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French Perspectives - The Other Side Of The Door

( Originally Published 1916 )

MME. CLAUDE knocked, and persistently knocked again, as we stood in a dark but clean-swept corridor on the fourth floor of an old house in Montmartre. At last the door opened a few inches — not more than two. Through the crack we saw one bright eye, a sharp little nose, and a patch of thin old cheek, brown, and marked with deep, rusty furrows.

"Bon jour, Madame."

"Good-morning" (very dubiously).

"You are a necktie-maker?"

No answer.

"I ask because we want to learn something about your trade," Mme. Claude went on, per-suasively. "I am studying women's trades, in the hope, Madame, of being able to better them." She wound up rather lamely her appeal for information under the unblinking, the penetrating suspicion of that bright eye. A silence followed. We waited patiently.

"Mine is not a trade to grow rich on, Mesdames," came, after a long pause, in a tone of shrill decision through the crack.

"Of course not, Madame."

"All I can tell you, Mesdames, is this: what we are now, that we shall always remain"; and the door closed in our faces with a snap of finality. But we felt the eye piercing our backs, as through the keyhole it watched us — incomprehensible meddlers that we were — go down the stairs and out of sight.

"There you have our typical Frenchwoman," sighed Mme. Claude, "guarding her home like a dragon, living her own little life quite untouched by the lives of others. When shall we interest her in the common good?"

Mme. Claude, though she longed to emancipate the necktie-maker, was nevertheless loyal to the traditions of her race, and reproached herself for having failed to bring a letter of introduction. The cravatière, excellent woman, was protecting a real foyer, a home, a precious little segment of civilized life against intrusion. For in Paris the door of the workingman's lodging is as secret and proud a barrier to pass as that of the bourgeois' apartment. That is precisely why, when the canons of polite usage are observed — when, in short, she comes duly "recommended" — even an "intellectual" from across the sea may count on the door opening to her with a rare grace of welcome.

Indeed, in spite of our unfortunate first call, my sociological pilgrimages with Mme. Claude were full of delightful illuminations. We climbed the steep, Neapolitan-like steps of Montmartre;penetrated the courts of Belleville; found our crooked way about behind Notre Dame; jingled bells at garden gates in that flowery suburb called "the Lilacs"; and grew as used to dull Grenelle as to those "eastern" quarters of turbulent re-port whose great gray squares are named after the Republic and the Bastille. And if out of our pursuit of serious ends, our search for "facts" and "principles," the human and personal characteristics of the ouvrière a domicile (the home-worker) are what remain most vividly with me now, I can no longer fail to understand the extent to which the vast, bewildering edifice of modern Paris rests on her patient endeavor, or separate her from the world in which she lives. It is a world in which the bitterness of poverty is transformed by thrift and competence and cleanliness to a perfection of simple living, and in which good work, well done, is the mainspring of life.

"On aime bien son métier" — one loves one's trade. As I think of those innumerable spotless homes to which we were admitted last year the words sound in my ears and seem to explain the distinctive characteristics of the home-worker. To Americans, brought up on the ready-made products of the factory system, the degree to which women's trades in Paris are still carried on in the homes of married women, rather than in work-shops or factories, is a surprising revelation. A Frenchwoman of the people does not feel obliged to renounce her métier because she has assumed the duties of mother and housewife as well. On the contrary, it is customary for her to continue to practice in her own home the calling that before her marriage she has learned in some workroom of the central part of Paris. You wonder, perhaps, why this should be true of comfortable house-holds as well as of poor ones; why in almost every case good work and good housekeeping should, moreover, go hand in hand. Then Madame says to you, with her little decorous smile, but in a voice that thrills with the ardor of creation, "One cares about one's trade." When work is given this sacramental devotion, it is inevitable as hunger or sleep; under its benediction pots and pans and children's faces shine, and a mere embroidered initial or a flower-stem acquires, and seems somehow to demand of its surroundings, a quality of exquisite distinction.

The tidy homes and the trades that we saw going on in them were, however, as various as the women who seemed so capable in the management of both. We found the oddest contrasts under the same roof. In one of the decayed "great" houses of old Paris, for example, —you come upon them still in the queer, narrow streets-near the place des Vosges, and know them by their fine façades and their echoing stone stairways for noblemen's palaces fallen upon evil days,—we discovered a posticheuse (worker in false hair), a corset-maker, and Mère Sophie living side by side.

