How Paris Keeps House – 1928

taxi paris

“Nearly all French city dwellers live in apartments.  With few exceptions, there is no such thing as the individual house.  Even the rich are mostly confined to one floor, although this may have gorgeous parlours, bedrooms, and all the other quarters of a fine residence.  Such apartments have an infinite number of rooms equipped with large mirrors, and walls decorated with stucco designs which often surround panels of satin or silk.


The furniture is more elaborate and less substantial than ours.  Indeed, I tremble whenever I sit down on one of these gilt-framed, spider-legged chairs for fear it will collapse and bring me to the floor.  And then the upholstery!  The colors are so delicate that I feel like spreading my handkerchief over the place where I sit.  The French woman’s ideal of a well-furnished parlour seems to be that it should have a great deal of furniture, including many lamps and bric-a-brac of all shapes and sizes, filling every inch of available space on piano, table and mantel.


One of the difficulties of renting an apartment in Paris is having the proper record made of the furniture.  Not only must every chair, sofa, and table, every bit of bed linen and china, and even the smallest kitchen utensil be listed, but one should note the bric-a-brac item by item, and give the condition of each piece at the time of the renting.  Taking an inventory of the smallest apartment usually lasts several hours, since every scratch on a chair, every worn space on the upholstery, and every spot on a cushion must be itemized.  For upon expiration of the lease a heavy penalty is imposed for any damage done by the tenant.  If the clock is in running order it must be itemized as EN MARCHE, which means that it is going, and the same is true of every bit of machinery.


In addition to the rent, a fixed sum is charged for cleaning an apartment.  This item is often left out of the lease, but it equals five per cent of the rent, and is a large part of the janitor’s wages.  Indeed, except for his lodging, the janitor gets very little out of the landlord.  The French janitor is quite as powerful and dictatorial as his brother in the United States and it is well to keep on his good side; for he can omit to deliver your letters and can say you are out when visitors come.  Furthermore, you are obliged to have him turn on the light in the hall when you ring the bell upon coming in late.


That matter of light is another economy.  At night the lower front door of every French apartment building is as dark as a pocket, and electricity is so controlled by a mechanical device that the lights only burn long enough for you to get to your floor.  This is about three or four minutes.  The janitor turns them on at your ring; they go out by themselves.  The electric current is weaker than in America.  In many apartments one cannot use an electric iron and an electric heater at the same time.


Among the surprising economies of the French apartment is the elevator, or the lack of it.  The American Embassy is in a fashionable apartment house in an excellent location.  The American who calls upon our Ambassador is lifted from story to story in a tiny little elevator not as big around as a hogshead, with two seats in the corners.  It will not accommodate more than two persons at one time.


This elevator was operated by a push button;  but that is nothing, for even at some Paris hotels where they are charging six dollars and upwards a day for rooms, the elevators are run by push buttons and the guest does the pushing.  In the ordinary apartment house the elevators are only used in going up.  You are supposed to walk down, for this saves the “juice”.  In many apartment houses there are no elevators and six-story buildings are now being built with nothing but stairs.  I am on the fourth story of my hotel here in Paris and I have timed the elevator going up.  It takes just two minutes, or thirty seconds per  floor.  At the same rate it would take an hour to go to the top of the Woolworth building and back.


Fuel is saved as carefully as electric current.  There is no such thing as waste of wood or coal.  Many of the railway companies run their engines with coal dust pressed into briquettes or bricks.  Coal dust made into balls the size of eggs is used for cooking as well as for house heating and grate fires.  In Paris wood is sold by the bundle and the ordinary wood yard is a little store about eight or ten feet wide, facing the street, the wood and kindling piled up on shelves.  It is estimated that France spends almost seventy million dollars a year for wood.  It is so costly that except for kindling it is burned only by the rich.  A great deal of gas is now being used for cooking, especially in the larger establishments.  The people hardly know what it is to be warm in the American sense of the word, and the luxury of a fire is dispensed with, except in the coldest weather.


And then the tips!  There is a continual dribble of francs and sous.  Every time your doorbell rings you had best be ready a fee, for someone will expect it for the alleged service he has performed.  The boy with a telegram or the postman with a special delivery letter will want at least two and a half cents.  The grocery man will expect a ten-cent tip, and the messenger from the big department store should have the same.  At New Year’s everyone who has served in one way or another during the year comes to the door of the house and frankly asks for a present.  Moreover, they get it–the man who sweeps the street in front of the house, the mechanic who greases the elevator shaft, and the girl who delivers the milk, as well as the janitor and all his family connections.  Every mechanic who makes repairs must have his tips, and the taxi driver is cross unless one adds ten per cent to the amount shown on the meter.


There are many queer features in these French apartment houses.  One is that the renters often install their own gas and electricity, the landlords insisting that the pipes be put outside the walls, lest they leak.  At the close of such a lease the tenant takes the fixtures with him or sells them to the incoming tenant.  In most cases the heating arrangements are bad.  Steam and hot water heat are unknown to many a French household, and some apartment houses are still built without electric lights.


In comparison to ours, the cheaper dwellings are like pigeon coops.  They are small flats in which cupboards have been built into the wall to save room.  The door to the cupboard looks as if it leads into another room, but upon opening it one finds a bed within.  There the children sleep.  The floors of these apartments are good and are often kept shining with iron shavings which look like excelsior.”


-Frank G Carpenter, Carpenter’s World Travels, 1928



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