Washerwomen of Paris and the Mi-Carême Celebration

Washerwomen of Paris were known to celebrate a special holiday known as Mi-Carême or mid-Lent, celebrated in the so-called Lent period, which is a period of forty days of deprivation that precedes Holy Week in the Christian calendar. Just like Mardi Gras was the traditional fete of the butcher, Mi-Carême became the holiday of the washerwomen of Paris. It was recognized by the “industrious class known as ‘Blanchisseuses,’ who earned a frugal livelihood by washing, bleaching, drying, starching, and ironing for the Parisian public.”[1]

washerwomen of Paris

Washerwomen from the Le Reve Opera Comique in 1891. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In 1875, the same year as the shocking Beecher-Tilton Scandal became headline news, it was reported in Paris that the number of washerwomen in that city was 15,000 and that a laundress with two assistants could earn 150f per week. However, ironers were said to be better off than the washerwomen because they worked in a warm comfortable climate, whereas a washerwoman suffered all sorts of unpleasant weather and did so with her arms submerged in wash water all day.

According to the John O’Groat Journal that same year “a sum of 60 million is expended in washing in the capital alone … [with] 50 millions … for the rough work, and 10 to the getters up of muslins and fine linen.”[2] Washing of a citizen’s laundry also happened in various Parisian communes such as “Argenteuil, Rueil, Boulogne, Chatou, Arcueuil-Cachan, Saind-Ouen, Sevres, Billancourt, Nanterre, Vanves, and Grenelle, there being 10,000 persons engaged in it. A medium establishment occupies about 20 women paid at the rate of 2f 25c per day. The receipt of each week varies from 1200f to 1500f.”[3]

Over the years, the washerwomen of Paris, or the laveuses as they were better known, developed a reputation for their impulsive natures. For instance, it hardly took a reason for them to celebrate. An example took place in 1878 on the riverside part of the Quai du Louvre, where nautical wash houses floated. A group of itinerant musicians unexpectedly arrived one day and began playing a popular selection of songs to amuse the washerwomen:

“The nymphs of the washtub instantly left their boat and organized an al fresco ball on the quay, to the delectation of all the vagabonds in the locality and the amazement of the serious folk who happened to be passing. … The laveuses footed it with great spirit to the merry measures for some time, when a policeman suddenly appeared … and ordered the wandering fiddlers and harpists to put up their instruments and the washers to return to their soapsuds.”[4]

Washerwomen of Paris

Floating laundry house. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Of course, by then, the celebration was in full swing, and the loafers, musicians, and washerwomen of Paris were unwilling to end their pleasure. In fact, some in the crowd fell upon the policeman beating and stabbing him and they would have thrown him into the river if three or four of his colleagues had not suddenly appeared. They charged the unruly offenders with their swords, which then created a general stampede amongst everyone and thereby dispersed the celebrating crowd.

Because the washerwomen of Paris seemed to have a penchant to celebrate it was probably no surprise that a special holiday would be established by them. In 1891, the same year that Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his family moved to Europe, the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer reported that the merrymaking of Mi-Carême was being celebrated in the traditional fashion in Paris. The weather was also cited as “brilliant” and it was reported that that year’s fete was going to be fabulous:

“By two o’clock in the afternoon the Boulevards and the principal streets were filled by a joyous throng, among whom masqueraders attired in a great variety of fancy costumes were unusually numerous. Holiday-makers had disguised themselves for the occasion as clowns, bears, apes, and even as lions, and played all sorts of pranks to the no small delight and amusement of less enterprising citizens who were content to appear in their everyday garb.”[5]

The Scotsman also reported on the Parisian celebration noting:

“Many young people endeavoured to hit the happy medium by turning their jackets inside out and sticking on false noses. One tall youth, who stood well over six feet in his stockings, was arrayed in a garment composed entirely of playing cards, and was the hero of the moment wherever he went.”[6]

The highlight of Mi-Carême was always the grand procession made by the washerwomen of Paris. Over the years they had formed a “syndicate,” which by 1891 had 100 affiliated wash-houses. They used the funds raised to organize the annual procession and in 1891 it was reported that the funds raised were of a “proper scale,” which meant that nothing would be left to chance when it came to the celebration.

The washerwomen of Paris in procession at a Mi-Carême celebration in 1852. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Each year a new “Queen” was selected by a committee formed from the washerwomen of Paris. In addition, besides the new queen two maids of honor were elected and the proprietor of the winning laundry usually selected the Queen’s King, although sometimes the Queen was allowed to choose her own King. Being the washer Queen was the highest honor that any Parisian washerwoman could attain, and the qualities necessary to achieve such a goal were provided by Margaret Griffith in her article published in 1897 in the Strand Magazine.

