Although preceded by other women in the air, Sophie Blanchard was the first female to fly a balloon solo. She got into ballooning because of her husband, pioneer balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard. The story goes that Jean-Pierre was passing through the village of Trois-Cantons, near Rochelle, saw a pregnant woman working in the field, and told her that if her child proved to be a girl, he would marry the girl when she turned 16.
Jean-Pierre was already married when he made the promise to Sophie’s mother, and likely had already abandoned his first wife, Victoire Lebrun, and his four children. On 25 March 1778, Marie Madeleine Sophie Armand was born. Jean-Pierre kept his marriage promise, but exactly when Jean-Pierre and Sophie married is unclear. The earliest is 1794, but the most frequent date given coincides with Sophie’s 1804 ascent. Continue reading →
French Victorian feminist Hubertine Auclert was born to a middle-class family on 10 April 1848. At age 13, when her father died, she was sent to a Roman Catholic convent. She initially intended to become a nun, but she left the convent permanently after being rejected because of her vivacious personality. She then went to Paris, and shortly thereafter, Napoleon III was ousted and the Third Republic established. These changes encouraged activism by women, and women began to demand changes and greater rights. Inspired by others, Auclert then became involved in securing rights for women and because of her time spent in the convent, she became a militant anti-cleric. Continue reading →
The French tightrope walker, Charles Blondin, as he was called, was born at St. Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France on 28 February 1824 under the name of Jean-François Gravelet. When Blondin was about four, a traveling company of equestrian and acrobatic performers came to town. It “produced a powerful and abiding effect upon his infantile mind,” and Blondin fell in love with the idea of acrobatics and tightrope walking. It also encouraged him to attempt to duplicate these acrobatic and gymnastic feats, and before long, he succeeded.
Because Blondin proved to have uncommon agility and a strong desire to perform as an acrobat, at the age of five, his parents placed him in the École de Gymnase at Lyon. Blondin’s first instructor was a man named Blondin and it was from this elder Blondin that he took the name Blondin. The elder Blondin was a man who used kindness to get the best out of the young Blondin, and the young Blondin quickly became recognized as a prodigy. In fact, it was noted that whatever feat he desired to achieve, “he … practised with unflagging pertinacity until he achieved complete success.” Continue reading →
Born on 30 October 1757 at Saint-Berthevin, the legendary Jean Chouan was the nom de guerre of Jean Cottereau, a counter-revolutionary, insurrectionist, and staunch royalist. He was also a man of several nicknames, with “Chouan” a nickname given to him by his father (or it may have come from his imitation of the call of the tawny owl. However, he got the nickname, it meant silent one. There was also the less flattering nickname of “le Gars mentoux” or “le garçon menteur” (the boy liar).
Chouan is legendary because what is known about him was written by royalist partisan Jacques Duchemin des Cépeaux in 1825 at the request of Charles X. The story that Cépeaux reported has many unfounded facts that were further nourished by a small faction of Catholics and royalist-legitimist. Thus, Chouan’s actual role in history remains questionable and is likely more legend than fact.
Some facts that appear to be true are that Chouan’s father, Pierre Cottereau, was a lumberjack who felled trees, stacked and seasoned the lumber, and then made wooden shoes called sabots. His mother was a woman named Jeanne (nee Moyné) Cottereau. The Cottereau’s lived as tenants on a 20-acre farm located half-way between Saint-Ouën-des-Toits and Bourgneuf-la-Forêt in Mayenne, France. Chouan’s father was often absent and his mother was illiterate, which meant the children — Jean, Pierre, François, and René — were largely unschooled. Thus, when Chouan’s father died, Chouan declared himself a sabot maker, but unlike his father, Chouan was not as energetic or as skilled. Continue reading →
The French actress Mademoiselle Clairon, better known as La Clairon, was the stage name of a woman whose real name was Clair Josèphe Hippolyte Leris (sometimes spelled Lerys). La Clairon was born about a month a half early on 25 January 1723 to François Joseph Desiré Leris and Marie Claire Scanapiecq. Her father was a sergeant in the Régiment de Mailly and her mother an ordinary working woman.
