Pavement Nymphs and Roadside Flowers: Prostitutes in Paris After the Revolution

Pavement Nymphs and Roadside Flowers: Prostitutes in Paris After the Revolution

C’est peut-être un goût pervers, mais j’aime la prostitution et pour elle-même, indépendamment de ce qu’il y a en dessous. — Flaubert [1]

Some years ago I acquired a small, modest-looking French book published in 1826 that would become the source of my interest in women and prostitution in Paris, especially after the French Revolution. It was a 32mo bound in plain crimson boards, small enough to fit in one’s hand or pocket and titled Dictionnaire Anecdotique des Nymphes du Palais-Royal et autres Quartiers de Paris par un homme de bien. [2] In 124 pages, the anonymous author lists scores of Parisian prostitutes alphabetically by their first names, from Adelaide to Zoe, and gives the streets where they could be found along with descriptions of their physical appearance and personalities, including:

Olympe, rue du Richelieu, who is beautiful, tall like a man, and is said to flirt with the lovers of her friends — and that her desires are not always satisfied by just one.

Véronique (La Blonde), rue Traversière, is far from pretty, but her blond hair, falling with grace over her beautiful pale skin, sets her apart.

How, I wondered, did a society perfect prostitution to such a degree that a dictionary of hookers could be published as easily as a glossary of words, a bibliography of books or a tourist’s vade mecum? With this little guidebook in hand, a man in the 1820s could save the wear-and-tear of prowling the streets in order to find an appealing nymphe to suit his erotic tastes — it was almost like choosing a chocolate from a box of assorted flavors, or even a breeding stallion from a stud book. [3] And who was the gentleman, the homme de bien, who wrote it? In a short preface, hoping to avoid complications lest he be discovered and considered a pimp, he disavows knowing any of the women described, claiming that he merely received the information from others. Somewhat unexpectedly, he then rails against a society that preaches morals but permits vice, and urges fathers to protect their children against prostitution. How? By reading his book. The list of nymphs begins immediately after this peculiar suggestion.

Intrigued, I began to piece together what I knew about post-Revolutionary France with the mystery of my little dictionary. It took me thirty years to solve the riddle of the nymphs, which I will get to shortly. But before I was able to zero in on that, I began to look for clues in other books, and started to assemble a collection of material on Parisian prostitution — from the fall of the Bastille to the rise of the Eiffel Tower — and discovered an entire genre of books and prints devoted to it. In fact, I began to realize that prostitution was at the epicenter of the era. A frequent visitor to Paris, I was aware that the capital was (and still is) fueled by large quantities of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and sugar, but I was unaware, until I began my quest, that prostitution had formerly been as fundamental to Parisians as those other stimulating staples.

My next discovery, a major one, proved pivotal: Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet’s De La Prostitution dans La Ville de Paris, 1836. [4] Issued in two thick 8vo volumes a decade after my petite Dictionnaire, it is not a guide to pleasure but rather, an extensive textbook, the first attempt to investigate and analyze prostitution scientifically in order to create effective solutions to the problems it was creating. The alluring sirens described in my dictionary, the nymphs who had been sought by flâneurs, philanderers and married men, had become, within ten years, clinical objects of scientific inquiry. Studied as exotic specimens from the animal kingdom, they were probed, questioned and examined by doctors and experts in the newly emerging fields of hygiene, statistics, and sociology. In ten years, a portable, somewhat prurient  “gentleman’s guide” had been displaced by a substantial, authoritative, government-sponsored work on prostitutes’ sexual habits, health, and attitudes, one filled with analytic texts and tables based on facts; it became a shape-shifter.

[Anonymous artist]. Allons, voyons, voulez-vous monter? (Come on, look, do you want to go upstairs?) Handcolored etching, 1815. Frontispiece to Déterville, Le Palais-Royal ou Les Filles en Bonne Fortune, 1815. Nymphs at the Palais Royal invite soldiers and other men up to their rooms. This little book was intended as a guide to initiate young men into the world of sex and prostitution.

