(Un)dressing at the Beach: Bathing Culture and the Rise of the Cabine de Plage

By Kasia Stempniak

Few destinations are more synonymous with summer than the beach. This year, that association is being tested as fears of the spreading pandemic have fueled closures across the United States. In Europe, officials in beachside communities are experimenting with creative ways of attracting tourists to their shores while still ensuring social distance practices. One solution that has garnered a fair amount of international press is the beach ‘cubicle.’ On the Greek island of Santorini, large plates of plexiglass encircle lounge chairs on the shore, creating an enclosed space that ostensibly protects sunbathers from infection. Although made from modern materials, these types of ephemeral structures designed to regulate bodily propriety and hygiene at the beach have their roots in nineteenth-century bathing culture and the invention of the cabine de plage.

Eugène Boudin. “Scène de plage.” 1862. Source National Gallery of Art

Eugène Boudin. “Scène de plage.” 1862. Source National Gallery of Art

To find out more, let us take a much-needed break from 2020 and travel back in time to when vacationing at the beach was just starting to develop into a widespread cultural activity. Imagine the year is 1890 and summer has just begun. Along with thousands of other Parisians, you decide to escape the city heat to Trouville, a Norman coastal town whose beaches have been immortalized by painters like Eugène Boudin and Camille Corot. An ever-expanding network of trains allows you to reach the resort town within a couple of hours. You arrive on the beach, ready to take a plunge in the cool ocean water, only to be faced with a cumbersome sartorial problem: how to safely and comfortably change into your costume de bain, or bathing suit, away from prying eyes.

Charles Mercereau. St. Jean-de-Luz, “Vue générale du côté de la plage des baigneurs,” 1853-1876. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Charles Mercereau. St. Jean-de-Luz, “Vue générale du côté de la plage des baigneurs,” 1853-1876. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

As beach resorts became fashionable destinations in the late nineteenth century, codes of bodily propriety clashed with the rise of a leisure-obsessed society. Lauded for its salutary effects on the body, bathing was a popular activity for a wide swath of the population. As more resorts opened in the nineteenth century and transportation networks rendered travel more feasible, beaches became popular summer getaways for those eager to bathe outside the city. Taking a dip in the ocean, however, meant one had to wear bathing outfits that conformed to the body. To address concerns of modesty and privacy, new spaces were created, like the cabine de plage, or beach hut, that allowed beachgoers a safe (or relatively safe) space to change their clothing. These structures were already appearing in visual depictions of coastal life from the first half of the nineteenth century. Charles Mercereau’s painting of the Basque coastal town St. Jean-de-Luz in the 1850s depicts dozens of grey beach huts neatly lined along the coast.

Forty years later, posters advertising coastal towns nearly always included cabines de plage in their images. For example, an 1890 poster advertising the Norman town of Trouville foregrounds a shore bustling with activity as beachgoers enter and exit red-and-white striped beach tents, or cabines, lining the shore.

Class and the cabine de plage

A.F. “Bains de mer de Trouville.” 1890. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

A.F. “Bains de mer de Trouville.” 1890. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Unsurprisingly, class and money dictated the type of cabines de plages one could rent. Eugène d’Auriac’s 1866 guidebook for tourists offers precise details on the categories of cabine de plage most resorts offered. On the lower end of the pay scale one could rent a “cabine pour domestique,” a cabin for a servant, while huts equipped with warm water for a foot bath could be rented for higher prices. For those less willing to walk on the shore in their costume de bain and who had more spending flexibility, there was the cabine roulante. Known as bathing-machines in England and the United States, cabines roulantes were mobile beach huts usually pulled by horses. Both types of changing rooms, the cabine de plage as well as the cabine roulante can be seen in the 1890 poster of Trouville from earlier.  Given the privacy and convenience of a horse-pulled cabine roulante, it is not surprising that royalty preferred this method of bathing. Queen Isabella of Spain, for example, was fond of vacationing in Trouville and favored the cabine roulante to take a dip in the water. They were also a favorite among the bourgeoisie. The widely circulated fashion journal La Dernière mode often features scenes of fashionable beach life that includes illustrations of women in their costume de bain walking near the cabines roulantes. An illustration from an 1898 issue includes a group of young women wading in water while their cabine roulante looms in the background.

Eugène Boudin. “On the Beach at Trouville.” 1863. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public domain.

Eugène Boudin. “On the Beach at Trouville.” 1863. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public domain.

Eugène Boudin, one of the most prolific artists of nineteenth-century French beach life, frequently depicted scenes of the bourgeoisie visiting Norman coastal towns.  His 1863 painting “On the Beach at Trouville” includes a woman dressed in a blue costume de bain rising from the water into her horse-drawn cabine roulante.


Dangers of the cabine de plage

La Dernière mode, July 10 1898, FIDM Library

La Dernière mode, July 10 1898, FIDM Library

While practical in nature, cabines de plage were often the subject of comical stories or caricatural drawings in newspapers. Humorous accounts of beachgoers walking into the wrong cabine de plage pepper summer dispatches in newspapers. These amusing but benign occurrences could also give way to more sinister incidents. As an enclosed space, beach huts betrayed a sense of safety. The lack of locked doors rendered the cabine an easy target for petty criminals. In one court case in Caen from 1875, the plaintiff took both the hotel and city to court claiming they were responsible for valuables stolen from his cabine. The court declared that neither the hotel nor the city shared any responsibility for the theft since cabines de plage were not extensions of the hotel. Underscoring the purely sartorial function of the cabine de plage, the court’s ruling stated that beach huts were solely designed “to shield those inside of it from the public’s eye” (Pandectes françaises: 1870-1877, 208-209). The roving eye of the public invoked by the court presented a problem for beachgoers, especially for women. Dozens of voyeuristic accounts in newspapers describe women walking in and out of cabines. The newspaper La Vie parisienne often featured drawings of coastal life featuring buxom women in tight swimsuits. An issue from 1863, for example, provides a summer update on life at the Norman coastal city of Dieppe alongside illustrations of women emerging from their cabines in revealing costume de bain.

