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Craftsmen of 1950s Paris


 833548. New York Public LibraryBastille Day is just around the corner, and its arrival has led me to think more about the Paris depicted in a book that I recently read. Nancy Mitford's Don't Tell Alfred is set in mid-20th century Paris. This tale follows the misadventures of an unseasoned English ambassadress and her awful and entertaining relatives—from her Teddy Boy sons to her swooning niece/secretary, and from her mother (known as The Bolter) to her uncle Davey (a voracious consumer of medical treatments).

Now, there's a craft angle coming, I promise. Chapter 14 opens with Davey's arrival in Paris. He invites his niece (our intrepid ambassadress) to join him on an errand that will introduce her to a corner of Paris she'd not been before. "I want to see if the man in the rue de Saintonge who used to blow glass is still there. I last saw him forty years ago—Paris being what it is I'm quite sure we shall find him. 'Where is the rue de Saintonge?' 'I'll take you. It's a beautiful walk from here.' It was indeed a beautiful walk…

The rue de Saintonge itself is inhabited by artisans. Its seventeenth-century houses, built originally for aristocrats and well-to-do burgesses, have not been pulled down (except for one block where the Department de la Seine has perpetrated a horror) but they have been pulled about, chopped and rechopped, parcelled and reparcelled by the people who have lived and worked in them during the last two hundred years. Here are the trades which flourish in this street: Workers in morocco, fur, india rubber, gold, silver, and jewels; makers of buttons, keys, ribbons, watches, wigs, shoes, artificial flowers and glass domes; importer of sponges; repairer of sewing-machines; great printer of letters; mender of motor-cars; printer; midwife. There may be many more hidden away; these put out signs for the passer-by to read.

What Mitford describes in this scene is the tangle of shops hidden within Paris's third arrondissement, a quarter long known for its resident population of artisans and craftspeople. This neighborhood was not on most tourists' itineraries in this time. NYPL has hundreds of guides to Paris (classified under Paris (France) Guidebooks), both new and old. These guides all provide a wealth of information on how the city's topography and architecture have been altered; how cultural stereotypes have—or perhaps have not—changed; what features of cuisine were worthy of recommendation; and how tourism's audience itself changed over time. Old travel books, just like new ones, reveal as much about the reader's expectations as they do about the people described within.

Today the neighborhood around Paris's third arrondissement has changed dramatically, and Davey wouldn't be so lucky as to find his old friend the glassblower still in residence. But there remains a creative community present there. If you have been to this corner of Paris, I'd love to learn your take on what the artisan community is like today.


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