Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

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Abandonment
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Frederic Ozanam
Government Aid
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Women and Poverty
Living Conditions
Inside the Family
Making Ends   Meet
Misconceptions

Bibliography

Jeanniot, The Flight, for original edition of Les Misérables.

"...Probably these unfortunate things were carrying on also some of the secret trades of darkness, and that from all this the result was, in the midst of human society constituted as it is, two miserable beings who were neither children, nor girls, nor women, a species of impure yet innocent monsters produced by misery.

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Marius Book VIII, Chapter IV

During the first half of the 19th century, Paris experienced a combination of demographic factors which contributed to a highly perilous situation for the children who remained in impoverished families. Poor mothers who neither aborted nor abandoned their infants were often submerged into desperate existences with few options for escape.

 

The lowest economic classes experienced the highest population growth: 1/32nd of the population of wealthier districts consisted of births, as compared to 1/26th of the poorer districts. Social critic H.A. Fregier supported a popular stereotype when he stated that "The poor and vicious classes always have been and always will be the most fertile." Vaccinations were far more effective and inexpensive, contributing to a higher infant mortality rate among all the classes, including the poverty-stricken.

The musical adaptation of Hugo's novel, as seen in this photograph from the original Broadway production, vividly depicted the strife and desperation of the poor dwelling in 19th century Paris.

 

Illegitimacy rates were exceptionally high. During the 1830s, rates of birth outside of wedlock averaged 30%. At the same time, charitable organizations began to redefine their mission and focused on serving as "defenders of the conservative trinity: family, property, and religion." Mothers with illegitimate children were generally denied aid. The result was a city teeming with families who could scarcely support a single child, yet were surrounded by far more than that. Consequently, some were introduced into the harsh world of child labor.

Illustration by Jeanniot for original edition of Les Misérables. Like many of her peers, Eponine was subjected to physical and verbal abuse from her family, although eventually she learns to assert herself.

 

Many turned their children out on the street to fend for themselves, forming the gamin (commonly known as the street urchin) subculture of Paris. Approximately 260 homeless children were apprehended by police on a yearly basis. Other parents, frustrated by the deficiencies of their lifestyle, and perhaps blaming their offspring, resorted to physical abuse. Beatings were the rule rather than the exception, and were not subject to any legal doctrine: France's first legislation concerning child abuse in the home did not pass until the late 1880s. Finally, many, many parents opted to exploit their children to bring in an income.