21 Fascinating Facts About France in the 1700s

France had a population around 19 million people in 1700. The country was also benefiting politically from Spain’s decline, and similar to other European countries, most of the common people within France were illiterate. In 1715, Louis XIV died, and his 5-year-old grandson, Louis XV, assumed power. Around this same time intellectuals began to embrace a philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas throughout Europe and came to be known as the Enlightenment.

Louis XIV (left) and Louis XV (right), facts about France

Louis XIV (left) and Louis XV (right). Public domain.

But there are many other fascinating things that happened in France during the 1700s. Here are twenty one.

NUMBER ONE: Roulette (meaning little wheel) was developed in eighteenth century France based on a primitive form created in the seventeenth century by Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and Christian philosopher.

French roulette wheel in 1800. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

NUMBER TWO: Bals des victimes or victims’ balls were claimed to be merrymaking balls sponsored by dance societies after the Reign of Terror. Whether these balls actually existed or were just fanciful imagination, it shows the morbid fascination later generations held towards the French Revolution and the guillotine. The balls were said to have originated from youths whose parents and other relatives faced the guillotine, and at these balls, instead of a graceful bow or bob of the head to a dancing partner, dancers reputedly jerked their head sharply downwards in imitation of the moment of decapitation.

NUMBER THREE: When Marie Antoinette first became Queen, panniers that were often 12 feet wide, became the required court fashion for women.

Example of a pannier gown. Author’s collection.

NUMBER FOUR: Another French fashion was the manteau. This was a broad gown and a leftover style from the seventeenth century. Its name came from either an Italian town or from the French word for coat. In the 1700s, the manteau was reserved for special occasions and was so wide wearers had to walk through doors sideways.

NUMBER FIVE: The song “La Marseillaise,” was written in 1792. In 1795, after it was sung in Paris by volunteers from the city of Marseilles, it was adopted by the National Convention as country’s anthem.

NUMBER SIX: A nefarious woman’s desire to become rich resulted in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, which then contributed to the downfall of Louis XVI and his monarchy by revealing secrets about Marie Antoinette, Petit Trianon, and royal court life.

NUMBER SEVEN: In the late 1700s a strange “mewing concert” was held. It occurred at a ball known as de la Veillée and involved a score of cats with only their heads appearing on the keys of a harpsichord. “Each of these keys had a sharp blade, which pricked a cat’s tail, and made it mew, each mew corresponded to a note, and the ensemble furnished a complete concert of discords.”[1]

NUMBER EIGHT: On 22 July 1789, the first victim of the French Revolution lynchings (known as “à la lanterne”) was Joseph Foullon de Doué, a politician who replaced Jacques Necker as the Controller-General of Finances.

NUMBER NINE: The “Last Bed of Justice” (literally, the seat or throne occupied by the French monarch at the deliberations of Parliament) was held by Louis XVI at Versailles in September 1787.

NUMBER TEN: In 1717, John Law, convicted murderer and millionaire gambler, created a gigantic commercial enterprise that came to be known as Law’s Bubble (some people call it The Mississippi Bubble). There was a belief that metals abound in Louisiana and areas bordering the Mississippi, and Law wanted to develop these resources. To accomplish this, he established the Banque Générale in France that effectively became the first central bank of France, with notes guaranteed by the King. The bank was composed of 1,200 hundred shares that were originally valued at 3,000 livres each. Within a year these shares were worth 20 times their original value, and for the first time the word millionaire was used. However, “the bubble burst in 1720 and the shares sunk in value as rapidly as they had risen, occasioning widespread financial distress and bankruptcy.”[2]

John Law, by Casimir Balthazar. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

NUMBER ELEVEN: A French chef who worked for the Duke of Richelieu is often credited with creating mayonnaise, probably in 1756. Mayonnaise was said to have been served by the chef at a victory feast after the Duke defeated the British at Port Mahon. However, some people claim the sauce was invented in Spain not France. Whatever the truth, everyone agrees France popularized the oil and egg mixture that came to be known as mayonnaise.

NUMBER TWELVE: Two French brother, the Montgolfier’s — Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne — invented the hot air balloon and launched their first balloon on 14 December 1782, and, a few months later the first public demonstration was held on 4 June 1783.

NUMBER THIRTEEN: Pierre Fauchard was alleged to be one of France’s best dentist in the 1700s and even acquired the title of “father of modern dentistry.” Besides making remarkable improvisations of dental instruments by adapting tools from jewelers, barbers, and watchmakers, Fauchard also introduced dental fillings, pioneered dental prosthesis, and strongly recommended braces when teeth overlapped, “even in children at the breast.”[3]

Late seventeenth-century surgical instruments made by Fauchard. (Top From left to right) a saw and two kinds of forceps. (Bottom from left to right) two kinds of limes and a gimlet. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

NUMBER FOURTEEN: Most people agree the first world restaurant opened in Paris but exactly when and by who is still under debate: Some say Monsieur Boulanger (1765) and others say Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau (1773).

NUMBER FIFTEEN: Between guillotine executions in the 1790s, certain women entertained themselves by knitting and chatting with one another and, hence, became known as “les tricoteuses de la Guillotine” from the word tricoter, to knit.

NUMBER SIXTEEN: Enormous hairdos came into fashion in France in the late 1700s and to protect these towering hairdos women wore a bonnet called a calash. It was an attractive but strange bonnet named for the hood found on horse carriages that collapsed in similar fashion.

NUMBER SEVENTEEN: Louis-Léon de Brancas, Duke of Lauraguais, was a French writer and reputedly the first Frenchman infected with the disease “Anglomania” (love for anything English).

NUMBER EIGHTEEN: When Marie Antoinette and her family made their unsuccessful flight to Varennes, a French royal wardrobe employee named Monsieur Besnard, had already left France with some of the Queen’s wardrobe anticipating her later arrival. So, in 1793, after Marie Antoinette was guillotined, the Besnard family cut up the garment (shown below) and shared it as a relic of the dead Queen.

Fabric scrap from a petticoat or underskirt of Marie Antoinette’s dress. Courtesy of Museum of London.

NUMBER NINETEEN: “Lettres de Cachet” (sealed letters) were essentially warrants sent from the King to enforce arbitrary actions and judgments that could not be appealed by the receiver. During the reigns of Louis XV and his grandson, Louis XVI, the Mirabeau family received 59. Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Count of Mirabeau, wrote a scathing indictment against the lettres de cachet while imprisoned in the dungeon of Vincennes and this likely contributed to him becoming a prominent leader during the French Revolution. His indictment was published in 1782 and resulted in the demand for a suspension of lettres de cachet, but they were not abolished until after the French Revolution.

NUMBER TWENTY: The guillotine was first used in France on 25 April 1792 at the Place de Grève on Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier, a highwayman convicted of murder and robbery.

NUMBER TWENTY-ONE: When Louis XV came to power in 1715, perfume came into its own, and his court was called “la cour parfumée” (the perfumed court), because each day Louis XV ordered his apartments be impregnated with a new perfume to mask the bad smells.

References:

  • [1] Uzanne, Octave, Fashion in Paris, 1898, p. 4.
  • [2] Smith, Moses, Plain Truths about Stock Speculation, 1887, p. 113.
  • [3] New York Dental Journal, Volume 3, 1860, p. 6.

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  1. Philip Holt on August 2, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Reading para 19 reminded me of Dumas’ histories, esp Memoires of a Physician, The Queen’s necklace and Taking the Bastille, which I read over 50 yrs ago. You have spurred me to reread them.

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