"Enter and Be Damned!": The Macabre Clubs of Belle Epoque Paris

The facades of Le Ciel and L'Enfer Cabarets in Montmartre, Paris
The facades of Le Ciel and L'Enfer Cabarets in Montmartre, Paris
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The theme restaurants of today's Times Square owe a debt to the cabarets of 19th-century Paris, particularly a trio of death-obsessed locations in the red light district of Montmartre. These nightclubs featured over-the-top decorations and elaborately attired waiters, plus unusual performances with enthralling illusions.

The Cabaret du Néant ("Cabaret of Nothingness"), which opened in 1892, was perhaps the most famous. The entrance was draped in black mourning crepe with white trimming, and instead of a bouncer, a pallbearer dressed in a black cape and top hat stood outside. The 1899 book Bohemian Paris of To-day by W.C. Morrow and Édouard Cucuel, which called it a "grisly caricature of eternal nothingness," described the inside this way:

"The chamber was dimly lighted with wax tapers, and a large chandelier intricately devised of human skulls and arms, with funeral candles held in their large fleshless fingers, gave its small iota of light. Large, heavy, wooden coffins, resting on biers, were ranged about the room in an order suggesting the recent happening of a frightful catastrophe. The walls were decorated with skulls and bones, skeletons in grotesque attitudes, battle pictures, and guillotines in action."

As Morrow's group took their places, a half-dozen monotone voices droned: "Enter, mortals of this sinful world, enter into the mists and shadows of eternity ... and may God have mercy on your souls!" No detail was ignored: bells tolled, a funeral march played, and the place even smelled like a charnel house, according to Morrow. The waiters were also dressed like pallbearers, and addressed the drinkers as macchabées—French slang for a corpse, particularly those found drowned in the Seine. A drink order was relayed to the bar as "One microbe of Asiatic cholera from the last corpse, one leg of a lively cancer, and one sample of our consumption germ!"

While seating at the candlelit coffins and enjoying their poisons, guests were treated to a "discourse on death," which ended with a variety of bloody paintings that seemed to glow and then reduce their subjects (soldiers on a battlefield, an execution by guillotine) to skeletons. But these optical illusions were just a taste of the delights that awaited them in a second room. There, seated on small black caskets, they watched as a member of the audience stepped into an illuminated coffin at the front of the room and seemed to be transformed into bones right in front of their eyes.

This was actually a famous Victorian illusion known as "Pepper's Ghost," and was accomplished by shrouding the skeleton-to-be in fabric, fitting him or her precisely into the coffin, and using a series of lights and glass plates to reflect the image of a skeleton from one side of the room onto the person in the coffin. Named for 18th-century British scientist John Henry Pepper, who developed the trick, it is still used at theme parks, and was the technique behind Michael Jackson's appearance at the 2014 Billboard Awards.

Hardy souls looking for more ghoulish delights could also visit the Cabaret de L'Enfer ("The Cabaret of Hell"), whose entrance took the form of an enormous, fanged mouth. The doorman greeted guests by shouting "Enter and be damned!" while inside, molten streams of gold and silver decorated walls that would sometimes erupt in flames and thunder. When Morrow visited, a waiter dressed as a devil relayed his group's order of three black coffees with cognac as "Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!" The drinks arrived glowing with a phosphorescent light, while musicians played selections from "Faust."

Just next door was Cabaret du Ciel ("The Cabaret of the Sky," sometimes referred to as "The Cabaret of Heaven"), with gilded gates, shining blue lights, and a crew of angels dressed in gauzy robes and sandals. This time, drinks were referred to as "sparkling draughts of heaven's own brew," but the disheveled angels don't seem to have been as effective as the denizens of Montmartre dressed as devils. Still, Morrow reported that a ceremony where St. Peter blessed the assembled with holy water was enjoyed by all.

Sadly, none of these cabarets survived World War II—which may have rendered their offerings a little tasteless by comparison. But a selection of their images and ephemera still survive (and periodically resurface on the internet), some of which can be seen below.

7 Ways Victorian Fashion Could Kill You

An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.
An 1862 engraving showing a skeleton gentleman at a ball asking a skeleton lady to dance, meant to represent the effect of arsenic dyes and pigments in clothing and accessories.

While getting dressed in the morning can seem like a hassle (pajamas are so much more comfortable), few of us worry about our clothes leading to our death. That wasn’t the case during the Victorian era, when fashionable fabrics and accessories sometimes came at great price for both makers and wearers. In Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David, a professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, outlines the many toxic, flammable, and otherwise highly hazardous components of high style during the 19th century. Here are a few of the worst offenders.

1. Poisonous Dyes

A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
A drawing of Victorian fashions likely made with arsenic dyes
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Before the 1780s, green was a tricky color to create on clothes, and dressmakers depended on a combination of yellow and blue dyes to produce the hue. But in the late 1770s a Swedish/German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol. The pigment was dubbed Scheele’s Green, and later Paris Green, among other names, and it became a huge sensation, used to color walls, paintings, and fabrics as well as candles, candies, food wrappers, and even children’s toys. Not surprisingly, it also caused sores, scabs, and damaged tissue, as well as nausea, colic, diarrhea, and constant headaches.

Although fashionable women wore arsenic-dyed fabrics—even Queen Victoria was depicted in one—its health effects were worst among the textile and other workers who created the clothes and often labored in warm, arsenic-impregnated rooms day after day. (Some scholars have even theorized that Napoleon might have been poisoned by the arsenic-laced wallpaper hung in his St. Helena home.)

Arsenical dyes were also a popular addition to artificial flowers and leaves, which meant they were frequently pinned to clothes or fastened on heads. In the 1860s, a report commissioned by the Ladies’ Sanitary Association found that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. The British Medical Journal wrote of the green-clad Victorian woman: “She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.” Despite repeated warnings in the press, and from doctors and scientists, the Victorians seemed in love with emerald green arsenic dyes; ironically, they acted like a reminder of the nature then swiftly being lost to industrialization, David says.

