Café Society and Absinthe

The reign of Napoleon III – from 1852 to his downfall with the Prussian invasion in 1870 – was something of a golden age for absinthe. Still relatively expensive, it was primarily a drink of the military and the fashionable bourgeoisie. It was believed to sharpen the appetite for dinner, and in the early evening, the sweet anise-scented aroma of absinthe wafted over the wide Parisian boulevards. By the early 1870s, it had become common practice to begin a meal with an apéritif, and of 1500 available liquors, absinthe accounted for 90% of the apéritifs drunk.

“Mais oui, ma chère, il est de très bon ton aujourd’hui, de prendre une “Oxygénée Cusenier”, mon docteur me l’a dit.”

Licensing laws were relaxed during the 1860’s, which resulted in a proliferation of new bars, cabarets and cafés – more than 30,000 existed in Paris by 1869, and 5 p.m. signified L’Heure Verte – the Green Hour – in almost every one. The cafés were an extremely popular place to socialize, since most of Paris’ citizens were living in cramped apartments, often in squalor and poverty.

Nowhere was this café culture more vibrant than in the Parisian district of Montmartre which was by the mid 19th century the favourite haunt of the bohemian literary and artistic set. Amongst the best known establishments were the Brasserie des Martyrs, a particular favourite of Baudelaire, the Café du Rat Mort, popular with writers by day and a lesbian hangout at night, and most famous of all, the Chat Noir, founded in 1881 by Theodore Salis, an unsuccessful painter. Erik Satie played the piano here and Alfred Jarry was a regular, as was the remarkable poet and inventor Charles Cross, who reputedly drank 20 absinthes a night!

One of the first books to record the social context of heavy absinthe drinking was written by the young Parisian author Henri Balesta in 1860. In “Absinthe et Absintheurs” he famously describes a typical café scene:

“In the morning, at lunchtime, the habitués invaded the bistrot. The professors of absinthe were already at their station, yes, the teachers of absinthe, for it is a science, or rather an art to drink absinthe properly, and certainly to drink it in quantity. They put themselves on the trail of the novice drinkers, teaching them to raise their elbow high and frequently, to water their absinthe artistically, and when, after the tenth little glass, the pupil rolled under the table, the master went on to another, always drinking, always holding forth, always steady and unshakeable at his post.”

Absinthe reached an all time high in popularity during the years from 1880-1910, when its price dropped to a low which made it accessible to every tier of society and making it rival wine for the first time as the most popular drink in France. In 1874, France consumed 700,000 litres of absinthe, but by 1910, the figure had exploded to 36,000,000 litres of absinthe per year. It was a quintessential part of Belle Époque French society.

Le Rire 1903

Le Rire 1903

Croquis parisiens

Croquis parisiens


An April Fool’s joke: “L’apéritif amer qu’au café tu vas boire Des plus riches couleurs a dècoré la poire.”