Stalwart Mère Sophie, though she followed a trade that is peculiarly Parisian in flavor,— she gained her living in the markets,— was not, to be sure, of the same race as the shy corsetière and Mme. Becot, the posticheuse. To the corset-maker the welfare of society depended on the flexibility and firmness of her whalebones. Mme. Becot, while her clever hands moved over a half-finished switch, gave us an inkling of her dexterous art and its connections with the race of coiffeurs: those little, black, oily men, she described them, who dress in frock-coats, smell horridly of perfume, and are, it seems, "difficult customers." Typical home-workers both, they marveled that Mère Sophie dared venture forth in the black hours before dawn to impose the strength of her muscular arm, her screaming lungs, and her whole abundant person on the crowd in the halles where she bought and sold her vegetables.

Mère Sophie was, however, exceedingly proud of her trade. All but a peasant herself, her mind ran on the pains of those who till the soil to raise vegetables for Paris tables. She painted for us the hard life of the market gardener, and the harder life of his wife and her servant. These slaves of Parisian epicures, she explained, work on their hands and knees in the garden twelve hours a day, and, after cooking a dinner for their men towards ten in the evening, pile their produce on a wagon, start for Paris, and, jogging drowsily through the streets just as the night-hawks and playgoers are tumbling into bed, unload their vegetables at the halles in the small hours. Mère Sophie pitied the market gardener's wife — her own mother had been such a one — and considered that she had all the advantages of the occupation with less than half the labor. Her method was to drive a hard bargain with the sleepiest countrywoman she could find for an armful of beets and carrots, and then, evading the police — for she had no license — to sell them in the halles at a profit. Outside her door, which was approached by a small, steep stairway that opened unexpectedly to the sun, we saw her great muddy boots hung out to dry, and her wet petticoats, stained with the brown earth of her vegetables.

" Wasn't her trade hard, exhausting ? " we asked.

"I believe you," laughed Mère Sophie, who spoke the vulgar tongue, rubbing her huge hands over her calico knees, "especially to the voice. One never stops yelling." But what did that matter, if you liked it?

A no less ardent lover of her trade was Mme. Turc, the lingère, obliged, to her cost, to make petticoats for a wholesale merchant whose trade was in the American market.

"Look at that, Madame," she said, holding up a much-beruftled skirt. "C'est de la camelote, — it's cheap and shoddy stuff. I hate to have you see me with such work in my hands. It gives me shivers in my back to take such big stitches in such flimsy cloth — I, who had three years' apprenticeship in lingerie with the Sisters, and was taught to make fine, solid garments. But what would you? It seems that the great ladies of N'York demand these things. What a funny country, America! But Mademoiselle is from Boston — of course that's different," she hastened to add, suddenly aware that she was failing in the tact of a hostess. She had to take what was given her, the good and the bad together, and the worst of it was that, under the influence of this unfortunate American demand — "No French-woman who respects herself would put this on, Madame knows," she repeated, shaking the lace ruffles disdainfully again —flimsiness had begun to pay better than "solidity."

Mme. Turc had a grievance against America, and many of the other lingères had their legitimate grounds of complaint. For some of them earn no more than two sous an hour. The competition of the prisons and the convents and the provinces; the hard bargains of the middlewoman or con-tractor, who often acts as intermediary between shops and merchants and home-workers — all these elements played their part, one was told, in the low rates that seemed to prevail in the lingerie and most of the other home trades. If starvation wages and subcontracting imply the "sweating system," this system undoubtedly exists in Paris. Yet nobody who is familiar with .the degradation of home industries in New York or in the East End of London will venture to call the Parisian industries "sweated" in the same sense. Whatever her suffering — and it is too of-ten great — the ouvrière à domicile has not lost her self-respect.

Indeed, from the composite picture that my several months' acquaintance with her stamped upon my memory, each round, intelligent face, bent over the busy, untiring hands, emerges for me cheerful, smiling; in any case, firm and courageous. Although these faces were not fixed on far horizons, one realized that they had taken in the universe and their own place in the scheme of things with a comprehensive and philosophic glance. They were, in fact, always taking it in, peeping out now and then, a little ironically and with no thought of change, from the modest niche into which they had resignedly settled themselves, even while they turned all their patient attention to the details of every day.