La Vie parisienne, 1 August 1863, Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

La Vie parisienne, 1 August 1863, Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

The cabine de plage allowed nineteenth-century tourists to preserve a certain façade of modesty while also allowing them to enjoy the benefits of bathing. But these ephemeral structures also exacerbated anxieties surrounding 19th-century corporeal practices. Visual and written descriptions of the cabines de plages reveal the fraught relationship between bodily practices and public space that beachgoers continue to navigate today. The COVID-era plexiglass beach cubicles popping in some parts of the world this summer are a world away from the cabines of Trouville or Caen. Yet in providing privacy and personal space, we might think of the nineteenth-century cabine de plage as the original ‘social distancing’ beach structure.



DSC_8669(2)Kasia Stempniak is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Hamilton College. Her research focuses on French literature and the material and visual culture of fashion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She is currently working on a book entitled Inhabiting Fashion: Body, Clothing, and Space in Nineteenth-Century France. 


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Vatel and the Invention of the Celebrity Chef

by Michael Garval

“Who is this Vatel, where does he come from?” asks one courtier, in the 2000 Miramax biopic Vatel.

“Nowhere—slums of Paris,” scoffs royal favorite Lauzun, his reply untrue yet revealing.

Anonymous, detail, Au Grand Vatel (c. 1914), kitchen supply catalog cover. Author’s collection.

Anonymous, detail, Au Grand Vatel (c. 1914), kitchen supply catalog cover. Author’s collection.

So who was Vatel, where did he come from, and what might such mistelling of his story mean? Employed by the Prince de Condé, François Vatel was a maître d’hôtel, a kind of seventeenth-century food and beverage manager. In 1671, when a late seafood delivery threatened to spoil a banquet he was organizing in honor of the King, he impaled himself upon his sword. While largely forgotten for over a hundred years, Vatel would reemerge in the wake of the French Revolution, recast as an archetype of culinary excellence.

From the Revolution onward, with the advent of a vibrant, increasingly broad-based gastronomic sector, the culinary profession struggled to escape its long history of servitude and social marginalization. Could the chef, once a lowly domestic worker, be reimagined as a public personage, embodying creative power and prestige, commanding respect and wielding authority? Nineteenth-century French popular culture, from theater, to the burgeoning periodical press, to visual media like engravings or postcards, ventured its own, oft contradictory answers. While not a cook, Vatel was seen as the martyred patron saint of modern culinarians, a key precursor of chefs’ newfound prominence, his ceremonial sword a badge of superior social status, his suicide proof of uncompromising devotion to his art.

Biographical misinformation propelled Vatel’s resurrection, and has flowed into current-day riffs on his story, like Roland Joffé’s film. To be sure, Vatel did hail from humble circumstances, though in rural Picardy, not Paris—where instead, born on the eve of the Revolution, Marie-Antoine Carême rose from the slums to become the first celebrity chef. But how to explain chefs’ sudden transformation, from servant to star? France looked to Vatel, reinventing him as a precedent for culinary stardom, and standard bearer for a thriving gastronomic culture.


Alfred Johannot, Vatel. “Lay down your insignia. I’m downgrading you,” engraving, illustration for Eugène Scribe and Édouard Mazères, Vatel, or the Grandson of a Great Man

Alfred Johannot, Vatel. “Lay down your insignia. I’m downgrading you,” engraving, illustration for Eugène Scribe and Édouard Mazères, Vatel, or the Grandson of a Great Man

Spun in the long nineteenth century, from the Revolution to the Great War, Vatel’s legend revolves around origins, both individual and collective. Diverse versions all ask much the same question as the film: where do great chefs come from?

Scribe and Mazères’s 1825 comedy Vatel, or the Grandson of a Great Man, depicts Vatel’s grandson and great-grandson aspiring to the putative culinary distinction of their “illustrious ancestor […] who died on the field of honor.” Through humor, the play underscores ideals—heroism, sacrifice, glory—at the heart of emergent Vatel lore. Vatel looms as these characters’ forebear and, by extension, as contemporary chefs’ spiritual ancestor.

The chromolithographic trade card Vatel’s First Arms (c. 1880-1900) highlights Vatel’s supposed professional background, portraying him as a marmiton, or young culinary apprentice.

In a premonitory vision, juxtaposed with a grown chef, he polishes his ‘first arms,’ kitchen implements anticipating the sharp instrument of his suicide.

Anonymous, Vatel’s First Arms (c. 1880–1900), chromolithographic trade card. Author’s collection.

Anonymous, Vatel’s First Arms (c. 1880–1900), chromolithographic trade card. Author’s collection.

Through Vatel, this image indulges in the period’s broader marmiton mythology, that downplayed exploitation and dismal career prospects, to instead celebrate apprenticeship as a springboard to culinary success.

Another trade card, Mme de Sévigné. The death of Vatel (1880-1900), depicts his suicide, as memorialist Sévigné, pen and paper poised, tells the tale.

Anonymous, Mme de Sévigné. The Death of Vatel (c. 1880-1900), chromolithographic trade card. Author’s collection.

Anonymous, Mme de Sévigné. The Death of Vatel (c. 1880-1900), chromolithographic trade card. Author’s collection.






In a private bedchamber, sword piercing his heart, Vatel falls back toward the portrait of a lady, with unhappy love and suicide mixing fancifully, as in the film. Unlike the previous image, this proffers a stylish fellow, without culinary trappings. His superior standing as a maître d’hôtel represented a paradigm for great chefs from Carême to Escoffier: by likewise dressing as gentlemen, they obscured the stigma of working class roots and kitchen labor, to instead fashion distinguished public personas.  In this emblematic card chefs shroud their origins, and Vatel’s story spreads forth, from Sévigné’s initial rendition. Indeed, as his head snaps back, features disappear, this paradoxically faceless likeness rendering a figure whose memory, revered yet ill-documented, invited wild interpretation and frenetic substitution: myriad Vatels, flowing from Sévigne’s account, to stand in for their ostensible prototype.

Aspiration and emulation

Not everyone can achieve greatness. But all can admire heroes, and try to follow their shining example. Aspiration and emulation underpin modern celebrity culture.