Parent-Duchâtelet (1790-1836), its author, was a medical doctor who had worked for France’s nascent public health services in the 1820s and had been successful in organizing the first campaign to clean and sanitize the sewers and cesspits of Paris, which were beginning to be recognized as sources of infectious diseases. His unstinting investigations (he regularly descended in the city’s foul lower depths) led to a major report advising on how best to unclog, clean and disinfect the sewers of Paris in 1824. [5] 

Parent next turned his clinical, pragmatic mind to the public health problem posed by prostitution after being contacted by an unidentified colleague who wanted to research and publish a study of prostitutes in order to rehabilitate them but who could not afford to do so. When this gentleman unexpectedly died, Parent sensed an opportunity, and recognizing the importance of prostitution as a medical issue rather than a moral one, and with the resources of the state behind him, took on his colleague’s project, stating: “I have found in most minds a particular disdain attached to the functions of all who, in one way or another, deal with prostitutes… I could not understand this excess of delicacy… If I have been able, without scandalizing anyone, to descend into the cesspools, to touch putrid matter, to spend part of my time in the refuse pits and to live, so to speak, in the midst of all the most abject and disgusting products of human congregations, why should I blush to tackle a sewer of another kind [i.e.,prostitution], a sewer more filthy, I confess, than all the others, but the study of which offers me the hope of effecting some good?” [6]

It was only logical. Sewers and prostitutes, each receptacles of human bodily excreta, could be cleaned and regulated scientifically, and because prostitution was legal in France, the task could be undertaken in an orderly fashion. This seemingly liberal approach to prostitution was a result of Enlightenment thinking that recognized the futility of suppressing male sexual desire while attempting to keep men disease-free through the medical regulation of prostitutes — it was they, and not their clients, who were required to undergo physical exams. [7] What could be more reasonable? The new law codes of the Revolution that replaced those of the Ancien Régime made no mention of prostitution, and as it began to proliferate in the 1790s, the usual problems arose, from serious crimes to public disorder and disease — but it was not outlawed. Regulation, not eradication, became the goal, and brothels soon came under the supervision of the police. By 1823, all brothels were licensed and regulated, but a new problem arose: although registration was mandatory, many women worked illegally, that is, without a permit. [8]

The problems posed by prostitution, along with general health issues, continued to grow. In 1832 a cholera outbreak killed 20,000 Parisians while the number of prostitutes in the city reached an all-time high of 43,000 (out of a population of about 750,000). The health risks to both men and women from venereal and other diseases were becoming severe, the issue of public health as a responsibility of the state was emerging and the police were having trouble keeping up with the supervision of both legal and illegal prostitutes. Something had to be done to halt this threat to social stability, and Parent was the man to do it. The results of his work were published after he had spent a decade investigating the “sewer of another kind.”

In twenty-five chapters, Parent, who died of exhaustion the year his work appeared, discussed every aspect of Parisian prostitution by categorizing the prostitutes physically, geographically, medically and economically; he suggested methods of police and medical controls (he was an advocate of regulated brothels), and even proposed a way for prostitutes to pay taxes. He also supported the formation of institutions where women who had renounced prostitution could go to reconstruct their lives, taking a cue from his anonymous colleague. Throughout the entire work, and all subsequent works to follow on the subject, prostitution was seen as an exclusively female problem — not once is male sexuality called into question for requiring it. [9]

Parent created lists and tables showing the distribution of Parisian prostitutes by quartier, surveying areas throughout the city including the Île St. Louis, where, alone among neighborhoods, there were none; the Place Vendôme, where he found thirty-nine; and the Palais Royal, center of all things illicit, where he counted 346 prostitutes. They were also grouped by street, by suburb, and by which département in France they had come from, even by which floor of a building they most frequently occupied. (It was the French first floor, the floor above street level.) Parent took advantage of the information supplied to him by the police, who, in 1816, had begun to keep more accurate data on the prostitutes they arrested than they had previously. [10] By 1832, he had access to just over 5,000 records which included information on each woman’s place of birth, the occupation of her father, the determining causes of her becoming a prostitute, her education level, the number of children she had, as well as the age at which she registered as a prostitute. (The ages ranged from ten to sixty-five.) [11]

Pierre-Numa Bassaget, called Numa (1802-1872) [attrib]. Boulevard St. Denis. Chromolithograph, c. 1855. A prostitute from the Boulevard St. Denis fondles her jewelry while exposing some flesh. Such images provided source material for later artists, including Manet; the link is especially evident in his Olympia (1863).

