Category Archives: Society

Mah-jong, yet another Twenties’ fad

When Buddha plays Mah Jong‘ by Jose Maria Lucchesi, published by Max Eschig (Paris, 1926). The cover is not signed, but was probably designed by Gaston Girbal.

The drawing of the laughing Buddha holding a domino in his hand, gives us reason to believe that the illustrator didn’t know how a game of mah-jong looked like. At that time, in the mid-twenties, the mah-jong was still a novelty in France and reserved for the very rich.

‘Le Jeu De Mah-Jong’ by R. Penso, published by Francis-Day (Paris, 1924) and illustrated by Clérice frères.

On the cover of ‘Le Jeu De Mah-Jong’ Clérice shows that he had a better understanding of the tile-based game. Mah-jong commonly involves four players and 144 tiles divided into categories such as flowers, bamboo, winds, dragons and seasons. In those days, the tiles were beautifully marked with intricate and colourful designs and sold in elaborately carved oriental drawer boxes.

‘Mah-Jong’ by Jára Beneš, published by Wiener Boheme Verlag (Wien, 1924). Unknown illustrator.

The French Vogue from January 1924 lyrically introduced the mysterious oriental game to its readers: “The dizzying smell of sandalwood, that one inhales on the banks of the large rivers running through the vast empire of the rising sun, is enclosed in these little dominoes of ivory and bamboo like in a breathtaking incense burner.”

“The origins of the game” Vogue continued are lost in the mysterious Chinese night”. Indeed, although the history of mah-jong is contested, it is generally accepted that the game evolved in China somewhere in the mid or late 1800s. There it was primarily a gambling game, often played for very high stakes. Westerners first saw the game in Shanghai and Macau. It was then introduced in America and —with a bit of commercial push and marketing flair— it became a craze in the early 1920s. The gambling though was left out. And also, applying the commercial axiom never to sell complicated things, the rules  were simplified.  From there on it arrived in Europe.

A Mah-jong table. Vogue, January 1, 1924.

But Vogue concocted a more exciting ‘history‘ to charm its snobbish readers: “For centuries, this scholarly distraction was a privilege for the sumptuous Chinese court and it never went beyond the golden walls of the imperial residence. Only the emperor, the empress, the princes, princesses and their immediate entourage had the right to take out of the priceless boxes, the prodigious little tiles decorated with mysterious signs which allowed them to spend unforgettable hours.”

Mah-jong in a Parisian salon. Femina, February 1924.

Imagine that you were a fashionable upper-class Parisienne who wanted to entertain and surprise her guests, wouldn’t you rush to the better shops to buy a luxurious set of mah-jong? It would hurt your wallet a bit though. Even the high-end Vogue marked a mah-jong set as expensive: “Its only disadvantage is its price. But for the lovers of the latest fashion and the newest thrill, certainly a must.” A set costed between 650 and 2.000 francs, the present-day equivalent of about 600 to 1.800 €. That was because traditional mah-jong sets were handcrafted out of the bleached shin bones of cows, or out of ivory. The illustrations on the tiles were also carved and coloured by hand. And of course you couldn’t play mah-jong at an ordinary table. You had to buy “a black lacquered wooden table with a leather top preferably with racks on the side.”

A game of Mah-jong between Jeanne Saint-Bonnet and the French actor Max Dearly. Publicity by Kirby, Beard & C°, Paris in Les Modes, December 1924.

Soon the mah-jong game would become much cheaper as synthetic materials were used and the drawings were stamped on the pieces rather than handcrafted. In December 1924 mah-jong sets were already sold in Paris for 100 francs by Kirby, Beard & C° a dramatic price drop, though still a great expense for the middle class.

‘Mah-Jongg Blues’ by Stuart Dunbar and Lester Stevens, published by Tees (San Francisco, 1922).

From 1920 on, as the craze started in the US,  Abercrombie & Fitch was the first company to sell mah-jong sets. To be able to serve their customers they sent scouts to China to buy as much sets as possible. At a certain point the demand was so high that cattle shinbones were sent to China to be crafted into more sets.

‘Since Ma is playing Mah Jong’ by Billy Rose & Con Condrad, published by Witmark & Sons (New York, 1924)

Mah-jong was mostly played by women, such as illustrated by Eddie Cantor with his popular song ‘Since Ma Is Playing Mah Jong’. The song has offensive racial language and makes fun of a housewife neglecting her chores because she is addicted to the game.

