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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.

The Spanish Cuplé: from rogue to bourgeois

 

Fumando Espero‘ by Tragan, Viladomat & Felix Garzo, published by Ildefonso Alier (Madrid, s.d.)

At the beginning of the 20th century a lot of popular music genres were created, all over the world. Spain saw the birth of a characteristic genre, influenced by French cabaret songs: the cuplé, coming from the French word couplet.

El baile y el amor – Couplets‘ by Clifton Worsley and Margarit, published by Manuel Villar (Valencia, 1917) and illustrated by Pouo.

Augusta Berges is said to have started this genre: with La Pulga (The Flea), in 1893 in Madrid. While singing, Augusta was looking for fleas in her clothes as an excuse for a bit of demure stripping. It was a huge success. Other singers followed suit with their own versions, frantically searching a flea, an ant or a spider under their frock, to the lascivious excitement of the whole male audience. Sara Montiel, a Spanish actress who achieved Hollywood-stardom, re-enacts such a Pulga song in the sixties film ‘La reina del Chantecler’. Chantecler being a Madrilenean theatre before the first World War.

La Pulga was the starting point for a profusion of more or less erotically explicit songs with simple, short and repetitive lyrics. But always with a lot of gesture. The performers, almost exclusively women and transvestites, told a story in three or four minutes with a large dose of theatricality and a load of double entendre and erotic allusions. An ample and voluptuous body was sometimes a better key to success than a good singing voice. Showing their ankles and clad in tulles that left little to the imagination, the cupletistas became sexual objects in seedy variety theatres.

‘Sicaliptico’, Spanish erotic magazine (1904)

The cuplé was part of the sicalipsis, a Spanish neologism of unclear origin to designate the trend of erotic manifestations in literature and the press, as well as in the visual arts, and in variety shows. Being part of this sicalipsis certainly added to the popularity of the cuplé, at least in its beginning.

Postcards of Cupletistas to promote their career.

The profession of cupletista was popular among women, many of them illiterate, trying to escape poverty. It was also frequently a stepping stone to the world of prostitution. A trigger to that was that the cupletista had to perform in ever smaller and cheaper salones, bringing the woman teasingly close to the male public.

While at first the cuplé was a frivolous, provocative and even erotic song with a lot of humour and spice, from 1910 on it became more ‘decent’ and sentimental. It became even considered as a higher quality art form. The cuplé reached a larger middle class public with an increasingly female audience. It became more of a sentimental love song. The singers abandoned their playful outfits and tended to dress in black and to wear a Mantilla.

La Goya (Aurora Jauffret)

The first one to bring this new kind of cuplé was La Goya (Aurora Jauffret, 1891-1950). She performed in well reputed theatres and changed her dress with each song to match the lyrics, taking care of the theatrical part of her performance.

‘Por tus caricias’ by E. Burrull & Pedro Puche, published by Ildefonso Alier (Madrid, sd) and illustrated by Pol, with a picture insert of La Goya.

In the Twenties, the cuplé had become a sentimental song mentioning contemporary social, cultural or political issues. Gone was the flea and the spider, no more bawdy undertones. The most famous cupletista was Raquel Meller, an international star who launched world hits like La Violetera and El relicario, both written by José Padilla Sánchez.

Left: ‘La Violetera’ by José Padilla & Eduardo Montesinos; Right: ‘El Relicario’ by José Padillia. Both published by Salabert (Paris, 1918) and illustrated by Roger de Valerio.

The cuplé was forbidden during Franco’s reign until it resurged in a nostalgic way, with the boom of Sara Montiel in the cinema. In the film El ultimo cuple, she plays the role of a cupletista struggling with her rise to fame and her subsequent downfall. Let’s listen to Sara Montiel —in real life a passionate cigar smoker— singing Fumando espero. This tantalizing cuplé by Joan Viladomat is the song we started with.
Now, enjoy Montiel reclining on her chaise longue, just like the lady on the sheet music cover.

Fumar es un placer
genial, sensual.
Fumando espero
al hombre a quien yo quiero

Smoking is a wonderful,
sensuous pleasure.
Smoking, I wait
for the man I love
behind the glasses
of gaily-colored windows.
And as I smoke,
my life does not burn away
because, on the drifting smoke
I tend to get sleepy…
Lying on the chaise-longue
smoking and loving…

Der Dienstmann: a Jack of All Trades

‘Dienstmann nr. 10’ by Rudolf Mälzer, published by Otto Teich (Leipzig, sd). Illustrator unknown.

A Dienstmann or a porter in Germany and Austria, was a freelance worker, state-licensed and officially registered. We’re talking 1830 until WW2. The Dienstmann wore an official uniform with his licence number on his cap or on a medallion. Often, the street corner was his ‘office’.

Tired porter on Radetzkyplatz, Vienna, around 1905-1914, photographed by Emil Mayer, source: wikimedia

The Dienstmann would not only carry luggage. He could also be hired for errands or be engaged as a messenger. Some were equipped with writing props enabling a client on the street to write a few lines and then have the Dienstmann deliver the note.

Sometimes a Dienstmann was hired for small domestic duties or as a temporary replacement for an indisposed servant. The man could also obtain your theatre or concert tickets, or even help you home after a night out, as the cover below suggests.

‘Ich hab’ mir für Grinzing ein’n Dienstmann engagiert…’ by Bruno Uher, published by Edition Bristol (Wien, 1936) and illustrated by H. Woyty-Wimmer.

The noticeable figure of the Dienstmann was frequently used for stage or film. We can see this in the 1952 comedy of errors, ‘Hallo Dienstmann’ wherein two of these characters sing a comical duet. At that time, the last Dienstmann had already disappeared from the streets. The title song of the film, played by two of Austria’s leading actors, became one of the big hits of the fifties in Austria.

Sing along in your best German. Take the flowers to Amalie, perhaps you’ll get a tip and she will fall in love with you…

Hallo Dienstmann! Hallo Dienstmann!
Nehmen Sie hier diese Dahlie!
Hallo Dienstmann! Hallo Dienstmann!
Geh’n Sie damit zur Amalie!
Hallo Dienstmann! Hallo Dienstmann!
Aber wirft man Sie dort raus
Trag’n Sie hundertmal die Dahlie
Zur Amalie
Ins Haus
Bis man Ihnen dort ein Trinkgeld gibt
Und Amalie mich liebt!

Oh, these forgotten professions of yore!