Yet within this methodical work, I found one bit of whimsy, certainly unintended, that called to mind my Dictionnaire: in a chapter on the pseudonyms prostitutes gave themselves, Parent included a double-columned table of these assumed names, arranged by social class. The first column contains the Classe Inférieure, including such ribald, lewd, and comical nicknames as Rousselette (Little Red Pear), Poil-Long (Long Hair), Belle-Cuisse (Nice Thighs), Faux-Cul (Fake-Ass), and Raton (Little Rat). In the second column, the Classe Elevée, are such names as Amanda, Calliope, Delphine, PamélaOlympe, and Flore, names associated with Greek mythology, literature or the upper class. This classification by descriptive name was maintained throughout the century, helping men choose women based not only on her physical attributes, but also on what class she was likely to be from as revealed in her nickname. Later, the astute and often pontifical observer of women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Octave Uzanne, used the exact same method to describe Parisian prostitutes in 1910:

At the very bottom of the ladder is the woman who haunts the fortifications… The soldiers do not even know her name; they call her la paillasse… A much more formidable species of prostitute is the gigolette [who] is almost always young, and often pretty… There are grades and degrees in all this peripatetic prostitution… In Paris, there are about 60,000 filles insoumises. They constitute the main part of what [is] called middle-class prostitution.

As for upper-class prostitution, Uzanne refers to it as “clandestine prostitution” and the women who represent it are known as belles petites, tendresses, agenouillées, horizontales, and dégrafées. He also refers to Parent, complaining that of all the writers on prostitution who came after him “not one has sounded its deepest depths or probed its darkest mysteries.” [12]

Many tried. Parent’s formidable work became the cornerstone of a staggering amount of art and literature — he has been called “a veritable Linnaeus of prostitution.” [13] Balzac, Flaubert, the Goncourts, Hugo, Huysmans, Sue, and Zola were all familiar with Parent and each created novels based on the lives of prostitutes that were based, in part, on data gathered by him. In art, the prostitute became a frequent figure in the caricatures and chromolithographs of the 1840s-1860s, as she did in the subsequent works of Manet, Degas, Lautrec, and Picasso, whose Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) refers not only to the name of a Barcelona brothel, but also — and originally — to one of the old slang words for prostitute, Pont-d’Avignon, so-called for  the bridge under which many prostitutes met their customers during the Avignon Papacy in the 14th century. Sur le pont d’Avignon on y danse, on y danse.

But perhaps Parent’s most devoted acolyte was Alexandre Dumas (père), who acknowledged him not only on the first page, but throughout Filles, lorettes et courtisanes (1843), his analysis and description of the Byzantine typology used to describe each of the three levels of Parisian prostitution, elaborating on Parent’s original list. From the lowest working-class filles de la Cité (known as numéroschouettescalorgnes and trimardes), to the middle-class filles du boulevard (grisettes, lorettes, ratons, louchons), and up to the highest level of filles en maison (courtisanesfemmes du monde), Dumas inventoried them all. Although such terms were included in other works, notably those on slang, no other book had been devoted exclusively to the subject, and in such a literary way. As Dumas observes in his introduction: “Here is a corner of the grand Parisian panorama which no one has dared to sketch, a page in the book of modern civilization whose base is a word no one has dared utter.” Dumas had the audacity and honesty to assert that prostitution was at the base of Parisian society. He wasn’t wrong.

Yet Dumas, who understood so much about prostitution’s place in 19th century Paris, made no mention of the sexism that accompanied and regulated it — even though it was he who coined the phrase Cherchez la femme, inferring that a woman was usually the cause of most problems. [14] Others, steeped in misogyny, did not hesitate to express their sexist views, although not as metaphorically as Dumas. Noted historian and sociologist Jules Michelet held that the social order was in grave danger due to women’s “weak, atavistic and deranged sexuality” as evidenced by prostitution. Writing about women’s “natural inferiority,” he asserted that women were only fit to be wives and mothers. [15] A more brutal attitude suited Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the influential philosopher known for his socialist-libertarian politics and for being the “father of anarchism.” He was also an extreme misogynist whose views, although widely shared, were rarely put into print with such viciousness. He did not think twice in declaring in his most shocking work, La Pornocratie (1875), that a woman was capable of being only “a harlot or a housewife” and that “a woman does not at all hate being treated with violence, indeed even being violated.” [16] (Little wonder that so many women, thwarted and abused mentally, emotionally and physically, were diagnosed with “hysteria.”) Many of these presumptuous attitudes about women may be traced back to Parent, whose classification and regulation of prostitutes heralded the 19th century’s determination to proscribe women’s opportunities, education, and sexuality. [17] Yet Proudhon’s words seem more monstrous than most, and I wondered how deeply his views were embedded in French culture. With Dumas as a guide, I began to compile my own list of French synonyms for prostitute, reasoning that such words would reveal a great deal about how the French regarded women and sex. I didn’t realize just how long the list would become — it now has 400 entries. [18] I discovered that the majority of the words were fanciful, imaginative, allusory or metaphorical; many were facetious and derogatory; and some were outright expressions of disgust, à la Proudhon, including salope, latrine, and cul crotté (filthy woman, latrine, and shit ass.) The crudest words were, like anarchism’s father, in the minority, but they do exist.

