France - Houskeeping - Part 2
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
The following figures and calculations have been supplied by experienced French householders. Although a quarter of a century ago I spent an unbroken twelve-month in Brittany, and since that period have passed a sum-total of many years on French soil, I have always lodged under native roots and sat down to native boards. Whilst pretty well acquainted with the cost of living among our neighbours, I could 'not authoritatively parcel out incomes, assigning the approximate sum to each item of domestic expenditure. Friendly co-operation alike from Paris and the provinces has enabled me to prepare these pages. For the convenience of readers I give each set of figures its equivalent in our money. I add that the accompanying data have all reached me within the last few months.
We may assume that where English officials, professional, naval and military men, and others are in receipt of £5oo or £600 a year, their French compeers receive or earn deputy's pay, i.e. 9000 francs, just £360 ; adding 1000 francs more, we obtain a sum-total of 400 a year. Such incomes may be regarded as the mean of middle-class salaries and earnings, and whilst these are much lower than in England, living is proportionately dearer. Hence the necessity of strict economy. Very little, if any, margin is left for many extras looked upon by ourselves as necessities of existence. Take, for instance, an extra dear to the British heart, the cult of appearances, Dame Ashfield's ever-recurring solicitude as to Mrs. Grundy's opinion in the play.
So long as reputation, and the toilette, are beyond reproach, a French housewife troubles her head very little about standing well with the world. Feminine jealousy is not aroused by a neighbour's superiority in the matter of furniture, or what is here called style of establishment. The second extra, this an enviable one, is the indulgence of hospitality. An English family living on £500 a year spend more on entertaining friends during twelve months than a French family of similar means and size would do in as many years, and for the excellent reason that means are inadequate. Our neighbours are not infrequently mis-judged by us here. We are too apt to impute inhospitality to moral rather than material reasons.
We begin, therefore, with the mean that is to say, incomes of 10,000 francs, i.e. £400 a year, and of persons resident in Paris. Here is such a budget : parents, two children old enough to attend day-schools or lycées, and a servant making up the household.
The amount of taxation seems small, but it must be borne in mind that food, clothing, medicines, indeed almost every article we can mention, are taxed in France.
The sum-total of £7 4S. covers contributions directes, i.e. taxes levied by the state and municipality directly and quite apart from octroi duties. Rents under £20 in Paris and £8 in the provinces are exempt. Municipal charges are always on the increase. A friend living at Passy has just informed me that her tiny flat, consisting of two small bedrooms, sitting-room, and kitchen, hitherto costing £28 a year, has just been raised to £32, and it is the same with expensive tenements.
The following figures will explain the apparently disproportionate sum-total expended on the table alike in Paris and, as we shall see further on, throughout the provinces. Butter, in what is pre-eminently a butter-making country, costs from is. 3d. to 2s. 6d. a pound (the French livre of 500 grammes is 1 lb. 3 ozs. in excess of our own). Gruyére cheese, another home-product, from is. to 2s. 4d., chickens from is. 3d. to 2s. per pound weight, milk 5d. a quart, bread 2d. a pound, meat (according to joint) Is.2d. to 1s. 6d. and 2s. Fruit grown on French soil is double the price at which it is sold in England. Thus bananas and oranges, grown by the million in Algeria, cost 2d. each.
Coffee is from 2s. to 2s. 6d, tea from 2s. 6d. to 6s., sugar 5d. to 6d. a pound. The penny bun—that delight of childhood—is unknown in Paris. The brioche or madeleine, little cakes half the size of the penny bun, cost 1 1/2d. each. A currant cake, under the weight of a 6d. one here, costs IS. 3d. These are current prices. The result of such high prices is that French householders find it easier to reduce any item of expenditure rather than that of the table. In the case of persons living alone the cost is naturally higher. Thus my correspondents assure me that such caterers for themselves only cannot live in Paris under 2s. 6d. a day, this sum covering plain diet only, with a very moderate allowance of vin ordinaire. * The extra id. on bread is a serious matter to an essentially bread-eating people, three pounds (i.e. 3 lbs. 4 1/2 ozs.) being the daily consumption of the average Frenchman.
The low-priced restaurants of business quarters doubtless mislead many travellers. I should say that the plateful of roast beef or mutton supplied with potatoes for is. in the Strand contains at least a third more nutriment than the tempting little dish offered with a hors d'oeuvre for is. 5d. on the boulevards. The hors d'oeuvre I expatiate upon lower down.
The average cost of a Frenchman's plain lunch and dinner at a quiet, well-ordered house of the better sort, with tips, cannot be under 5s. or 6s. a day. I allude to officials of standing compelled by their avocations to breakfast and dine at an eating-house.
