Monday, 4 May 2020

Aux Belles Poules, Paris

In England, prostitution has for centuries occupied a strange position in law: it is legal, but most surrounding activities are not. By contrast, it was state-regulated in France between 1804 and the end of the Second World War. Brothels, known as maisons tolérées, were registered by the state and subject to strict regulations.

The building itself had to be discreet: brothels were often identified by their larger-than-normal building numbers, entrance lights, and a grille in the front door. Women who worked within were registered with the state, and underwent frequent medical examinations.

Aux Belles Poules had its heyday in the 1920s. It became one of the best-known maisons tolérées, although it catered for a more middle-class clientele than some of its famous, more opulent rivals. Small shows were staged in this decorated room while champagne flowed. Clients would then be led to the bedrooms upstairs (which no longer exist).

The images reflect the building's function. While many of the tiled details are lush and richly coloured, the top friezes are more varied; they are more interesting as history than fine art. However, the effect would also be different seen through lower light and a haze of champagne. 

'Belles poules' means 'beautiful hens', which explains the rather curious logo on what is now the bathroom floor. 

Life for the women who worked here - about thirty of them - was far from ideal. The hours were long, with the establishment open from around 3pm to 4am. As well as charging for board and lodging, the house sold other necessities such as toiletries and cosmetics to its staff at inflated prices (and they had little free time to shop on their own account). All these expenses meant that they were usually in debt to the house. Combined with their inscription on the state register, this made leaving - or saving for retirement - difficult. 

The registered brothels were closed following the loi Marthe Richard of 1946, named for the former registered prostitute, later aviator, spy, and city councillor who campaigned for it. Aux Belles Poules clung on until 1948, when its premises of Aux Belles Poules became student accommodation. It went through several more uses, the murals decorating its walls covered over and almost forgotten. 

The current owners bought the premises as offices for their IT business. A few years ago, they took down the boards and uncovered the suriving decoration in the main room and entrance hall. It had suffered in the intervening decades - some tiles had even been drilled through to accommodate wiring, for example - but they undertook a full restoration.

Following the rediscovery and restoration, the main rooms have become an event venue: a third chapter in their long, strange life. The owner, Caroline Senot, is determined to share the story of their past.


SilverTiger said...

Poule, of course is French slang for either a girl (c.f. English "chick") or, indeed, a prostitute. The owners of Aux Belles Poules obviously did not baulk at being up front about the nature of their business!

CarolineLD said...

No, they didn't do more than nod to discretion! I went for 'hens' rather than 'chicks' so that the weird and disturbing chicken-woman made sense... not that it could ever really make sense.

Hels said...

Why shouldn't a place of business be kept in a beautiful state? The tiles were smart, the wrought iron in the stairs was modern and the French gentlemen would have loved the top friezes. I hope there were smart bathrooms were the clients could be washed down first.

AMAIA said...

que maravilla de cerámicas!