There is a perfect scene to conclude this post. It is from the opening of Ang Lee’s film ‘Lust, Caution‘, an espionage thriller set in Shanghai during WWII. Watch how the quickness of the game movements follows the pace of the conversation between the four ladies. You’ll certainly miss a subtitle or two!


Marie Krysinska: composer, poet and alas forgotten

Cover for the sheet music 'Le Hibou' by Paul Bergon & Marie Krysinska, published by A. Quinzard (Paris, 1897) and illustrated by Georges Bellenger.
Le Hibou‘ by Paul Bergon & Marie Krysinska, published by A. Quinzard (Paris, 1897) and illustrated by Georges Bellenger.

This drawing of a crucified owl illustrates a gruesome tradition. Not so long ago it was still practised in rural France. With a wingspan of nearly one meter and its nightly eerie shrieks (listen for yourself), the barn owl was thought to be a bad omen. To keep evil at bay superstitious farmers used to trap the bird and nail it, sometimes still alive, above their barn’s door.

The cover is by lithographer Georges Bellenger, the husband of Marie Krysinska who wrote the poem Le Hibou. As a young woman of the Polish upper middle class Marie Krysinska (1857-1908) entered the Parisian conservatoire where she studied composition and harmony. Soon however she would abandon her classes to follow a more offbeat course of life. Krysinska discarded the conventional musical forms in favour of a freer form of expression. She started to experiment with a new artistic form in which she would mix music, theatre and poetry.

‘Célebres poetisas y grandes escritoras’ – cardboard phototype, 4.3 x 3.2 cm, for a Spanish factory of matchboxes. (1905-1908)

She mingled with other free spirits and was the only female founding member of the literary circle Les Hydropathes (meaning those who are afraid of water and prefer alcohol). She participated in similar nonconformist gatherings: the Zutistes, Jemenfoutistes and Hirsutes. They all came together at Le Chat Noir, the famous cabaret in bohemian Montmartre that embodied the spirit of the Belle Epoque.

‘L’Argent’ by Marie Krysinska & Pierre Trimouillat, published by Bathlot-Joubert (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Ibels. source: Van Gogh Museum

At Le Chat Noir Marie Krysinska became the house pianist for a while. It was an exciting place to be for a young artist. Moreover, as a woman her role was unique: she accompanied singers, composed songs, and also performed her own poetry on stage. At that time, interpreting romances by accompanying oneself was customary in intimate or mundane settings such as salons, but quite unusual in front of a large audience.

‘Ceux d’la Côte’ by Marie Krysinska & L. Durocher, published by Bathlot-Joubert (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Ibels. source: Gallica.bnf.fr

Le Chat Noir published a weekly magazine which would regularly print Marie Krysinska’s poems. Most of the poems of her poetry collections Les Rythmes Pittoresques were first published in Le Chat Noir. Many were dedicated to artists or personalities of the cabaret. Her verse would also appear in other literary magazines like Gil Blas, La Vie Moderne, and in the French feminist newspaper La Fronde.

Gil Blas, October 1893 with the publication of ‘Danse Slave‘ by Marie Krysinska, illustrated by Steinlen.

Marie Krysinska was at the centre of the debate surrounding the birth of French vers libre or free-verse poetry in the 1880s. Free verse does not use the basic rhythmic structure, rhyme, nor any musical pattern but more or less follows the rhythm of natural speech. In the quarrels over the origin of free verse, Krysinska and Gustave Kahn, a male symbolist poet, vied for the title.
It was in fact Krysinska’s poem Le Hibou, published in La Vie Moderne in 1883, that triggered this debate. According to his own writings, Kahn came to see this poem, by accident, when he was serving his country in Tunisia. To his great surprise Le Hibou was written in free verse, looking precisely like his own try-outs. He claimed that it was signed by a person who knew him very well and who used his aesthetics during his forced absence. Thus Kahn christened himself father of the free verse while accusing Krysinska of plagiarism. Krysinska had to counter this if she wanted to stand up for her contribution to literature. She managed to prove that her free-verse poems had been published five years earlier than those of Kahn (*).

