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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
I 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.
This 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?
Here 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.
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.
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.
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