2. Pestilential Fabrics

Soldiers of the Victorian era (and earlier) were plagued by lice and other body parasites that carried deadly diseases such as typhus and trench fever. But soldiers weren’t the only victims of disease carried via fabric—even the wealthy sometimes wore clothing that was made or cleaned by the sick in sweatshops or tenements, and which spread disease as a result. According to David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.

Women also worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, and some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk. The poor, who often wore secondhand clothes, suffered from smallpox and other diseases spread by fabric that was recycled without being properly washed.

3. Flowing Skirts

Giant, ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts may have been fine for ladies of leisure, but they weren’t a great combination with industrial machinery. According to David, one mill in Lancashire posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the “present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called” as being “quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.” The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly “very slim” and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway. Long, large, or draped skirts were also an unfortunate combination with carriages and animals.

4. Flammable Fabrics

A woman with her crinoline on fire
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

The flowing white cotton so popular in the late 18th and 19th centuries had dangers to both maker and wearer: It was produced with often-brutal slave labor on plantations, and it was also more flammable than the heavy silks and wool favored by the wealthy in the previous centuries. One type of cotton lace was particularly problematic: In 1809 John Heathcoat patented a machine that made the first machine-woven silk and cotton pillow “lace” or bobbinet, now better known as tulle, which could catch fire in an instant. The tulle was frequently layered, to add volume and compensate for its sheerness, and stiffened with highly combustible starch. Ballerinas were particularly at risk: British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.

But performers weren’t the only ones in peril: Even the average woman wearing the then-popular voluminous crinolines was at risk of setting herself ablaze. And the “flannelette” (plain cotton brushed to create a nap and resemble wool flannel) so popular for nightshirts and undergarments was particularly combustible if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle. So many children burned in household accidents that one company came out with a specially treated flannelette called Non-Flam, advertised as being “strong’y recommended by Coroners.”

5. Arsenic-Ridden Taxidermy

Dead birds were a popular addition to ladies’ hats in the 19th century. According to David, “fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

But it wasn’t the birds that were the problem—it was the arsenic used on them. Taxidermists of the day used arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures. In some cases, entire birds—one or several—were mounted on hats. Some Victorian fashion commentators decried the practice, though not because of the arsenic involved. One Mrs. Haweis, a writer on dress and beauty, began an 1887 diatribe against “smashed birds” with the sentence: “A corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.”

6. Mercury

No upper-class man of the Victorian era was complete without his hat, but many of those hats were made with mercury. As David explains, “Although its noxious effects were known, it was the cheapest and most efficient way to turn stiff, low-grade fur from rabbits and hares into malleable felt.” Mercury gave animal fur its smooth, glossy, matted texture, but that velvety look came at a high cost—mercury is an extremely dangerous substance.

Mercury can rapidly enter the body through the skin or the air, and causes a range of horrible health effects. Hatters were known to suffer from convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more. (A chemistry professor studying toxic exposure at Dartmouth College, Karen Wetterhahn, died in 1996 after spilling just a few drops of a supertoxic type of mercury on her glove.) To make matters worse, hatters who drank while they worked (not an uncommon practice) only hastened mercury’s effects by hampering the liver’s ability to eliminate it. While scholars still debate whether Lewis Carroll’s “mad hatter” was meant to show the effects of mercury poisoning, his trembling limbs and wacky speech seem to fit the bill.

7. Lead

A Victorian facial cream containing lead
A Victorian facial cream containing lead
Bloomsbury Visual Arts

Pallor was definitely in during the Victorian era, and a face spackled with lead white paint was long favored by fashionable women. Lead had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries, David writes, because it “made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.” One of the most popular lead-laced cosmetic products was called Laird’s Bloom of Youth; in 1869, one of the founders of the American Medical Association treated three young women who had been using the product and temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists as a result. (The doctor described the condition as “lead palsy,” although today we call it wrist drop or radial nerve palsy, which can be caused by lead poisoning.) One of the women’s hands was said to be “wasted to a skeleton.”

This article was republished in 2019.

Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit Will Go Back on Display for Apollo 11's 50th Anniversary

Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0
Phil Plait, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Neil Armstrong made history when he became the first person to walk on the Moon 50 years ago. Space exploration has changed since then, but the white space suit with the American flag patch that Armstrong wore on that first walk is still what many people think of when they picture an astronaut. Now, after sitting in storage for a decade, that iconic suit is ready to go on display, according to Smithsonian.

NASA donated Neil Armstrong's suit to the Smithsonian shortly after the Apollo 11 mission. For about 30 years, it was displayed at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. Then, in 2006, the museum moved the artifact to storage to minimize damage.

Even away from the exhibit halls, the suit was deteriorating, and the Smithsonian knew it would need to be better preserved if it was to be shown to the public again. In 2015, the institution launched its first-ever Kickstarter campaign and raised more than $700,000 for conservation efforts.

After a multi-year preservation project, the suit will finally return to the museum floor on July 16, 2019—the date that marks 50 years since Apollo 11 launched. This time around, the suit will be displayed on a structure that was custom built to support its interior, protecting it from the weight of gravity. Climate-controlled air will flow through the gear to recreate the stable environment of a storage unit.

Even if you can't make it to the National Air and Space Museum to see Armstrong's space suit in person, soon you'll be able to appreciate it from home in a whole new way. The museum used various scanning techniques to create an intricate 3D model of the artifact. Once the scans are reconfigured for home computers, the Smithsonian's digitization team plans to make an interactive version of the digital model freely available on its website.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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