Prostitution in 18th and 19th Century France

Prostitution is often an underground world that has very real cultural and economic effects. France is known for its brothels and cabarets, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.

When one thinks of France in the late 18th through 19th centuries, many things may come to mind. Life after the Revolution, Napoleon’s conquests, La Belle Époque and of course, the birth of cabaret. Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, and it’s no surprise that a country known for romance was one of the first to create the regulatory model for the trade.

The Belle Epoque

La Belle Époque literally translates to The Beautiful Era, and it characterized a time of great optimism and peace in France roughly between 1870 and the beginning of World War I . There was the dawn of the bohemian movement where those once seen as degenerates were actually artists and writers. These bohemians also included many students and youth of all sorts. One common thread throughout these people was the shared rejection of the bourgeoisie and popular, often traditional values . With this movement of bohemians came a sense of sexual freedom in the form of courtesans, or high class prostitutes in brothels and cabarets across the country.

The Ground Rules of Prostitution in France

It is unclear when prostitution first started in France, but it can be inferred that it had always been an act of trade. One of the first books defining the rules of the trade is Le Pornagraphe by Restif de la Bretonne. This collection of guidelines was published in 1770 to cement the ways in which the aristocrats intended to regulate prostitution. In this work, it is stated that prostitutes must be registered with the police to work and must also work in publically run and regulated brothels . Prior to the 18th century, the records kept of the prostitutes and their clientele were said to have been entertainment for the aristocrats along with an insight to the goings on of the French underground.

Degas and His Dancers

As time progressed into the 19th century, prostitution in France started to become more of an accepted form of entertainment for the wealthier members of society. For example, the famous painter, Edgar Degas, was known to see many affluent men pay to sleep with the ballerinas he painted. This was quite normal, as the dancers were referred to as Lorrettes, which is a euphemism used to describe women in the trade . Often girls who came from a poor or abusive family were drawn to becoming a dancer in the French Ballet not only to make money for their family and themselves, but to become a prized member of the high society—even if it meant as a prostitute.

The Truth About the French Ballet and Prostitution

“The Ballet Girls of Paris” was an article published in 1859 in London Society that pointed out the truths of the Paris Opéra, or French Ballet. The article stated that many of the ballerinas, who were young girls, were often found “in hospitals, in streets begging, or worse, in asylums, in gaols, at the solemn little Morgue by the banks of the Seine—very rarely that we do not hear of them in places of misery, in the somber realms of wretchedness. Their lives are frail and brittle, and break often under their burdens.”

The Birth of Caberet

As La Belle Époque began, up sprouted various cabarets, or gentleman’s clubs. Much like the ballet in the types of men who would attend, these clubs drew the wealthiest men of society like moths to a flame. Unlike the ballet, however, these cabarets were loud, colorful, openly scandalous, and promoted a type of sexual freedom that hadn’t been felt in French society before. Men would flock to clubs dressed in their best to order a few glasses of absinthe and watch prostitutes from all walks of life whirl around in outrageous garb. If a man would like, he would offer to take the courtesan to a back room of the club for sex, but only if he offered a good price

Memoirs of a Courtesan in 19th Century France

On the less glamorous side of the French sex trade, there were the lower class brothels and the girls who would street walk in hopes of finding a man to pay them enough to feed their family. A darling of the 19th century brothel was Celeste Mogador, a prostitute who had fled her home at 16 due her mother’s sexually abusive boyfriend. She joined the trade for obvious reasons, as she could not survive away from home without a husband or a steady source of income. She turned to prostitution because it was easy, available, and had the potential to pay very well if she worked her way up from the street to a club, or even a mistress for a well-to-do man. She eventually decided to quit the trade, but could not without another steady job. She then refused to update her information on the register, and was constantly running from the police. She had many men in her life who treated her with dinner and diamonds, yet she was still unhappy and heartbroken. She had her memoirs published in 1854.

The Moulin Rouge

The Moulin Rouge is one of the more famous cabarets in France and is often attributed to the origins of the can-can . The club soon became one of the most well known in France, and is still a landmark today.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Courtesans

Toulouse-Lautrec was a disabled painter who is famous for his colorful images of prostitutes of late 19th century France. He frequented cabarets such as the Moulin Rouge and was even hired to create posters for such clubs. Many courtesans offered to model for him because he depicted the French nightlife of the time so well.

Montmartre: The Hub of Bohemia

Montmartre is a city in Paris that hosted nearly all the excitement of La Belle Époque. From cabarets to creative people, this area had it all. Young bohemians would flock to Montmartre to go to clubs, talk revolutionary politics, paint, write, or just to feel free. There was an abundance of prostitutes at the clubs, of course, and many of those depicted in the artwork of Toulouse-Lautrec were from this district. Sexual freedom, the mixing of classes, and spectacle were important facets of life in this wild city.

The Morals Brigade

The Morals Brigade was a section of police that were specifically used to enforce the laws of prostitution in France. If a woman in the trade failed to register with the brigade, submit frequent proof of having no venereal diseases, or follow any other rules, these police would hunt them down and arrest them. Those arrested were kept at Petite Force prison.

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