Of the peaceful and resolute faces I like best to remember Mme. Girard's. Mme. Girard is an artificial flower-maker; and because she followed this most distinctive of the old Paris handicrafts for women, and, seeing and accepting the limits of her tiny life, made it within these limits a thing of beauty and significance, she stands out for me as the true type of the Paris working-woman of the old school. It is a type of which a nation may well be proud. Mme. Girard carried the fine French economy of living to its extreme expression. Let my compatriots who sum up Paris by the boulevards ask themselves whether we can find on our continent one woman who lives alone, happily and respectably, on sixty dollars a year.

Mme. Girard is, however, far more than respectable; she is "distinguished." She lives, not in a working-class district, where rents are low, but in the heart of the faubourg Saint-Germain. There are many such humble and industrious tenants of the houses of the rich in Paris. When one meets them on the stairs, neat, hurrying little figures laden with bundles, who salute one politely with their bare heads or their white caps, one usually supposes them to be emissaries of the fine laundress or the dry-cleanser around the corner. If the truth were known, they may very likely be going to their own chez soi, a bit of a room at the end of some hidden, winding corridor.

In such a room, in a "great house" in the boulevard Saint-Germain, I found Mme. Girard making her moss-roses, which, like the room itself, had for her the charm of long usage and association. She was sixty-six years old, and had made exactly the same sort of roses, for the same manufacturer, day after day for fifty years. She sat for-ever in her window that looked out over high gray walls into a prim convent garden; a tiny black figure, shrunken, and busy as some little tireless ant at her never-ending task.

On the table before her one saw first a heap of delicate moss-roses — two roses and three buds on every stem, and every spray exactly like the next. From a quaint standard, with a potato at the top into which its wire stem was stuck, hung, head down, the half-finished rose on which she was working. The uncurled petals were spread out on the table; six dark petals, three " medium," three pale, and so on in regular succession. Mme.

Girard, heating her long-handled goffer in a glimmer of blue gas flame, pressed each heart-shaped bit of dark-pink muslin until it took the form of the curving outer petal of a rose, and then attached it with a touch of paste to her flower. The inner petals were crimped with the fingers; the secret of the fleuriste's art, as Mme. Girard explained, lay in the fingers themselves, especially in the swift and subtle rotary movement used for winding stems and shaping buds and petals. Yet Mme. Girard earned only one franc a day.

"Many people would call me an old fool to live here in this expensive room, for which I pay more than half my yearly earnings," she said. "But habit is too strong for me. Here I was happy with my husband; here I must live out my widowhood, so long as the good God pleases. I see the good Sisters telling their beads in the garden down there, and they are my company. `Provided I can make my rent, and my soap,' I say to myself, as I curl my rose petals."

She considered herself very extravagant in the matter of soap, and indeed her floor and her walls fairly shone. Bare and small as it was, her room had something pimpante about it, a sort of grave, sweet bloom, like the moss-roses. One could have believed that the bees themselves kept it immaculate, and that Madame's fingers, never resting, never hesitating, deft and sure and transparent, had no need of earthly nourishment.

Nevertheless Mme. Girard did eat; she told me the disposition of her yearly budget of three hundred francs. She spent three sous a day for bread, two for milk, two for white cheese. Two sous' worth of vegetables, and four of meat, made her a soup that provided several meals. Then there were twenty sous for coffee every month, eight sous a week for butter, and a few more for a little sugar and salt. That was the whole of her annual expenditure, except the rent and the soap, and such charcoal and petroleum for heat and light as were strictly necessary. As to her clothes, she "arranged," as she said. She went out only to market or to get her roses.

"It isn't a life for the young," said Mme. Girard; "but for me, I am used to it. I get on pretty well. I should be most unhappy if I did not have my little roses."