By the late nineteenth century, a “Vatel” came to mean simply a chef, but could also denigrate vile hash-slingers, like third-rate seducers dubbed “Don Juan” or “Casanova.” So too, dubious Vatels abounded in visual culture. While top French chefs like Auguste Escoffier were white, male, adult, serious, and seemingly omnicompetent, sweet little girls, clownish dolts, or far-flung indigenous cooks could all be ironic Vatel avatars.

To wit, this caricature of a Moroccan Vatel presides over a portable stove in a cramped kitchen, cooking mechanically.

Anonymous, Moroccan Vatel (c. 1910), postcard. Author’s collection.

Anonymous, Moroccan Vatel (c. 1910), postcard. Author’s collection

Beyond obvious racism and colonialist condescension, this c. 1910 postcard marks the gulf between humble aspirants and a paragon of French culinary excellence, contrasting the Moroccan chef’s ignoble existence with Vatel’s glorious destiny.

Back in the metropole, the kitchen supply store Au Grand Vatel offered professional equipment and garb for practitioners striving to rival the company’s grandiose namesake. Along similar lines, the verso of Vatel’s First Arms advertises department store À la Ville de Saint-Denis, featuring household goods, notably cookware. This marketing anticipates a new symbiosis between homemaker-consumers and lionized celebrity chefs, which would flourish over the century ahead.


In the 1950s, for instance, pioneering French TV chef Raymond Oliver promoted food products, cookware, and appliances to an audience keen to emulate his culinary savoir-faire.

Several decades later, three star chef and media darling Bernard Loiseau further facilitated consumers buying into his brand, with a line of frozen entrees. Ever in the spotlight, peddling his wares, Loiseau strayed from his path. In 2003, amid rumors he might lose a Michelin star, Loiseau killed himself with his hunting rifle. And this bold modern Vatel served in turn as the model for another—indeed, an entirely fictional, big screen culinary martyr. Deceased celebrity chef Auguste Gusteau haunts Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007), harping on the key link between eager imitators and inimitable idols, exhorting us to believe that “Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great.”


Michael Garval, Professor of French and Director of the interdisciplinary Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at North Carolina State University, also serves as Associate Editor of the journal Contemporary French Civilization. His research interests include celebrity, visual culture, and gastronomy. The author of ‘A Dream of Stone’: Fame, Vision, and Monumentality in Nineteenth-Century French Literary Culture, and of Cléo de Mérode and the Rise of Modern Celebrity Culture, he is currently working on another book project, Imagining the Celebrity Chef in Modern France.


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Jane Dieulafoy and Trans Visibility in Nineteenth-Century France

Figure 9

Jane Dieulafoy during her travels in Persia. Courtesy of the Institut national d’histoire de l’art, Paris.

On this International Transgender Day of Visibility, let’s take a moment to remember the nineteenth-century writer and explorer Jane Dieulafoy, who became famous through her travels to the Middle East with her husband Marcel, a civil engineer. Dieulafoy first put on pants when she accompanied Marcel to battle during the Franco-Prussian War, just months after they were married. But it was during the couple’s journey to Persia in the 1880s that her gender non-conformity solidified into practice, as she came to understand that she could never live a woman’s life. Instead, Dieulafoy wanted the world to see her as they saw her husband: as a fierce intellectual and brave explorer, heroically bringing back treasures from the past for the glory of France. (You can still visit these Persian artifacts in the Louvre.) When the couple had their photos taken before the last leg of their mission, they dressed identically.

Figure 14Figure 15

Historians have begun to tackle the challenge of how to talk about trans before trans: what language to use to designate figures who navigated complex gender identities before the current vocabulary existed. In my forthcoming book Before Trans, I grapple with these choices, using the contemporary vocabulary as a paradigm shifter that allows us to better recognize what was at stake for certain figures in the past. Unlike the fascinating nineteenth-century figures recently studied by scholars like Jen Manion and Emily Skidmore, Jane Dieulafoy did not live her life as a man, making the modern designation a more complex scholarly choice. Rather than feel she had been “born in the wrong body,” as the reductive cliché goes, Dieulafoy was sure she had been born in the wrong century. She fancied herself a woman of the ancient past, when women were (according to her) more like men.

Yet the trans framework remains useful for understanding Dieulafoy, as it allows us to recognize the kinds of questions that she was working out, even if it’s not always clear how to categorize her according to modern terms. Just as importantly, modern notions of trans allow us to distinguish Dieulafoy’s explorations from that of feminism, the framework by which she and other masculine-identifying women of the nineteenth century have been (mis)understood, both in modern scholarship and in their own time. Many of Dieulafoy’s colleagues were rebelling against the patriarchy, but Dieulafoy was most certainly not. Hers requires a different chapter of nineteenth-century gender history.

Having found—quite improbably—a way to live her gender non-conformity in full view, Dieulafoy lived what was by all accounts a happy life, alongside her devoted and well-chosen partner. But signs of hidden vulnerability emerge in her efforts to find her place in history. In DieulafoyFigure 35’s Parisian archives, there are several unpublished biographies of gender-crossers from earlier eras: the famous Chevalier d’Eon and the Abbé de Choisy, among others. In transcribed letters to the Chevalier, Dieulafoy underlined the diverging personal pronouns, apparently taking note of how the Chevalier’s friends had linguistically affirmed his gender identity. Dieulafoy never wrote an introduction to these loose pages or attempted to explain the connection between these figures in writing. Unlike so much of her written work, these texts remain uncategorized.

Over the course of my research, I was struck by the similarity between Dieulafoy’s unfinished biographies and works like Kate Bornstein’s 1994 Gender Outlaw and Leslie Feinberg’s 1996 Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman. Feinberg’s text offers a history of “sex and gender rebellions” in which she describes her own identification with these figures. She mentions Joan of Arc and the Chevalier d’Eon and includes an image of Jane and Marcel Dieulafoy. Well before the current “transgender moment,” or “tipping point,” as it has been called, Bornstein and Feinberg worked to find their historic precedents, so as to better understand themselves. In the late nineteenth-century, Jane Dieulafoy seems to have wanted the same. On this Trans Day of Visibility, I thought it fitting to make that lineage visible. Such is now the public work of trans history in the twenty-first century, which Jane Dieulafoy began privately in nineteenth-century France.


author photo 1Rachel Mesch is the author of Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France, forthcoming in May from Stanford University Press. She teaches French literature, history, and culture at Yeshiva University. Follow her on Twitter @RachelMesch


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A Husband or a Hat?

by Susan Hiner

Mon Dieu! Still single at 25?!