Having collected so many words, I decided that a good place to study their evolution would be at the beginning, in the first French dictionary, Jean Nicot’s Thrésor de la langue françoyse, tant ancienne que moderne (1606), in which Nicot includes courtisane, cantonnière, fille de joye [sic], paillardchienne, and putain. [19] From this base, the vocabulary would multiply over the centuries, but Nicot’s six words would remain stalwarts, persisting along with the classification of prostitutes based on the rank of their clients. The courtisane would remain at the top — the lover of aristocrats and the rich — while the clients of the filles de joie and paillards were from lower ranks, but whatever their station, men had no trouble finding women to hire for sex: prostitution is as much a part of Parisian history as Notre Dame, and as important — the city, its streets and its prostitutes have had a long-term relationship. As my little dictionary indicated, women and streets were intimately linked: the pavement nymphs and roadside flowers — the fleurs du macadam — were categorized by the street names or area where they worked, and had been for centuries.

A study of some of Paris’ old street names reveals the longevity of the link. The tiny rue du Pélican might strike one as merely fanciful since pelicans don’t roost in Paris, but the name derives not from sea birds but from its bawdy 14th-century name: the rue Poil au Con (Puss Hair Street), so-named for the many prostitutes who worked there; with a nod to propriety, the street later assumed its less vulgar homophone. Similarly, the medieval rue Pute-y-Muce (Hidden Whore Street) would later become the rue du Petit Musc (Little Musk Street).

The lure of the streets was so potent that each image in Les Lionnes de Paris, a set of chromolithographs depicting individual prostitutes published circa 1855, shows each one identified only by the dress and décor of the street or neighborhood where she could be found: each title is the name of a street. The cocotte from the Boulevard St. Denis (currently and historically known for prostitution) reclines seductively on her lush bed, her left breast exposed as she fondles a gold necklace — prostitutes were typically portrayed as rapacious deceivers. As the Goncourts declared, “Women only consider their sex as a livelihood!… their sex is a career.” [20]

Philippe Jacques Linder (1835-1914) [attrib]. L’Anglais à Paris. (An Englishman in Paris.) Color lithograph, c. 1867. An Englishman eyes a young woman while holding his map of Paris, an allusion to a “streetwalker.” The artist cleverly mocks the man by placing the figure of a punchinello behind him.

Other such series enjoyed great popularity in the mid-19th century, and these popular prints often became source material for later artists. Manet, whose modern, penetrating eye never failed to see things as they were, did not hesitate to choose his subjects from everyday life, including prostitutes; he must certainly have seen the chromolithographs of the 1850s before creating his notorious Olympiain 1863. Its scandalous subject matter — a confident courtesan wearing only a neck ribbon, earrings, a gold bracelet, some dainty slippers and a flower in her hair — echoes the chromolithographs from the 1850s, but instead of calling his subject by a street name, Manet chose “Olympia,” a name associated with prostitutes, and one that was in Parent’s original list.

Having learned so much about Parent and his influence, I was still in the dark about the anonymous author of my dictionary, the anonymous homme de bien, until a short while ago. Thanks to persistence, luck and the Internet, which did not exist when I acquired the book, I identified him, and the circumstances surrounding the dictionary’s publication — and destruction. I had already been able to find the book listed by title in several bibliographies of French books, and that the Bibliothèque Nationale apparently had the only institutional copy extant, leading me to believe that the book was very rare, and to assume that the edition size had been small. But why would someone go to the trouble of compiling such a dictionary and print very few copies considering that the demand for such a book would have been enormous. [21]  Information on edition sizes prior to the late 19th century is difficult to find, and especially so for such an obscure book as the Dictionnaire — or so I thought.

