“Paris as it Exists in the Present Day,”

From, Paris Ancient and Modern (1870)


To a traveller fresh from London, or one of our cities, the metropolis of France presents an aspect which, at the first glance, is altogether novel, surprising, and enchanting. Accustomed, to the appearance of a city, the atmosphere of which is usually thick and misty, and to rows of brick-built houses, the facades of which are seldom imposing, the visitor, if, as is most probable, he has to traverse the Boulevards in order to reach his hotel, is amazed and delighted by the coup d’aeil which everywhere meets his view. The broad carriage-road, crowded by every variety of vehicle, from the elegant equipage down to the meanest cart: the avenues of trees lining the road on each side, affording in summer relief to the eye, and a grateful shade to the pedestrians: the broad pavements crowded, especially towards evening, by a gay and laughter-loving population: the tall houses clustering in all forms of graceful architecture, and relieved by colored blinds, jalousies, and balconies: the gorgeous shops, which amuse the eye and tempt the purses of the lounging passengers: the clear atmosphere, free from all taint of smoke, thus preserving the elegance of the adornments, and giving fair play to all the magic of aerial perspective: the customs and habits of a people whose observances are little in accordance with our own — give to Paris at its first view an aspect fairy-like and astonishing to the inexperienced stranger. Perhaps one of the first sights which the traveller will desire to visit in the metropolis of France is the superb view, to which reference has been already made, which meets the eye from the Place de la Concorde. What gorgeous and refreshing fountains here send forth their waters on each side of the obelisk of Luxor, amidst groups of statuary, tritons, naiads, and mermaids! What magnificent ranges of public buildings display their rich architecture with every advantage of position! What noble pediments, whether one looks upon the Madeleine on the one side, or the Chambre des Deputes on the other! What exquisite foliage meets the eye from the garden of the Tuileries: its avenues interspersed with statuary and artificial waters! And what a line of moving life passes continually up that slight but long ascent which, bordered by trees and furnished with the broadest asphalte pavement, conducts to the Arc de Triomphe!

To visit the Champs Elysees by night is to see at a glance the character of the whole population. The brilliant lights, blazing from pavilions placed amidst groups of verdure, and the numerous elegant but slightly constructed edifices which meet the eye at every point, the mountebank shows, the groups of gay and gaping spectators collected everywhere amidst the lights which glance out from the trees, proclaim that the taste of the Parisians is for pleasure, and that the means of gratifying that inclination are abundant. But amidst this gayety how much is childish, how much absurd, how much positively evil! The visitor is astonished to see paltry exhibitions, which in our country would be left only to children of the lowest class, exciting in Paris the attention of those whose appearance would proclaim them capable of much better things. And gay and giddy as these scenes, or the actors in them, may appear to be to the mere transient spectator, there hovers over them all the black, mephitic vapor of spiritual death; and the victim is insensibly amused, betrayed, destroyed. The young man who finds enjoyment amidst such scenes is already on the road to ruin; and he who can traverse the public avenues on the Lord’s day, when all these seductions are most elaborately displayed, without agony and without a sigh, must be within the strong grasp of the evil one already. Nowhere are the words ‘of Solomon more appropriate than amidst the gayeties of this enticing city—“Rejoice, 0 young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.”

The modes of Parisian life are strange and peculiar. The pride and boast of an Englishman or Anglo-American is to be comfortably enclosed in his distinct habitation, which is proverbially his “castle.” Of this separation the Parisian has no conception. Almost every house in Paris is, on the contrary, divided into many separate tenements, the prices of which, after the first floor has been passed, diminish at each successive stage; and thus the same roof often covers specimens of all the great classes of the social system. Most of these buildings are entered from a court yard, communicating with the street by a coach passage, (porte cochere). The ground-floor is occupied by shops, offices, and by the concierge, or house-porter, who represents the landlord, receives his rents, takes charge of the apartments, opens the outer door by the machinery of a cord to those who seek admission, receives messages for the locataires, tenants, etc. In many Parisian houses the shops are immediately surmounted by a very narrow set of apartments called entresols, well situated, but extremely low, and usually in habited by those whose tastes are good, but whose means are limited. Immediately above the entresol are the principal rooms of the mansion, frequently occupied by persons of fashion and distinction. Over these are the residences of people engaged in business; and the upper portions of the house are devoted, in varying degrees, to the accommodation of the humbler classes. Each suite of apartments has its distinct kitchen, (as in many of the houses in Edinburgh, Glasgow, etc.,) and other household conveniences. The chambers are usually let furnished.