La Leçon d’Epinette‘ by Marie Krysinska & Marthe Lys, published by Ondet (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Falco.

In the ensuing public debate it became bon ton to mock Krysinska. The French essayist Laurent Tailhade, attacked her and other female performers virulently:

I never have encountered a more deplorable gathering of ugliness, or a more unpleasant version of feminine clothing. One or two pretty women, lost in the midst of these crooks, gave the eyes a needful rest. Meanwhile the other ones performed their show. Among these ladies was a poetess with some fame between Boulevard Saint-Michel and Montparnasse, the Polish Jew Marie Krysinska. She was seeking the attention of young men by childish airs and advances of an ape-like ingenuity. Big, fat and already far from morning glory, she undulated melodramas on a piano which had lost it sharps.”

Affiche pour La Fronde ; Clémentine Hélène-Dufau ; 1898 - source Gallica BnF
Poster for La Fronde, by Clémentine Hélène-Dufau (1898) – source Gallica BnF

The same writer further ridiculed Krysinska in a poem in which he named her Marpha Bableuska, making allusions to the Blue Stockings that had already become a pejorative term by the late eighteenth century.

Breaking up of the Blue Stocking Club by Thomas Rowlandson, 1815.

Apart from this female gender bashing, Marie Krysinska had to endure criticism and rejection by the symbolist movement. At the time of her dead, an obituary didn’t even acknowledge her poetry. Only her heydays at Le Chat Noir were remembered. Because of her beautiful and musical poetry Marie Krysinska though —in my humble opinion— deserves a better place in literary history.

Le hibou

Il agonise, l’oiseau crucifié, l’oiseau crucifié sur la porte.
Ses ailes ouvertes sont clouées, et de ses blessures, de grandes perles de sang tombent lentement comme des larmes.
Il agonise, l’oiseau crucifié!
Un paysan à l’oeil gai l’a pris ce matin, tout effaré de soleil cruel, et l’a cloué sur la porte.
Il agonise, l’oiseau crucifié.
Et maintenant, sur une flûte de bois, il joue, le paysan à l’oeil gai.
Il joue assis sous la porte, sous la grande porte, où, les ailes ouvertes, agonise l’oiseau crucifié.
Le soleil se couche, majestueux et mélancolique, – comme un martyr dans sa pourpre funèbre;
Et la flûte chante le soleil qui se couche, majestueux et mélancolique.
Les grands arbres balancent leurs têtes chevelues, chuchotant d’obscures paroles;
Et la flûte chante les grands arbres qui balancent leurs têtes chevelues.
La terre semble conter ses douleurs au ciel, qui la console avec une bleue et douce lumière, la douce lumière du crépuscule;
Il lui porte d’un pays meilleur, sans ténèbres mortelles et sans soleils cruels, d’un pays bleu et doux comme la bleue et douce lumière du crépuscule;
Et la flûte sanglote d’angoisse vers le ciel, – qui lui parle d’un pays meilleur.
Et l’oiseau crucifié entend ce chant,
Et oubliant sa torture et son agonie,
Agrandissant ses blessures, –ses saignantes blessures,–
Il se penche pour mieux entendre.

Ainsi es-tu crucifié, ô mon cœur!
Et malgré les clous féroces qui te déchirent,
Agrandissant tes blessures, tes saignantes blessures,
Tu t’élances vers l’Idéal,
A la fois ton bourreau et ton consolateur.
Le soleil se couche majestueux et mélancolique.
Sur la grande porte, les ailes ouvertes, agonise l’oiseau crucifié.


(*) The debate on the vers libre authenticity is still going on. While some scholars attribute its original creation to Marie Krysinska, according to other researchers the ‘real’ first free verse was not written by Krysinska nor by Kahn, but by Arthur Rimbaud.

Lucies in the sky with lots of diamonds

‘Vers l’Azur’ by Arthur Laurent & Alphonse Fivet, illustrated by V. Valéry (unknown publisher, place & date).

There’s no shame in recycling a good idea, the Belgian illustrator Valéry must have thought. We’ve found just the postcards that most likely inspired his imagination for drawing the cover of the Vers l’Azur waltz…

Viennese postcards, sold in France.

