Category Archives: Paris

Lucky Stars: Nénette & Rintintin

La Polka de Nénette et Rintintin‘ by H. Morisson, published by Louis Aerts (Paris, sd).

Nénette and Rintintin were tiny yarn dolls that took Paris by storm in 1918. Parisian ladies would pin them on their bodice as mascots to protect them from the bombs and shells. Men hung the two small talismans on their watch chain and soldiers would keep them in their knapsack. As is often the case with fetishes, the superstition was conditional: it would ward off danger only if the charming little dolls had been given, exchanged or received, but not purchased.

Guillaume Apollinaire described the Nénette and Rintintin craze in august 1918: Talismans and amulets have always existed and will always exist. Nénette and Rintintin are a helpful kind of deities in whom the midinettes have put their trust since the beginning of the war; but the cult became widespread only recently, since circumstances have been favourable to its development. It is perhaps the first time that, since Ariadne’s thread, man has put his trust in a few strands of wool, thread or silk. … Nénette and Rintintin are the first gods born in the 20th century.”

The craze in Paris did not last long (after about three months the frenzy was largely over), but the popularity of Nénette and Rintintin knew no borders.

A photo-story in ‘Popular Mechanics Magazine’ 1918, volume 30.

The inspiration for the mascots were two dolls made by the illustrator Poulbot. Francisque Poulbot was famous for his drawings of the street kids of Montmartre. In 1913 he also designed two porcelain dolls, called Nénette and Rintintin as a Christmas novelty for the Magasins du Louvre.

Advert for Nénette et Rintintin dolls in ‘Excelsior, journal illustré quotidien’ – May 26th 1918.

Only a few of these dolls in porcelain were produced. The boy was called Nénette, which is a female nickname, but it was what Poulbot’s wife lovingly called him — he in turn called her Rintintin. At the start of 1914 the catalogues of the large Parisian department stores featured these dolls. At that time, most of the toys and dolls on the market in France were of German manufacturing. Poulbot argued that these had ‘silly looks and oakum wigs‘ and with his two little dolls he wanted to offer a French, more realistic alternative.

The Poulbot dolls as sold Au Bon Marché in 1914. Source: youtube, Seminar on ‘Poulbot – Artist and Humanitarian‘.

It wasn’t a big commercial succes: Poulbot’s dolls were only on the market for a year and the production was halted during the war. But the names of the  dolls outlived their commercial failure, and were generously given to the home-made woollen figurines. Albeit the names of the boy and girl were switched.

Drawing by Poulbot of a girl playing with Rintintin and Nénette. “La Baïonette” July 1918.

The craze in the spring and summer of 1918 took all forms: cheap woollen dolls were sold in haberdashery shops, lockets and small jewels were designed around the two heroes, and of course they covered the pages of many newspapers and magazines. There were also numerous postcard series published with the adventures of the mascots.
As you would expect, Nénette and Rintintin also have set foot in our sheet music collection. It is proof of their popularity that songs were written about them and tunes composed in their honour. Not only in France, but also in Algeria…

‘Nénette et Rintintin’ by F. Gaillard, published by S. Léon (Alger, sd).

in The Netherlands…

‘C’est Nénette et Rintintin’ by Armand Haagman, published by B. H. Smit (Amsterdam, sd).

and in Switzerland.

'Nénette et Rintintin' waltz by A. Joly. Illustrated sheet music cover
Nénette et Rintintin‘ waltz composed by A. Joly and published by A. Emch (Montreux, s.d.). Illustrator unknown.

To conclude this lucky post, we found a very short British Pathé news reel buried in the myriads of Youtube films.  A souvenir of the once internationally renowned Nénette et Rintintin…

Poor little rats: Les Misérables… de l’opéra

‘Friquette’ by Raoul Schubert, published by E. Demets (Paris, s.d.). Illustration signed ‘Gebo’.

The gesture of a wealthy man patronisingly lifting the chin of a ballerina hides a grim and sordid truth.

‘Ballerine’ by Hermann Devries, published by L. Grus (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Dola.

In the 19th century most ballet dancers of the Parisian Opera came from poor and deprived families. They were also often illiterate. Sometimes a family’s hope for a better future rested on the frail shoulders of a daughter with dancing skills. These young ballerina’s were commonly called Les Petits Rats, or the little rats of the opera.

‘Petits Rats’ by Henri Christiani, published by Durand (Paris, 1907) and illustrated by Clérice Frères.

Around 1830 Louis Véron, a short corpulent man, became the new administrator of the Parisian opera. Véron was a trained physician turned businessman who had made fortune from cough drops (Pâte pectorale de Reginauld Ainé). He had arranged a lucrative deal that yielded two-thirds of the profits to him without having to work.

Left: Louis Véron, 1855. Right: publicity for Pâte Pectorale de Regnauld.

