Category Archives: Paris

The Hen with the Golden Eggs, a Féerie

'La Poule aux oeufs d'or. Grand Quadrille Féerique' by Paul Henrion,sheet music published by Colombier (Paris, 1850) and illustrated by Victor Coindre.
La Poule aux oeufs d’or. Grand Quadrille Féerique‘ by Paul Henrion, published by Colombier (Paris, 1850) and illustrated by Victor Coindre.

17th century Jean de la Fontaine wrote the fable La Poule aux oeufs d’or (The Hen with the Golden Eggs). It tells about a farmer with a hen that lays an egg made of gold, every single day. To discover the source of his good luck —and hoping to increase his prosperity— he opens the hen thus killing the animal without finding anything. The moral conclusion is that greed can ruin one’s good fortune.

The sheet music above was composed for a play that diverges entirely from the original moral tale. This quadrille is part of a féerie, or fairy play. In a féerie the plot is subordinate and auxiliary to the spectacle and the stage effects.

This typical French theatrical genre was known for its fantasy plots and spectacular visual effects. Think smoke machines, stunning lightning and sound, and mechanical contraptions to magically change stage sets. Féeries combined captivating music, colourful ballet, pantomime and acrobatics. They developed in the early 1800s and became hugely popular in France throughout the nineteenth century. Their stories were melodramas borrowed from fables and fairy tales, with a penchant for the supernatural. A full-length féerie often ran for several hours.

People queuing at the opening of ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Theatre National in Paris. Source BNF.

The 1848 premiere of La Poule aux oeufs d’or was at the Théâtre National on the famous Boulevard du temple, now gone but at that time the Parisian Broadway. The Théâtre National was previously a circus, and therefore commonly called Cirque national. La Poule aux oeufs d’or was a great success, if we can rely on the drawing of the crowd on the opening night. And it was relaunched in 1859.

The actor René François Boutin as Cocorico in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. Circa 1859. Source: eBay.

I started reading the scenario but gave up after two pages. It was enough to realise that the play was rocambolesque: an absurd mix of ridiculous adventures, burlesque characters and the obligatory ingenue. In the mocking words of the French writer and critic Théophile Gautier: “The characters, brilliantly clothed, wander through a perpetually changing series of tableaux, panic-stricken, stunned, running after each other, searching to reclaim the action which goes who knows where; but what does it matter! This dazzling feast for the eyes is enough to make for an agreeable evening.”

L’empire des animaux‘, one of the 24 tableaux in La Poule aux oeufs d’or, at the Cirque national. Lithograph by Alexandre Lacauchie, 1848. (source BNF)

In La Poule aux oeufs d’or the characters were brilliantly clothed indeed as shown by the pretty costume drawings.

Costumes for ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ by E. Bourdillat, 1848. Source: BNF.

An angel and Satan provided the essential magic in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. In a féerie such supernatural forces used to drive the characters through fantastic landscapes and amazing adventures, typically with magic totems (in this case the golden eggs) used to transform people, things, and places. Wow!

Améline, Satan, in ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Cirque national. Lithograph by Alexandre Lacauchie. Source BNF.

But in the first place the audience came to see and appreciate the tricks. For La Poule aux oeufs d’or 24 elaborate stage settings or tableaux were built. Each one created an enchanted universe of dazzling attractions, spectacular effects and sophisticated optical illusions. In full view of the audience a cottage would transform magically in a palace. In another scene windmills would turn into gondolas while a lake emerged from the ground. Of course a large crew in charge of design and stagecraft was needed.
The grand finale stage led to the apotheosis: all actors, dancers, musicians and extras were united on the Île de l’harmonie (the isle of harmony) with a musical flourish.

The grand finale: stage setting for the 21th scene, L’Île de l’Harmonie. Source: BNF.

A colourful drawing shows a detail of this tableau illustrating the clever design of the costumes and props.

Le royaume de la musique, ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Cirque national. Lithograph by Alexandre Lacauchie, 1848. (source BNF)

La Poule aux oeufs d’or was later staged in other productions. In the 1870s version, even the grande vedette and forcefull singer Mademoiselle Thérésa, played a role in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. This production was so successful that it would travel to London.

Left: ‘Couplets de l’effet’. Right: ‘La Boite à musique’. Both by Albert Vizentini, Ennery & Clairville and sung by Thérèsa. Published by Choudens (Paris, 1873). Source: Gallica.fr.

Ten years later La Poule aux oeufs d’or was restaged at the Théâtre du Chatelet.

Poster for La Poule aux oeufs d’or, Theâtre du Chatelet, 1882. Source: BNF.