In Paris all advertisements of unfurnished apartments are on white, and of furnished ones, on yellow paper. When let, inventories are delivered to the lodger .of the whole contents of his tenement, down to each smallest particular, and these documents record with amusing minuteness even every slight damage which the furniture may have undergone. To an English or American eye, the accommodations of a Parisian kitchen are perfectly inexplicable. How cookery can be performed on that brick table, which stands instead of a grate, or how a few charcoal embers can supply the place of a fire, are riddles indeed. Nor is the wonder diminished at the sight of those vessels of metal or of pottery for which our language has no corresponding names; but which, making much out of little, supply the wants of a comparatively frugal people. But a large portion of the Parisian population usually take their meals from home, and one considerable phase of their life must be studied in the restaurants and cafe’s with which the city abounds. The stranger who goes to some of these resorts, about the Palais Royal for instance, at the hour of dinner, will be highly amused by the novelty of the scene. Entering a large apartment, decorated with the highest taste and with surpassing splendor, crowded with tables and crammed with company, he will have put into his hand a little volume designated La Carte, on which he will find the names of two or three hundred dishes, classed under appropriate divisions, each of which solicits, under names entirely strange, his embarrassed choice. No wonder that in such conjunctures the mistakes and perplexities of foreigners are notorious, and afford great amusement to the sarcastic Parisians.

Dinner ended, the custom in France is to adjourn to a cafe, where coffee, with a small verro do liqueur, becomes an adjunct to the repast. In this latter place of refreshment the evening is commonly spent by the inhabitants of the city, except when engaged in the promenade, the amusements being found in reading journals, in gesticulatory conversation, or in playing at games of chance. The company assembled at these cafes is presided over by a female, often elegantly attired, who sits at a kind of elevated tribune, whence she deals out the various refreshments, and possesses a commanding view of the whole saloon. The promptitude of the waiters, or gargons, as they are termed at these places of public resort, is perfectly marvellous, and such as only a Frenchman could exhibit. Towards the close of the summer’s days the public promenades of Paris become densely crowded. Indeed, at such times, the stream of population is so great, and the number of persons collected on chairs at the outside of the cafes so numerous, as to render locomotion often difficult. But how sad becomes the heart of the Christian when he witnesses all this increased to a tenfold degree on that day which should be the holiest of all! Even during the hours of religious service on Sunday, the shops of Paris are by no means uniformly closed, and at other hours they are almost universally open. In the evening, the places of public entertainment stand open with their widest invitation; whilst the gayety and hilarity witnessed in every quarter indicate how faint and feeble has been the effect produced by the services just terminated. On that day artisans work as usual, though they obey the requirements of their physical constitution by resting on Monday. Marriages commonly take place on the Saturday, with the intention of employing the Lord’s day as one of gayety and amusement. All national fetes, reviews, and public festivals arc then observed.

The public conveyances are crowded: public works proceed; and the day is appropriated to balls, concerts, horse-races, and festivities. Not a little surprise and sarcasm were produced among foreigners by the fact, that, during the time of the Great Exhibition, the Crystal Palace of London was found closed upon the Sabbath. Even the mass of Protestants of Paris are extremely loose in their observance of public worship, and their consecration of a day which commemorates the Lord’s resurrection: though the few spiritual Christians which Paris possesses are most careful in its observance. The city has extremely few evening services, and those few are very sparingly attended. It may be readily concluded that a population without a Sabbath is a population without religion. And not until that day when France, like Israel, shall “turn to the Lord,” and “the veil shall be taken away,” can we hope to see the commandment, “Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day,” restored to its true place in the mutilated decalogue. Let every Protestant traveller who spends his Sunday in the metropolis of France beware how he lends himself to practices which make many native Christians tremble at the guilt of their capital. Let him remember that religion is authoritative and unalterable: that it is the same truth abroad as at home; and beware how he involves himself in dissipations, “because” of which “things cometh tho wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.”

It is impossible to enumerate within a few pages the features which distinguish the capital of France from other cities. The enormous masses of advancing public buildings, proceeding in every direction under the control of government: the new streets, new palaces, new hospitals, and new decorations, which promise speedily to render Paris the most splendid of European metropolises: the blouses and independent air of the ouvriers engaged upon them: the large number of shops devoted to purposes of personal adornment : the violations of delicacy which continually meet the eye : the freshness of some parts of the city, and the great antiquity of others: the columns appropriated for purposes of advertisements : the numerous fantastical structures, so incongruous with the line of houses amidst which they stand : the signs exhibited on’ the exterior of many of the edifices: the articles of merchandise, of which we know neither the name nor the ‘ use : the shops for the sale of wine or of char coal : the booths inhabited by those who write or read letters for the passers-by : the salons of every class, including the “salons epilatoires,” where inconvenient gray hairs may be extracted: the exhibitions made by the chiropodist of corns of all the magnitudes to which the human foot is liable : the shops of the chocolate vendors, where all the processes of the manufacture are publicly exhibited: the fantastic varieties of eau de Cologne, perfumery, and soap : the ever-present military ensigns : the singular dress of the priest hood: the processions which attend the host to the houses of the dying : the freedom of admission given to the valuable and interesting public exhibitions: the unbusiness-like air of the greater part of the population: the gayety and grimace of the passers-by: — these, with many other peculiarities too numerous to detail, defy all previous conception. With one sad feature of the Parisian population we must close our volume.