Véron devised several strategies to make the opera profitable. One was to create the Foyer de la danse, an exclusive and lavishly decorated backstage salon. Véron, the shrewd entrepreneur, offered to the well-heeled season ticket holders or abonnés not only a private theatre box, but also secluded access to this backstage. There the wealthy male abonnés enjoyed a kind of droit de seigneur over the little dancers.
Astonishingly to modern standards, these men in top hats had obtained the right to prowl the corridors and meet the (very young) ballet dancers in the lavishly decorated Foyer de la danse. They could enjoy informal performances and hold private parties with the danseuses. In the corridor leading up to the Foyer, they could negotiate with the ‘mothers’ the right fee to get an ‘introduction’ to a pretty dancer.

Valse Caprice‘ by Georges Piquet, published by Charles Morice (Paris, s.d.). Illustration signed with monogram CAB.

The most affluent of these abonnés were the members of the Jockey Club. This club was the epitome of exclusivity, its elite members solely being aristocrats. They were connoisseurs of horses, cigars and women. Their preferred part of the opera was the ballet. At that time the ballet was often nothing more than a choreographic interlude performed during the second part of an opera. The members of the Jockey Club used to dine during the first act. They then arrived at the opera just in time to admire their protégées on the gaslit stage, and —immediately after the ballet— left quickly for the Foyer… (*)

‘Les Vieux Gagas de l’Opéra’ by Eugène Oustric, Edouard Jouve & François Tier, published by Edouard Jouve (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Faria

Another strategy of Véron was to decrease the wages of the dancers, thus forcing the girls to find a wealthy protector. In this way Véron set up a patronage system for the opera’s corps de ballet based more or less on sexual services. The opera had become a place where there was art on the one hand and prostitution on the other.

Two young dancers from the Parisian Opéra (1878-1895) Source: Gallica, BNF.

But the story becomes even more Dickensian or Zolaesque. The opera also housed the ballet school. Girls as young as ten had to work up to twelve hours a day, six days a week, dividing their time between lessons, rehearsals and shows. Arriving too late or faults were fined. They had to live close to the Opera, because with their meagre pay they couldn’t afford the tram or omnibus. Only a minority of these young dancers would become famous and earn a salary sufficient to support their family. Meanwhile, some mothers hunted for a rich protector for their (underage) daughters.

The most famous of these girls was Marie Van Goethem. She was of Belgian descent and stood model for the beautiful Degas statue of a 14-year-old dancer.
“La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” by Degas.

At first Marie was a respectable dancer of the corps de ballet. But a year after the Degas statue was exhibited (1881) she went off the rails. Marie’s older sister Antoinette, had robbed a man in Le Chat Noir. She was arrested and put in prison for three months. The evidence at the trial made it clear that her mother was prostituting her. It is supposed that Marie was also on the game because she started to miss her appointments in the Opera until at last she was sacked.

Degas: illustration from ‘Les petites Cardinal’ by Ludovic Halévy.

Degas also illustrated the short stories Les Petits Cardinal written by his friend Ludovic Halévy. These stories tell, slightly veiled, about the obvious similarities between life at the Opera and scenes in a brothel where the abonné is the client, the dancer is the prostitute, and the mother is the madam.

‘C’est le charme de Florence’ from ‘Les Petites Cardinal’ by Jacques Ibert, Arthur Honegger & Albert Willemetz, published by Choudens (Paris, 1938) and illustrated by Würth.

The Musée Grevin, the Parisian wax museum, understood that the Foyer de la danse captured the public imagination and made it into a tableau. It was exhibited from 1890 on, for eleven years. It offered the visitor a voyeuristic peek behind the scenes on how the rich abonnés got entertained. The representation of the Foyer de la danse was Grévin’s greatest success after the famous crime scenes.

It was only from 1927 on that the director of the opera, Jacques Rouché, tackled the problem of the excesses at the Foyer de la danse. His newly nominated Ballet Master, Serge Lifar, supported him fully. Under the dramatic protests of the abonnés they banned the backstage access to the Foyer de la danse, and made from the ballet in the opera a real art form. The film The Ballet of the Paris Opera, featuring Serge Lifar, dates from that period.


(*) When Wagner broke with the tradition and included a ballet in the first act of Tannhauser instead of in the second act, the members of the Jockey Club arrived too late to ogle their young protégées. They booed during the 1861 Parisian premiere and for the next two performances of Tannhauser, they disturbed the performances to such an extent, distributing whistles and rattles to the audience, that Wagner was forced to withdraw the opera after three performances.

The French Panama Papers

Je Revois Paname‘ by Casimir Oberfeld & Albert Willemetz, Saint-Granier & Jean Le Seyeux, published by Salabert (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

Paname is French slang for Paris. The origin of the sobriquet is not clear but this one is the most credible: it was inspired by the Panama Affair, the largest corruption scandal of the 19th century. The affair broke out in 1892, discrediting the government and shaking the foundations of the Republic.