From time to time, I would check the Internet to see if any new information had surfaced, and during a recent search, I found it cited in two obscure reference books that I did not know and had never seen before: Fernand Drujon’s Catalogue des ouvrages écrits et dessins de toute nature poursuivis, supprimés ou condamnés (1879) and Antoine Laporte’s Bibliographie contemporaine: Historie litteraire du dix-neuvième siècle (1887). Each citation had more information than was included in the standard bibliographies, which repetitively included only the title, publisher and date. In these newly discovered reference works, I at last found the author’s name: Charles Lepage. After a bit more searching, I learned that he was a poet, singer, writer, journalist and inventor who was born in 1803 and died in 1868, making the dictionary a work of his youth. What astonished me was the short note in both entries indicating that the dictionary had been destroyed by the authorities with the consent of the author as per a court judgement of December 15th, 1826, making the book “very rare if not very interesting” according to Laporte. This was shocking news in itself, but Drujon included one small parenthetical word, Moniteur. Armed with this lead, I discovered that he was citing Le Moniteur Universel, a long-running daily Parisian newspaper. Now all I had to do was find the actual article. Thanks to the Bibliothèque Nationale’s online services, I did.

In a triumph of French bibliophily, every issue from 1790 to 1901 is available online, and knowing that the article must have appeared on December 15 or soon thereafter, I read through those of December 15th and 16th with no luck, but found it in the December 17th issue under the headline The case of the Dictionnaire anecdotique des Nymphes du Palais-Royal was settled yesterday. [22] I had tracked it down! This is the sort of discovery that makes a biblio-sleuth ecstatic, and I was. The article reported that the case against the author had been settled; that Lepage still had 600 to 700 copies of the little book; that the court had found the book to be shameful but not illegal; and that the author had agreed to destroy his remaining copies. This led me to believe that the original edition size had been perhaps 750 or 1000 copies, and that after the destruction of Lepage’s remaining copies, only a handful had survived, including mine.

I soon discovered more about the book’s legal history, finding the transcript of the trial online in an issue of the Gazette des Tribunaux, December 9, 1826. [23] Lepage was not the only defendant. The printer, publisher and three booksellers also had to face the tribunal for “facilitating vice” by circulating the addresses of prostitutes and for violating several statutes of an 1819 censorship law.  

The lawyers for the accused presented their case in a very clever, droll and literary way by first asking the court how it could prosecute those involved in a book on prostitutes when prostitution itself was legal. As one said: “I blush to say it, but prostitution is in the public domain.” They went on to describe Lepage as a young man, just out of college, whose innocence was equal to the indecency of his “heroines” and that the book was a reflection of nothing more than Lepage’s naïveté. The lawyers suggested that instead of sentencing the author to prison, the court should require him to read his dictionary for eight hours a day, which, they assured the court, would be punishment enough. They concluded by reminding the court that the dictionary was nothing more than a pale imitation of an actual visit to the Palais Royal (the center of Parisian prostitution), which could be truly upsetting. They conclude by quoting Horace’s Ode IV, To Sestius, a paean to pleasure. With their adroit arguments, they won the case. Lepage destroyed the remaining books, and the Dictionnaire was duly placed on the Vatican’s list of prohibited books. Later, it was cited in several bibliographies and generally forgotten.

But I still had a further question: Why was this book singled out for prosecution? There had been a flurry of dictionaries of prostitutes in the 1790s, when flaunting decadence and vice became de rigeur during the Revolution and when the unprecedented porno-libertine works of the Marquis de Sade were published; other such books were published well into the early 19th century. [24] Yet this little dictionary, a pale descendant of its predecessors, was scandalous enough to initiate a criminal prosecution. I surmise that in the 1820s the book evoked the licentious and radical early-1790s, the memories of which would have been especially disturbing to the conservative Bourbon king Charles X and his prime minister, Joseph de Villèle, an ultra-royalist known for imposing strict anti-press and anti-sacrilege laws. [25]

On December 29, 1826, just days after Lepage was acquitted, Pierre-Denis Peyronnet, the Minister of Justice, proposed a new law that imposed harsh new sanctions and penalties on the press; he called it “the law of justice and love.” It was anything but that, and upon hearing of its severity, one legislative deputy left the chamber shouting: “You might as well propose a law for the suppression of printing in France, for the benefit of Belgium.” [26] The reaction to the proposed law was swift and powerful, from members of the Academy to the public at large — the majority of the country was horrified and protested. The bill was withdrawn in April, but it and other manifestations of repression resulted in a bill of impeachment for Villèle, who was removed from office in 1828, presaging the July Revolution of 1830 in which Charles X was forced to abdicate. Perhaps the little dictionary was the last straw for the ultra-conservative government, or perhaps it was a coincidence, but the desire to impose heavy restrictions on the press followed the Dictionnaire’s court case.

