Parisian Fairs - Part 1
( Originally Published 1938 )
Friday, March 23, 1923
MY DEAR LOUISE:-
DON'T buy any more candlesticks, and don't spend any more money! Unaccustomed advice from me, I know — but my dear, I have been to the Marché aux Puces, and I have come back laden with treasures : candlesticks and candlesticks such as we never seem to find at home any more. I so much wish that we were to be in Paris together; you are one of the few robust antique-ing spirits who would be hardy enough to brave with me the dirt and the crowd and the noise of this most interesting conglomeration of humanity — this Babel that is translated sometimes as "Rag," sometimes as "Junk" Fair. Actually it means "Flea Fair" — a name which does it no injustice, I assure you.
But since we cannot go together upon this joyous adventure, I might as well tell you just how to get there; for famous as it is, a great many Parisians have only a hazy idea of its whereabouts, and even the collecting friend who finally directed me sent me a-wandering way to the Porte St.-Ouen, when it really is out on the old, old ramparts at one end of Montmartre, at the Porte de Clignancourt. The simplest way is to take the Métro, and go straight out to Clignancourt, as far as the line runs. Then you 're there. You '11 walk through a preliminary space of merry-go-rounds and swings and fortune-teller booths, and suddenly you '11 see the fair spread before you. Acres and acres it covers; it must be four or five times as large as our campus, and you have to thread an intricate path between heaps of discarded clothing and piles of old shoes and barrows of new cloth and faded ancient books, and — every-thing. Without exaggeration, at the Marché aux Puces you can buy any article, from an old bureau to a new button. At its edges are the more pretentious stands where the venders sell shoestrings and stockings and neckties, and these you can pass by quickly, but once inside, stop and examine each heap. Treasures may be there for your finding. And now, having told you how to go, let me add when. Three days each week the fair is held: Saturday, Sunday, and Monday; and Sunday is far and away the best time, for on Saturday morning the stands are being arranged and the wares brought in, and on Monday afternoon the people begin packing up again; but on Sunday everything is in full swing, and experience has taught me that it pays to go early. That 's the way Orde and I did: we were there at ten o'clock.
Never shall I forget my first thrill. I have always maintained that collecting is the one respectable form of gambling, and the sight of that immense field of tangled possibilities exhilarated me; I began to run and run, just as R— does, you know, when he nears an auction. I had the awful sensation that somehow everybody was going to get there ahead of me and dash away with all my cherished desires. You '11 feel just the same way; it 's inevitable to a true collector; but, Louise, cultivate restraint. Don't buy the first things in sight; look further; search and search. At the beginning-pile, Orde had to keep me forcibly from purchasing a wretched wobbly candle-stick for five francs just because it was the first one I beheld. I followed his advice, with the result that I found three candlesticks: two brass and one pewter, — much rarer, of course — for three francs and two francs and a franc-and-a-half. And I could have bought more, but — can you believe it — after a time I grew blasé, critical. There were so many! The best chances for bargains come at little stands and piles lying on the ground, because, when dealers gather their wares together and clean them carefully, making a brave and glittering show of copper and brass, why, then prices rise accordingly. There are some such knowledgeable stands at the Marché, where they charge more for warming-pans and candle-sticks than they do at my nice little shop on the rue de Vaugirard.
But the really great experience of that first day was the cave a liqueurs that Orde stumbled upon. Literally, for there it was at the edge of a pile of rubbish, its pretty, round, ebony feet set firmly in the mud, and Orde — you know he has never before been anything of a collector — bought it upon my admiring advice, for thirty francs. The picture does not in the least reveal its excellence; time has so gently toned it that it is impossible to reproduce all its soft and lovely glow. A student who was stooping over the pile, picking up chemistry books, told us that it was made of thuya wood, "un bois des Isles, monsieur," — ah, that romantic phrase "des Isles," — and the dictionary defines it as a sort of cedar. But if you can imagine a very fine bird's-eye maple, only a deep golden brown, you will get some idea of its color-value. The front curves a little like a serpentine bureau, and it is about thirteen inches long, ten wide, and ten and a half high. Arid a great deal of its beauty comes from the inlay: marquetry of satinwood and ebony, and charming baskets of mother-of-pearl and metal on the front and top. The sides and the front are bound with bands of brass, and within, a gilt receptacle holds six tiny flowered liqueur-glasses and two old decanters. There should be just as many more, but finding them will be a pleasant occupation, a labor I delight in. Still, how on earth am I ever to fill them? I have a notion of learning to make cowslip wine; its amber hues, I feel, would well become their sprigged beauty. It 's really this liqueur-box which makes me urge you not to go by the Porte St.-Ouen, for that means a long walk. Orde did n't dare to put the box down for a moment; he carried it all over the fair and all the way down to the Métro, and he declares that his arm is just beginning to get back into its original shape.