An Italian journalist reviewing that performance reported that his jaw dropped when he saw a hundred and fifty bricklayers and carpenters, all played by children between six and twelve years, constructing a house. But what most impressed him was a house on fire extinguished by a regiment of firefighters acted by persons of short stature and he was overwhelmed by the indescribable effects of the electric light. A real nouveauté at that time. He wrote: “Just take a look at our illustration to understand how much enticement it provided to the spectator.”

Front page of ‘Il Teatro Illustrato’ – November 1884. Source: BNF.

In the 1890s La Poule aux oeufs d’or became a pretext to bring a little bit of nudity at the Folies Bergère. Yes, the end of the live feérie was in sight

Left: Bonnet. Right: Couralet. In ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Folies Bergère. Photographs by Nadar, 1900. Source: BNF.

It fell out of popularity by the end of the 19th century, by which time it was largely seen as entertainment for children and disappeared from French stages.

The féerie quickly reincarnated as a popular cinema genre in the 1900s. The forerunner in the genre, was Méliès but the French Gaston Velle was also a prominent pioneer of special effects. He began his career as a travelling magician, before applying his illusionist skills to the cinema.

Poster for Velle’s film ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ by Faria (1905). Source: Wikipedia – EYE Film Instituut Nederland.

Velle’s silent short La Poule aux œufs d’or (16 min) was produced by Pathé Frères in 1905. The scenario of the film is much simpler than for the theatrical féeries and it goes back to the roots of the story. You can watch the complete film on YouTube, but we start at the apotheosis. If you haven’t time to watch the complete sequence, may we suggest to at least watch the strange 3:40 scene? Though at 7:55 (and at 8:48) you will not be less baffled…

A Horse, A Horse…

Côtier‘ by Aristide Bruant published by Le Mirliton (Paris, 1893) and illustrated by Theophile Steinlen.

In 1885 Aristide Bruant (1851-1925) opened his Parisian cabaret, Le Mirliton. At the same time he started to publish a journal, with an identical name. Bruant filled his four-page periodical with the lyrics of his songs, poetry, news about spectacles and of course about Bruant himself. He commissioned Theophile Steinlen to create the covers for his Mirliton journal. It is told that Bruant was friends with Toulouse-Lautrec, who immortalised in 1892 the disdainful singer on a poster for the Ambassadeurs cafés-concert.

Ambassadeurs: Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret‘ designed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, as reproduced in the ‘Chansonniers de Montmartre’ (1906).

Bruant’s songs were chansons réalistes about working-class Parisian people written in street slang, the proletarian argot that borrowed its vocabulary from thieves and artisans. He even published the Dictionnaire de l’argot au XXe siècle for those who needed help in understanding the difficult Parisian jargon.

Côtier with his ‘cheval de renfort’ in Paris. Source: gallica.fr.

The song above is about an elderly côtier who talks to his worn-out horse. In the 19th century and in the beginning of the 20th, men with extra horses (chevaux de renfort) stood at the bottom of steep slopes to help horse-drawn carriages and carts to climb up the hill. These côtiers frequently offered their services to the coachmen of omnibus lines.

‘Tramway Galop’ by L. Gobbaerts, published by Schott Frères (Bruxelles, s.d.).

Many of the drivers didn’t care for animal welfare. They were brutal to their horses who were thus being reduced to live machines. It is but in 1843 that a Paris police prefect signed the first decree to prohibit drivers from hitting their horses with the handle of their whips. And 1850 saw the first law for the protection of domestic animals.

Société protectrice des animaux 84 rue de Grenelle Paris‘ by Léon Carré – 1904 (source: gallica.fr)

It was also the start for the Society for the Protection of Animals (SPA). In Le Cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914 we read the following chilling account:
“More importantly, the SPA obtained authorization for veterinarians to immediately treat horses suffering from sunstroke on the public road, without having to wait for the owner’s agreement. At least one would no longer see these animals dying on the road for hours on end, in excruciating conditions, because no one had been able to get hold of its owner. When the owner remained untraceable, one had to call the commissaire de police who then entrusted the animal to the renderer. The Macquart and Tétard knackers then arrived with their car, (…) they hauled up the horse with a hoist and led it either to the animal pound or to the veterinarian (…) or if the horse meanwhile had died, to their own establishments.”

Source: Delcampe

From 1890 on the SPA had their own chevaux de renfort in Paris, stationed beneath recognisable cast-iron poles. They also employed their own côtiers.

Source: eBay

Bruant’s song ends with the following morbid words spoken by the côtier to his horse:

Et pis après c’est la grande sorgue,
Toi, tu t’en iras chez Maquart
Moi, j’irai p’têt ben à la morgue..