If you were a young woman living in France at the turn of the twentieth century, on November 25th you might have received a number of friendly, encouraging messages by postcard—ranging from the anodyne “Bonne fête” to the more explicitly instructive, “Pray to Saint Catherine, and your wish will be granted” to the downright officious, “pay attention to what this handsome fellow says,” that we find on the verso of the card below, admonishing the recipient to take heed of its printed message.image1 Don’t take the hat, the joli garçon apparently utters, take me instead! The gentleman offers his mustachioed self in lieu of the bonnet: a husband instead of a hat.

When I first began collecting catherinettes cards, little did I know that this frothy bonnet emblematized a cultural normalizing of female behavior. Or that those cards might eventually challenge that narrative. Indeed, in the first few decades of the twentieth century, young fashion workers would marshal the elements of the ritual into their own celebration of working women.

When girls reached the marriageable age of fifteen, they put order to their unruly girlish hair, donned the bonnet, and could then “coiffer Sainte Catherine,” meaning both wear the bonnet that signified their coming of age and create a bonnet to ornament the saint herself. They put their sewing skills to work and hoped to attract a husband as well. While the origins of this tradition are to be found in religion and folklore, the mass appeal of postcards at the turn of the twentieth century and beyond was tied to technological advances in photography and printing and modernized mail systems. The folklore festival of Saint Catherine originally designated a rite of passage.image2

Saint Catherine was the patron saint of unwed girls, but also of old maids, their aging corollaries. The endgame of Catherine and the bonnet ritual was thus either marriage or spinsterhood. Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who refused to marry the Roman emperor Maxentius, was condemned to death by the wheel. The (Catherine) wheel miraculously broke apart, and she was not harmed. She was, however, subsequently beheaded and thus martyred. The wheel is pictured in much of the iconography of the saint, which may account for her association with fashion workers.

“Coiffing” Saint Catherine thus signified that a girl was eligible, but if she coiffed for too many years without bagging a husband, she was marginalized and doomed to spinsterhood. Woe unto the girl who has no such suitor as our mustachioed friend, for she was condemned to wear the bonnet and wait, as a weeping girl surrounded by her symbolic finery in one card suggests. Hiner.13 (1)Her tearful gesture conveys a distressing message of failure and impending solitude, for, as she ages, her chances of married bliss recede. After the age of twenty-five, celibacy would overtake eligibility, and girls could no longer don the coiffe.

The image of the bonnet was reproduced and circulated on a mass scale, demonstrating how the imperative to marry was transmitted and reinforced at a time when more and more women were entering the workforce and questioning traditional roles.

Beneath their quaint photos with their stylized poses featuring industrious, expectant girls and smiling, smarmy gentlemen, pithy rhymes, solemn prayers, and wedding day fantasies, these catherinettes cards screen a kind of social coercion into a rigid ideology that imposed marriage as the only acceptable pathway for young women to follow.

image4The bonnet even appeared to menace the girl on many cards as if threatening those girls who were not prioritizing marriage.

Sent by Saint Catherine herself, one card says, the diminutive messenger seems to take her quite by surprise, and brings with him an impending threat.scaryangel

So hateful was the bonnet that some cards picture girls casting it off with unseemly gestures, perhaps to indicate that they no longer need Saint Catherine’s protection, having found a husband, or perhaps to indicate that they are throwing off the tradition and what it represents entirely.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, after droves of provincial girls had left for Paris to enter the needle trades, Parisian fashion workers appropriated the November holiday as a celebration of women’s work in the needle trades, in particular, millinery. The crafting of the hat itself became celebratory and the unwed status of the fashion worker a mark of pride when she wore a hat of her own creation. A hat instead of a husband.image7


For more on the history of this folklore tradition, see Yvonne Verdier, Façons de dire, façons de faire: la laveuse, la couturière, la cuisinière (Paris: Gallimard, 1979). The authority on the subject of the catherinettes is Anne Monjaret. See La Sainte-Catherine: Culture festive dans l’entreprise, preface by Martine Segalen (Paris: Editions du C.T.H.S., 1997)




SusySusan Hiner is Professor of French at Vassar College. The author of Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in 19th-C France (Penn Press, 2010), she is currently working on a new book entitled “Behind the Seams: Fashion, Women, and Work in 19th-Century France.”

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Paris, A (Researcher’s) Love Story

by Rachel Mesch

It’s a scene any tourist will recognize: along the picturesque quais of the Seine, vendors with their green, rectangular boxes line the sidewalks, peddling colorful postcards and souvenirs, knick knacks and paintings, a little piece of Paris to bring home.

BouquinisteTourNotreDameFor the scholar, on the other hand, these traditional booksellers, with their used books and old magazines, offer a key to the past. The bouquinistes, as they are known, bring our archives out of the dark quiet of rare book rooms and display them in the midst of the bustling Parisian cityscape. Without call numbers or catalogs, we weave through the thick rope of tourists and scan from stand to stand, looking for the fraying leather covers of timeworn texts, or the mastheads of old newspapers and magazines.

