Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

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"Cities, like forests, have their dens in which hide all their vilest and most terrible monsters. But in cities, what hides thus is ferocious, unclean, and petty, that is to say, ugly; in forests, what hides is ferocious, savage, and grand, that is to say, beautiful. Den for den, those of beasts are preferable to those of men. Caverns are better than the wretched holes which shelter humanity."

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

 

Where, exactly, did these struggling women live? What distinguished their geographic environment? To begin with, in 19th century Paris, approximately 3% of women lived nowhere at all except the street, while 25% dwelt with friends and relatives, and 20% in the households where they were employed. The remaining group was confined to decidedly undesirable housing.

 

Prior to 1852, Paris' poor were concentrated in the ancient center of the city, where narrow streets, tall medieval buildings in a state of disrepair, and an utter lack of sanitation became the standard. The dilapidated faubourg Saint-Jacques and the faubourg Saint-Marcel stood in such marked contrast to the more fashionable faubourg Saint-Marcel that visitors claimed they "seemed to belong to some other city." This manifestation of socioeconomic disparity increased dramatically after Haussmanization restructured the city.

Jeanniot, A Rose in Misery, for original edition of Les Misérables. Hugo's graphic description of the room inhabited by Eponine and her family is scarcely and exaggeration. For many poor residents, the City of Lights was submerged in darkness-- their squalid homes were miserable places indeed.

While studying the conditions of the poor, Louis Chevalier took pains to observe their quarters. "In the quartier Popincourt alone," he wrote in Laboring Classes and Dangerous Classes, "7,000 workers, who with their families, make up 4/5 of the population, live in overcrowded rooms, and great masses of them are exposed to every sort of misery. Their distress is inconceivable."

 

Because housing was so substandard, it complicated the pressures facing working class women and their families. Living in such close quarters increased tension within the family unit, created a more perilous environment for children, intensified health risks associated with contamination and contagion, and persistently demoralized the inhabitants. Somehow, despite this, a fragile but intact domestic structure emerged within the poor of the 19th century.