Lepage, undeterred and perhaps inspired by the government’s failure to pass the repressive law, wrote (with his friend and frequent collaborator Emile Debraux), two satiric works in 1827 on his former tormentors. The first, Villèle aux Enfers, was a satiric verse on the punctilious prime minister. The second work, Peyronnet devant Dieu, satirized the authoritarian justice minister.

Lepage went on to a successful career as a singer and writer of popular songs. An ardent voice for the people, anti-royalist, and member of the emerging bohemian class, he sang his way to fame in the goguettes of Paris, the many small, working-class bars/cafés devoted to communal singing, drinking and socializing where goguettiers often sang about love and women, including prostitutes, with lyrics using some of the other names for nymphes, as in “Le Boudoir,” a popular 19th-century ditty:

Voyez-vous, lion, rat, grisette,
Encombrer le sacré parvis;
Par Notre-Dame-de-Lorette
A l’enfer criminels ravis?
Aux frais minois qu’on y contemple,
Aux parfums sentant leur terroir,
On se dit : quel est donc ce temple ?
Est-ce une église, est-ce un boudoir?

[Can’t you see, lion rat, grisette,
That by cluttering up the sacred space
Around Notre-Dame-de-Lorette
You’ve thrilled the criminals in hell?
To the fresh little faces one sees there
To the perfumes redolent of a bazaar
One asks, what then is this temple?
Is it a church, or is it a boudoir?] [27]

Church or boudoir? Sacred or profane? Virtue or vice? Lepage’s Dictionnaire, a vestige of the libertine spirit of the Revolution, and Parent’s encyclopedic analysis, an example of Enlightenment values of reason and science, embody these opposing sides of the French dilemma regarding prostitution after the Revolution.

Much ink and paint were utilized to address the problem in the 19th century through the work of numerous writers and artists who brought the hazy subject of prostitution into clearer focus. Yet the actual issue remains unresolved. Hundreds of French words for “prostitute” indicate that the popular preference (at least for men) was the boudoir; art and literature, ditto. But for women, the choice was not quite so clear. Denied access to many of the rights promised by the Revolution, including education and gainful employment, many women had no alternative except the boudoir. It might have been a choice, but it was one of last resort and all the synonyms for prostitute — whether as ethereal as nymphe or as sordid as salope — did not disguise the cruelty and misery that lie beneath prostitution. These are the dismal facts to which Flaubert alluded in his own honest admission of prostitution’s appeal. [28] Parent claimed as much nearly two decades earlier in the blunt style of a statistician: “Prostitutes are as inevitable in any great aggregation of humanity as sewers, cesspits and refuse dumps.” [29] But perhaps we should hear not from the boudoir, but from the church, from someone whose virtue is undeniable, yet who understood the necessity of some forms of vice, for it was Saint Augustine who warned: “Remove prostitutes from human affairs, and licentiousness will overthrow society.” And so, at the least, we must acknowledge the perenniality of prostitutes and cease to vilify or scorn them while ignoring the men who create their ranks. And we must certainly give thanks to all the pavement nymphes and roadside flowers, all the lorettes and grisettes, all the kept women and courtesans for all the art and literature they have inspired. For this alone, they deserve our respect and reverence — but for their ability to survive pain, privation, degradation, and misery, they deserve our awe.


The author’s list of 400 synonyms for prostitute in French. (Courtesy of The Book Collector.)


The two books that formed the basis of my inquiry. The small red book is the Dictionnaire Anecdotique des Nymphes du Palais-Royal; the two-volume set is De La Prostitution dans La Ville de Paris.

Title page of Dictionnaire Anecdotique des Nymphes du Palais-Royal, 1826.

Veux-tu monter, mon Bel-homme? Je suis bien Aimable, bien Complaisante... (Hey, handsome, would you like to come upstairs? I’m easy…) Fold-out hand-colored etched frontispiece to [Jean]-[Pierre]. Cuisin, Les Nymphes du Palais-Royal, Paris, 1815. A young gentleman being restrained by his coachman and a friend from the invitation offered by one of the prostitutes in front of the infamous gambling den at the Palais Royal known only by its address: 113. Noticeable as well are two signs for other nearby establishments: Corcelet, whose shop “Au Gourmand” sold delicacies from around the world; and Café des Aveugles, a celebrated café named for its blind musicians. Located in a basement, it had 20 cave-like rooms where customers could buy sex along with some refreshments. Prostitutes of the lower ranks were known to congregate there. It was rumored that if a man was unfortunate enough to be lured in, he would have trouble finding his way out again.

