Eking out a living on the streets of Paris

Paris has a reputation as a city of glitz and glamour. But in the early 20th century, beneath the glamour, many barely survived from day to day. In London, journalist and reformer Henry Mayhew had written a multi-volume study, London Labour and the London Poor in 1851, a fascinating but depressing study of people living on the margins in that city. Mayhew, who had earlier lived in Paris, said of the self-employed poor: they “don’t find a living, it’s only another way of starving.” He could have been speaking about those in Paris who eked out a meagre existence through “Les petits métiers.”

The term referred to those who made their way in the world without the stable structure of apprenticeships, journeyman status, and achievement of mastery. Some were talented at what they did; others did jobs that required only perseverance. They may have worked hard, put in long hours, and acquired specialized skills, but their efforts were not officially recognized as “métiers.” Let’s meet a few of them in the photographs of the collection Paris en Images.

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Ice cream has long been an important part of Paris life. This beautifully decorated pushcart is a cut above average. However, it is still typical with two large spoked wheels, and handles projecting from one end. On the same end one finds two spigots (taps) to let out water and for cleaning and a fold-down leg to support or balance the cart. Some vendors also sold hot chocolate.

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This street vendor has a heavier load and a greater variety of goods. She is dressed like the typical market or street vendor. The cart has only two wheels, but instead of one support to balance the wagon when it is stationary, there is a heavy metal folding support or leg on each side of the cart. The advertising posters on the wall behind her were the work of another specialized trade: the bill poster.

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The bill poster is shown with his pot of glue into which he dips a brush and covers the wall surface. He smoothes the poster out and the job is done. On my first trip to Paris, I was in awe of the advertising posters in the Metro. An even greater treat was watching them being put up. I was astounded at how quickly and neatly the workers did the job.

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Not all bills or posters went on walls. At the beginning of the 20th century, one could hire sandwich men who, unlike traditional sandwich men, walked with a poster held aloft in a frame attached to his shoulders. If adjusted properly, it was probably more comfortable and more visible than the traditional sandwich board, which hung from the shoulders.

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Most days, a meal might be little more than a crust of bread and with luck a bit of cheese. On better days there might be soup, such as that from this soup seller at Les Halles. You ate the soup on the spot and gave the bowl back to the seller to use for the next customer. This is a lovely scene, almost like something from Central Casting. The advertising posters on the wall add an interesting touch, as does the variety of clothing on the people in the photograph.

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The quest for art works and antiques draw many tourists to Paris. But some of the most interesting finds—particularly if one is not too flush with cash—are secondhand goods. Here we find another street vendor with his trusty pushcart. The vendor is dressed roughly and one can imagine the weight of the cart and the effort required to push it. With iron-spoked wheels it seems built for heavy loads.

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Today when we think of vendors of goods on the banks of the Seine, it is the bouquinistes that come to mind. Identified as the secondhand bookseller Chonmoru on the Quai des Grands Augustins, this stand also sells music. The contrast between the garb of the vendor and the cleric speaks of different positions on the social scale.

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This small businessman with the walrus moustache looks stern. These are not hats he is selling on the Pont d’Arcole; they are lampshades.

5638a53542037db4aaa80c17babf7884The narrow specialization of some vendors is astounding. This man in front of the Caserne Labeau sold shoelaces. Yes, shoelaces. It seems an unlikely way to make a living. But it was probably not much of a living.

e21815e22aea9426237628eb112bbbf6I am not sure how they work – probably with some form of adhesive paper – but this vendor on rue Saint Antoine is selling flytraps. He does not need a pushcart for such lightweight products; the ingenious folding one-legged stand seems to work well.

cb3ae74529b602840048404c72bb55afThis merchant of small flags in front of the Church of Saint-Paul Saint-Louis intrigues me. The stand holds small tricolor flags. Perhaps it is a special holiday such as Bastille Day. What else does he sell? Is he a regular at the site? What did he do on non-festive days?

b343d2825b30da79d178526e6066e8d5Here we clearly have a festive occasion and a good showman who can attract a crowd. I love his hat. He seems to be holding a large knife in his left hand. According to photographer Louis Vert, he is selling a paste or compound for sharpening razors. At a time when shaving generally meant using a straight razor, sharpening it was important. I remember watching my grandfather sharpening a straight razor on a leather strop. It was quite an art. One assumes that the paste was put on the strop.

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However, for pure street drama, it was hard to beat the act of an itinerant tooth puller. And at a time of limited attention to oral hygiene, there were toothaches aplenty. This photo, taken about 1900 by Louis Vert at Place de la Bastille, captured a tooth puller who offers the extra inducement of a raffle. Sometimes a few musicians would be part of the show. The first job was simply attracting a good crowd. Tooth pullers often started with an associate planted in the crowd. Feigning a terrible toothache, the associate would approach the tooth puller and the two would put on an act in which the puller stressed the difficulty of his task and the stoical patient proclaimed that it had hardly hurt at all. And a much-used tooth was brandished for all to see.