She was very eager that I should not consider her roses really good. They were perfect of their kind, no doubt, but it was such a modest kind! I should see the roses that skillful , fleuristes copied from fresh flowers — they were more beautiful than nature! A fleuriste who had the cachet Parisien, the true magic touch that Paris alone can give, and loved flowers enough, could make anything that grew; apprenticeship might then be said to last all one's life. She remembered very well how, in the workroom where she had her training, Madame the patronne used to bring roses in from her garden to be copied, and the dyer used to work with a ravishing rose in a glass of water before him. She, too, had once expected to stand high in the trade, but had married young, and had very naturally gone on working for the same employer afterward. This little moss-rose was the first model she had tried at home. She had succeeded with it, and it had been simpler to continue to make the same thing. With the husband and the two boys, she did n't have leisure to experiment upon any others; and by the time the children were grown she was quite too old to learn new ways. After that her husband had died, and her two sons had been killed in the army in Algeria. This only proved that a woman who had no trade was without security in life. It was a very stupid woman who could not manage her household and follow some trade as well. A little more money did n't come amiss; and then one enjoyed it so, one's profession, concluded the old woman, raising her eyes for a moment to smile at me as she laid another spray on her heap of roses.

"But mine is n't a life for the young," she murmured sadly again, shaking her head with sober resignation.

Nothing stood out more clearly for American eyes, accustomed to seeing children working at their mother's side in home industries, than the fact that the really young in Paris have no share in these meticulous labors. Among the many family groups — mothers and daughters embroidering and flower-making together — that 'my own wanderings recall there was never a single child, even in the poorest homes. The children were always at school, or at play, or absorbed in their lessons. High standards have many valuable by-products; no child could possibly make the simplest types of flowers in Paris, even those that the trade sums up scornfully as camelote. French parents, moreover, have that gift so blessed to their children, the gift of the "long view."

I remember, as a case in point, one family that lived in extreme poverty in a little flat at the back of a court near the cemetery of Père-Lachaise, almost opposite that famous pitiful wall where the Communards were shot. Very properly, the pretty mother's trade was here of a funereal order: she made those nightmare wreaths of colored bead flowers with which the good French Catholic likes to adorn the tomb of his departed. Six children under seven years old — a very large family for a Paris workingman — and a rheumatic grandmother had to be fed by a devoted pair of parents.

The father "was sure to earn his five francs a day"; but Madame's bead marguerites brought in very little, and when she was asked to make the wire frame of the wreath as well — the "carcass," as the French has it — "Ah, then it's not gay," put in the old grandmother, whose wrinkled face, brown as a walnut under its stiff white capstrings, nodded with interest in our conversation from her warm corner by the stove. It was she who proudly led us, with her limping step, into the next room to see the two youngest babies asleep in their cribs; though there were but three rooms, every child had its own clean little bed. The three elder ones, in their black aprons, with their straps of books, the eldest, a round-faced little boy, leading his two round-faced little sisters solemnly by the hand, soon came in from school. Madame exclaimed aloud, with astonished indignation, when I inquired — knowing how it would be in such a household in New York — whether the children never helped to string the beads.

"My little ones? Heavens, no ! " If one were poor, that did not mean that one had a heart of stone. Children must go to school and then have their play. With a regular, hard-working life, one got on somehow. Here "everybody" was up at five o'clock; "everybody" was in bed by half-past seven. Sundays and holidays the same work, the same régime. Madame liked to make her wreaths — that was another pair of sleeves. A woman could not be the comrade, the true wife, of her husband, unless she, too, did her part.

Mme. Claude was amused when I tried to ex-plain the next day why these sentiments, which are in France those of the average domestic woman, — the femme d'intérieur, — would pass as "emancipated" in America.

"So it is only the young girl who is free to work in your country " she said. International comparisons, we were agreed, bring out nothing so much as the fundamental unlikeness attached by custom to the same terms in different lands. "But here," Mme. Claude continued, "we shall, I fear, see some one who, the world over, would be considered emancipated in the wrong sense."

We were climbing the narrow stairs of a four-story house in that blank and featureless region behind the Gare de Lyon. Mme. Claude confessed that she felt a little doubtful of our reception. The unmarried mothers who kept their children as long as this one had were no weaklings, and it was sometimes awkward to have to explain that her Welfare Committee could not take charge of the children unless it were given complete control of them for a certain number of years.

The young woman who opened the door to us was slim, and tall, and shabbily dressed. Her coarse black hair grew very thick about a hand-some face, slightly disfigured by a scar on one cheek. She received us eagerly, warmly even, apologizing, however, for the appearance of things. Though it was eleven o'clock, the big mahogany bed which filled all of one side of the small dark room was unmade, covered with a disorderly heap of dingy bed-clothes. A tawdry wardrobe, with a mirror, occupied most of the remaining wall space. But a stove, a table, and a sewing-machine were squeezed in somehow between the door and the window, and by the bed stood a washstand with bottles on it, and bits of soap, and a basin of dirty water.