André Gill (1840-1885). Miss Dada Menken. Color woodengraving, 1867, on the February 10, 1867, cover of La Lune, a weekly comic magazine. Adah Isaacs Menken, an American actress (1835-1868), became notorious for appearing “nude” on horseback in the drama Mazeppa (she was wearing a flesh-colored leotard), and for her many affairs, including one with Alexandre Dumas in 1866-67; it created a scandal, not so much for the relationship, but because he was more than twice her age.

Alphonse Liébert (1827-1914). Adah Isaacs Menken and Alexandre Dumas. Carte de visite photograph, 1867. This photograph was taken on March 28, 1867.

Edouard Pépin [pseud. of Claude Guillaumin (1842-1927)]. La Cocodette. Color wood engraving, 1868, on the November 22, 1868, cover of L’Eclipse, the satiric weekly journal that began in 1868 after La Lune (see above) was shut down by the government. Here, the portrait of a Cocodette, a high-ranking prostitute, satirizes the phrenological system invented by Franz Joseph Gall by showing the various sections of the young flirt’s head, including “Plaisirs” (Pleasures), “Paresse” (Indolence), “Luxure” (Luxury), etc.

Pierre-Numa Bassaget, called Numa (1802-1872). Libre Exchange. J’ai Le Sac. (A Fair Exchange. I Have the Purse.) Color lithograph, c. 1864. Numa created many images of prostitution; in this one, a client bows down to a prostitute who holds the “power of the purse.”

Jean Amadée Pastelot (1820-1879). L’Exposition. Lithograph, c. 1865. From the series L’Humanité Comique (The Human Comedy). A courtesan on full display at the opera, a favorite haunt of courtesans and their clients.


[1] All translations are by the author unless otherwise indicated. The illustrations are reproduced with thanks to Wild Don Lewis Photography.

[2] The actual word for 32mo is trigesimo-secundo, indicating a book made from sheets of paper that folded to make signatures of thirty-two leaves; as such, 32mos are small, about 4 x 2 ¾ inches in size.

[3] Louis-Sebastien Mercier, in his landmark work on Paris, observed: “Just as racehorse studs have their specific names, each woman [in a brothel] has her own nickname indicating her physical appearance.” (Tableau de Paris, 1782-83, vol. 7, p. 4.)

[4] It went through several editions in French (1836, 1837, 1838, 1857); was published in English in 1840 and 1845; and translated into Japanese in 1877.

[5] A.-J.-B.-B. Parent-Duchâtelet, Essai sur les cloaques ou égouts de la ville de Paris, Paris: Crevot, 1824.

[6] Parent-Duchâtelet, De La Prostitution dans La Ville de Paris, 1836, vol. I, p. 7.

[7] Syphilis, the great scourge of the 19th century, was medically attributed to prostitutes (rather than the men who infected them) and the examinations were intended not to protect the women, but their clients, many of whom were married. How to safeguard wives and mothers from venereal diseases — as well as prostitutes — became a major issue.

[8] Registered prostitutes were known as soumises; illegal ones were insoumises.

[9] I could find only one exception to this belief, and it was well before Parent. Mercier, always astute, was nearly alone in understanding that men created the demand for “wanton” women, and that it was men who were less in control of their bodies than the women they paid for sex. “On compte à Paris trente mille filles publiques, c’est-à-dire, vulgivagues… On les appeloit autrefois femmes amoureuses, filles folles de leur corps. Les filles publiques ne sont point amoureuses; & si elles sont folles de leurs corps, ceux qui les fréquentent sont beaucoup plus insensés.” (Op. cit., vol. 3, p. 114)

[10] Parent, while conducting his research in the mid-1820s, must have come across Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857), the notorious head of the Sûreté Nationale (France’s secret police force), which he founded in 1812 and headed until 1827. Vidocq, a legendary criminal who became a police spy and the world’s first detective, recalled his many exploits in several best-selling memoirs that became inspirational to many contemporary writers. Vidocq cites Parent in his work on criminals, Les Voleurs (The Thieves), 1837, and their connection, hitherto unrecorded, deserves more research.