The wages set down in the foregoing table seem excessively moderate for Paris, but, as my correspondent informs me, the fact of keeping a servant at all under such circumstances implies very great economy in other matters. A parallel budget-that is to say, the yearly expenditure of a similar family with a similar income—allows a more liberal margin for food, no domestic being kept.
Wages of good servants are high in Paris ; the cost of a capable maid-of-all-work, including board, washing, wages, and New Year's gifts, cannot be calculated, my friend assures me, at less than £6o a year. Thus many families of the middle ranks do with the occasional services of a charwoman, thereby economizing at least £40 annually for other purposes.
Fuel is another onerous item of domestic expenditure. Writing from Paris on February 24, 1904, a householder informed me that good coals cost £2 16s. the ton. No wonder that in moderate households firing is economized as in the home of Eugènie Grandet.
And many French temperaments seem positively invulnerable, appear to be cold proof by virtue of habit, or, maybe, heredity. I know a Frenchwoman whose happy immunity it is never to feel cold. No matter the weather, she needs neither fire, foot-warmer, nor warm clothing. A certain French physique exists, matchless for hardiness and powers of resistance.
The dearness of combustibles is equalled in other matters.
From a postage stamp upward—there are neither penny stamps nor halfpenny postcards in France we may safely assume that every commodity costs a third more on the other side of the Channel.
Spills and spill-cases are as obsolete in England as the tinder-boxes and snuffer trays of our great grandparents. But lucifer matches since 1871 have been a state monopoly in France. Whereas we get a dozen boxes for 2 1/2d., our neighbours still pay id. for one, and that one containing lights of an inferior kind. A match is never struck by French people when a gas jet and a spill are available.
Drugs and patent medicines are incredibly dear. No wonder that every country house and cottage has its store of home-made simples and remedies. Some eighteen months since, I fell ill in Paris, and a friendly physician prescribe i for me. One week's remedies ran up to 1, Four shillings were charged for a dozen cachets, composed of a similar substance which would, a chemist informed me, have cost just two here.
Little wonder also that families with an income limited to £300 or £400 a year cannot afford even a Tilly Slowboy, whilst an outing to the sea or the country during a long vacation is equally out of the question. My first correspondent informs me that, unless paternal hospitality is available, Parisians so situated would very seldom get a holiday away from home. Fortunately, many folks have some farmhouse of parents or grandparents to retreat to in the dog days.
A considerable item in remaining sum-totals is that of étrennes, or New Year's gifts. We grumble at being mulcted when Yuletide comes round. What should we think of 100 francs, 4, a year for Christmas boxes out of an annual 4300 or £400 ? Yet the unfortunate French, rather we should say Parisian, householder, whose income is much lower, must set aside at least 100 francs for the inevitable étrennes. There is the concierge, to begin with, that all-important and not always facile or conciliatory janitress of Parisian blocks. Fail to satisfy your concierge when New Year's day comes round, and you must be prepared for small vexations throughout the year.
Next to concierge, maid-of-all-work, or charwoman, come postman, telegraph boy, gas or electric-light employés, baker, milkwoman, and the rest, New Year's gifts reaching a much higher figure in proportion to means than among ourselves. The étrennes make an appreciable hole in small balances.
Tips are also high, and as Parisians who are narrowly housed and unprovided with servants do their scanty entertaining in restaurants, such items help to limit this kind of hospitality. In fact, of all luxuries in Paris, that of feasting one's friends is the most costly.
I will here say something about dress. The sum of `£6o in the foregoing tabulation allows ,£20 each for husband and wife, half that sum for each child, say a boy and a girl attending day-schools.
As Frenchwomen in such a position are always well dressed, the question arises, how is the matter managed ?
In the first place, if from her earliest years a French girl is taught the arch importance of la toilette, with equal insistence is inculcated economy in the wearing.
Thus the schoolgirl, whether at school or preparing her lessons at home, will always wear a black stuff bib apron for the proper protection of her frock, with sleeves of the same material tied above the elbow. The first.. mentioned article is particularized in the prospectus of the lycée. Boarders at these colleges created by virtue of the Ferry laws of December, 1880, as at convent schools, are compelled to wear a neat and serviceable uniform. The prospectus of the lycée of Toulouse shows that among the articles of apparel must be two aprons of black woollen material, cut according to a given pattern, the object being to protect the two costumes made by a dressmaker under the lady principal's orders. It is not only the cost of materials, but of dressmaking, that necessitates such care. As an inevitable consequence of dear food and lodging, dressmakers and seamstresses are obliged to charge proportionately for their labour. The chamber-maid of a hotel in Paris I sometimes stay at, lately told me that she could not get a Sunday gown made under 1. "And," she added, "seeing what a young woman has to pay for her room, let alone provisions, I could not ask her to take a halfpenny less."
