismissed these disinfection practices as inefficient and illusory.

The press was stirring up the fear for a new murderous epidemic. But by then science had already rejected the old idea that miasma, or a noxious form of bad air, caused cholera and had accepted John Snow’s idea that cholera could originate in water. Louis Pasteur had demonstrated that microorganisms can cause diseases and he had discovered how to make vaccines from attenuated microbes. Robert Koch had determined the causative agent of cholera by isolating the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.(*) And a complex system of new sewers (Les égouts) were being constructed in Paris to sanitize the city.

Le Vaccin‘ by Fernand Heintz and Jean Deyrmon. Published by Marcel Labbé (Paris, s.d.), illustrated by Paul Dubois.

By that time a cholera epidemic was thus no longer automatically synonym for a catastrophe. It is in this view that we must understand Bruant’s song:

Paraît qu’on attend l’choléra,
La chose est positive.
On n’sait pas quand il arriv’ra,
Mais on sait qu’il arrive.

And indeed the epidemic would soon be under control and a very small number of cases would reach Paris. But according to Bruant, entrepreneurs, pharmacists and especially the clergy had made a profit from the anxious situation.

This is the 1935 version of the song by Stello.

The 1884 cholera outbreak was the last one to reach France. By then France had already been haunted by several more serious cholera outbreaks. The first murderous wave of cholera struck Paris in 1832. Hospitals were unable to keep pace with the volume of new patients and morgues were overflowing. Sounds familiar? It prompted the public authorities to clean up the capital, which was still simmering in its medieval juices. The fear for cholera would become a driving force behind urban planning.

Le ministère attaqué du Choléra morbus” by Grandville (1803-1847). in:  “La Caricature” du 4 août 1831. Lithographie. source: Paris Musées / Maison de Balzac (CC 0)

As one of the first solutions, Paris sought to supply its inhabitants with uncontaminated water. Therefore the City Council decided in 1833 to drill the first artesian well. Artesian wells are named after the French province of Artois where the first drilling of its kind was undertaken by monks in the 12th century. Water flows from artesian wells under natural pressure without pumping. However to get to the layer that contains enough water, one had to drill extremely deep in Paris. It was not before the 1830s that technical progress made deep boreholes possible.

Sheet music cover of 'Le Puits de Grenelle', song by Victor Parizot and Ernest Bourget. Published by Nadaud (Paris, s.d.)
Le Puits de Grenelle‘ song by Victor Parizot and Ernest Bourget. Published by Nadaud (Paris, s.d.)

The engineer Louis-Georges Mulot undertook to drill the first artesian well in the courtyard of the Grenelle slaughterhouse, just outside of Paris. It would take almost eight years of effort, slow progress, setbacks and a borehole of 548 meter deep, before water finally squirted out of the well in 1841.

On opening their newspaper the next day, the Parisians learned of the successful end of this scientific and technological adventure and thousands of them rushed to see the new curiosity.

Puits artésien de l'abattoir Grenelle
Puits artésien de l’abattoir Grenelle. Source Gallica.fr.

A poster was made to show how deep the borehole was, comparing its depth to the height of the Strasbourg Cathedral, Notre Dame of Paris, the Dôme des invalides and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

A rumour soon circulated, amplified by a press campaign, and scaring Parisians that their city would be engulfed in a landslide or that the waters of the Seine would seep through some crack and disappear completely into this chasm. Fake news is not a recent thing…

The water that came out of the well was lukewarm and alas somewhat muddy. Decanting was therefore necessary before it could be used.

To that purpose a three-storey cast iron regulator tower, 43 m high, was built outside the slaughterhouse. This tower looked somewhat like a mini Eiffel tower. It is said that it also functioned from time to time as a fountain. I couldn’t find a reliable source to corroborate this, only an engraving which makes me dream that this splendid fountain truly existed at one time…

At the start of the 20th century the aquatic construction deteriorated due to problems of water quality, pressure and silting. In 1904 the tower was —aptly— replaced by a statue of Louis Pasteur.

Monument à Pasteur, au centre de la Place de Breteuil, Paris (7ème). source: Siren-Com on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

(*) Although Robert Koch isolated the vibrio the same year, the miasma theory of cholera transmission was still dominant in Marseille. In 1884, Koch went to Toulon and Marseille, where he isolated the vibrio bacillus in the stools of patients to convince the sceptics and to support two local biologists. Koch gave prophylactic advice and insisted in particular to not consume any uncooked food.

Silly Walks

‘The Slinker Slouch’ by Dorothy Foster, published by West & C° (London, 1918) and illustrated by M. Fett.

