French Boyhood: 1890s

An interesting book provides some fascinating details on French boyhood during the 1910s. It offers insights on several different topics, clothes, hair styles, and school life. It is the memories of Paul Vailland-Couturier who was born in 1893. The book was translated from the French by Ida Treat, an American paleontologist and journalist. I've included some text about his clothes at 4 years of age and about his first experiences in school. Included also are some sketches of Paul at about 7. Compare the information in the text with the photographs available for Emile Zola's son Jacques, a contemporary of Paul. The sailor suit with knickers worn by Paul are similar to the ones worn by Jacques who also wore curls and latter bangs. One of the things emphasized in this book is the isolation of French children until they were quite old. School was the first time Paul played with other children. Even in the country in the summers he was mostly around adults. French families seem to have been very close knit units.

Paul at 4 Years (1897)

Paul's first visual memories had to do with photographs. It was an astonishing period, that end of the 19th century, and the proper dress for children differed little from the type of clothes worn to-day by trained monkeys in the circus. For Paul, three photographs represented three definite memmories. The first pictured Paul, a round-faced, curly headed boy in a velvet dress, with a determined expression and a funny little bun of hair tied with a ribbon over one eye. A wide collar of imitation Venetian lace fell over his shoulders. The front of the dress bore two rows of buttons with gold anchors. From a pocket, hung a whistle on a braided white cord. And in his right hand, Paul held a whip. An everyday dress for a four-year-old city boy. And suggestive of the calvalry and the navy. (There were many military influences on 19th century children's clothes.)

Paul Beginning School at 7 Years (1900)

School, to Paul, meant the discovery of the world. But only a part of it. At the lycee there were no children of working men. In that respect, Paul's father and mother shared the prejudices of other middle-class parents. Children of the "people" were to be avoided; they had lice, skin diseases, and all sorts of vices. That was the accepted point of view and no one thought of contesting it. Between Paul and the "boys of the street" there could be no possible contact.

The Lycee

Paul was 7 years old when his parents sent him to the lycee. He was entered in the ninth class. As he had already learned to read and write, he escaped the infant class, a sort of half kindergarten taught by a woman. In the "ninth," he felt himself to be a real schoolboy, for the teacher was a man. Paul's school was the Lycee Janson de Sailly in the fashionable sixteenth ward, surrounded by the solemn stone faqades of the rue de la Pompe. A high iron fence surrounded it. Behind the fence stretched a clipped hedge and above the hedge rose the brick wall of the building, pierced with tall, narrow windows and niches containing the busts of famous men. And behind that wall were classrooms, assembly halls, and courtyards. And in the court, the most important person of the school from the boy's point of view, the drummer. The military discipline of the First Empire still prevailed in the lycee, which in that respect was no different from all the lycees of France. The drummer represented the living symbol of Napoleonic tradition. Military too, the uniforms of the boarders-blue suits with gilt buttons and gold-braided caps-with their hair cut just alike and their clumsy soldier boots.

Figure 1.--Paul is pictured here going to school. He wears a sailor suit with knickers. Note his sailor hat with the red poppom on top Also notice the book bag.

First in importance, came the boarders, who slept in the dormitory on the rows of hospital cots, went walking in long procession, keeping step two by two, and were ruled over by the terrible general supervisor, Ledar, the right arm of the censor, the chief disciplinarian. The provisor represented their father, and the bursar, their nurse. Next came the day scholars, who took their meals at the lycee and went home at evening after having prepared their lessons in the study hall. And last of all, the boys like Paul who merely attended classes from 8:00 to 10:30 in the morning. and. from 2:00 to 4:30 in the afternoon.

A new book bag

There was much discussion at home over the choice of a sack for Paul's books. (Like all his school-matcs, he had to carry home his books every night.) Paul preferred the kind of sack that you hung over one shoulder by a strap and carried under the arm. But his mother objected; the boy would grow all one-sided, with one shoulder higher than the other. A military sack strapped on the back was preferable. When packed with care it would oblige its wearer to stand straight. That opinion carried the day. Paul was provided with a soldier's sack of black and white calfskin of the finest effect. He also had a black lacquer box for his pens, with a Japanese landscape painted on the lid. Perhaps it was a bit too fancy for so severe a school, but if any one objected he had only to say it was a gift. Paul felt very important and grown up to have so many new things all his own. A reader and a history book full of pictures and famous phrases in black letters of kings and great captains. A geography with maps of all colors and France and its possessions standing out very big and tinted a vivid rose pink. And so many copybooks--for spelling and arithmetic and geography and composition and penmanship and dictations. Quite a heavy load for a boy of 7 to carry back and forth in the handsome calfskinsack..