A French lady must not only never be shabby, she must never be out of fashion. Oddly enough, one of the wittiest sayings on this subject was uttered by an Englishman. " No well-dressed woman ever looks ugly," wrote Bulwer Lytton-a saying, or rather a conviction, taken to heart in France.
I well remember an illustrative instance. Calling some years since on a very moderately paid official at Grenoble, I was received by his wife, a decidedly ordinary-looking and slovenly young woman, wearing a dingy morning wrap. Her husband soon entered. Madame left us to discuss farming matters, ten minutes later looking in to say adieu. Like Bottom, she was wonderfully translated. In her pretty bonnet and elegant, if inexpensive walking costume, her hair becomingly arranged, bien chaussée et gantée, well shod and gloved, she looked almost lovely. But at what cost of time and ingenuity such toilettes are obtained only such a Frenchwoman could tell you.
The economical have recourse to the maison de patrons, or pattern shop. Ladies living in the country send measures to these Parisian houses and obtain patterns of the latest fashions, either in paper or canvas. With the help of a clever needlewoman, hired by the day, dresses can thus be made to look as if they had just come from the boulevards or the Rue Royale.
As we should naturally expect, the cost of living is considerably less in the provinces. These items represent expenses of living in a cathedral town 200 miles from Paris. Here certain articles of daily consumption are considerably cheaper. Meat at Dijon costs 8d. to Is. the pound, butter 8d., fruit and vegetables are lower in price ; rent also and education. Thus we find a difference of *12 in the cost of two lycées, or day-schools.
The same correspondent has calculated the balance of similar income and tantamount charges in Paris. The discrepancy is suggestive. Allowing 448 for rent and taxes, £120 for food, £48 for dress, and so on in pro-portion, she found that just £21 would remain for amusements, medical attendance, and extras generally.
The next budget is the weekly one of a married employ/ or clerk in Paris, having one child aged six, his entire income being £ 16o a year. Every item has been set down for me as from a housewife's day-book, and, in addition to figures, I have a general description of daily existence economically considered.
I will now state precisely what is obtained for this outlay describe, in fact, how the little family lives.
In the morning they take coffee, with bread and butter, followed at midday by déjeuner, consisting of meat, vegetables, and what is called dessert, namely, fruit, with perhaps biscuits or cheese. At four o'clock madame and the child have a roll and a bit of chocolate, and at half-past six or seven the family sit down to dinner, or rather supper, soup, vegetables, and dessert, often without any meat, constituting the last meal of the day.
On Sundays is enjoyed the usual extra de dimanche of the small Parisian householder. Our friends lunch at home ; then, alike in summer and winter, they sally forth to spend the rest of the day abroad. Winter afternoons are whiled away in music-halls, bright warm hours a few miles out of Paris, dinner at a restaurant, coffee or liqueur on the boulevards finishing the day.
The expense of these Sunday outings sometimes amounts to 8s. or 10s., an indulgence often involving deprivations during the week.
Except among the rich, hospitality in Paris, as I have already remarked, is reduced to the minimum. Nevertheless folks living on 3000 or 4000 francs a year will occasionally entertain their relations or friends, and, owing to two agencies, that of the hors d'oeuvre and the rôtisseur, at very small cost and trouble.
Thrift, indeed, in France often wears an engaging aspect ; the sightly becomes ancillary to the frugal, and of all elegant economies the hors d'oeuvre, or side dish, served before luncheon, is the most attractive. Whether displayed on polished mahogany or snowy linen, how appetizing, and at the same time how ornamental, are these little dishes, first-fruits of the most productive and most assiduously cultivated country in the world tiny radishes from suburban gardens, olives from Petrarch's valley, sardines from the Breton coast, the far-famed rillettes or brawn of Tours, the still more famous pâtés of Périgueux, every region supplying its special yield, every town its special dainty, pats of fresh butter and glossy brown loaves completing the preparations !
Until lately I had regarded the hors d'oeuvre on luncheon tables of modest households as a luxury, an extravagance of the first water. A French lady has just enlightened me on the subject.
"The hors d'oeuvre an extravagance ! " she exclaimed. "It is the exact reverse. Take the case of myself and family, three or four persons in all. We have, say, a small roast joint or fowl on Sunday at midday, but always begin with a hors d'oeuvre, a slice of ham, stuffed eggs, a few prawns, or something of the kind. As French folks are large bread-eaters, we eat so much bread with our eggs or prawns that by the time the roast joint is served, the edge of appetite is taken off, and enough meat is left for dinner. So you see the hors d'oeuvre is a real saving."