Things were different when a genuine sufferer of toothache took the bait to have a painful tooth removed. The puller usually used what was known as a dental key. This appalling device did not pull the tooth out vertically, but tended to turn it or bend it sideways and break off the top of the tooth. The roots and lower parts of the tooth remained to cause continuing pain and infection. And the promise of painless extraction? The answer is found in a French saying “mentir comme un arracheur de dents.” To lie like a tooth puller.

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Unloading boats was strenuous work and if there no boats that day or too many others vying for too few jobs, there might be little or no money for food that evening or the next day. But they were not necessarily on the lowest rung of workers.

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The woman shown here is described as a mender of plaster sacks. The limestone underneath Paris was quarried for building material or turned into plaster that was shipped in large sacks. There was a tiny amount of money to be made turning tattered sacks into something that could be used for a few more loads. It is hard to imagine a less rewarding and remunerative job than this.

Like those who survived by gathering up used tobacco, many Parisians in the early 20th century made a meagre living providing food, repairs, cheap goods, and conveniences to other city dwellers and to tourists. They were part of the scenery and often overlooked. Have they disappeared?

Not entirely. Some modern-day petit métiers remain, such as Métro musicians, souvenir sellers, some of the more marginal flea-market vendors, and those who sell old telephone cards or coins on the fringes of stamp and postcard markets. If someone will pay, there is always someone willing to sell, if only to keep body and soul together.

Text by Norman Ball; photos courtesy Paris en Images

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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14 Responses to Eking out a living on the streets of Paris

  1. Intriguing Norman and as you say some of these petits métiers have morphed into modernised versions today. There are for instance the hot coffees sold off the back of small adapted Vespa scooters you find in Toulouse; the food trucks that are increasingly popular in Paris and indeed around the country selling either quality takeaway French versions of hamburgers, portions of bouillabaisse (in one I saw in Sete) or dodgy pizzas and similar ‘fastfou’ — as it was labelled at a village fair the other day — at country markets; and of course the mime artists and other street entertainers who are everywhere in the big cities.

    • It is always a treat to hear for a happy reader. Thanks also for the modern examples of how the tradition lives on. Another reader, Jan Whitaker, also pointed out the case of people in a border town in Mexico who are called typewriters and will type a letter for a fee. It is a wonderful modern version of the ancient scribe. Ah, how the world is different. In Paris food trucks seem to be a dime a dozen but in Toronto it has been a battle for years to get them legalized; apparently anything other than sausage on a bun could cause massive outbreaks of food poisoning.

  2. victualling says:

    “To lie like a tooth puller,” I love that. I think it’s Mayhew who also mentions the sellers of song lyrics and the very specific food sellers (hot peas in a pod), and the scribes. I remember seeing many typewriters — people who will type a letter for a fee — on a street in a Mexico border town.

    • Yes, it is a lovely expression and glad you enjoyed the blog. I get so much pleasure from reading yours that I am delighted to repay in kind. I particularly enjoyed the last blog in which you talked about how much work it is to do a serious blog.

  3. Ken Bowes says:

    Thanks for a good post Norman! I particularly admire the work of the employees of Publicite E. FOURNIER, who carry around those ingenious slender metal frames supporting large advertising cards!

  4. Pingback: Les Petits Métiers: Yesterday There Were Shoelace Sellers, Today There are Food Truck Traders | FrenchNewsOnline

  5. rfewen says:

    Norman: Very interesting. Many old pictures show these activities so it is nice to see them collected in one place and weight given to the lives of these survivors. Care to buy a knockoff Louis Vuitton?

  6. Adam says:

    In Belleville you find people selling grilled chestnuts or corn, people who plastify official documents…and of course we probably shouldn’t forget the oldest profession of all…

  7. Jessica Pasa says:

    What striking photographs! These people worked so hard for so little, but as we say, “c’est la vie!” For them it was just daily life. I feel truly lucky to live in modern times where we are able to go to the dentist for a toothache or pick up shoelaces at the store. That being said, I know there are still many people today who must make their living (or as close as they can get) by selling whatever they can on the street. Thanks for bringing attention to an interesting subject.

  8. Pingback: »Blog Archive The Little Professions -

  9. Jennifer Cox says:

    Reblogged this on The Motley Belle and commented:
    Searching for my daily dose of French culture, I stumbled across this story about early 20th century les petits métiers. Striking and sad at the same time, the images capture the essence of “eking out a living.”

  10. Pingback: A bird lover’s guide to Paris | Parisian Fields

  11. Pingback: Parisian Pigeons May Be a Plague to Some but They Once Saved the Capital from Prussians | FrenchNewsOnline

  12. gcoquelicot says:

    Reblogged this on parislifevintage and commented:
    Paris at the beginning of the 20th century

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