And then arrives the big night,
You will go to Maquart
I’ll go to the morgue.

Maquart, director of the horse knackery in Aubervilliers, Paris ca 1890. Source: Antique and Classic Photographic Images

So the poor horse was destined for Maquart, the horse knacker established in Aubervilliers since 1841. In 1886 Maquart processed 300 to 350 horse carcasses per month, using 5 industrial boilers. At the beginning of the 20th century Léon Bonneff describes Aubervilliers, a commune in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, as follows “…there exists a terrible and charming village. In it merge the waste, the residue and the nameless filth of a capital city. Will go there: dead horses, horses to be slaughtered, horses that veterinarians reject for consumption*, horses that almost die on the street; there passes the blood of slaughterhouses in hot and steaming barrels.”

* Yes, the French eat horses. This postcard gives a macabre view of a slaughterhouse at a market for the consumption of horse meat.

All that organic waste of the horses created foul smelling tanneries and fertiliser factories in the neighbourhood of slaughterhouses and knackeries. The côtier’s poor horse probably would end up as glue or fertiliser. Or as something that took my attention in the publicity for the slaughterhouse: noir animal. I had never heard of this but I learned that it is bone char.

Engrais-Krafft‘, publicity poster for animal produce from the Parisian slaughterhouse for horses (source: BnF Gallica)

To make bone char the animal bones are heated at incredibly high temperatures with low oxygen concentration, and are thus reduced to carbon. Historically, bone char was (and still is) used in sugar refining as a discolouring and de-ashing filter agent, particularly for cane sugar. Be careful vegans. Bone char filters are not used to process beet sugar.

Four pour la calcination des os‘ from ‘Les merveilles de l’industrie’ by Louis Figuier (Paris, 1873). Creative Commons, source: Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla

Bone char is also used as a black pigment for artist’s paint and drawing ink because of its deepness of colour. Bone black and ivory black are artists’ pigments which have been long in use. I will never look in the same way at Manet’s beautiful intense ivory black.

During our research we came across this puzzling photograph of the strange relation between man and dead horse — no comment.

A man sitting on a dead horse in Sheboygan, Wisconsin (ca 1876 & 1884). (Public Domain, source: sheboyganpress)

Time now for a light-hearted and very danceable song to promote an animal-friendly lifestyle. Get those vegan vibes, here is Macka B!


Reference: ‘Le Cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914’ by Ghislaine Bouchet (Mémoires et Documents de l’Ecole de Charte n° 37, Librairie Droz, Genève, 1993)


Catherinettes: The Young Old Maids

‘Oh! Oh! Oh! Ah! Ah! Ah!’ by José Padilla, lyrics by Albert Willemetz; Saint-Granier & Jean Le Seyeux, published by Salabert (Paris, 1927) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

By showing this young lady with two enormous hatboxes swinging on her arms, de Valerio marks her as a milliner or une modiste (a hat maker or seller). She seems in a festive mood and is singing the careless refrain of the Chanson des Catherinettes.

I had never heard of Catherinettes before, prompting me to dig into its meaning and history.

According to legend Catherine of Alexandria was imprisoned by the Roman emperor Maxentius because she was a Catholic. We are in the early 4th century. After having unsuccessfully tried to break her faith, he strangely proposed her to marry. But Catherine had consecrated her virginity to Jesus Christ and rejected his offer. Maxentius, smitten by the beautiful but devout young lady, did not take no for an answer: he tortured Catherine on a spiked breaking wheel. She was miraculously saved from that ordeal: instead of her bones, the wheel itself broke. Sadly, her besotted persecutor showed grace nor mercy, and gave the order to behead her. That is how Catherine became venerated as a virgin martyr and was nominated patron saint for maidens and spinsters.

Saint Catherine by Caravaggio. She is surrounded by the attributes of her martyrdom: the spiked breaking wheel and the sword with which she was beheaded.

From the 12th century on the French started to honour Saint Catherine on each 25th of November. That day, Sainte-Catherine, was seen as a coming of age feast for unmarried women who had reached the age of 25. With flowers and ribbons unmarried girls used to create a beautiful headdress to coiffe (or cap) Saint Catherine’s statue in the church. When the maidens were 25 years old they stuck one needle in the headdress. This was meant as a warning: don’t wait any longer to find a husband. A second needle was pinned when they were 30 (time is running out!), and a third one at 35. Then one had definitely become a spinster with all hope lost…

Postcard of a young woman coiffing the statue of Saint Catherine.