The purveyor of hot meat, soups, and vegetables, plays as important a part in Parisian domestic economy as in the play of Cyrano de Bergerac. You are invited, for instance, to dine with friends who keep no servants. On arriving, your first impression is that you are mistaken in the day. No savoury whiffs accord gastronomic welcome. Through the half-open kitchen door you perceive the tiny flame of a spirit-lamp only. Nothing announces dinner. But a quarter of an hour later, excellent and steaming hot soup is served by a femme de ménage or charwoman, the obligatory side dish a vegetable and rôti follow; the rôtisseur in the ad joining street has enabled your hosts to entertain you at the smallest possible cost and to the exclusion of anything in the shape of worry. Quiet folks, also, who like to spend Sunday afternoons with friends or in the country, and who prefer to dine at home, find the rôtisseur a great resource. They have only to order what they want, and precisely to the moment appears a gate-sauce, or cook-boy, with the hot dishes piled pyramidally on his head.
This little balance, my correspondent informs me, will be spent upon the various Sociétés de Prévoyance and Secours Mutuels, associations, answering to our own working-men's clubs, and to the system of the post office deferred annuities. The bread-winner's pocket money supplies his tobacco, occasional glass of beer or something of the kind, his daily newspapers, the monthly subscription of fivepence to a Bibliothèque populaire, or reading-club, and the family extra de dimanche, an outing on Sundays by rail or tramway, or tickets for the theatre. Presumably, also, although this item is not mentioned, the father of a family, as in England, provides himself out of this argent de poche with boots and best clothes.
At Reims, as elsewhere in the provinces, we must take into account that living is much cheaper than in Paris. Thus in the former city coals, all the year round, cost Is. 8d. the sack of 110 lbs. (50 kilos), vin ordinaire 5d. the litre or 1 3/4 pint, beer 2 1/2d. the litre. Garden and dairy produce is also cheaper. Lodgings which would cost £18 or £20 a year in Paris can be had for £10 or £12 in provincial cities. Education is non-sectarian, gratuitous, and obligatory throughout France. Even the bulk of what is called fourniture scolaire, i.e. copy books, pencils, etc., is supplied by the richer municipalities. But in the eyes of anxious and needy mothers the primary school is ever an onerous affair. Watch a troop of youngsters emerging from an école communale, many belonging to well-to-do artisans and others, many to the very poor. From head to foot—one and all will be equally tidy, black linen pinafores or blouses protecting tunics and trousers. With girls we see the same thing. A Frenchwoman, however poor, regards rags as a disgrace.
One highly characteristic fact pointed out by my Reims friend I must on no account omit. It seems that the working classes throughout France, from the well-paid mechanic to the poorest-paid journeyman, invariably possess a decent mourning, or rather a ceremonial, suit. Thus every man owns black trousers, frock-coat, waistcoat, necktie and gloves, and silk hat. He is ready at the shortest notice to attend a funeral, assist at a wedding, or take part in any public celebration. Every working woman keeps by her a black robe, bonnet, and mantle or shawl. When overtaken by family losses, therefore, even the very poor are not at a loss for decent black in which to attend the interment. The scrupulously cared-for garments are ready in the family wardrobe.
My correspondent adds the following table of actual salaries and wages in this great industrial city :
Head clerks (employés principaux) in the champagne and wine trade, from £160 a year upwards, with a percentage on sales ; in the woollen trade the same figures hold good —small clerks (petits employés) from £4 to £8 per month ; clerks and assistants in shops from 43 4s. to £6 per month ; workmen in manufactories 3s. 2d. to 4s. per day ; masons and plasterers 4s. 9d. per day, or from 4d. to 3d. per hour ; foremen in factories from 6s. 6d. to 7S. per day ; women i factories 2s. to 2S. 6d., and boys is. 8d. to 2s. 6d.
The writer further informs me that, although the Benefit Society, Prevoyant de I'Avenir, is very prosperous, the situation of the working man, on the whole, is unsatisfactory. Too many are in debt for rent and other matters. The explanation doubtless lies in the tariff of cheap stimulants and intoxicants appended to these figures : absinthe, eau de vie de marc, and aperitifs divers. The drink evil is now in France, as with us, the question of the hour.
If three persons in Paris, having an income of as many pounds a week, can only afford meat once a day, how small must be the butcher's bill of the working classes ! In most cases, alike in Paris and in the provinces, a man's wages are supplemented by earnings of his wife. An experienced lady writes to me on this subject
" The condition of the working-man's home depends absolutely on the wife. Generally speaking, a wife adds at least £12 a year to the family income, and she not only manages to maintain the household in comfort, let to lay by. Economy is the supreme talent of the French ménagire."