The woman, with a regretful look in this direction, explained that she was just getting ready to go for "her garters." Yes, she, worked for a wholesale house in the rue Réamur, stitching garters on her sewing-machine. She had to walk all the way and back again; at six sous the dozen pair a carfare wasn't to be thought of. If she could only be sure of work when she got there, she would n't complain; it all depended on whether or not any orders arrived in the morning post. If there were none, she returned as she had come. On the other hand, she might get as much as three francs' worth, and have to sit up all night. This was quite too rare, however, since four other women, very much "recommended," had be-come her rivals. Though she had worked for the firm for eight years, they now got the preference because they brought little presents to the fore-woman — a bouquet of roses, some chocolate. They were all married; they wanted only pin money, anyhow. Nevertheless, even if she could afford it, she would n't flatter the forewoman; she was too proud, too independent. "Chacun sa liberté — freedom for everybody!" She stood with her back to the window, one hand on her hip, and her dark head, boldly outlined against the oblong panel of light, stood out for us with an almost defiant grace.

Her little girl? The harsh, declamatory tone changed at once, and she told us how the poor little thing was ill of bronchitis in hospital. Mme. Claude set forth very sympathetically the purpose of her committee, and the advantages it offered a hard-working mother to bring up her child with honest farmer-folk.

Ah, yes, it was doubtless true, as Madame said, that the child needed country air. But what would you ? She could n't give her up. She had n't lived for that little one, starved for her, slaved for her, during six long years, only to lose her now. The father had deserted her — she was exactly twenty then — because she refused to get rid of the baby. Men were like that; selfish, brutal creatures. But it gave one courage to see how the child adored her mamma. It was mamma here, mamma there, and when one wanted to send her to school nothing but sobs: "I want to stay with you, I want to stay with my maman ! " It was evident that she would grow up a dunce unless measures were taken; so — Madame would be glad to hear — she had arranged to put her out to board at a school where the poor mothers might visit their little girls occasionally. The price was fifteen francs a month — a heavy charge when added to two hundred and fifty francs for the yearly rent. And earnings anywhere between three and ten francs a week!

"But there, ladies! I prefer to live on vegetables and water and see the child now and then. Chacun sa liberté ! "

Mme. Claude, evidently considering the school better than nothing, suggested that with some other work to replace these irregular "garters" the child's tuition might be assured; there was domestic service, or factory work. But the girl shook her head. In the factory one's extra money went for lunches, for clothes. She liked better to work at home. In service one was too much held down. "Chacun sa liberté!"

"What happens, then," said Mme. Claude, forced into frankness by the visions conjured up in that squalid room, "what happens, then, when you do not `make your week' ?"

"Ah, now you're getting there, Madame. You know what the Paris employer says to such as I when we complain: `Well, you're free, are n't you?' We are free, yes! She gave a sudden bitter laugh. "When I don't make my week, there's always one remedy."

In a moment she was smiling and chattering again of her child. She wished us a cordial good-bye, standing at the door, one hand on her hip, her head flung high, and calling after us: "The ladies understood, bore no ill-will? Madame might be tranquil about the child. Chacun sa liberté I "

"Liberty, liberty," sighed Mme. Claude, as we went away haunted by that unhappy cry. "What, then, of fraternity, one's duty to one's neighbor? The man was free to leave the mother, the employer is free to grind her down. But hers is the most sad freedom of all. What that child must already have seen! I am the one whose hands are tied."

This was the only slovenly room that Mme. Claude and I saw, and the only woman whose work and whose life did not seem to rest on the firm foundation of some fixed ideal. They illustrated, as Mme. Claude said, the other side of the shield : what work at home is likely to become, even in Paris, under the vulgarized demands of modern industry. While machines and "cheap stuff" are despised in France, this poor bit of wreckage on the great sea of labor will, however, remain far less representative of the Paris home-worker than the Mme. Girards — those effective women, so highly civilized within their narrow boundaries; those excellent mothers and housewives; those passionate lovers of their trades who, bent over the one small, patient task in which they have learned perfection, and hidden away in a cherished obscurity, still set the standard of beautiful handiwork for the world, behind their secret, fast-dosed doors.

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