For the dix-neuviemiste, the scholar of nineteenth-century French literature, it is rare that a librarian at the Bibiliothèque Nationale de France will hand us an actual book these days. Nineteenth-century printers moved from using cotton and linen to wood pulp for their paper, and due to the high acidity of this new material, the pages of these books now crumble easily at the slightest touch. As a result, the national library has scanned these texts, and we are forced to read them through a screen. What a thrill, then, to find a long out of print nineteenth-century novel hidden on the shelf of the bouquiniste! For five, ten, fifteen Euros, one can carefully study an obscure text on the terrace of a neighboring café instead of the solitude of the microfilm chamber.old books

If the bouquinistes seem as old as Paris itself, it’s because they nearly are. Dating back to the sixteenth century, their numbers grew steadily over the periods that followed. During the French Revolution, these sellers multiplied, as they circulated high demand political brochures and newspapers; their numbers swelled again during the Paris Worlds Fairs, or Expositions Universelles, at the end of the nineteenth century, as millions thronged the city to see its new iron skyscraper. Now mini Eiffel towers populate the shelves of certain vendors alongside the used books, or bouquins, that they are named for, in standard sized wooden vestibules regulated by the government.

paris-bouquinistes-quai-seineAs a scholar trained in literary studies, encountering copies of books central to my research has been exhilarating, as it brings the notion of material culture to life. Holding an original copy of a book you are trying to situate historically and contextually puts you, quite literally, in touch with this very history and context. If you are lucky, the previous owner has left some trace of his or her presence, a signature, an oily fingerprint: a sign of the book having been owned/ read/ handled.

And then, if you are even luckier, you might fall in love. It was on the quais of the Seine that I first purchased a copy of Femina, the first photographic French women’s magazine in France. Launched in 1900 by entrepreneurial journalist Pierre Lafitte, who had an intuition about female market share, the magazine was a cross between Vogue and Ladies Home Journal, consciously aimed at the Belle Epoque female reader who wanted to take on modern roles without abandoning her femininity.Bowler

Eventually, in preparation for the book that I would write on the topic, I devoured the whole print run of Femina in bound library volumes and, yes, microfilm readers. But the project was launched by that first physical contact with someone’s old copy that I found in the caverns of a green wooden box. Excitement stirred in me as I thumbed through its outsize pages, with advertisements for hair products and furniture alongside gorgeous portraits of women writers (some of whose novels I had purchased from other bouquinistes…) and other women achieving in fabulous and daring new ways; more than a window onto a past era, the magazine offered direct contact, as I caught a weight loss advertisement slip from its pages, a card announcing an upcoming lecture, the occasional copy of a lithograph by a popular artist. Being able to buy my own copies of Femina not far from the kiosks where Parisian women would flock to purchase them set the project in motion from a place of passion and connection.

That place is Paris, where even research can be romantic.

author photo 1Rachel Mesch teaches French literature, history, and culture at Yeshiva University in New York. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France, as well as two previous works: Having it All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman, and The Hysteric’s Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin-de-Siècle. 


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Noisy Ladies in the French Theater

By Lise Schreier

In June of 1816 Lady Morgan, the daughter of a famous Irish actor, hastily vacated her seat at the Comédie Française in a state of shock. “I had suffered so much from fear, agitation, heat, and noise,” she noted, “that the moment the curtain dropt [sic] I left the box […] to take some refreshments while the hurricane of the house still assailed our ears.” The tumult in the audience had been so great that she had not heard a word uttered on stage. People had hissed, shouted, clapped, jumped, stomped, and roared with laughter. She was forced to leave the premises amidst a “wild uproar” unlike any she had ever experienced before at the theater. Only after a restorative “ice and capillaire”––a trendy syrup made from fern leaves––did she manage to gather her wits.

A rowdy audience throws apples

A rowdy audience throws apples

Did Lady Morgan go to the theater on a particularly bad day? Not at all. For the French, such boisterousness was business as usual. Indeed, playhouses were loud in nineteenth-century France. The director of La Force, a Parisian prison, boasted of not having to read theater reviews because he could tell how bad a play was by the number of combative youths brought to him after a premiere.


Women join in on the fun

All sorts of noises could be heard in performance halls, from the screams of factions throwing apples on stage and vowing to “turn the theater into a hospital,” to the bawling of infants, to the laborious mastication of men eating French fries in the nosebleed rows. Disruptions were to be expected on any given night, regardless of what kind of production was staged or what kind of public had gathered. A tragedy could cause as much pandemonium as a melodrama or a vaudeville play, for neither fashionable crowds nor popular audiences thought twice about causing a ruckus. Women join in on the fun Such unruliness was not only the work of restive men and overtired children. Working class women routinely sang, cried, sneezed, yawned and snored during a performance. And while in most public social realms, French ladies were expected to be silent, they too were allowed to make noise at the theater.

In fact, in France, generations of high society women brought to the theater an object whose sole purpose was to make noise: a whistle. These small instruments, made of silver or a much sought-after Dieppe ivory, and often adorned with a gold ring and a ribbon, tell us that unlike other shared spaces such as drawing rooms or ballrooms, where watching and being watched was the main concern, playhouses allowed even proper ladies to let loose.

Whistling, it should be noted, was how French theater-goers booed actors off the stage. The practice was so common that there was an expression for it: “calling Azor.” According to popular lore, the father of a young actor became so distraught when the public whistled during his son’s performance that he unwittingly let his dog run onto the stage. A generous spirit managed to convince him that the audience members were not so much whistling at his son, as at Azor (a popular dog’s name at the time), whom they had noticed even before the dog’s escape. Comforted by the thought, the father began to whistle as well.

Nineteenth-century audiences called Azor high and low. The working class whistled with their fingers. Middle class troublemakers owned wooden whistles and used them with gusto. But only high society women could jeopardize an artist’s career with a luxury item. And use their whistles they did, to the horror of their male companions. The author of a handbook for theater lovers did not hide his scorn for such uncouth behavior, describing some spectators as self-declared magistrates of dramatic arts: “In certain provincial playhouses,” he wrote disdainfully, “it is not unusual to see women armed with a small silver or ivory whistle and call Azor two or three times.” Gentlemen were permitted to shout, howl with laughter, or box their neighbor’s ears in anger, but the thought of having ladies audibly participate in a public remonstrance was clearly unbearable. Such behavior was not sensible. Worse, it was not Parisian.

The fashionable, feminine whistle

Sifflet en ivoire de Dieppe XIXeThis did not stop women from using their whistles. These fine accessories helped them show that fashion, femininity, social standing and gleeful participation in public manifestations of displeasure could––and did––go hand in hand. The elegant ivory effigies shown here, with their exquisite features, perfect hairdos and even a very fashion forward straw hat, demonstrated that ladies could make strident noises while remaining ladies.

