Chambre de bonne

When I was a student in Paris, I lived in a chambre de bonne (maid’s room) at the top of a building on the corner of the rue du Ranelagh and the rue Raynouard in the 16th arrondissement.

My room contained an iron camp bed (the elderly mattress sagged in the middle, so I slept in a shallow trench) with a shelf over it; a table with a hot plate on it, a wall cupboard over it, and a stool under it; a sink (cold water only); and an immense wardrobe with shelves inside. Between the wardrobe and the wall was a short railing for hanging clothes. The window opened toward the courtyard, but over the roof opposite I could see the tip of the Eiffel Tower, which cheered me every morning.

This is a Google satellite view of the rooftop where I lived. I think my window was the one to the left of the red brick chimney in the middle.

The toilet à la Turque (two places to put your feet, a hole in the floor, and a chain that released a violent flow of water) and a separate room with a grimy shower stall were down the corridor.

The house had what is called “double circulation” – two completely separate sets of entries, staircases, elevators, and corridors that did not intersect. The front version was attractively lit, with an ornate ascenseur around which carpeted stairs rose. The back one had bare floors and dim lighting, and the ascenseur was severely utilitarian. I used the front staircase twice: the day I arrived and the day I left. Otherwise, I entered by a door marked “Service” to the left of the entrance to the parking lot.

A narrow corridor took me to the back of the building and a gloomy courtyard. The staircase and the second ascenseur led off the courtyard; the stairwell was not fully enclosed but had openings to the outside air. It was cold, but it was not musty. I would take the ascenseur to the 7th floor. I was lucky; in most Paris apartment buildings, the elevator does not go to the servants’ floor, if indeed the back staircase has an elevator at all.

On each landing of the back staircase, one or two doors led to the kitchens of the main apartments. This was the route taken by the rubbish bins on their way to the courtyard. It was also how I entered the apartment of my employers to fulfil my domestic duties. For 10 hours a week, I was a bonne à tout faire (the lady of the house preferred to call me an au pair).

Although I was surprised by this severe separation between the parts of the building used by the owners of the flats and the backstage area for the servants, I realized right away the benefits of having a place with its own entrance, where one could come and go unremarked. I daresay the original occupants of such rooms preferred this arrangement to a room within the apartment, even if the heating was dodgy, the toilet was manky, and the furniture had seen better days. Liberté: yes! Égalité: ah, no. Fraternité: that depended on the neighbours.

Each apartment below the sixth floor had the use of two chambres de bonne. The other one belonging to the family I worked for – across the corridor from mine with a view over the street – was occupied by one of my employer’s teenaged sons, who evidently appreciated the independence it offered. The other residents of my corridor and of the floor above (there were two floors of these rooms) were students and young working people of all nationalities. I met a few of them (how could one not?), but did not get to know any of them well.

What strikes me now is the fact that this building dated from 1934. The original occupants had a mere five years to maintain this stratified way of life before war came and turned everything upside down. After the war, servants were scarce. Indeed, they were getting scarce before the war. The designer of 28, rue du Ranelagh was fighting a rearguard battle to preserve an outdated version of domestic life. Already, other designers, encouraged by improvements in elevator technology, were making desirable apartments on the top floors that offered views over the city.

Curious about this anachronism, I went in search of the person responsible for this building. I came up short until I discovered that the building has two addresses: the current one on the rue du Ranelagh and an older one on the rue Raynouard.

The owner’s name was Jean-Maurice Lesage (1869–1934). He was an engineer agronomist and a grand officier of the Légion d’honneur for his services to agriculture, particularly as a director at the Ministry of Agriculture (he was given this honour at the same time as André Citroën and Vincent d’Indy). In this group photo from the Petit Journal of 11 janvier 1931 showing the new grands officiers, he is the (only) one in a top hat.

In 1908, Lesage had commissioned a builder to create a two-storey house on this spot, where he lived for about 20 years with his family (five daughters, one son, all but one surviving to adulthood). Given the address, I assume his house faced the rue Raynouard. On the other side of the intersection was a gasworks (where Radio-France is now).

In 1930, by which time he and his wife Lucie-Aline-Marie Lucet were empty nesters, he obtained a building permit for an eight-storey structure on the same plot of land. The summary of the permit that I found online notes “pas d’architecte.” Does that mean no architect was involved, or that the architect’s name is not noted in the building permit? I don’t know.

I imagine Jean-Maurice as a fellow of the old school, who probably formed his ideas about buildings and domesticity in the Belle Époque. After all, he was the one wearing a top hat in 1930 when most other men wore fedoras or homburgs. He died just as the block was completed in 1934.* According to one source, the construction ruined him financially.

Why did Jean-Maurice Lesage consider two floors of servants’ quarters a necessity in 1934? We cannot know, but we can trace the origins of the chambre de bonne that influenced his thinking.

According to a book about the lives of domestics in 1900,** the use of the top floors of apartment buildings as servants’ quarters was the outcome of economic (that is, real estate) forces and social changes. By the second half of the 19th century, land prices in Paris were high. So landowners made full use of new regulations that allowed increased height for buildings, provided that the roof leant back and away from the street (the permitted height depended on the width of the street). The spaces created under the roof usually had sloping ceilings and were considered appropriate only for servants. Meanwhile, a growing desire for greater privacy for the families in large apartment buildings meant banishing servants’ accommodation from the apartment itself and placing it out of sight. Et voilà: the chambre de bonne is born.