The expression ‘coiffer Sainte Catherine‘ became synonymous with still being a single woman at (or after) 25. On the day of Sainte-Catherine these single women prayed for a future husband to their patron saint. But to assist the saint in helping these young women to find a suitor, a ball was arranged on Saint Catherine’s day all over France.

‘Prière à Ste. Catherine’ by Edmond Lhuillier, published by Cotelle et Cie (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Stop.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the tradition of la Sainte-Catherine was practically lost. But then, rather suddenly, it shifted from a catholic peasant celebration to an exuberant Parisian festivity. There and then it became very popular. In the modern age women had entered the workforce on a large scale. In Paris that was particularly so in the fashion trade. So Saint Catherine’s day became a celebration for working girls, which was at that time more or less synonym with unmarried girls, because once a girl married she was also supposed to stop working. Sainte-Catherine thus became especially popular in fashion houses and among milliners, although also shop-girls and typists participated. It is those unmarried girls, at the age of 25, that were called Catherinettes.
A typical Saint Catherine’s day would follow the next scenario. At breakfast the Catherinette admired her greeting cards, received from friends and colleagues, wishing an abundance of potential suitors and reminding her that the time had come to find that much sought after husband. Celibacy for ‘elderly’ women was still stigmatised, as witnessed by the postcard below.

‘Vive Ste. Catherine’ — 20 years: amuse yourself, 25 years: get married, 30 years: too old!

In the morning at work, her colleagues had made her a special hat. At first these hats were quite simple, resembling a traditional coiffe. The predominant hues of the hats were yellow and green, the customary colours of Saint Catherine. Usually attached to it was a small sprig of orange blossom, the traditional flower of the bridal bouquet.

Postcards of Catherinettes with simple coiffes.

But year after year these hats were more elaborated upon, and became more intricate especially those from the hat-making and dressmaking trades.

Postcards of Catherinettes with more intricate hats.

The themes of the hats sometimes followed contemporary events (1), as one sees on the sheet music cover for ‘Les Petites Catherinettes’. The illustrator got his inspiration from a press photo dated November 25, 1909.

‘Les Petites Catherinettes’ by Claire Mauselin & L. Mauger-Bourdeille, published by M. Labbé (Paris [1910]) and illustrated by A. Soulié. (source: gallica.fr.)
Two Catherinettes, 1909 (source: gallica.fr.)

The Catherinettes would wear their hats like a trophy throughout their festive day. At work the Catherinettes and their colleagues were offered refreshments and food.

Saint Catherine’s Day in a Parisian sewing workshop, 1920 (source: gallica.fr.)

Then they would take to the street, dancing and singing.

Catherinettes dancing around a police officer in Paris, 1922. (source: gallica.fr.)

Later in the day the Catherinettes could attend a hat contest, or try to become elected queen for the day. The jury for these competitions was composed of renowned artists and sports personalities.

In the evening, dressed in their best attire, the Catherinettes accompanied by their friends and colleagues, went to the ball of Sainte-Catherine where they could perhaps meet their future husband…

Saint Catherine’s male counterpart is Saint Nicolas, protector of children and unmarried men by age thirty. So men were given a respite of 5 years over the women. But the hat for their Saint Nicolas day was definitely less exciting, looking more like a dull nightcap. The Saint Nicolas day for bachelors never became a great success. If we may rely on the postcards, it was not intended for the alpha males…

Fashion houses, especially in the haute couture, became particularly attached to Saint Catherine’s tradition. In the ateliers the festival was a big deal and sets and costumes were created on various themes. They held large parades to show off their wares. To this day, the renown houses like Chanel still hold on to the yearly tradition. Though I am happy to see that the festival is no longer ‘Ladies only!‘.

If you have time for a (virtual) stroll in Paris, take a walk to the square Montholon in the rue Lafayette. In the shade of its tall oriental plane trees, you can admire the statue of five exhilarated Catherinettes ready for the ball.

sculpture by Julien Lorieux for (1908) La Sainte Catherine
La Sainte Catherine – À l’ouvrière parisienne” – Square Montholon (Paris, 9e arr.), sculpture by Julien Lorieux, 1908 (© Rémi Jouan, CC-BY-SA, GNU Free Documentation License, Wikimedia Commons)

(1) The baffling hat with the biplane was probably a tribute to Louis Blériot who became world-famous for making the first aeroplane flight across the English Channel in July of the year the photo was taken (1907). The hat with the Spanish-looking windmill likely illustrates the expression ‘jeter son bonnet par-dessus les moulins’ or ‘to throw one’s bonnet over the windmill’. It refers to Don Quixote who, while tossing his hat over a windmill, imagines that he is challenging a giant.