Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Woman’s Work Is Never Done - Surviving in Poverty - Paris Streets


“No, madame, unless one has genius or much money in the beginning, it is only possible to live, and sometimes one believes that it is not living. If it were not that all in Paris is so beautiful, how would I have borne much that I have known? But always, when even the hunger has been most sharp, has been the sky so blue and clear, and the sun shining down on the beautiful boulevards, and all so bright, so gay, why should I show a face of sorrow?

“I have seen the war, it is true. I have known almost the starving, for in those days all go hungry; most of all, those who have little to buy with. But one bears the hunger better when one has been born to it, and that is what has been for me.

“In the Rue Jeanne d’Arc we are all hungry, and it is as true to-day, yes, more true, than in the days when I was young. The charitable, who give more and more each year in Paris, will not believe there is such a quarter, but for us, we know. Have you seen the Rue Jeanne d’Arc, madame? Do you know what can be for this Paris that is so fair?”

This question came in the square before old Nôtre Dame, still the church of the poor, its gray towers and carved portals dearer to them than to the Paris which counts the Madeleine a far better possession than this noblest of all French cathedrals. Save for such reminder this quarter might have remained unvisited, since even philanthropic Paris appears to have little or no knowledge of it, and it is far beyond the distance to which the most curious tourist is likely to penetrate.

On by the Halle aux Vins, with its stifling, fermenting, alcoholic odors, and then by the Jardin des Plantes, and beyond, the blank walls of many manufactories stretching along the Seine,–this for one shore. On the other lies La Rapée, with the windows of innumerable wine shops flaming in the sun, and further on, Bercy, the ship bank of the river, covered with wine-casks and a throng of drays and draymen; of débardeurs, whose business it is to unload wood or to break up old boats into material for kindling; and of the host whose business is on and about the river.

They are of the same order as the London Dock laborers, and, like the majority of this class there and here, know every extremity of want. But it is a pretty picture from which one turns from the right, passing up the noisy boulevard of the Gare d’Orléans, toward the quarter of the Gobelins. This quarter has its independent name and place like the “City of the Sun.” Like that it knows every depth of poverty, but, unlike that, sunshine and space are quite unknown. The buildings are piled together, great masses separated by blind alleys, some fifteen hundred lodgings in all, and the owner of many of them is a prominent philanthropist, whose name heads the list of directors for various charitable institutions, but whose feet, we must believe, can hardly be acquainted with those alleys and stairways, narrow, dark, and foul. The unpaved ways show gaping holes in which the greasy mud lies thick or mingles with the pools of standing water, fed from every house and fermenting with rottenness.

The sidewalks, once asphalted, are cracked in long seams and holes, where the same water does its work, and where hideous exhalations poison the air. Within it is still worse; filth trickles down the walls and mingles under foot, the corridors seeming rather sewers than passages for human beings, while the cellars are simply reservoirs for the same deposits. Above in the narrow rooms huddle the dwellers in those lodgings; whole families in one room, its single window looking on a dark court where one sees swarms of half-naked children, massed together like so many maggots, their flabby flesh a dirty white, their faces prematurely aged and with a diabolical intelligence in their sharp eyes. The children are always old. The old have reached the extremity of hideous decrepitude. One would say that these veins had never held healthy human blood, and that for young and old pus had become its substitute. To these homes return many of the men who wait for work on the quays, and thus this population, born to crime and every foulness that human life can know, has its proportion also of honest workers, whose fortunes have ebbed till they have been left stranded in this slime, of a quality so tenacious that escape seems impossible. Many of the lodgings are unoccupied, and at night they become simply dens of wild beasts,–men and boys who live by petty thieving climbing the walls, stealing along the passages and up the dark stairways, and sheltering themselves in every niche and corner. Now and then, when the outrages become too evident, the police descend suddenly on the drinking, shouting tenants at will, and for a day or two there is peace for the rest.

But the quarter is shut in and hedged about by streets of a general respectable appearance, and thus it is felt to be impossible that such a spot can exist. It is, however, the breeding-ground of criminals; and each year swells the quota, whose lives can have but one ending, and who cost the city in the end many times the amount that in the beginning would have insured decent homes and training in an industrial school.

It is only the dregs of humanity that remain in such quarters. The better elements, unless compelled by starvation, flee from it, though with the tenacity of the Parisian for his own quartier, they settle near it still. All about are strange trades, invented often by the followers of them, and unknown outside a country which has learned every method of not only turning an honest penny, but doing it in the most effective way. Among them all not one can be stranger than that adopted by Madame Agathe, whose soft voice and plaintive intonations are in sharpest contrast with her huge proportions, and who began life as one of the great army of couturières.