In 1784, one year after the first free flight with human passengers, Joseph Montgolfier launched a tethered balloon in Paris, which went higher than the highest building. Three ladies formed the gallant crew: Marquise de Montalembert, Countess Podenas, and Mademoiselle de Lagarde. They were the first three women to make a voyage into the sky. From then on, for over a century, women were piloting balloons.
But after the Franco-Prussian war, the role of women in French society became more than ever restricted to being a wife and mother. Flying aerostats wasn’t a sport for them and was claimed as an exclusive male activity. Nevertheless some female aficionados of the sport persisted, albeit discredited by most of their male counterparts. One of them was Camille du Gast, a Belle Epoque singer and daredevil sportswoman who made balloon trips at the end of the 19th century.

The real inspiration for the three female aeronautics on the post cards was the French Marie Surcouf and her friends. The same year one of the postcards was stamped, they had founded the first female aeronautical club in 1909. Marie’s father was an industrialist who owned a factory for making hot air balloons. She married Edouard Surcouf, an engineer and collaborator of her father. He later took over his father in law’s firm and started building large air ships. Marie herself was also an aeronautics enthusiast. For years she urged aero clubs to grant women the same rights as the male pilots. Unsuccessful in her quest, she decided to found Stella, a female aeronautical club in 1909. The club promoted flying in hot air balloons for women, which led to the recognition of women as competent aeronautic professionals.

Three ‘Stelliennes’ on board of Les Bleuets during their flowered air festival at St. Cloud Paris, in 1909. On the right Mme Surcouf, the pilot of the hot air balloon. (Source: www.gallica.fr)

The French newspaper Le Figaro of June 17th, 1909 gives us an impression of the first flowered air festival organised by Les Stelliennes, the female members of Stella. From a male perspective, sure enough:

“In the park on the slopes of St. Cloud, a highly elegant crowd of guests arrived. Soon, the park, already adorned by greenery and baskets, became one lovely garland of women dressed in white, pink, mauve and blue. The six balloons, deliciously decorated with flowers of which they bore the name, swayed captive waiting for the departure … Among the passengers were a lot of newcomers, and their little hearts started to beat very fast because of a sudden gust of wind; but they were still very skilful, very brave, and not one, in spite of the anxieties expressed by some of their friends, did give up the aerial excursion.

The graceful Stelliennes delightedly scattered flowers on the audience. The first balloon to leave in a cloud of scented petals, was the balloon called ‘Les Bleuets’ (The Cornflowers). It carried on board three ladies. One of them was Mrs Surcouf, president of the Stella and pilot of the balloon.”

Although the passengers in the other five balloons were women, they were piloted by men, because at that time only Mme Surcouf was a qualified pilot.
Stella clearly had a feminist mark: men were accepted as members but they were excluded from the management of the club.

The board of directors of Stella. Second from left: Marie Surcouf. Fifth from left: Mme Louis Bleriot. (Source: www.gallica.fr)

A picture of the board of directors shows five bold ladies, some of them with a huge nest of flowers on their lavishly decorated hat. They also look very well-to-do, which of course they were, just like all the members. A lot of them belonged to the aristocracy. Amongst them was the wife of Louis Blériot, famous for the first air-plane flight across the English Channel.

Members of the Stella Club, with amongst them Mme Blériot. (Source: Library of Congress.)

Although being feminists, the members of Stella also enjoyed very ladylike things. They organised artistic lyrical evenings or tea parties called Stella-Thé’s. The Stelliennes also embroidered a flag for the military aviation. It was solemnly handed over in 1912 when the first five squadrons were created to form the French Air Force (the oldest air force in the world).

Mme Surcouf, president of the ‘Stella’, presents an embroidered flag to the Aeronautique Militaire. 1912 . (source: www.gallica.fr)

The Stelliennes didn’t go as far as the Australian-born Muriel Matters. In 1909 —the same year Stella was founded— Muriel took to the skies in an airship and scattered campaign leaflets over London, demanding Votes for Women.

Muriel Matters in an airship campaigning for Women Votes.

Stella stopped its activities with the First World War. It would take until 1971 before another French association of women pilots was founded.

In the sixties, Marilyn and Florence made a musical attempt at female ballooning, together with the other aeronautics of the 5th Dimension. Much to (y)our delight!


This article is dedicated to Zaza, if not a feminist (yet) at least the most beautiful baby in the world.