Two cutaway drawings illustrate the transition. The first is by the illustrator Bertall, from Edmond Texier’s Le Tableau de Paris, published in 1853, and it shows a building with only five storeys. The top floor is occupied by a jovial artist and friend, a bedridden man, and a family with four children.

The second is an illustration by Louis Poyet from a book called L’Electricité dans la maison, published 30 years later, in 1885. It shows seven floors (although here the bottom one is a cellar) and the top floor is a neat row of identical chambres de bonne. They are empty, because the maids are at work. Given the subject of the book, the important feature here is the electric bell in each room, so that the family can summon a maid when needed – presumably in the middle of the night, because that would be the only time the rooms were occupied.

Today, these little rooms are considered mini-apartments, sometimes called “chambres de service” (a gender-neutral version of chambre de bonne) or, in real-estate-speak, “studettes” for mini-studios. They are highly sought after and they are not cheap. According an article in Le Figaro, there are about 115,000 of them in Paris and they are defined as dwellings of 15 square metres or less without a full bathroom.

For many people, the chambre de bonne is their first accommodation in Paris. One blogger got her friends to draw the layouts of the places they had first lived. They looked familiar.

In January 2020, we visited a friend who had bought a chambre de bonne in the 16eme. It had recently been renovated after a fire, and was cozy and attractive. It had a compact kitchenette, discreet storage, and its own shower (the toilets across the hall were clean and up-to-date). It also had a spectacular view over the city from its western edge. The elevator, however, only went as far as the floor below.

To me, the chambre de bonne illustrates the comments made at the beginning of the documentary Paris, Roman d’une ville:

Those who build a city disappear, the city remains. Cities do not count the time as we do.

It’s a little bit like an apartment – the day we move in, we make changes, and then one day we move out, and those who come after us live with the decisions and changes we made. They use it as they wish, without questioning how the changes came to be.

Lesage created a certain kind of building with rooms on top for domestic servants who slept and dressed there, but otherwise spent all their time at work in the larger apartment. Today, such rooms have become miniature apartments where people cook and eat meals, watch television, study for exams, and even carry on small businesses. All of us live with decisions made in the past by people like Jean-Maurice Lesage, who were old-fashioned even in their own day. We seldom stop to question those decisions.

Still, I would like to belatedly acknowledge M. Lesage for installing a second ascenseur that went all the way to the seventh floor. Merci, monsieur.

Text by Philippa Campsie, photograph of 28 rue du Ranelagh by John Campsie, other images from Google and Gallica.

* He may never have had a chance to occupy an apartment in the building. His death record notes that he died at 16, rue Oudinot, the address of a clinic or hospice run by Augustinian nuns. His wife survived the war and her husband by 20 years, dying in 1954 in La Celle–St-Cloud in Yvelines. I don’t know if she ever lived in the building.

** Anne Martin-Fugier, La place des bonnes : La domesticité feminine à Paris en 1900 (Paris: Grasset, 1979).

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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19 Responses to Chambre de bonne

  1. billmiller26 says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article.  

  2. suepov says:

    Thank you for this fascinating and highly informative, (as always) post! I have re-posted to my fb page, Paris d’antan, Paris d’aujourd’hui. I’ve stayed in two different chambres de bonne in Paris and love the rooftop views – shades of La Bohème. Zola’s novel Pot-bouille is one of my favourites of his, set in an apartment house arranged like this, with various goings-on on the back stairs, between employer and maid – a fascinating picture of manners and morals in late nineteenth century Paris.

    • narellerj says:

      I’ll be following your facebook page now.

    • Pot-bouille is a good read, but what I really wanted was a picture like the one in the blog in which was written the names of the various inhabitants and their respective servants. I found it hard to keep all the characters straight. Perhaps a little task for a rainy day, before re-reading the book.

      • Susan Ralph says:

        I’ve only just seen your reply – after commenting on the entresol post and mentioning Pot-Bouille again! Apologies -getting forgetful . . .

  3. narellerj says:

    This article has shown new insight into life in Paris. You were so lucky to have an elevator to reach the 7th floor. I loved the video and shared it to Alliance Française Côte du Nord’s facebook page. (New South Wales, Australia).

  4. Jan Whitaker says:

    Creepy, gives me shivers and reminds me of certain French hotel rooms. Those drawings are fascinating.

  5. Jill says:

    Absolutely fascinating (and a pleasure to read as it is so beautifully written). Thank you.

  6. Kiki says:

    Very interesting. On my walks in Paris I studied often the sales and rental posters in the windows of the immobiliers. The prices of those Chambres des Bonnes…. 10m2, 11m2….. absolutely EXORBITANT!

    • No kidding. Our friend spent a fortune on hers. But she does have an unbelievable view…

      • Kiki says:

        D’accord – but in the end what’s important is that you have food on the table, a safe roof over the head, basically a good life. I’ve had it all, super views, not so great views but super close to lake, ships, trains, bus, and shopping – guess what I prefer?! I just meant to say that you can’t live off a view. If you ‘have it’, fine by me. I had/have friends with apparts having great views but that was by chance of the employer paying the rent.

  7. Attie Evans says:

    I was certain that I was in the midst of a mystery novel – so well-written and intriguing with twists and turns to no end…thank you for sharing…enjoyed the architectural renderings too. I always thought that the maids quarters were more charming than the meandering square footage typically found in massive homes – a sweet ‘chambre de bonne’ sounds lovely – would like to stay in one some day.

  8. mem says:

    Great Story and insight I guess as a Parisian bolt hole for a country dweller it might be ok but really I think I might not cope in such a small space .Your ruminations about the consequences of decisions made in the past are very true and something we should all think about when we are altering anything in our environment .

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