The immorality of Paris! These are not the pages in which that dark tale can be told. The putrescent masses of social evil, concealed under a guise of conventional bienseance, but corrupting and festering at the core : infecting the young : breaking the ties of marriage : poisoning the mass of French literature; and leading the way on ward to gigantic and almost inconceivable crimes — who shall attempt its delineation? May our readers be “wise concerning what is good, but simple concerning evil”— especially such evils! One phase of it alone is open to us, and in describing this we shall be brief. There exists in Paris, by the side of the Seine, and near to the church of Notre Dame, a building called La Morgue, destined for the reception of dead bodies found in the adjoining river. When we visited it recently, it contained two bodies, separated from the spectator by a partition of glass, and laid, almost undressed, upon slabs, over which water was continually trickling. The clothes of the deceased were hung above his head, in order that the spectator might be the better able to recognize the remains. The institution of La Morgue is deeply associated with the history of public morality in the city of Paris. Much as has been said of the suicidal acts to which Englishmen are prone, the number of self-destroyers in England is much less than in France. The number of bodies exhibited annually in La Morgue is about three hundred; and the greater proportion of these are cases of suicide. But drowning is not the only form of suicide: it is only one mode out of many.

The reader may therefore judge for himself what the aggregate amount of such deaths may be. Fearful as these reflections are, they are but the natural conclusions to which a thousand con current causes are leading. The national mind of France, intellectually open, yet disgusted by the system of religion everywhere meeting its view — (it is a common French proverb, that religion is only fit for children) — is always open to receive every gibe and taunt which infidel writers have placed in its way, till it ceases to believe in either God or devil. “Hypocrisy in religion leads to hypocrisy in morals,” says a Protestant- preacher, “and causes it to be adopted as an axiom that scandal is worse than ill-doing — that concealed sin loses half its guilt — that all is permitted which does not offend against the property and life of others — that impurity, intemperance, blasphemy, violation of the Sabbath, are unimportant, because they do no one any harm. Shall I remind you of the principle of public morality — ‘I have neither stolen nor killed?’ I cannot enter into these details, but will content myself with the general statement, that there are no moral principles in France — I repeat it, no moral principles. If honorable exceptions are brought before me, I will say that such exceptions do but prove the rule.

I do not, indeed, mean to affirm that everyone is, for instance, guilty of injustice; but I do say, that they are for the most part held back by self-interest on points of worldly honor, and rarely indeed by any principle of morality. Even this degree of probity is more apparent than real. Unfaithfulness is tolerated under its varied forms of deception, lies, and broken promises.” “On the inclined plane of immorality, France is descending with an ever-accelerated speed, till it seems to have almost reached the lowest point of depravity.” Such is the witness of a faithful Frenchman. On such principles we cease to wonder that Paris is the centre of intrigues, the patroness of vice, the asylum of all infamy: that its ouvriers are tumultuous; its middle classes immoral; that its fashionables glory in their shame. We cease to wonder that lives of sin should end in suicidal deaths, when we remember that to most French men the thought of eternity scarcely comes at all.

The gambler flies to suicide as a relief from his losses: the lover, as an end to his mortifications: the jealous and the envious alike regard it with favor: it has even occurred to the mind of the child, whose punishment at school was greater than he deserved. Visitants to the city of Paris! Whilst you stand on your guard against temptation, aid, sustain, promote all which promises to effect a reformation in so lost a capital. By your conversation and your example, by the distribution of tracts and religious books, and by the liberal sustentation of all evangelical efforts, show your pity for the perishing! What Paris needs, what France needs, what the whole world needs, is the practical reception of “the glorious gospel of the blessed God.” Without it, a nation can possess no real glory — there can be no security for public morality — no individual can be safe or happy. Let us seek for ourselves the divine religion, unfolded to us in that gospel. Repenting of sin; believing in the Lamb of God — the Sacrifice and Saviour of the world; striving after the renewal of the heart and the holiness of the life, through the power of the Eternal Spirit. We shall thus attain the true “liberty,” the spiritual “equality,” the real “fraternity;” without which all other is an empty name, “a mockery, a delusion, and a snare;” and this “joy no man taketh from us.”


Thomas Osgood Summers

Thomas Osgood Summers

Thomas Osgood Summers (1812-1882) was an American Methodist, university professor, cleric and editor. he was one of the leading Methodist theologians of the 19th century.