Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Bonbons - gifts on New Year's Day in France

It was the custom in 18th & 19th cen. France for people to visit their relatives and friends with gifts of bonbons very early on New Year's Day. The containers varied from paper to elaborate hollowed vegetables, fruit, books, balloon even lobster made of confectionery.  These gifts could add up. "Parisian of 8,000 franc a year to make presents on New Year's Day which cost him a fifteenth part of his income."

Like fortune cookies, "mottos" would be included with each bonbon.  Confectioneries made large amounts of bonbons, particularly the wholesalers on Lombard St. One story below relates how the children hung their stockings and shoes to be filled with bonbons... or birch rods.

More details in the following excerpts from 1804-1861, most from the 1820s & 1830s --

Unusual containers for bonbons, cornetspoet's mottos
As early in the morning as people can possibly dress themselves in proper attire, they set out on a round of visits to relations and friends, to wish them a happy new year and to present them with bonbons. The relations are first visited, beginning with those nearest in affinity, then those that are further removed, and lastly come the friends and acquaintances. It is a contest of politeness on this occasion who shall start first, and anticipate the call of a relation or friend.

The shops of the confectioners are dressed up on the day before with looking-glasses, intermixed with festoons of silk or muslin, and bunches of ribands or flowers. The counters are covered with clean table-cloths, and set out with cakes, sweetmeats, dried fruits, and bonbons, constructed into pyramids, castles, columns, or any form which the taste of the decorator may suggest; and in the evening the shops are illuminated for the reception of company, who come to buy bon-bons for the next day. Endless are the devices for things in which they are to be enclosed; there are little boxes or baskets made of satin ornamented with gold, silver, or foil; balloons, books, fruit, such as apples, pears, oranges; or vegetables, such as a cauliflower, a root of celery, an onion; any thing, in short, which can be made of confectionary, with a hollow within, to hold the bon-bons. The most prevailing device is called a cornet, which is a small cone ornamented in different ways with a bag, to draw over and close the large end. In these contrivances, the prices of which vary from one livre to fifty, the bon-bons are presented by those who choose to be at the expense of them; by those who do not they are only wrapped in a piece of paper; but it is indispensable that bon-bons in some way or other be presented. In the visits to friends, and in gossiping at the confectioners' shops, which are the great lounge for the occasion, the morning of New-year's day is passed. A dinner is given by some member of the family to all the rest, and the evening concludes with cards, dancing, or any other amusement that may be preferred.

The decorations of the confectioners' shops remain till twelfth-day ; when there is a ceremony of drawing twelfth-cake, differing from the mode in England. The cake is very plain in its composition, being not better than a common bun, but large, so as to cut into slices. In one part a bean is introduced; and the person who draws the slice with the bean is king or queen, according to the sex of the drawer. Every one then drinks to the health of the new sovereign, who receives the general homage of the company for the evening. The rest of the company have no name or title of distinction.

Two remarkable lawsuits between a confectioner and a poet arose out of the celebration of New-year's Day. The poet had been employed by the confectioner to write some mottoes in verse for his New-year's Day bon-bons; and the agreement was, that he was to have six livres for five hundred couplets. The poet delivered his couplets in manuscript, according to the agreement as he understood it; to this the confectioner objected, because he understood they were to be printed, and ready for enclosing within his bon-bons. The poet answered that not a word had passed on the subject of printing, and that he should not have agreed to furnish the mottoes at so low a price if he had understood the printing was to be included. Thereupon the parties joined issue, and a verdict was found for the poet; because, as no mention of printing was made, the confectioner had no claim to expect it; and because six livres was as little as could possibly be given for such a number of lines in manuscript. After this action against the confectioner was settled, the man of bon-bons brought an action against the son of Apollo, for that the poet had sold a copy of the same mottoes to another confectioner, whereas the plaintiff had understood that they were to be exclusively his. The defendant answered that not a word had passed indicating a transfer of exclusive right; and he maintained that he was at liberty to sell a copy to as many confectioners as chose to purchase one.  Issue hereupon was again joined, and another verdict in favor of the poet established his right of selling and reselling his mottoes for bon-bons to all the confectioners in the universe.
Hone, William. The Year Book, of Daily Recreation & Information.  London: 1832
Mottos and predictions
On … new-year's day above all, the relations, friends, men of all ages, but chiefly young ones…distribute with profusion to the ladies bonbons of all colours and of all kinds. Each of these bonbons is commonly accompanied by a motto, a couplet, plet, or a prediction.
For a length of time, a man furnished them by contract to all the confectioners of Paris, at so much per thousand, and he had acquired a certain celebrity in this kind of silly composition. …people accept these sugar-plumbs, read these mottos, laugh at their flatness, burn them, or throw them away.
A good chance for the lackies when these mottos escape the flames; they pick them up carefully, preserve them, and when they have a certain number, they sell them for a trifle to those fortune-tellers, whose tripods are established on the quays. The latter sell them again, in their turn, to servant-maids, to country girls just come to town, to the wives of petty tradesmen …but go home fully persuaded that they carry with them the decree of their future destiny.
Letters of a mameluke…from the French of Joseph Lavalle.  London: 1804