The adroit Parisienne can turn her hand to anything. Ironing, charing, cooking, call a mother away from home. Indoor work is found for agile fingers.
The lounger in Paris, especially in old Paris, will unexpectedly light upon these home industries, the means by which working women supplement their husband's earnings. I was lately visiting a doll's dressing warehouse near the Rue de Temple, when my companion, a French lady, called my attention to a certain window. The tenement was that of a humble concierge, doorkeeper of an ancient house let out as business premises. On a small deal table immediately under the uncurtained and wide open casement—for the weather was hot lay a heap of small circular objects in delicate mauve satin and swansdown. What they might be I could not conceive. " See," said my companion, taking up one of the articles, " here is one of the home industries you were inquiring about just now. This good woman earns money in spare moments by making these envelopes for powder-puffs ; in all probability they will be wadded and finished off with a button by another hand, or maybe at the warehouse. Many women work in this way for toyshops and bazaars."
The marvel was that the little bags of pale mauve satin and swansdown should, under the circumstances, remain spotless, Put together at odd times, heaped on a bare deal table which looked like the family dinner-table, not so much as a newspaper thrown over them, all yet remained immaculate, ready for great ladies' toilettes. The secret doubtless lay in the swiftness and dexterity of French fingers and the comparatively pure atmosphere. What would become of similar materials exposed to the smuttiness of a back street in London ?
In no field does a French housewife's thrift more conspicuously manifest itself than in cookery. The fare of a Parisian workman, if not so nutritious as that of his London compeer, is at least as appetizing. Thus, a basin of soup is often a man's meal before setting out to work. Water, in which a vegetable has been boiled, will be set aside for this purpose, a bit of butter or bacon added, and there will be a savoury mess in which to steep his pound of bread. The excessive dearness of provisions puts a more solid nutriment out of the question. Thus bacon costs Is. 6d. the pound, and the high price of butter drives poor folk to the use of margarine.
Whether the pleasant and apparently fresh butter supplied in Parisian restaurants is adulterated or no I cannot say. This I know, that a friend living in Paris has for years abjured butter from a horror of margarine. And here I add a hint to fastidious eaters. In order to make up for the missing butter with cheese, this gentleman mixes several kinds of cheese together at dessert—Roquefort, Brie, Camembert, a delicious compound, I am assured.
In humble restaurants may be seen long bills of fare, each dish priced at sums varying from 21d, to 5d. Work-men in white blouses sit down out-of-doors to these dishes, which look appetizing enough. I have never ventured to try them. I am assured, however, that it is only the very poor of Paris who patronize horseflesh, and you have to make a long voyage of discovery before lighting upon the shop sign, a horse's head and the inscription, Boucherie de cheval, or Boucherie chevaline. One such shop sign I re-member to have seen in the neighbourhood of the Rue Roquette.
Money is so hardly earned by the Parisian workman and workwoman, and existence is such a struggle, that we need not wonder at the deadly tenacity with which earnings are clutched at. When some years ago the Opéra Comique blazed, amid a scene awful as that of a battlefield, the women attendants thought of their tips, the half franc due here and there for a footstool. Unmindful of their own peril and that of others, they rushed to and fro, besieging half-suffocated, half-demented creatures for their money !
A similar scene happened during the terrible catastrophe on the Paris underground railway last year. Although the delay of a few seconds might mean life or death, many workmen reused to move from the crowded station, clamouring for the return of the forfeited twopenny ticket.
When M. Edmond Demolins sets down the French charactcr as the least possible adapted to spending, in other words, to the circulation of capital, he hits upon what is at once the crowning virtue and the paramount weakness of his country-people. Money in French eyes means some-thing on no account whatever to be lightly parted with, absolute necessity, and absolute necessity alone, most often condoning outlay. But there is a shining side to this frugality. French folks do not affect a certain sumptuary style for the sake of outsiders, such unpretentiousness imparting a dignity mere wealth cannot bestow. The following incident opened my eyes to French standards long ago.
I had been spending a few days with a French friend, widow of an officer at Pornic, and on returning to Nantes took a third-class ticket. The astonishment of my hostess I shall not forget.
" I always travel first class," she exclaimed, after a little chat about the matter of trains, adding, " but I do not travel often, and I am rich. I have an income of L200 a year."
Of which I doubt not she seldom spent two-thirds. And in this supreme sense the vast majority of French folks are rich, ay, and often beyond the dreams of avarice.