The sinuous walk displayed on this cover is called a slinker slouch. According to a correspondent of The Daily Mirror in 1913, the slinker slouch is a limp and careless lazy gait that accompanies the fashion of wearing gowns with flowing curves. To achieve the perfect slinker slouch you had to move with rounded shoulders while lowering your weight on the hips. The look was complete when you trusted your hands into your pockets and affected a dead-bored expression. The journal warned that this pose was not without danger as the contraction of the chest could cause “lung troubles and digestive derangements”.

A New Zealand newspaper coined the indolent stride like this: “The modish woman’s walk has been christened the Slinker Slouch. The smart woman beats the sardine in her backbonelessness.”

Sketches of the slinker slouch fashion in Free Lance, Volume XV, Issue 747, 24 October 1914.

It was not long before the slinker slouch slunk into oblivion. And by 1914 another newspaper tutted that the very slim slinker-slouched woman was to be considered ugly and deformed.

The Hobble Skirt Walk‘ by Bertram Lestrange, published by Edouard Salabert (Paris, 1911) and illustrated by W. George.

Around the same time the hobble skirt made its appearance. French fashion designer Paul Poiret claimed authorship of this extremely slim and long skirt. Allegedly he was inspired by a picture of Mrs Berg sitting next to Wilbur Wright in his aircraft. To stop the wind playing with her skirt she had tied it together beneath her knees with a rope.

Wilbur Wright at the controls with Mrs. Berg seated beside him. Remark her skirt tied together below the knees with a rope. ‘La Vie au Grand Air’ 17 October 1908. Source gallica.fr.

Women wearing a hobble skirt had to take tiny steps, much like a geisha would. Of course, this highly unpractical garment prompted cartoonists and composers to lampoon the helpless struggles to cross streets or to climb stairs.

We found earlier examples of weird walking vogues even as early as the 1860’s, the Grecian bend and the Alexandra limp.

Left: ‘The Famous Grecian Bend’ by John Molter & Martin Meyer. Published by Molter & Wurlitzer (Chicago, 1868). Right: ‘The Grecian Bend’ by T.X da Costa. Published by Pond & Co (New York, 1868). Source: Johns Hopkins.

When the hoop skirt lost popularity around 1868 it was replaced by a framework known as the bustle. The large bell-like silhouette of the crinoline was flattened out at the front and sides but with a lot of fabric to the back to create a pannier. A bustle served as the base upon which all that fabric could be pinned. To keep their balance women had to bend over, and this stooped silhouette was called the Grecian bend. It supposedly got its name from ancient Grecian statues, bending gracefully forward.

Just Arrived From Saratoga. The Grecian Bend‘ by E. Mack, published by Lee & Walker (Philadelphia, 1868) and illustrated by T. Sinclair. Source: Johns Hopkins.

But the Grecian bend was rather tiring and painful. Moreover it was annoying when riding in carriages because the bustle made it difficult to sit upright.

This new female, stooped silhouette provided ample opportunity for composing songs. One played a jeu de mots and funnily shows a man going on a drinking spree dreaming of Greece…

On a Grecian Bender‘ by Jos. F. Fasig, published by Louis Mund (Cincinnati, 1868) and illustrated by A. Froelich. Source: Johns Hopkins.

At about the same time, fashionable British women started to affect the Alexandra limp. This hobbling gait was in imitation of Alexandra, princess of Wales, the wife of the future King Edward VII, otherwise known as ‘Bertie’.

The Anglo-Danish‘ by François Bernard published by Duff & Hodgson (London, sd) and illustrated by T. Packer.

The Danish Alexandra was a fashion icon and hugely popular. After contracting rheumatic fever in 1867, she developed a limp. Women were so used to fervently imitate her that they even started to mimic her limp. For that, they went as far as wearing odd shoes or shorten one heel. Everything for a  hobbling walk!

Pharaoh Fever: Tut-mania

‘Tutankhamen-Shimmy’ by Jára Beneš, published by Wiener Boheme Verlag (Wien, 1923).

Tutankhamen, aka Tutankhamun, was a pharaoh of minor historical importance. He reigned more than 3.000 years ago for fewer than ten years and died at a young age. Yet he is somewhat the celebrity of Ancient Egypt. That is largely because, when his tomb was found in 1922, it was almost intact: it still contained the magnificent treasures intended to accompany the boy-king into the afterlife. The antechambers were packed to the ceiling with more than 5.000 objects. And Tutankhamen’s portrait mask, made of solid gold laid with precious stones, is one of the most beautiful archaeological objects of Ancient Egypt.

‘Tutankhamon – Fox’ by William Rowers, published by Elkan & Schildknecht, Emil Carelius (Stockholm, sd) and Illustrated by Eric Rohman.

