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Entertainment of French Workers

Melynda Burke

    The French Worker is a collection of autobiographies from the early industrial era in France. The workers in these accounts endured bleak and often hopeless lives. They faced poverty, starvation, and long work hours. Despite these hardships, the workers still found time for entertainment. The literate individuals were able to escape by reading. Festivals, dances, and marriages were another form of entertainment. People could gather, dance, sing, and celebrate. Museums, theaters, and public gardens were another source of entertainment. Fencing, games of boules (bowling), and martial art competitions were also forms of entertainment.

    Literate individuals were able to escape through reading. Suzanne Voilquin was not born into the typical working class. However, family financial failure forced her into this class. She earned a living by producing embroidered goods. Suzanne revealed how reading served as her escape. "I loved reading with a passion. I was allowed to surrender to this enthusiasm each evening in my Mother's company on the condition that I read to her, while she worked." (100).

    Agricol Perdiguier also came to enjoy reading. He followed in his father's footsteps and became a joiner (carpenter). This profession led him to take a Tour de France ( journey around the country to work in different areas) to perfect his trade. Agricol explained how he acquired a love of reading on his Tour de France. "We would sometimes gather in the evening . . . and he would pick up Othello or Hamlet, or the tragedies of Ducis, or Racine's Phaedra and read them aloud. I was enthralled, and suddenly my fondest wish was to own a few tragedies myself." recalled Perdiguier (149).

    Jean-Baptiste Dumay shared a passion for reading as well. He was born in a factory town dominated by Schneider enterprises. He revolted against the factory system, and was blacklisted. Jean-Baptiste Dumay declared his love of reading in the following passage. "I liked everything: old newspapers, history, novels, travel literature . . . And I spent the whole day reading in the woods or elsewhere." explained Dumay (313).

    Festivals also served as a way for people to gather and celebrate. Jacques Etienne Bede was a chair turner (a woodworker who made chairs). He organized a mutual aid society for workers, and led a labor dispute between chair turners and masters (employers). Jacques Bede described The mutual aid society's Saint Michael's feast day. "On the evening of Saint Michael's feast day, the celebration took place. A midday mass was followed by a sumptuous banquet held in a garden restaurant in Les Pres Saint-Gervais, a suburb of the capital. This meal was punctuated by toasts and speeches and followed by the recitation of poems, and songs composed by the guests especially for the occasion. The room was then rearranged for dancing, which lasted, with time out for an intermission and more songs, until six in the morning." (74).

    Agricol Perdiguer and his brotherhood of fellow joiners (carpenters) celebrated the feast day of Saint Anne's. "In Nimes I took part in the feast day of Saint Anne. In the morning we went to mass. We then held an election for the new head of the chapter, an office that rotated every six months. In the evening the banquet took place . . . We would sing in chorus and join together in friendship and enthusiasm." (137)

    Many villages gathered to celebrate at dances and weddings. Martin Nadaud, a poor mason, recalled a dance in his village of Creuse. "In our village, dances are always held in barns, where people pile in. This sort of entertainment nearly always begins with the ancient Gallic dance called the bourree," Nadaud explained. (214). He also described the entertainment that accompanied a wedding. "As we arrived at the bride's house preceded by two fiddlers, young boys observed our ancient custom by firing a volley of pistol shots into the air. They did the same as we entered and left the church, and the same ceremony was repeated at each village . . . all the surrounding villages turned out to dance or to see the bride," recalled Nadaud (240).

    Museums, theaters, and public gardens were another source of entertainment, but only for those who could afford these activities. Common workers could not attend in their work clothes. Therefore, the majority of the working class was excluded from these activities. Norbert Truquin was an unskilled worker who took any job to survive, but who did have one decent set of clothes. He recalled his experience in the capital. "Since arriving in Paris, I had not ceased visiting the sights of the capital. In the evening I would sometimes pay fifteen centimes for a ticket to the Little Lazari (theater). If I was able to visit the principal buildings, museums, and public gardens, I owe it all to my frock coat, for they would not let people in workers dress enter." (283).

    Fencing, games of boules, and martial arts competitions were also entertainment activities. Jean-Baptist Dumay recalled his pride of being the son of "a fencing master of considerable repute throughout the entire department, and until I was fifteen I took great pleasure in hearing . . . stories about the brilliant matches." explained Dumary (311) Agricol Perdiguier played games of boules (bowling) with his fellow joiners. In Nadaud's boarding house, the men took part in informal martial arts competitions.

French workers in the nineteenth century endured many hardships. Regardless of their situations, they still appreciated opportunities for entertainment. These activities helped them to escape from their bleak existence.




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All essays copyright students of History 541,  University of Kentucky 2002

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