[11] This sort of documentation, initially called “moral statistics,” was a new field, founded by André-Michel Guerry (1802-1866), a lawyer, statistician and colleague of Parent. Many of the tables and diagrams in Parent’s work derive from those in Guerry’s pioneering book, Essai sur la statistique morale de la France, 1833.

[12] Octave Uzanne, Parisiennes de ce temps, Mercure de France, 1910. Translated as The Modern Parisienne, G. P. Putnam’s, 1912, pp. 177-215.

[13] Alain Corbin, Women for Hire, Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 6.

[14] It appeared in his crime novel Les Mohicans de Paris (1854-59).

[15] See Michelet’s L’Amour (1858) and La Femme (1860).

[16] P.-J. Proudhon, La Pornocratie ou Les Femmes dans les Temps Moderne, Lacroix, 1875, p. 267. This infamous work, published posthumously, was a diatribe against women and their increasingly active roles in 19th century society, which he viewed as having become a pornocracy, the rule by prostitutes and corrupt individuals.

[17] And let us keep in mind that the women of France were not allowed to vote until 1944.

[18] For comparison, I began another list, one of words for prostitute in English; it has upwards of 150 words so far. However, in a language contest for the most words describing vices, English would surely win — there are over 3,000 words for being drunk, according to linguist James Harbeck.

[19] Nicot (1530-1600) has the distinction not only of compiling the first French dictionary, but also of having introduced tobacco to France — and having nicotine named after him.

[20] “…comme les femmes regardent leur sexe comme un gagne-pain!… leur sexe est une carrière…” Edmond et Jules de Goncourt, Journal. Mémoires de la vie littéraire, Monaco, 1956-58, Vol. 2, p. 116.

[21] In contrast, Parent’s book, even the first edition of 1836, is readily available on several online rare book sites.


[23] The Gazette des Tribunaux, a daily for most of its existence, ran from 1825 to 1955 and was the official French legal journal; it reported on court proceedings, trials and legal issues, and provided significant source material for novelists researching crime and criminals. In Modeste Mignon (1844), Balzac wrote : “La Gazette des tribunaux publishes novels not unlike Walter Scott’s, but with terrible endings and in real blood, not ink.”

[24] Among these cheeky works, mostly pamphlets, are: Florentine de Launay, Etrennes aux Grisettes, Paris, 1790 and I. F. X. Villeneuve, Les Fastes Scandaleux, ou la Galerie des Plus Aimables Coquines de Paris, Paris, c. 1796. Each contains a list of nymphes, the former with street addresses, the latter with addresses and physical descriptions. Les Sérails de Paris, a three-part work containing anecdotes about Parisian brothels, madams and prostitutes, appeared in 1802. J. P. R. Cuisin wrote scores of little books on Parisian vices, including Les Nymphes du Palais-Royal, 1815.

[25] Severe censorship laws were passed in March, 1822 in which nearly any book could be judged an “outrage to public morals and religion.” It resulted in numerous editors and publishers being arrested for having published the philosophical and scientific works of Helvetius, Holbach and Dupuis. The popular writers Etienne Jouy and Antoine Jay were sent to prison for a month in 1823 for having written something slightly derogatory about one of their subjects in their Biographie Nouvelle des Contemporaines (1820-25), although they had the last laugh when they published an account of their prison experiences in their best-selling works Les Hermites en Prison (1823) and a sequel, Les Hermites en Liberté (1824).

[26] The law proposed new restraints and regulations on printers, including restrictions on the ownership and editorship of political journals; prohibitions on publishing anything on living persons without their permission; and the imposition of a substantial stamp-tax on periodicals. It would have wiped out the printing industry in France.

[27] La goguette ancienne et moderne. Choix de chansons nationales, Paris: Garnier Frères, 1874, p. 249.

[28] Quoted at the beginning of this essay, Flaubert’s admission was written in a letter to his lover Louise Colet in June, 1853.

[29] Les prostituées sont aussi inévitables, dans une agglomération d’hommes, que les égouts, les voiries et les dépôts d’immondices… Parent-Duchâtelet, De la prostitution, Vol. II, p. 513.


This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue of The Book Collector.


Victoria Dailey is a writer, curator and antiquarian bookseller. She lives in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Victoria Dailey is a writer, curator and antiquarian bookseller. She lives in Los Angeles. 


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