Category Archives: Paris

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.

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. (source: https://gallica.bnf.fr)

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.