The porter

On the very first day, he made a pleasant discovery. The porter of the lycee came from Paul's Pyrenees, from a village only a few miles distant from the town in the foot-hills where Paul spent his summers. The porter talked patois with Paul's father and offered to take the little boy under his special protection. In a dark little hole under the stairway, the porter had a shop where he sold long strings of licorice, tiny bottles of sweetened water labeled port, madeira, and muscatel, and bristling clusters of roudoudous or all-day-suckers, rainbowcolored and suggestive of some mysterious and dreadful chemistry. Paul, fortunately no doubt, never cared for all-day-suckers.

The 9th class

Beyond the threshold, worn in hammocks by generations of clumsy shoes, big glass doors opened on the Court of Honor with its sickly flowerbeds, its rows of dripping rhododendrons, and its smell of uncleanly cats. The terrible offices of the provisor and

Figure 2.--Paul learned to read at home before he began school. He is pictured here doing his homework. Note the hairbow that he wears with his curls.
the censor opened off the court, the fencing room too, and the gymnasium with its tangles of apparatus and damp sawdust. Then came a row of doors leading into classrooms and at the far end the Petit Lycee and the ninth class.

The ninth class met in a big bare room with green-painted walls on which hung half a dozen maps. A row of desks and benches, backless and screwed to the floor, faced the master's chair on its raised platform with the blackboard and sponge beside it. All along the wall, the boys' coats and rain-capes steamed on a row of hooks. There were fifteen boys in Paul's class. No girls, naturally. They went to a lycee of their own. The master, a young man, near-sighted and bearded, unhealthily fat, who wore a frock coat shiny and green about the seams. Poverty seemed to have set its stamp on the master, material poverty, for like the majority of his fellows, he was poorly paid; intellectual poverty as well, that had prevented his advancement. But Paul only saw that he was weak. However, he did not take advantage of the master's weakness. Not that he was exceptionally generous or kind hearted. But he had the same tormentors as the master.

Paul's curls

At seven, Paul still wore curls. They were his mother's pride. Every night she did them up on leather "kids"and in the morning brushed them around her fingers so that they fell artistically over the lace collar of the boy's blue velvet suit. From the very first, those curls formed a target for petty persecutions. [Note: Paul's mother liked to add hairbows to his long curls. Presumably she did not insist on sending him to school with hairbows, but at home he appears to have worn them until his curls were cut at age ?.]

The bully

There was one boy in particular, a certain Tosani, who led the assault. He was an ugly little chap with round frog-like eyes and a protruding jaw, older than the other boys and always last in rank. The son of a magistrate and the class bully. Tosani terrorized the whole ninth, the master included. The master, however, treated the boy with more than usual mildness. Tosani's parents paid for private lessons. At recess, his favorite sport was to seize Paul's curls from behind and fling him down on the gravel, yelling the while like an indian or uttering peals of noisy laughter in which the other boys joined in. Paul had never played with boys before and 'had not learned to protest except in words. So for a time Tosani had his way. Each recess was a fresh torture and Paul went home every night with an aching scalp.

Figure 3.--Paul wore dresse with middy blouses as a little boy and sailor suits with knickers as an older boy. Here he wages mock battles with his marbles at home. Note the hairbow that was often used for boys with long hair in France. He presumably did not wear the bow to school, but his mother used it until his hair was cut at about ? years. Also note the little bow at the back of his knickers which was used instead of a belt. This meant that like a back buttoning smock, he would need help to dress.

Curiously enough, it never occurred to him to ask to have his hair cut. At home, which was still the center of Paul's world, curls were considered as normal decorations for a boy of 7. Besides, Paul was not the only boy in the ninth class to wear curls. Laloue, a blond boy of Paul's age, wore his hair in long curls with a comb on the side. It was Laloue, whom for reasons mysterious to Paul the class bully left in peace, who finally told Paul how to get the better of his tormentor, and the two straightway formed an alliance for their mutual defense. "You've got to beat him, Paul-o," Laloue assured him. "It's the only way. And you needn't be afraid either. Any one can do it. Paul confided that he had never fought with any one, but that he was quite willing to try. The following day, Paul woke up with a headache. His father took him to the lycee as usual, but he noticed that the boy's eyes were brilliant and his hands hot. He spoke to the porter about it, asking him to keep an eye on his son, and decided to plan his morning walk so as to pass through the street behind the playground at the recess hour.