With failing eyesight and the terror of starvation upon her, she went one Sunday, with her last two francs in her pocket, to share them with a sick cousin, who had been one of the workmen at the Jardin des Plantes. He, too, was in despair; for an accident had taken from him the use of his right arm, and there were two children who must be fed.

“What to do! what to do!” he cried; and then, as he saw the tears running down Madame Agathe’s cheeks, he in turn, with the ease of his nation, wept also.

“That is what has determined me,” said Madame Agathe, as not long ago she told of the day when she had given up hope. “Tears are for women, and even for them it is not well to shed many. I say to myself, ‘I am on the earth: the good God wills it. There must be something that I may do, and that will help these even more helpless ones.’ And as I say it there comes in from the Jardin des Plantes a man who has been a companion to Pierre, and who, as he sees him so despairing, first embraces him and then tells him this: ‘Pierre, it is true you cannot again hold spade or hoe, but here is something. There are never enough ants’ eggs for the zoölogical gardens and for those that feed pheasants. I know already one woman who supplies them, and she will some day be rich. Why not you also?’

“‘I have no hands for any work. This hand is useless,’ said Pierre; and then I spoke: ‘But mine are here and are strong; you have eyes, which for me are well nigh gone. It shall be your eyes and my hands that will do this work if I may learn all the ways. It is only that ants have teeth and bite and we must fear that.’

“Then Claude has laughed. ‘Teeth! yes, if you will, but they do not gnaw like hunger. Come with me, Madame Agathe, and we will talk with her of whom I speak,–she who knows it all and has the good heart and will tell and help.’

“That is how I begun, madame. It is Blanche who has taught me, and I have lived with her a month and watched all her ways, and learned all that these ants can do. At first one must renounce thought to be anything but bitten, yes, bitten always. See me, I am tanned as leather. It is the skin of an apple that has dried that you see on me and with her it is the same. We wear pantaloons and gauntlets of leather. It is almost a coat of mail, but close it as one may, they are always underneath. She can sleep when hundreds run on her, but I, I am frantic at first till I am bitten everywhere; and then, at last, as with bee-keepers, I can be poisoned no longer, and they may gnaw as they will. They are very lively. They love the heat, and we must keep up great heat always and feed them very high, and then they lay many eggs, which we gather for the bird-breeders and others who want them. Twice we have been forced to move, since our ants will wander, and the neighbors complain when their pantries are full, and justly.

“Now eight and even ten sacks of ants come to me from Germany and many places. I am busy always, and there is money enough for all; but I have sent the children away, for they are girls, and for each I save a little dot, and I will not have them know this métier, and be so bitten that they, too, are tanned like me and have never more their pretty fresh skins. Near us now, madame, is another woman, but her trade is less good than mine. She is a bait-breeder, ‘une éleveure des asticots.’ All about her room hang old stockings. In them she puts bran and flour and bits of cork, and soon the red worms show themselves, and once there she has no more thought than to let them grow and to sell them for eight and sometimes ten sous a hundred. But I like better my ants, which are clean, and which, if they run everywhere, do not wriggle nor squirm nor make you think always of corruption and death. She breeds other worms for the fishermen, who buy them at the shops for fishing tackle; but often she also buys worms from others and feeds them a little time till plump, but I find them even more disgusting.

“An ant has so much intelligence. I can watch mine, madame, as if they were people almost, and would even believe they know me. But that does not hinder them from biting me; no, never; and because they are always upon me the neighbors and all who know me have chosen to call me the ’sister-in-law of ants.’

“It is not a trade for women, it is true, save for one only here and there. But it is better than sewing; yes, far better; and I wish all women might have something as good, since now I prosper when once I ate only bread. What shall be done, madame, to make it that more than bread becomes possible for these workers?”
Prisoners of Poverty
Helen Campbell, 1889
MyLadyWeb’s primary goal is improving the financial condition of women (including myself) and men by providing such free and low cost tools as reliable domains and hosting, self-installing websites, turnkey websites, brandable ebooks, SEO tools, PLR and unique articles and so on and so on and so on…. So why in the world would I post women’s history on a blog dedicated to helping people build and maintain a low-cost business online? Well, because I have a graduate degree in history and I love history in all it’s forms–especially women’s history. A graduate degree in women’s studies was not an option at the university where I received my MA in History so I had to make do with a more generalized degree. However, in every class I made up for the lack by researching the condition of women in each age that I studied. I have always been fascinated by women’s history, so I thought I would start sharing some of the lost treasures that I uncover. I believe that most people have curious minds and like glimpses of how the world was, and how things were perceived in the past. I firmly believe in the idea that we must remember history in order to learn from it, grow and hopefully cut down on the number of stupid mistakes that random impulse and intellectual curiosity and greed and a thousand other human motivators lead us to make.
Smiles and Good Fortune,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Founder of The LadyWeb Family Of Informational & Educational Websites
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent.
– W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

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