It was the British archaeologist Howard Carter, backed by his patron Lord Carnarvon, who discovered the tomb. He had searched the Valley of the Kings for Tutankhamen’s resting place for many years. To examine and clear the tomb it would take him and his team eight more years. The phenomenal discovery of the tomb and all these wonderful things, in Howard Carter’s own words, kicked off a worldwide ‘King Tut’ craze or Tut-mania in the 1920s that would  continue well into the Thirties.

Every stage of the excavations was chronicled by the press. To finance the dig, Lord Carnarvon had sold the exclusive rights to the Times for the then huge sum of £5.000. It gave the Times unique access to the tomb and the opportunity to publicise its fabulous contents. To compete with the Times’ success, other media created wilder stories, some of which were based on exaggerated claims and even falsehoods, rather than on actual events. So did Lord Carnarvon’s sudden death, within weeks of the tomb’s opening, lead to speculations of a curse.

‘Toet-Ankh-Amen’ by Jan von Lindern & Carlo Rombouts, published by Editions Liro (‘s Gravenhage, 1923) and Illustrated by Jan Hoek

Expert photographer Harry Burton, documented the eight-year-long uncovering of King Tutankhamen’s tomb. For that purpose Burton learned to operate a movie camera. With it he recorded the opening of Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus. His creative and technically advanced images and films contributed largely to the Tut-mania phenomenon.

Left: ‘On Nile Land’ by Vicente Pastelle, published by Ildefonso Alier (Madrid, sd). Right: ‘Egyptian Dream’ by Font Palmarola, published by the composer (Barcelona, sd).

Apart from being celebrated by the media, Tutankhamen also notably influenced the arts and culture in the 1920s. Egyptian motifs became an integral part of Art Deco. They decorated fabrics, jewellery, furniture, ceramics, and were ornamental in architecture. Even in society Egyptian hairstyles and costumes became fashionable.

As a result of this Tut-mania, Egypt blossomed as a tourist destination for rich people. Travels to it though, were time-consuming. Tourists could —as did the Belgian queen Elisabeth— travel first by train to Italy, and then board a passenger steamship in Genoa. After a stopover in Naples they would arrive in Alexandria or Port Said four days later.

Each Egyptian adventure started in Cairo where one could swarm the bazaars and curio shops.

Cairo‘ by Sherman Myers, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1927) and Illustrated by Fabien Loris.

From there one visited the obligatory sphinx and took a sightseeing camel ride around the pyramids.

‘Le Destin’ by Byron Gay, published by :Francis-Day (Paris, 1922) and illustrated by Dorothy Dulin.

Then one took a wagon-lit to Luxor, or visited the famous ruins along the Nile by steamer.

‘La Légende du Nil’ by A. Roux, published by La Parisienne (Paris, 1924) and illustrated by Clérice frères.

In Luxor one checked in at the Winter Palace Hotel or one of the other luxury hotels. With a bumpy ride on a mule under the scorching sun one went to see the Karnak temple complex…

‘Sur la Route de Karnak’ by Harry Sing, published by Gallet & Fils (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Clérice frères.

… to finally arrive at the high point: the Valley of the Kings and the grave of Tutankhamen.

‘La Valle dei Re’ by L. Baracchi, published by the author (Parma, sd) and illustrated by V. Bianchi.

And of course Tut-mania made its mark on the music world also. Soon after King Tut’s discovery, his effigy started to appear on sheet music covers.

Left: ‘Old King Tut was a Wise Old Nut’ by Lucien Denni & Roger Lewis, published by J. W. Jenkins Sons Music Co. (1923). Right: ‘Old King Tut’ by Harry von Tilzer and William Jerome, published by Harry von Tilzer (1923).

One of the most popular songs was Old King Tut by Harry von Tilzer and William Jerome (1923). Another one (Old King Tut was a Wise Old Nut) was published around the same time. Both depict Tutankhamen as an old man. No one knew at the time that when ‘Old King Tut’ died he was in fact a very young man.

Recently, the song by Harry von Tilzer has featured in the television show ‘Boardwalk Empire’:

The Tut-mania craze gave rise to a number of novelty dances, with poses one can see in the Ancient Egyptian reliefs. Not easy to twist your limbs this way. Known for his quirky illustrations, Peter Curt shows us the popular Swedish composer Gunnar Boberg trying out the ‘Egyptian walk’.

‘Aiba’ by Gunnar Boberg, published by A.B. Skandinaviska Musikförlaget (Stockholm, 1922) and Illustrated by Peter Curt.

The British vaudeville artists Jack Wilson and Joe Keppel show you how it is done. Easy enough, get Alexandre Luigini’s Ballet Egyptien on Spotify, throw some sand on the floor and start shuffling!