The fight

Half past nine. At the roll of the drum, the boys streamed out into the court-yard, Paul with the others, though that day he felt no desire to play. His head pounded madly and his whole body felt queer. At first he did not see his father, half hidden behind the hedge and the iron fence. But all at once he recognized a familiar tall hat. Now Paul had no intention of being ill. Above all, he did not want to give his father that impression. Halfheartedly he joined a game of marbles with Laloue and two other boys. He had quite forgotten Tosani, when suddenly a brutal hand gave his curls a terrific yank. Paul wheeled about, but at the same instant there was a cry from Tosani. Laloue had bitten the enemy's hand. That was all Paul needed. Like a whirlwind he flung himself on the bigger boy, striking out with hands and -feet. In the onslaught, his head collided with Tosani's stomach and the two went down together, rolling over and over in the gravel. So that was fighting. For all his anger, Paul was drunk with the sheer joy of it. Fists and knees and feet he pounded and pummeled with all his might. Not one of Tosani's blows did he feel. Something ripped and tore. Tosani's clothes or the blue velvet suit! Paul did not care. A stem voice called across the fence. His father's voice. Paul turned a deaf ear. Then Tosani began to howl-a beautiful sound! A heavyhand fell on his shoulder, gripped the velvet suit and lifted him bodily into the air. The prof! Squirming in the master's grasp, Paul had a pleasant picture of his enemy prostrate in the gravel below him, his clothes tom and dusty, his face streaked with tears and dirt, and howling as if he had been flayed. Suddenly everything went queer. Paul staggered and almost fell. A cold sweat broke out all over him. His teeth chattered. A hand closed about his wrist and a voice, very far away, it seemed, said: "The child is sick." Then another voice, his father's, through the fence. "Hold him a minute until I come around. I will take him home." Then the master again."This time I shall not punish you, mon enfant, because you are ill. But it is very bad of you to beat your little classmates. You understand? Very bad. Paul wriggled off the master's knee. The master was a coward. He took Tosani's part. Tosani, who put broken pens in the master's chair for him to tear his trousers. Tosani too was a coward. Yelping like a baby girl when he was 2 years older than Paul and ever so much bigger. Paul had learned a lesson. There were people in the world with whom you had to use fists. That morning Paul went home in a cab, dizzy with ' victory and fever. The next day he came down with measles.


If the discipline of the First Empire and its imperious drum governed daily life of the lycee, surely the shades of the Jesuits presided over the type of teaching that prevailed in the primary classes. There every lesson, geography and history like the rest, had to be learned by heart and recited word for word. If the schoolboy recited the paragraph or the page with parrot-like exactness, he received"exemptions," very like the religious "indulgences," which permitted him to redeem in advance all possible infringements of discipline. There was even a list, carefully detailed, so many "exemptions" to atone for a given fault. Paul had a good memory and a correct diction. That sufficed to make him a "good scholar." As it happened he understood nearly everything that he recited, but that was sheer luck. No one made any effort to help him understand. Every night he carried home the daily report-card for his father to sign. His grades ranged from 7 to 9 on a scale of 10, but the marks for conduct ran generally lower. Occasionally the master added a word in red ink, "talkative," or "dissipated," but Paul had generally a whole stock of exemptions in advance; s o he received few punishments. In t he ninth class, the master taught everything except German. The German teacher was a tall man with a white beard and a strong Alsatian accent. Paul had a special fondness for the German lessons. It was the only class in which the boys sang and Paul liked to sing. They sang "0 tannenbaum," "Ich hate ein Kamarad," and "Mit den Pfeil, den Bogen, durch Gebirg und Thal." On Paul's report card, the German professor added his word in red ink: "a pretty voice and a good accent". Paul was prouder of that than all the 7s and 9s. He liked to write German too and filled the pages.


Paul was an enthusiastic marble player and at the lycee marbles was king. Paul's father coached him in the game and Paul became very adept, usually winning in cointests at school. He would use his growing collection of marbles to wage mock battles at home.


The question arrises as to what Paul thought of his clothes and hair style. Looking back he his clothes as suitable for a trained monkey. But he mentions in referece to his curls that he never thought of asking to have them cut. No information is available on what he thought about wearing hair bows. If it upset him, you would have thought he would have mentioned it. Thus it appears that he didn't give a lot of thought to his clothes, apparently assuming at age 7 that it was simply something his mother decided on. He did, however, make his preferences known on the subject of his book bag.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: September 7, 1998 Last updated: September 7, 1998