In 1879 Ferdinand de Lesseps had proposed the construction of a 75 km channel, similar to that of Suez, in the isthmus of Panama. The project was expected to last 12 years and cost 600 million francs. Work on the Panama canal began in 1882. But soon technical difficulties and the death toll from tropical diseases undermined the project. Moreover in 1884, the funds of the French Panama Canal Company had dried up while only one-tenth of the  excavations had been completed. To overcome this financial crisis Ferdinand de Lesseps himself proposed to float a lottery loan. This kind of loan was especially attractive to small savers who could always hope for an immediate premium when their numbers were drawn for payback.

La Gigolette du Panama‘ by P. Dumont, published by Repos (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Yves.

To obtain the approval of Parliament for the lottery loan, the instigators plotted a multi-million bribery campaign which would be managed by three men. One of them was the financier Baron Jacques de Reinach who would try to persuade the big fish. He distributed money between politicians, journalists and the haut monde so that they would embellish the company’s situation and support the lottery loan. The adventurer Emile Arton (Aaron by his real name) managed the smaller fry, minor politicians and provincial newspapers. Arton was a dubious entrepreneur, boasting a career of bankruptcies. The third man was Cornélius Herz, an American charlatan and the greatest rogue of the three. In the end he even managed to blackmail his associate de Reinach.

A lottery bond for the Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique, 1888.

In 1888 the lottery loan for 720.000 million francs was authorised. But by now the Panama Canal company had come in even more dire straits. Only a year later the company went bankrupt and some 800.000 French investors lost their savings. Many amongst them could ill afford to lose anything at all.

In 1892 the French anti-Semitic political daily, La Libre Parole, started the scandal with a series of articles. Its first source was a disgruntled banker who had quarrelled with de Lesseps. Almost daily the paper added bits and pieces to the story, accusing an ever-widening number of individuals. When other Paris papers followed suit, an official investigation was started. Baron de Reinach killed himself while Herz and Arton both made a run for it. In the song Les Aventures d’Arton it is hinted that the French government was not eager to arrest him, afraid of new revelations.

Arton ou Le retour de l’enfant prodigue‘ by G. Delatouche, melody from ‘Ton ton, ton ton, tontaine, ton ton’, published by Repos (Paris, 1895)

The owner of La Libre Parole was Edouard Drumont, a devout catholic and the principal propagator of anti-Semitism in France. His book La France Juive, with full-fledged diatribes against the Jews, may be regarded as the beginning of the anti-Semitic movement in France. Drumont used the fact that the three main fixers of the lottery loan were of Jewish descent as a battering ram. His continuous rabid articles fed the growing anti-Semitism in France which soon led to the Dreyfus affair (1894) in which Drumont was one of the most strident accusers.

In the light of this, it comes as no surprise that the eager money-grubbers on the sheet music cover ‘Les Aventures d’Arton’ are depicted with enlarged stereotypical Jewish traits.

Les aventures d’Arton‘ by Léo Lelièvre & Emile Spencer, published by Repos (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Yves. Source: gallica.fr.

In the end, a large number of ministers were accused of taking bribes leading to a corruption trial against Ferdinand de Lesseps and his son amongst others. More than a hundred members of parliament were also charged.

With the Panama Affair politicians were no longer trusted in the public eye. And this brings us back to the start of the story: in ‘Les Aventures d’Arton’, he is called a ‘Panamiste’. Tripoteurs Panamistes imply persons who do shady business:

Il fit remettre des listes,
Et donna plusieurs millions
Aux tripoteurs panamistes,
Panamistes, panamistes,
Et bientôt les souscriptions
Firent monter les actions.

According to chronicler Claude Duneton, the first people to use the nickname ‘Paname’ were market gardeners who had to pay a daily tax on the produce in their carts when they entered Paris. At first, around 1903, only politicians and rich Parisians were called Panamistes. Later, it was Paris —the city itself where these sharks lived— which was tagged Paname.

Gradually, in the second decade of the twentieth century, Paname became a more gentle nickname. Around 1917 the French soldiers affectively designated Paname as the city of their dreams. ‘Revoir Paname’ was their intimate desire in the trenches.

Tu le r’verras, Paname‘ by Albert Chantrier, Robert Dieudonné & Roger Myra, published by Halet (Paris, 1917) and illustrated by Nergetris.

The word Paname spread further after the end of the war, especially in the cabarets and music halls of the twenties and thirties.

O! Paname‘ by Vincent Scotto, Géo Koger & E. Audiffred, published by Foucret (Paris, 1928) and illustrated by Jack Roberts.

Today, using the phrase “I’m going to see Paname” to express a longing for Paris is terribly old-fashioned.

Umm, old-fashioned?

Time to update the titles of our collection: ‘La meuf de Sept-cinq’.

La Femme de Paname‘ by St. Servan, A. Benoit & A. Danerty, published by Pêle-Mêle (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Germy.