Victorian Paris street cries were plentiful and had a charm all their own. In fact, supposedly, one musician named Kastner thought the sounds and cries of Paris so interesting, he collected them. From this strange collection, he then created the “les cries de Paris” (the cries of Paris). Thus, it became a popular tradition at the Grand Opera to hear the asparagus woman’s shriek: “Ma botte d’asperges!”
Among the common sounds of Paris was the cracking of a driver’s whip and his shouts of “Hé, la-bas!” (I say! down there!). This was also the same shout given by the fiacre (hackney cab) drivers. However, that had not always been the case as prior to macadamized roadways being installed, block stone and cobblestone streets were so noisy all anyone could hear was the sound of vehicles coming and going.
Another sound accompanied fiacres. To hire them, passengers called out not by giving a cry but rather by creating a hissing sound. The sound was “produced by placing the tongue behind the upper row of teeth and forcing the air out through the teeth.” Apparently, the sound was well-recognized because supposedly one person reported that “a cab-driver … always pulls up his horse instantly on hearing that magic sound.”
Paris was also filled with a steady stream of merchants and their calls. Some merchants wandered around Paris pushing little handcarts and carrying their licenses. Their wares included everything from fish to fancy soaps to neckties or sweets. As they went they cried: “Voilà des beaux poissons!” (Here are fine fish!) or “Demandez des haricots! Oh! des beaux haricots!” (Ask for the beans! Oh! the excellent beans!) or “Demandez des laitues!” (Ask for some lettuce!)
Another popular cry was “à la fraiche! à la fraiche!” that came from the vendors of sugared water. They wandered Paris’s rues and boulevards, ringing their bells and singing some strain of “à la fraiche!” (to the fresh!) There were several hundred of these vendors, and they could be found in all areas of Paris. They looked unusual because they had their tin can strapped to their backs, it towered over their head, and dozens of cups hung on hooks off the sides. Supposedly, the only advantage to this drink was that it was not adulterated as was “vin”(wine) or the highly distilled “absinthe.”
One long-time merchant regularly heard and found in Paris in Victorian times was the fish woman. Her cries were said to be unique:
“As the Paris fish woman, stout, broad-shouldered and red faced walks along, she bawls lustily: “Voilà des harengs! Voilà des merlans! des bons merlans!” (Here are your herrings! Here are your whiting! good whiting!)”
Of all the sounds of the streets of Paris, the loudest sounds came from Parisian plumbers. Their cries were said to be ear-piercing and were used not only to gain notice but also to announce their arrivals. They walked the streets with their boxes of faucets, stop-cocks, and other plumbing articles and placed between their lips were a sort of whistle, described as a “curiously-shaped bit of metal, through which he blows at frequent intervals a shrill blast well calculated to awaken [any sleepers].”
Although the Parisian plumber made have had the loudest cry, the commonest of all the Parisian street cries came from the second-hand clothing dealers known as “marchand d’habit” or the second-hand dealers called “brocanteurs” who dealt with of such items as jewelry, carpets, kitchen utensils, books, etc. These street vendors were most frequently found in the Rue de Provence and the area called the “Temple.” As they traveled along with their black bags slung over their shoulders, they called out, “Marchand d’habit! Marchand d’habit!”
Theatre goers also heard special cries from ticket vendors. Within a few hundred yards of the Grand Opera or theatres were emissaries who prowled around the entrances. They hoped to sell tickets before the curtain rose, and these ticket sellers usually worked on commission. However, there were also independent ticket sellers who bought good seats and then hoped to sell them on the sidewalks at increased prices, thereby earning themselves a tidy profit.
Just like any other cities, Paris also had newsboys, and these newsboys were as noisy in Paris as in other cities. They sold copies from such journals or papers as “Le Figaro,” “Le Gaulois,” or “L’Evénement.” Their cries went something like this:
“Demandez le soleil! Monsieurs! demandez la France! Voilà l’Estafette! Messieurs! demandez l’Estafette! ! ! (Ask for the Sun! Gentleman, ask for the France! There’s the Express, Gentlemen, demand the Express! ! !)”
Water carriers known as porteurs d’eau could also be heard on the streets. Their cry of “A l’eau-au!” resembled the sound that certain animals made when their young were taken from them. Water carriers had plenty of customers as allegedly there were “more than twenty thousand houses and buildings in Paris … without any water supply.” They filled up their water buckets at public fountains and paid the city one franc for each 1,000 litres. They then sold their water for five francs making a 400 percent profit. They traveled “from house to house with a yoke of wood or a broad strap across their shoulders from either end of which hangs a large bucket containing water.”
There were many other street criers. The smelt seller who screeched “La violette! La violette!” (The violet! the violet!) and the oyster seller whose scream was “A la barque!” The glazier also had his own cry, “Vi-i-i-t-r-r-r-r-i-e!” as he traveled with his wooden frame containing sheets of glass. Street singers also chimed in selling their ballads for one or two sous or impressing buyers by singing a few choice lines from their repertoire. Another common mode of selling songs was to pass the words to various songs throughout a crowd as the singer urged, “Demandez les paroles!” (ask for the words) of the songs.
Although there were many cries to be heard in Paris, some cries disappeared over time. For instance, in the 1830s and 1840s, the “marchands de friture” sold all sorts of fried foods such as potatoes, sausage, and apple fritters. They were found wandering around the Pont Neuf and belting out clamorous cries for their goods, but by the late 1800s, they were no longer there. This was because regulations of the 1860s and 1870s converted their food carts into little shops along the Marché aux Blés (The Corn Exchange of Paris) or in the vicinity of the Halles Centrales.
There was also perhaps one cry that Parisians of Victorian times were glad not to hear. It was “à la lanterne!” (to the lantern). This was the unfortunate cry made by blood-thirsty mobs during the French Revolution. They would seize victims anywhere, anytime and rush them to the street lamps yelling “à la lanterne!”
“[These street lamps were constructed from] iron in the form of an immense letter F, and the lantern was hauled up by a rope to the long arm represented by the top of this letter. Passing the lantern’s rope about the throat of the unfortunate one, the mob would hoist their victim up [to die].”
If you would like to listen to the sounds of Paris in the 1700s, one musicologist Mylène Pardoen recreated the background sounds of central Paris in the 18th century, so click here to learn more. If you’re interested in hearing the sounds of London in the Victorian Era, click here.
- Good Company, Volume 7, 1881