Oh, there is so much to tell you! Of course I went back and went back — five times altogether: with the girls, once with Marie, another time with some of the students from the Parsons School, while my last visit was paid with Mrs. S -, a recent collecting-acquaintance who had met me here and there in print, and who says she has wanted to go antique-ing with me ever since. Odd, was n't it, coming together way over in Paris, and then going companionably to the Marché aux Puces?
Always there is something new and different and interesting. Alicia picked up an excellent pewter inkstand for a franc and a half, and we bought quantities of candlesticks; these that I show you are just some of them. The highest price I paid was five francs for that tallest one. It is heavy and well shaped, but not so rare as the one next to it, which Mrs. S--.bought. That is Norman, and I want you to look closely at the little flattened slide, for I have never seen another like it. I am hoping to find another somewhat resembling it in Rouen.
And I am very proud of my three-franc pewter candlestick, the one with the saucer-base and sliding button, for they are rare, as I said, and this one is sturdy and most domestic-looking. And notice, please, the pretty little pewter ladle. If you could turn it over you would see that it has the long and revealing rat-tail, always an indication of age. The color is fine and silvery; there must be a large pro-portion of tin in the alloy, although the ladle is quite heavy. I was attracted by the shape as it lay there on the ground among a pile of uninteresting modern forks and spoons, and I bought it for a franc. When I had a chance to examine it I found two dates en-graved on the handle : first 1798, below that 1898, the upper figures being in an older method of cutting. Just think! It had lived over a hundred years in one appreciative family, and then, by some mischance, had been turned out in the cold world, and sold for junk — for a few centimes, no doubt, since it came to me for so very little.
But more than anything else I know you will appreciate the glad Adventure of the Cup-plate. You know — or did I write you — that I have searched Paris in vain for them? Every dealer who seemed to understand what they were, told me that, like silhouettes, they were "tres, tres rare," and I had begun to despair, for, after all, the French are n't a tea-drinking nation and they may not have had the gentle custom of pouring their coffee into saucers to cool. Well — but before I begin my story let me tell you of a game worth playing as a preparation for Paris. It is one which we enjoyed in the days of our youth, and it is called, I believe, "Observation." You go into a room and look hard at a table covered with all kinds of different objects, and then you go out and write down the name of every-thing you can recall. I think it must have sharpened my wits; otherwise how could I have so quickly noticed among all the rag, tag, and bobtail, again flat on the ground, this little mignonne cup-plate? I suppose it would be more romantic if I could tell you it was an octagonal Washington or a large Henry Clay, but sincerity compels me to confess that it was just one of the pretty formalized floral patterns, very clear and quite perfect. And it cost me all of a franc! But I paid only half as much for a pressed-glass honey-plate, a trifle smaller, which Alicia discovered a few stalls further down. This one has an engaging openwork border, and when, for a franc and a half, I had added to my collection two small double saltcellars — about 1840, I should say — and a glass vase, fine-ringed and adorned with bunches of flowers, for five francs more, I felt that I had spent a most profitable morning, especially since all pressed glass in the Paris shops is apt to be heavy and expensive and rather clumsy.
