“What is the significance of the name Loretto?” asked Norman, looking at a picture of the former Loretto Academy in Niagara Falls. “It reminds me of that church in Paris.”
Notre-Dame-de-Lorette in Paris is an imposing Neoclassical edifice in the 9th arrondissement, and I vaguely remembered something about the name being used for prostitutes operating in that area, but clearly some research was in order.
First, I dug out a postcard from our collection. (For the curious, the message is an invitation to a Robert Guillon to visit on a Thursday at 9:15 in January 1904, from his friend M.B. Georges. I think.)
Since I am not a Catholic, it was news to me that Loreto in Italy is a pilgrimage site containing what is believed to be the house from Nazareth in which the Virgin Mary lived at the time of the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel. According to legend, angels brought it from the Holy Land, after a stopover in what is now Croatia.
The more prosaic version is that in the 13th century the house in Nazareth was dismantled stone by stone, transported by ship and overland, and reassembled in Loreto by a family called Angelos in order to protect it from non-Christian aggressors in the Holy Land. The legend, however, is more picturesque, as this preparatory study for a fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo* suggests.
The name Notre-Dame-de-Lorette (Our Lady of Loreto or Loretto) has been given to Catholic churches and schools in many countries, including Canada, and to a huge French military cemetery from the First World War near Arras. In 1920, Our Lady of Loreto became the patron saint of aviators and airplane passengers. I love that.
The Paris church dates from the 19th century, and replaces an older church near the site that was destroyed during the Revolution, a more modest structure.
On the little map, the newer church is across the road, roughly where it says “Plan de Jaillot.”
In the 1830s, the surrounding area was known as La Nouvelle Athènes (New Athens), and rue Bréda (now called rue Henry Monnier) was known for its population of prostitutes. Lorettes were also known as brédas.
In those days, prostitution took different forms. As with everything else, class distinctions mattered.
In the top rank were the courtesans or grandes horizontales, mistresses who were expected to provide their services exclusively (or so he was led to believe) to a wealthy and aristocratic man. They lived fashionable and often quite public lives.
Much farther down the spectrum were the grisettes, working-class women who set up housekeeping with students or artists. Some worked a triple shift: as seamstresses or shopgirls during the day, as housekeepers and cooks in the evening, and as bed companions at night. Although some depictions of grisettes make them sound like romantic figures, devoted to their partners, the arrangement tended to break down when the student left Paris or the artist began to make a name for himself. The name grisette is said to reflect the grey dresses that seamstresses and shop assistants wore.
Some women worked in maisons closes, brothels that were managed by a “madam” (often a former prostitute too old to do that work, but who knew her way around the profession) and regulated by the police.
Then there were filles publiques – streetwalkers, often harassed by police.
In the middle were the lorettes, freelancers, or filles insoumises, who did not report to the authorities or to a madam. Their clients tended to be middle-aged or older, bourgeois, and often affluent, but not sufficiently wealthy to be patrons of the grandes horizontales. Conversely, the lorettes’ favours were seldom exclusive. The men were known as “Arthurs.” According to Maurice Alhoy in Physiologie de la lorette (1841), “Arthur” was a name often used by men when they signed into a hotel where they did not want to be identified.
Lorettes appeared in magazine illustrations by artists such as Paul Gavarni. He often depicted them in languorous poses (since they did not work during the day), informally dressed, reading (they had some education), playing cards, or even (gasp) smoking.
Sometimes they were pictured in pairs, talking about their lives, such as this one with one girl in a bathtub.
Or this one, with one mocking the other for reading about “good women.”
When shown with their clients, the clients don’t necessarily look happy with the situation. In many illustrations and in fiction, lorettes were portrayed as gold-diggers, preoccupied with money and getting every franc they could out of the Arthurs.
The caption reads: “Les billets une fois pris, on n’en rendra pas la valeur.” In other words, Once the banknotes have been taken, one does not get their value back.
Why did they cluster in that particular quartier? In the mid-19th century, the area between the Gare St-Lazare and Montmartre was still largely under construction, known for its dust and grit. Those who first moved in were said to “essuyer les plâtres,” which means to live in accommodation in which the plaster was barely dry. (Modern homeowners living in houses made with drywall have no idea – why do you think it is called drywall?)
Property owners had difficulty finding respectable tenants to live in the resulting chaos and humidity and were prepared to offer the rooms at a modest rent to anyone prepared to keep the rooms heated and close the curtains while entertaining. Demand met supply. And so a quartier with a church named for the Madonna of the Holy House became a synonym for the good-time girls of the just-finished flats. Funny how these things work, isn’t it?
Text by Philippa Campsie, church with map and Gavarni images from Gallica, Tiepolo image from Useum, postcard from our collection.
*The fresco was on the ceiling of a Venetian church that was destroyed by an Austrian bombardment in 1915; only the preparatory study remains to show how it once looked.