When La Clairon was twelve, she and her mother left Condé-sur-l’Escaut, Hainaut, where La Clarion was born. They settled in Paris. One person described La Clairon’s life with her mother in Paris, stating:
“The future queen of tragedy was at this time … a delicate sensitive child, with a confirmed dislike to needlework, in consequence of which she spent the greater part of her days ‘trembling beneath the blow and threats of her mother,’ whom she describes, rather undutifully, as ‘a violent, ignorant, and superstitious woman.'”
The first French celebrity chef Marie Antoine (Antonin) Carême was born on 8 June 1784. It is rather surprising Carême achieved such wonderful success as his initial beginnings did not seem to indicate such an illustrious future. He was one of fifteen children, and, in 1794, at the height of the French Revolution, his father left him on the streets of Paris and told him to go and seek his fortune.
Hungry and in despair, Carême begged for shelter. The following day he was admitted into the service of a man who owned a cheap eating house or chop-house, and, at that point, he began working as a kitchen boy. Four years later, in 1798, he was apprenticed to Sylvain Bailly, a famous pâtissier with a shop near the Palais-Royal. Bailly immediately noticed Carême’s talents, and Carême quickly gained fame for the works that he created and displayed in Bailly’s shop window.
The salon hostess Sophie de Condorcet was born Marie Louise de Grouchy but known more frequently as Madame de Condorcet. She was a prominent and charming Parisian who maintained her own identity and remained influential before, during, and after the French Revolution. She was also known for her beauty, kindness, and indifference to a person’s social status or origins. Perhaps, this indifference was because she was born in 1764 to a page who worked for Louis XV named Francoise Jacques Marquis de Grouchy, and her mother was an intellectual named Marie Gilberte Henriette Fréteau de Pény.
Madame de Condorcet had been lucky enough in 1786 to marry a famous mathematician and social philosopher. His name was Marie-Jean Antoine Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. They were a striking couple but nearly opposite, as demonstrated in the following description: Continue reading →
Many famous fairy tales exist about giants and two of the most popular tales are “Jack in the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer.” However, in the 1800s there was a real person who was a giant. He was called the French Giant Louis Frenz but he also gained notoriety as Monsieur Louis.
The French Giant was born in 1801, and, at an early age, he decided to seek his fortune in England. His first exhibition in England supposedly occurred there in 1822 when he appeared at New Bond Street. It was there he naively confessed he had arrived in London to make a fortune and planned to return to France once he accomplished it. To earn this fortune, the French Giant usually exhibited himself between 11am and 5pm and between 7pm to 9pm. In addition, in 1825, he charged a shilling to see him, although servants and children got a reduce rate of half price. Continue reading →
Stéphanie Félicité du Crest de Saint-Aubin better known as Madame de Genlis was born on 25 January 1746. She was french writer and educator appointed to oversee the education of the children of Louis Philippe II, Duke of Chartres (later Duke of Orléans) and his wife Louise Marie Adélaïde de Bourbon. The Duke appointed her gouverneur (not governess) of his sons in 1781. The position of gouverneur at the time was something given only to men, so the appointment caused a stir.
As gouverneur, Madame de Genlis was zealous to the point of being overbearing. Part of the problem was her educational techniques were uncommon. Moreover, all the other tutors quit because Madame de Genlis would not share her power and zealously implemented her ideas. (To learn more about her educational ideas and techniques, you can read my guest post at Naomi Clifford’s blog. It is titled Madame Genlis: A Most Unusual Educator). In addition, in order to popularize her educational ideas, Madame de Genlis included them in many of her novels, which amounted to over eighty. Continue reading →
Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was the man who made potatoes popular in France in the 1700s. His interest in potatoes began after he was captured during the Seven Years’ War and found himself imprisoned in Russia eating mounds of potatoes. Unlike Russians who were willing to eat potatoes, Frenchmen considered them hog feed, and, in fact, in 1748, the French Parlement forbade people from cultivating them because they thought potatoes caused leprosy.
When Parmentier returned to France in 1763, he began to use his degree as a pharmacist to conduct pioneering studies in nutritional chemistry. Remembering his imprisonment, he decided the potato had great nutritional value, as much as wheat. In fact, he considered the potato so valuable and nutritious, he began to consider how he might overcome the prejudices of the French public against the humble potato. Exactly how this came to pass, involves several stories. Continue reading →