Still, the climax of the whole Marche for me is my lovely boite a the. How shall I make you see it, this miracle of color that is my dear box? It is, in the first place, curved like a miniature serpentine bureau; the wood is ebony, and, patterning itself upon a memory of Boulle, the surface, except for a narrow, brass-bound base, has been delicately lacquered with softly dappled red and then inlaid — really almost encrusted — with charming arabesques of brass. The top is brass-bound also, and only a French work-man would so meticulously have placed the lock that the effect of the design remains unbroken. Inside are two silvered receptacles, and the covers are inlaid with narrow lines of brass. A little bit, just under the cover and quite at the side, is missing. This is its only real flaw, and I am now diligently searching for some skilful ebeniste who can repair it for me after the old method. All this eighteenth-century beauty became mine for just thirty-five francs: the greatest bargain, of course; for a friend of Mrs. S was asked two hundred and fifty for a similar piece at an antiquity shop. And I bought it at the most expensive booth at the Marché, a stand that is almost a shop, and where really interesting things like lustre pitchers and fine bits of copper and brass are often to be found. The proprietor has a little house and a garden just back of it; indeed, there are a number of such little chaumieres on the outskirts of the Fair.
I have been presenting the Marché aux Puces to you only from the side of its collecting-interests, which are just a small, small part of it. It really is the place where poor Paris comes to buy its necessities : its cloth, its lingerie, its new shoes and its leather to mend old ones, its pots and pans and china and alarm clocks. It is a lesson in how the other half lives, and I grow ashamed of waste every time I go there. Things that we throw away in America are used and re-used here. Your purchase may be handed to you wrapped in a gay bit torn from a discarded roll of wall-paper, and they make thrifty bags from newspapers. But that 's very French; once, even in a quite good fruit-shop, the pears we had bought were carefully placed in a large envelope which we discovered, when we reached home, had been fashioned from a most interesting account of Madame de Stael's salon.
Still, in spite of general poverty — for you '11 meet only a very few prowling collectors or dealers — it 's a gay and good-natured crowd. You '11 grow used to the cries of the venders : "Voyez, voyez, mes enfants! Je vends pas cher!" or, "Mesdames! Faites vos choix!"; to jokes and bantering; or to some marchand de friperies who has been in New York — a Mecca! — and who wants dreadfully to talk English to you. And there are touching things, too. In the midst of all this dirt and noise and confusion sometimes you '11 see a man with a basket of pansies, and poorly-clad people stopping to buy their purple fragrance. Where else but in Paris could that happen? Or you '11 pause beside a pile of old and outworn garments, and hear a young girl humming to herself, "Sur le pont d'Avignon," lilting and gay, as only a French child, cradled to its cadences, ever could sing it.
You won't need a great deal of French for the Marché. In fact, you could manage it all on the immortal words of the Laird in Trilby: "Combien" and "Je prong." What you '11 want far more is a quick mathematical mind : an ability to understand that cent sous means five francs, vingt sous, one. For all the dealers give you their prices that way, and until I grew accustomed to the method, I had to do rapid-fire division. And some collectors will tell you to bargain, to beat them down, to offer them half. But in most cases you won't want to, any more than I did, for they are poor, so very poor, and a franc to them will mean so much more than it ever can to you! But I '11 admit it 's maddening, after you have just bought a beautiful brass candlestick for four francs, to have another vender ask you twelve for a battered, broken one, just because its desolate condition proves its antiquity. In that case you walk away in the dignified silence which better befits a foreigner than animated argument in an unknown tongue.
All this does n't mean that I don't counsel you to work hard over those grammars we left with you. I do; for a really adequate knowledge will increase your happiness a thousandfold. My fluency grows, although I would hardly yet speak of French as my mother tongue. I talk, but I do not converse; I say
"Pass me the bread, please," or, "It is very cold to-day," but never anything that I really want to say. And you know what I think words should be: swift, beautiful things, glowing jewels to string into a magic pattern. I try, of course; moreover, at present I am completing my education by a struggle with the Merovingian kings — unsuccessful so far, it 's true, but I solemnly vow that if ever I do overthrow this dynasty, I '11 lead them captive in rhymed chains — like "William the Norman and William his son," you know — so that future generations will not have to suffer from their tyranny, as I have.
Enough for to-night. But I am not going to close my letter. I am keeping it open till after the big Foire aux Jambons which takes place next week --Holy Week. They say there 's nothing like it in all Paris.