Bonbons enclosed in 'toys' shaped as lobsters, wood, cauliflowers...
The last day of the old year in Paris, and the first of the new one are always kept with great festivity. The shops at this season are beautifully decorated, and all the choicest goods are preserved for this display. There is no end to the curious novelties that are exhibited; the ingenuity in trifling articles, for which the French are famed, seems to be inexhaustible. It is the custom on the new years day for every person to make some sort of present. Bon bons are enclosed in toys made to represent lobsters, pieces of wood, fish, birds, cauliflowers, and a thousand other devices; and as these are amongst the chief articles of exchange, the shops are so crowded all day that it is difficult to find an entrance. The waiter who brings our dinner from the restaurateur's, presented his boite of bon bons, and from the highest to the lowest this appears an established practice.
Johnson, John Willes.  The Traveller's Guide Through France, Italy, and Switzerland, Etc.  London: 1828

Ingenious deceptions
On new-years-day, it is the custom (although I believe the same is common to most parts of the continent) to call on all friends, and present the ladies with fruits, toys, trinkets, or bon-bons, under some ingenious deceptions, and which it is generally expected, will be accompanied by a salute; therefore if you have an extensive acquaintance, it is indispensable to set out, at an early hour, loaded with smiles, compliments, and presents.
Holman, James.  The narrative of a journey, undertaken in ... 1819, 1820 & 1821… London: 1834

Huge amounts of sweets
At all times of the year are the shops of the marchands de bon-bons, in this modern Athens (as the Parisians call Paris), amply stocked, and constant is the demand for their luscious contents; but now the superb magazins in the Rue Vivienne, the splendid boutiques on the Boulevards, the magnificent dépôts in the Palais Royal, are rich in sweets beyond even that sugary conception, a child's paradise, and they are literally crowded from morning till night by persons of all ages, men, women, and children. Vast and various is the invention of the fabricants of this important necessary of life; and sugar is formed into tasteful imitations of carrots, cupids, ends of candle, roses, sausages, soap, bead-necklaces—all that is nice or nasty in nature and art.

Ounce weights are thrown aside, and nothing under dozens of pounds is to be seen on the groaning counters; the wearied venders forget to number by units, and fly to scores, hundreds, and thousands. But brilliant as are the exhibitions of sugar-work in this gay quarter of the town, they must yield for quantity to the astounding masses of the Rue des Lombards. That is the place resorted to by great purchasers, by such as require, not pounds, but hundred weights for distribution. There reside all the mighty compounders, the venders at first hand; and sugar-plum makers are as numerous in the Parisian Lombard-street…The visiting lists are prepared, the presents arranged, the cards are placed in due order of delivery. Vehicles of all descriptions are already crossing and jostling in every quarter of the city.
The London Magazine.  1823