“The attributes and qualifications essential for the high position of queen are beauty and goodness, for it is said that purity of morals in as much a sine quâ non as purity of linen in these lavoirs, and canvassing and preliminary meetings are strictly forbidden to the candidate who aspire to royal honours. The election usually take place at the Cafe Americaine, in the Place de la République, in the presence of the committees … and of the lavoirs. … The candidates, who often number a hundred or more, pass before their judges with their numbers pinned on their breasts, and the voting immediately follows. Unhappy is the one who attempts to captivate her judges by gaudy attire, for an overtrimmed hat even may disqualify her.”[7]

The washerwoman Queens in 1897. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides the crown, the Queen also was given a magnificent robe, a scepter, and a bracelet and ring of diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones. She was then seated on a flower-wreathed throne aboard a float. The procession wound through Parisian streets and offered “endless gaiety” and entertainment for the spectators who lined the avenues and boulevards in hopes of catching a glimpse of the new Queen:

“As queen of queens … she [was to conduct] herself … with the greatest modesty and decorum, responding gracefully to the acclamations of the crowd with smiles and bows. On her head she wore a crown composed of ears of what in gilded metal, and beside her sat her consort clad in the black coat of ceremony, with [a] red scarf slung across the shoulders.”[8]

Mi-Carême procession in 1893. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

According to the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer in 1891:

“About half past three o’clock there appeared upon the boulevards a gay cortége of cars and vans, profusely decorated with flowers, ribbands, and party-coloured bunting, and bearing a motely crowd of masqueraders. In the principal chariot rode, in great state, the Queen of the Fête … whom … this year was Mddle. Louise Sicard, a plump and comely young woman of about five-and twenty.”[9]

Advertisement about Mdlle. Louise Sicard, the Queen in 1891. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Behind the Queen other vehicles followed. Inside them were bands playing music or clowns tickling “the ears of the populace with all manner of quips and buffoonery.”[10] These vehicles were then followed by costumed courtiers and ladies-in-waiting. In addition, the celebration intensified as the day wore on so that by nightfall streets were thronged, boulevards crowded, and vehicular traffic at a standstill. That was because the festivities concluded with a fanciful ball held for the washerwomen of Paris.

washerwomen of Paris ball in 1872.

The ball of the washerwomen of Paris in 1872. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A description of an 1895 mi-Carême celebration was provided by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch of Missouri who stated:

“An illustration of life and character may be found in the scene in front of the Cafe de la Paix during the celebration of Mi-Careme. The cafe is at the corner of the Boulevard des Capucines and the Place de l’Opera, and offers as fine an opportunity for the observation of humanity as any place in the world.

From the extensive terrace of the Cafe de la Paix you can with comfort witness almost any celebration in Paris, while having a pleasing drink … When the opera discharges its throng of more or less masked revelers they enliven the streets and the cafes which abound in the vicinity.”[11]

Although many Parisians and visitors appreciated and fully enjoyed the washerwomen’s special holiday, there were others who were not impressed. That was the case with George Augustus Sala, a London born author and journalist who wrote extensively for the Illustrated London News. He visited Paris in 1893 during Mi Carême and reported that Parisians kicked up their heels in a wild fashion and that a “squalid revival” was what took place. He also noted:

“The Mid-Lent maskings and mumming … has degenerated into an offensive pageant of advertising puffs and the interminable tottering through the main thoroughfare of gaudily bedizened cars and tawdry chariots drawn by cart-horses which altogether obstruct the traffic. The Boulevards on Thursday, March 9th, were rendered for hours impassable for vehicles symbolical only of the ware of vendors of quack pills, soap, chocolate, hats, slop-clothing, and infant feeding-bottles. … there was a prodigious number of vans full of showily attired washer-women; and it is in fact that a female who had been selected ‘Queen of the Laundresses’ was solemnly received on the morning of the festival by President Carnot at the Palace of the Elysee!”[12]

George Augustus Sala. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite Sala’s harsh assessment, the washerwomen of Paris and their celebratory customs related to Mi-Carême survived into the twentieth century. At that time World War II brought a halt to the celebration, and it never fully recovered. However, a procession was organized in France in 2009 and has been held each year since on the Sunday following Mi-Carême.

References:

  • [1] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, “Carnival in Paris,” March 6, 1891, p. 8.
  • [2] John o’ Groat Journal, “Paris Washerwomen,” March 18, 1875, p. 3.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Manchester Evening News, “The Washerwomen of Paris,” March 5, 1887, p. 3.
  • [5] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, p. 8.
  • [6] The Scotsman, “Paris Washerwomen’s Fete,” March 6, 1891, p. 6.
  • [7] M. Griffith, Queens of a Day, 75th ed. 13 (1897), Strand Magazine, p. 299.
  • [8] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, p. 8.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Mi-Careme in Paris,” April 21, 1895, p. 35.
  • [12] Leeds Mercury, “Echoes of the Week,” March 18, 1893, p. 12.

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