And so, all that men could do was develop coping strategies. When the public called Azor, artists had to endure it in their own way. The late nineteenth-century philologist Émile Gouget reported that the actor Domenico Cimarosa swore under his breath “like a pagan,” Niccolò Piccini sucked on candies, Giovanni Paisiello stuffed his nose with Spanish tobacco, and Gioachino Rossini got up and bowed deeply, which stopped the audience in its tracks. Sifflet 3One can only imagine what the ladies’ male companions did, for their part, when the female whistlers chimed in with their sounds. Surely they must have needed something stronger than fern syrup to recover.






schreier_liseLise Schreier is Professor of French at Fordham University. She is the author of Seul dans l’Orient Lointain: Les Voyages de Nerval et Du Camp and Gens de Couleur dans Trois Vaudevilles du Dix-Neuvième Siècle. She is completing a new book entitled Playthings of Empire: Child-Gifting and the Politics of French Femininity.

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High on Fragrance: The Nineteenth-Century Perfume Launcher

by Cheryl Krueger

Multi-million dollar advertising campaigns attest to a thriving perfume industry in North America and the European Union. An average of three new perfumes per day were released in 2011 alone. But not everyone is high on perfume. The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) adheres to a self-regulatory Code of Practice (perfume enthusiasts liken it to Hollywood’s Hays Code), and regularly introduces restrictions to protect consumers and the environment from potential perfume-induced dangers. France’s fragrance industry battles constant proposals from the European Commission to restrict or ban materials like natural oak moss and coumarin, longtime cornerstones of classic French perfumery. In North America especially, there is a growing movement toward fragrance-free zones, and legislation protecting office workers from the imposing, even toxic sillage of their colleagues.

An 1896 Alphons Mucha poster advertising the Rodo perfume launcher.

An 1896 Alphons Mucha poster advertising the Rodo perfume launcher.

This love-hate relationship with perfume is not a new phenomenon. As the modern French perfume industry boomed in the nineteenth-century, perfumers found themselves defending the safety of natural and synthetic materials in fragrant cosmetics. These included face powders, lotions, bath milks, pastes, pomades, and liquid perfumes. Concerns about the danger and abuse of perfume were expressed not by regulatory committees, but in manuals of beauty, etiquette and hygiene, the popular press, and medical treatises dealing with nervous disorders and hysteria.

Though warnings of perfume’s moral and biological toxicity were often overstated, there was one product that may have lived up to the hype: the Lance-parfum Rodo.

Other print ads for perfume in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries emphasized handkerchiefs, one of the many accessories that served as vehicles for personal perfuming. In fact, perfumers’ manuals show that liquid perfume (parfum liquide) was synonymous with handkerchief perfume (parfum pour le mouchoir).

Rodo_Fig5_VivilleSo what was unique about the lance-parfum Rodo?

It happens that the device was as much a pharmaceutical product as a fragrant accessory. Patented in 1897 by chemical manufacturer la Société Chimique des Usines du Rhône, the lance-parfum Rodo was the serendipitous reincarnation of an ethyl chloride dispenser called the Kélène lance chlorure d’ethyle, which preserved ethyl chloride in portable, single-use glass or metal tubes for use as local and general anesthesia.

How to use the Kélène to insure speedy delivery.

How to use the Kélène to insure speedy delivery.

The lance-parfum was heavily marketed at the Rio Carnival, where users reportedly suffered intoxication, hallucinations, and cardiac trouble. Due to deaths related to lance-parfum abuse, the product was finally outlawed in the 1960s.

The Société Chimique des Usines du Rhône manufactured both pharmaceuticals and synthetic perfume ingredients. One day violet fragrance spilled into ethyl chloride, and an idea was born. Like its medical prototype, the lance-parfum was a portable projection system for (now perfumed) ethyl chloride, released automatically when the seal was broken. When liquid ethyl chloride meets warm air, it vaporizes. This is good news for linens and white handkerchiefs.

The Lance-parfum Rodo was manufactured in a variety of scents, including heliotrope, hyacinth, lily-of-the-valley, and Peau d’Espagne. Still, the gadget is absent from popular manuals by perfumers such as Septimus Piesse, whose works were reissued in French and English throughout the nineteenth century. A column in the August 1911 issue of the trade manual La Parfumerie moderne summarizes the chemistry and mechanics of generic “lances-parfums,” emphasizing the refreshing sensation produced by solvents including ethyl chloride, but also deeming the gadgets dangerous because they are highly flammable (“Recettes et Procédés Utiles”107-108).

A Rodo perfume launcher from the author's collection.

A Rodo perfume launcher from the author’s collection.

The lance-parfum was heavily marketed at the Rio Carnival, where users reportedly suffered intoxication, hallucinations, and cardiac trouble. Due to deaths related to lance-parfum abuse, the product was finally outlawed in the 1960s.

Was lance-parfum swooning similarly rampant in fin-de-siecle France? If so, not for long. Though other French companies applied for patents, the threat of the Great War brought most marketing plans to an early halt. (1) It is possible, though, that the presence of ethyl chloride-based perfumes helped to fuel less convincingly substantiated reports of eccentric fin-de-siècle perfuming, such as subcutaneous perfume injection, perfume drinking, and the unusual case of a scent-huffer getting high on Guerlain’s groundbreaking 1889 Jicky perfume. (2)


[1] For a detailed review of the development and patent history of the lance-parfum, see Raynal, Cécile and Thierry Lefebvre, “Le Lance-parfum. Un matériel médical devenu accessoire de carnaval.” Revue d’histoire de la pharmacie 56.357 (2008): 63-79.

[2] Reported in Antoine Combe’s Influence des parfums et des odeurs sur les névropathes et les hystériques (Paris: A. Michalon): 1905.

Cheryl Krueger is Associate Professor of French at the University of Virginia. You can read more about alleged fin-de-siècle perfume abuse in her article Decadent Perfume: Under the Skin and Through the Page


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Pants Permits in Nineteenth-Century Paris

by Rachel Mesch

On November 7, 1800, the prefecture of police for the city of Paris issued an order prohibiting women from wearing men’s clothing in public. Noting that many women did so, but not for (excusable) health-related reasons, and that this behavior was a danger to themselves and others, the city order declared that “any woman who wishes to dress as a man,” (toute femme désirant s’habiller en homme) must present herself to the prefecture for authorization. To secure permission henceforth, she would need the notarized signature of a health official declaring the medical necessity of this change in wardrobe—the only accepted criteria for such permission—as well as signatures of government officials. Henceforth, any pants-wearing women without proper documentation risked being arrested.

