Weird History 1871-1914: Remembering France's "Golden Age" of Prostitution  

Setareh Janda
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Paris's Belle Epoque was a time of elegant architecture, wide boulevards, and inviting cafes. It was also an era rich in French hedonism. Though the cultural center of the world, Paris was also a wild city. Parisians who lived through the golden years of 1871 to 1914  loved to have a good time. In an era of grace and beauty, refinement and respectability, the city was also defined by its sensual decadence, debauchery, and risqué practices.

Parisian night life was as colorful as it was over-the-top. In districts like Montmartre, cabarets and clubs such as the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bèrgere sprung to life, serving champagne and absinthe as a side order to scandalous, shocking entertainments. This libertine, carefree climate inspired scores of artists, writers, and musicians. The cabarets, cafes, and brothels of Paris abetted Impressionist indulgences.

Belle Epoque Paris also provided opportunities for increasingly independent young women, who came to the city in droves to follow their interests and talents. They attempted to sidestep marriage and find paths to wealth and independence. These women often turned to the stage, finding work as actresses and dancers. Frequently, this work led them to become mistresses to wealthy, influential men.

In this culture, a golden age of prostitution flourished. Prostitution in Paris was highly structured and regulated, and sex workers ranged from the high-class, wealthy courtesan to the common streetwalker. Bordellos dotted the city, offering a wide variety of options for the discerning customer. A culture as fast and loose as this was bound to produce some scintillating stories.

The French President Died While Getting It On With His Mistress

The French President Died Whil... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 1871-1914: Remembering France's "Golden Age" of Prostitution
Photo: Photographer Unkonwn/Public Domain

Madame Marguerite Steinheil was one of the most scandalous women in Paris in the Belle Epoque. Considering the hedonism of the turn of the century, that's really saying something. 

Through her marriage to a French artist, Madame Steinheil gained entry to the upper echelons of Parisian society. In 1897, she met the 56-year-old President of France, Félix Faure, and soon became his mistress.

On February 16, 1899, Steinheil's servants were summoned to his private room, where they found Faure dead on the couch and disheveled Steinheil straightening her clothes and hair. The scene was altogether scandalous, and rumors quickly spread that a love-making tryst between the two had brought about a fatal seizure. 

A Future King Of England Used A Specialty Sex Chair At His Favorite Bordello

A Future King Of England Used ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 1871-1914: Remembering France's "Golden Age" of Prostitution
Photo: Jean-Pierre DalbĂ©ra/CC BY 2.0

Before he became king of England, Edward (VII, if you're counting) spent his time waiting around for his mother, Queen Victoria, to die. He didn't ascend to the throne until he was 59, so he spent the vast majority of his life as the Prince of Wales, next in line for the throne. While stuck in a royal waiting room, Edward decided to have a little fun. The playboy prince was known for his gigantic appetite for pleasure. 

Like many British men in the 19th century, the prince frequented the bordellos of Belle Epoque Paris, and he did it with enthusiasm and flair. His favorite place to sheathe his royal scepter was upscale Le Chabanais, which catered to a number of high-profile clients. The Prince of Wales kept his own room there, complete with his coat-of-arms mounted over the bed and a tub he filled with champagne. He also kept an apartment in an area a peer of his dubbed "the clitoris of Paris."

As the prince's appetites grew larger, so did his body. He swelled to an enormous size, and was known to eat as many as five meals a day. He supposedly commissioned a sex chair specially designed so he could enjoy the company of a woman without crushing her.

So Many French Women Were Sold Into Prostitution Abroad 'French' Became A Synonym For Prostitute

So Many French Women Were Sold... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 1871-1914: Remembering France's "Golden Age" of Prostitution
Photo: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec/Public Domain

The craze for prostitution in late 19th century France created a massive human trafficking industry. While Paris had plenty of women to fill its brothels and streets, many provincial towns didn't have enough to go around. To meet customer demand, women who worked for brothels or intermediary parties walked the streets of Paris or other cities offering naive young women an opportunity to work as maids in the country. They ended up in slaughterhouses - the term of cheap, factory-like whorehouses. 

Scouting women on the street gave way to massive organizations with talent-recruiting fronts. These organizations advertised a need for entertainers, dancers, performers, and other such professionals. Those who signed up were sent to places like Buenos Aires or Cape Town on contracts they didn't earn enough to buy their way out of. Some started as waitresses though eventually turned to prostitution, while others were forced straight into brothels. This industry was so pervasive at the turn of the 20th century the Cape Town euphemism for "whore" was "French girl," and "Francucha" ("French girl") became slang for prostitute in Buenos Aires. 

The organizations selling such women liked them young, preferably 16 to 18, and would ship women as far away as Manchuria (in northern China, bordering Russia). These organizations so thoroughly convinced women they were off on some grand adventure, a police raid on a group prepped for shipment to Cape Town in 1902 didn't believe they were being sold into prostitution. 

Swallowing Was Extra After Fellatio, But Mint BJ Spice Was Free

Swallowing Was Extra After Fel... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 1871-1914: Remembering France's "Golden Age" of Prostitution
Photo: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec/Public Domain

A menu for a brothel at 69 Rue Chat-Noir ("69 Black Cat/P*ssy Street"), an address that never existed in Paris (there's no such street;it obviously invented for fun) unearthed by Luc Sante for his book The Other Paris gives a good idea of what was available to patrons of sex houses at the end of the Belle Epoque (the menu dates to 1915). 

You could spice up a hand job with a pinky in your ass for an extra charge. Fellatio was extra if you wanted swallowing, but the house recommendation of having your prostitute suck on a mint lollipop before sucking you was no extra charge. Various versions of the 69 were available, as was something called "pissette sur la quequette." "Quequette" is a French word a little boy would use to refer to his penis, something like "willy" in English, and a pissette is a spray bottle. So make of that what you will.