The Seine River (and drinking water) in 18th century Paris

The early reviews of For the King praise my portrait of 1800 Paris. This, needless to say, makes me very happy. I do not wish to limit my novels to the glamorous aspects of aristocratic life, and strive to show Paris as it really was: a bustling, vibrant, but overcrowded, smelly, dirty city.

18th century Paris Raguenet Pont Neuf Samaritaine

18th century Paris Raguenet Pont Neuf Samaritaine

The Seine River was everything to Paris. Barges brought essential merchandises from distant provinces. Often they made a single voyage to Paris, to be dismantled in the spot and sold as wood. One embankment specialized in the commerce of wheat, another was dedicated to the wine trade. The embankments were not the paved, clean ones we see now. At the time, they were muddy or sandy, depending on the location. Indeed the Roman name of the city, Lutetia, is said to be derived from the Latin lutum, “mud.”

In summer people went swimming in the river. They did it for fun and to exercise, and for many it was the only time of the year when they could enjoy a bath, often in the nude. With the onset of the Revolution, mores became more puritanical, and the Municipality of Paris passed an ordinance making it illegal to skinny dip in the Seine.

For those who could afford it, bathing establishments, installed on barges moored along the embankments, offered swimming pools, private cabins and showers. In my second novel, For the King, the investigation of the Rue Nicaise attack takes my readers to such an establishment. But those baths charged a fee. The poor were left with the option of bathing directly in the Seine, or not at all. In any case, they washed their clothes in the river.

The Seine also served as an open-air sewer and garbage dump. The streets of Paris were only cleaned when it rained, and the runoff naturally flowed into the river. People also threw their solid waste in it since there was no organized garbage collection. In particular the detritus from the nearby slaughterhouses of the Châtelet district were dumped into the river. Contemporary accounts mention a pinkish scum floating on top of its waters.

People and animals often drowned in the Seine, and murderers found it most convenient to dispose of their victims. Those bodies fished from the river within Paris were taken to the Morgue, also in the Châtelet district, where relatives could identify and claim them. Bodies recovered downstream were often robbed of any remaining possessions and buried unceremoniously in the mud of the banks without anyone bothering to call the police.

Within city limits fountains were rare and often enclosed within the private gardens of convents or mansions. Most were not accessible to the public. That left – you guessed it – the Seine! Water carriers filled their buckets in the river and for a few sols brought the water up many flights of stairs (six-story buildings were frequent within the city.) And yes, people drank it.

At one point during the French Revolution , the heroine of Mistress of the Revolution, Gabrielle de Montserrat, is arrested and imprisoned. The turnkey brings her a bottle of cloudy water and, upon her question, confirms that indeed it comes from the river. Gabrielle, spoiled, sheltered, has never before swallowed “a liquid into which 700,000 people emptied their chamber pots and garbage,” as she puts it. The turnkey is not a bad man and seeks to reassure her. “Don’t worry about it, Citizen” he says. “Some say it loosens your bowels, but I drink it everyday, and I’ve never suffered anything like that. But then I let it stand for a while. That way the filth settles at the bottom. If you do the same, you’ll be fine.”

I did not make this up! I read this advice in the works of an 18th century writer, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, author of Le Tableau de Paris and Le Nouveau Paris. The rich, of course, would have spring water brought from the suburbs. They also drank excellent wines, much the same as our best modern French wines. The poor people drank wine as well, or rather a liquid that went by that name, but had nothing to do with fermented grape juice.

In For the King, a secondary character is a wine merchant, and his wares come to the attention of the Food Safety Division (yes, there was already such a thing) at the Police Prefecture. “His warehouse on Bernard Embankment, the wine port of Paris, had been searched,” goes the story, “and the composition of the liquid had been uncovered. It consisted in a decoction of various woods, in which carrots and turnips had been left to macerate. Purplish food coloring was added for good measure. The remains of a cat, wonderfully preserved, fur, whiskers and all, had even been found at the bottom of one barrel.”

This too was inspired by Mercier’s accounts of 18th century Paris. So, between Seine water and fraudulent wine, what would have been your pick?

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15 Comments to “The Seine River (and drinking water) in 18th century Paris”

  1. firearms says:

    Very awesome article. I just came across your weblog and needed to say that I have really loved exploring your blog posts. Naturally I’m going to be opt-in for your feed and I am hoping you write again in the near future!

  2. Really nice article! Your style is so much better in comparison to most other writers. Thanks for posting when you do, I’ll be sure to keep visiting!

  3. Hallo from Portugal! I have found your post on google. Useful content! Eva F. Dobson x

  4. Wonderful post, Catherine (as always!).

    A while back I read in a 17th century valet’s diary about the Queen wanting to go for “a bath” — that is: swimming. It would have been wonderful to know where she might have gone. Here’s my own post on it:

    At the time I thought it strange that the 10-year-old King’s doctor needed to be consulted, but we must remember that (in the 17th century, at least) water was feared to make one vulnerable to the plague.


  5. Svea says:

    Oh wow, that is so horribly disgusting! I knew the Seine was used like that back then but your information has taken my knowledge so much deeper.

  6. Catherine Delors says:

    Welcome to Versailles and more, Lovie! Thanks for your comment and come back soon.

  7. Lovie Caren says:

    Great info! I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

  8. Catherine Delors says:

    Yes, Penny, water pollution is not a new concept…
    Elisa, I too thought of Paris Plage!

  9. Elisa says:

    I couldn’t help thinking of the annual summer beach setting along the Seine. It’s a little “seaside” on the Seine.

  10. Penny says:

    Ma chere Catherine,

    Wow, love the picture and I have read that in colonial times,
    the rest of NY complained about the city polluting
    the Hudson.
    I have read of Jewish communities using
    the Seine for their rituals they require a natural
    body of water.

  11. Catherine Delors says:

    Célyne, historical accuracy is always a primary concern of mine. And I like to go directly to 18th century eyewitnesses, such as Mercier, rather than relying on secondary or scholarly sources. For one thing it makes for more entertaining reading. :)

    Liza, you raise an interesting point, and an amusing one to me, because in Mistress of the Revolution, my heroine is tempted to go for a summer swim in a country river. So I asked myself exactly the same question. I suspect peasants skinny dipped as well. Modesty was a very different concept in the 18th century. Society ladies changed their underwear in front of visitors, for instance. We must be careful not to project our modern prudery onto our ancestors.

    If Parisians bathed nude in a crowded urban setting, with plenty of onlookers, why would it have been deemed shocking in a secluded country river? Reread Perrault’s Le Chat Botté, Puss in Boots, and you will see the miller’s son going for a bath…

  12. ellen moody says:

    Just beautiful and a good picture. Just the right amount of knowledge put before us,

  13. Liza Perrat says:

    As regards swimming, Catherine, very interesting to hear that the people of Paris swam for pleasure in the Seine. I am having difficulty finding information on peasants’ swimming habits prior to the Revolution. Do you know if they, too, swam for fun, and to wash themselves, in the rural rivers? If they did, I somehow cannot imagine them swimming in the nude, more likely in their day clothes?

  14. Célyne Brûlé says:

    Both interesting and revolting… I sometimes wonder about what we eat or drink nowadays in some of our own fancy restaurants… I am glad to read that you stick to the facts, Catherine.

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