This law remained in effect in Paris for 213 years.

In the first instance, female revolutionaries, who had demanded freedom of dress and the right to wear pantaloons, likely prompted the need for the ordinance—which was dated as “16 brumaire of the year IX,” in the idiom of the short-lived Republican calendar (created to erase any traces of the ancien régime and abandoned upon Napoleon’s defeat). But as the century progressed, the targets of this law shifted, while the policing of gender transgressions remained real. In 1853, as writer George Sand was regularly caricatured for her manly attire, a law against cross-dressing was added to the Penal Code, forbidding it at balls and public spaces; in the 1880s, as young women entered increasingly public roles, the police issued circulars and reminders that the law against wearing pants was in still in place; in a loosening of the law in 1909, women “holding by hand bicycles or the reins of a horse” were granted special permission to go out in public “en culotte.”

1848 caricature of George Sand as "half woman half man"

1848 caricature of George Sand as “half woman half man”

It’s unclear exactly how many women secured the permit over the course of the century. As historian Christine Bard has documented, the archives of the Parisian prefecture are frustratingly idiosyncratic, making it difficult to come to any general conclusions. But the documents therein are hardly uninteresting.

The health requirement seems to have been loosely defined at best. The first permit—from 1806—allowed Catherine-Marguerite Mayer to wear pants in order to ride her horse. A certain Mademoiselle Foucaud acquired the permit a few decades later in order to get a printing job reserved for men, which she had discovered paid better. A clipping from a 1911 newspaper preserved in the archive suggests that she was not alone: several women had permits allowing them to pass as men professionally. Indeed, in addition to the increased comfort and agility that pants allowed (the alternative being the waist-squeezing corset), wearing men’s clothing paid dividends: not only could women hold men’s jobs, but they saved money on clothing that was less expensive and lasted longer. While financial necessity seemed to inspire some requests, others were granted to those whose appearance had a naturally “masculine look.” Allowing these individuals to wear pants was seen as protecting them from the prying eyes of an unsympathetic public.


Rosa Bonheur in her garden

Hardly a trace can be found in these archives of the most famous female pants-wearers of nineteenth-century Paris—those who wore pants without permits (George Sand)—nor those known to have procured them: the painter Rosa Bonheur, the writer Rachilde, and the explorer Jane Dieulafoy. Fortunately, they left behind other clues as to why they preferred wearing pants.

The café named for Bonheur in Paris’s nineteenth arrondissement—a now trending Parisian hot spot where a campy chorus sings each Sunday evening—displays her permit on the wall. Citing the original ordinance, it authorizes Bonheur to “dress as a man” as of May 12, 1857, to be renewed every six months. The form lists “health reasons” in the appropriate slot (interesting in itself, suggesting that there were reasons allowed beyond medical ones) and notes that this release does not apply to “shows, balls, and other meeting events open to the public.” And there were health reasons of sorts: Bonheur wore pants and heavy boots to navigate the farms where she painted the animal tableaux that gained her fame. But her pants-wearing was also linked to her gender expression, matching her closely cropped hair. She lived on a farm with her lover Nathalie Micas, whose family had taken her in as a young girl.

Rosa Bonheur's pants permit, in the window of the Café Rosa Bonheur

Rosa Bonheur’s pants permit, in the window of the Café Rosa Bonheur

While we don’t have the writer Rachilde’s actual permit, we do have her letter of application, in which she wrote that as a journalist she needed to wear pants to do her work (as writing books, she lamented, didn’t pay the rent). This way, people would address themselves to her pen, she argued, and not her person. While Rachilde’s pants-wearing has often been described as savvy self-promotion, in reality it was self-preservation.  Rachilde struggled her whole life with translating her gender non-conformity into words, and experimented with different ways of dressing at different times in her life. To more than one close friend, she insisted that she was not a woman. But she was not sure was a man either. At various moments, she wondered if she were a cat, a monster, or a werewolf. She eventually married and gave up pants-wearing; but she continued to write probing stories that grappled with gender identity and its bodily troubles.

Finally, one of the most famous pants-wearers of the century’s close was the intrepid archaelogist-explorer-writer Jane Dieulafoy, who began doing so when she rose to battle with her husband Marcel during the Franco-Prussian war. She resumed this practice on her travels with him to Persia and later to Baghdad, and secured the required permit when they settled in Paris in the 1890s. Dieulafoy never wore women’s clothing again, and took great pleasure in passing as a man. Like Bonheur, she was a beloved figure, awarded the Legion of Honor and considered a testament to the very honor of France.

Jane Dieulafoy in the 1890s.

Jane Dieulafoy in the 1890s.

Taken together, these brief portraits suggest that the ways in which women expressed their gender in nineteenth-century France—a time of rigid gender bifurcation—were unexpectedly diverse, and that women’s motivations to dress in non-traditional ways were multiple and fluid. Women wore pants in the nineteenth century to earn better wages, to participate fully in certain activities, to hide from sight, to attract attention, to advocate for feminist rights, to rebel: in other words, to express themselves. Sometimes, they did so to express a gender identity that did not fit into nineteenth-century categories. And as the examples of Bonheur and Dieulafoy demonstrate, not all of these non-conforming individuals were shunned—though many were.

In 2013, the law of 1800 was finally repealed. The minister for Women’s Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who headed the initiative, described the law as incompatible with French values of equality, concluding: “The document is nothing but a museum piece.” It’s worth noting, though, that if you google Vallaud-Belkacem, you will find far more about her own fashion choices than you will about this important work in closing an unfortunate chapter in the policing of French women’s clothing.


Rachel Mesch teaches French literature, history, and culture at Yeshiva University in New York. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France, as well as two previous works: Having it All in the Belle Epoque: How French Women’s Magazines Invented the Modern Woman, and The Hysteric’s Revenge: French Women Writers at the Fin-de-Siècle. 

Further reading:

Bard, Christine. “Le ‘DB58’ aux Archives de la Préfecture de Police,” in Bard and Nicole Pellegrin, ed. Femmes travesties: un “mauvais” genre. Spec. issue of CLIO. Histoires, femmes et sociétés 10 (1999): 1-20.



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What Not to Wear on the Omnibus

by Masha Belenky

If you have recently been on the subway in New York City, you may have noticed a curious ad: “Dude… Stop the Spread…Please. It’s a space issue.” The public service announcement aims to curb the pesky behavior known as “manspreading,” an annoying habit of men sitting with their legs wide apart, encroaching on other seats. ManspreadingFirst coined by feminist social media, manspreading is unambiguously gendered: a display of male privilege and a way for men to claim public space as exclusively theirs.

Yet these issues surrounding modern locomotion and public space are not new to culture. They surfaced the moment that public transportation became a salient feature of modern urban life, in nineteenth-century Paris. When the first horse-drawn public conveyance, the omnibus, or l’omnibus hyppomobile, appeared in Paris in April 1828, it immediately attracted popular writers and artists interested in the study of contemporary everyday life. It served as a perfect social laboratory, a microcosm of society and the tensions that animated it.The omnibus (“for all” in Latin ) was unique for its time because it was by law open to anyone regardless of class or sex. This inclusiveness created new forms of urban sociability, as men and women of different social classes mixed and mingled and rubbed shoulders within the narrow confines of the vehicle. Scores of texts such as press articles, pamphlets, city guides, short stories, vaudevilles, poems, society board games, caricatures, songs, and even a piano sonata seized upon the omnibus as their subject of choice through which to tackle hot topics of the day.

And so, just as manspreading taps into our own cultural anxieties about gender privilege, nineteenth-century writers and artists used the omnibus to express their worries about class, gender, and comportment in public spaces. Predictably, however, these writers did so not to lay bare and correct the abuses of male gender privilege, but rather to protect men from women encroaching upon that privilege.

Consider the image below from 1859, featuring Madame Crinoliska, a protagonist from a series of caricatures called Paris Grotesque.

"Paris Grotesque - Madame Crinoliska faisant son entrée dans un omnibus". Anonymous engraving at Gadola's. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

“Paris Grotesque – Madame Crinoliska faisant son entrée dans un omnibus”. Anonymous engraving at Gadola’s. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

The series satirizes the fashion of wearing enormous hoop skirts that began in the mid-1850s and lasted into the 1860s. Here, Mme Crinoliska, a woman of easy virtue, literally invades the omnibus (and the page!), overwhelming her fellow passengers with lacy layers of her outrageously large skirt. Everything about Madame Crinoliska – her tiered skirts, the wide flowing ribbon and enormous bow of her bonnet, her fur-trimmed shawl nonchalantly draped over her shoulders- suggests ostentation, excess, and conspicuous consumption. At the same time, Madame Crinoliska herself is an object to be consumed, visually and otherwise; she is a spectacle on display, entering the omnibus (“faisant son entrée”) as if on a theater stage. From the get-go the attacks against “crinolinomania” took on distinctly gendered tones. And Madame Crinoliska is an excellent illustration of this, a woman literally identified with (or even displaced by) her huge skirt.

Why, we may wonder, such vitriol? In the first place, crinolines were a health hazard. They frequently caught fire and killed their wearers. In fact, this is how Madame Crinoliska herself perishes in another image, consumed by flames she sets off by igniting the hearts of her admirers. But the main reason for this contempt was because of the crinoline’s excessive girth. Women in crinolines simply took up too much room, crowding men out of public space, sometimes eclipsing them altogether. As we see in this image, several male passengers, including a priest and three respectable bourgeois men are virtually engulfed by the voluminous ruffles of the skirts. Crinolines and crinoline wearers represented excess, and their exaggerated physical presence flew in the face of rules of propriety and proper behavior that called for women to know their place (i.e. to take as little of it as possible), and threatened their male counterparts through its sheer scale.

But that wasn’t the only thing that vexed nineteenth-century observers about Mme Crinoliska and her ilk. Another big worry was the risk of finding yourself, or even worse, your wife or sister, sharing a seat with a prostitute. Texts and images suggest that public transport was an ideal place for ladies of the night to solicit clients. In another example, we see a courtesan – “une poule,” (in French, “chicken” but also “tart”) who attempts to board the omnibus but is turned down by a virtuous conductor, the guardian of moral order.

Even more troublesome, how was one supposed to distinguish a loose woman from a proper lady at a time when sartorial differences between them were becoming increasingly blurred? Journalist Edouard Gourdon, in Physiologie de l’omnibus (1842), bemoaned the difficulty in establishing a female passenger’s moral and social standing based on her dress: “Nowadays the proper lady’s silk dress, cashmere shawl and hat come from the same boutique where the prostitute shops, and the two share the same jeweler.” In the case of Madame Crinoliska, what identifies her as a cocotte is not so much the crinoline itself, but rather the outrageous way that she carries herself, scandalously displaying her dainty legs and even a bit of the cage, and spreading her skirts everywhere, like a visual metaphor for the venal contagion she represents.

Just as today’s indictment of “manspreading” recognizes public transit as a space of social confrontation, the omnibus in nineteenth-century Paris brought into focus the contest about women’s place in public urban spaces, and by extension, in society.

Masha Belenky is Associate Professor of French at the George Washington University. She is the author of Engine of Modernity: The Omnibus and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Manchester UP 2019) and  The Anxiety of Dispossession: Jealousy in Nineteenth-Century French Culture (Bucknell 2008). She serves as Co-Editor of Dix-Neuf. Journal of the Society of Dix-Neuvièmistes.

For further reading:

On crinolines in nineteenth-century culture, see Linda Nead, “The Layering of Pleasure: Women, Fashionable Dress and Visual Culture in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” in Nineteenth-Century Contexts: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 35:5 (2013): 489-509.

On fashion accessories as marker of class distinction, see Susan Hiner, Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in Nineteenth-Century France (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

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