Wholesale confectioners on Lombard Street
On New Year's day, which is called Le Jour d’Etrennes, parents bestow portions to their children, brothers to their sisters, and husbands make presents to their wives. Carriages may be seen rolling through the streets with cargoes of bon-bons, souvenirs, and the variety of et ceteras with which little children and grown-up children imbribed into good humour; and here and there pastry cooks are to be met with, carrying upon boards, enormous temples, pagodas, churches, and playhouses, made of fine flour and sugar, and the embellishments which make French pastry so inviting. But there is one street in Paris to which a New Year's Day is a whole year's fortune—this is Rue des Lombards, where the wholesale confectioners reside; for in Paris every trade and profession has its peculiar quarter. For several days preceding the 1st of January, this street is completely blocked up by carts and wagons, laden with cases of sweetmeats for the provinces. These are of every form and description which the most singular fancy could imagine —bunches of carrots, green peas, boots and shoes, lobsters and crabs, bats, books, musical instruments, gridirons, frying pans and saucepans —all made of sugar,  coloured to imitate reality. It would not, perhaps, be an exaggeration to state that the amount expended for presents on New-Year's Day in Paris, for sweetmeats alone, exceeds 500,000 francs, or 20,000 sterling. Jewellery is also sold to a very large amount, and the fancy articles exported in the first week of the year to England and other countries, is computed at one fourth of the sale during the 12 months. In Paris it is by no means uncommon for a man of 8000 or 10,000 francs a year to make presents on New Year's Day which cost him a fifteenth part of his income. No person able to give must on this day pay a visit empty-handed. Every body accepts, and every man gives according to the means which he possesses.

Females alone are exempted from the charge of giving. A pretty woman, respectably connected, may reckon her new year's presents at something considerable. Gowns, jewellery, gloves, stockings and artificial flowers, fill her drawingroom ; for in Paris it is a custom to display all the gifts in order to excite emulation, and obtain as much as possible.
The Album and Ladies’ Weekly Gazette.  Philadelphia: July 19, 1826

New-Year’s Day costly sweet gifts
To the credit of the kindly and amiable feelings of the French, they bear the palm from all other nations in the extent and costliness of their New Years' Gifts. It has been estimated that the amount expended upon bon-bons and sweetmeats alone, for presents on New Year's Day in Paris, exceeds £20,000 sterling; while the sale of jewellery and fancy articles in the first week in the year is computed at one fourth of the sale during the twelve months. It is by no means uncommon for a Parisian of 8,000 or 10,000 fra. a year to make presents on New Year's Day which cost him a fifteenth part of his income

At an early hour of the morning this interchange of visits and bon-bons is already in full activity, the nearest relations being first visited, until the furthest in blood and their friends and acquaintance have all had their calls. A dinner is given by some member of the family to all the rest, and the evening concludes, like Christmas Day, with cards, dancing, or other amusements. In London, New Year's Day is not observed by any public festivity; the only open demonstration of joy is the ringing of merry peals from the belfries of the numerous steeples late on the eve of the old year, until after the chimes of the clock have sounded its last hour.
Godey’s Magazine, 1831

Filling stockings and shoes
How busy are French children on this new year's eve. With what palpitating hearts and joyously trembling hands are they tying up their socks and stockings, and spreading forth their shoes near the chimney. Ay, all, from the little wearers of coarse sabots (wooden shoes) to the velvet-slippered denizens of the château, are convinced that good St. Nicholas, the patron of children, will not forget them, he never does; already twice this winter on St. Nicholas' eve, three weeks before Christmas, and on Christmas eve, he has favoured them. This is his last visit for the season, and the most important too of all. They are persuaded that he comes mysteriously down the chimney to fill their chausseurs with his shower of sweetmeats. Then what opening of eyes in the morning ! what bounding forth from little beds, what running and rushing, what gleeful clapping of hands, when the well-replenished shoe and bulged-out stocking twisted with the gay comet of bonbons, show the estimation of kind St. Nicholas for the youthful owners. I should say Sweet St. Nicholas, for his idea must be a very concentration of sugar-plums in the mind of every French child. But, oh, what sorrow and consternation when a birchen rod or a horrid fool's cap protrudes its abominable unsightly form from out the dangling unfilled stocking, warning the disobedient and careless child that the patron of good children and prince of bonbons has no reward in store for them. And now what visits to pay with papa and mamma, what bouquets of winter flowers, or bottles of scent, or comets of bonbons, to take to grandmamma and grandpapa or uncle 1 it is so pleasant to be first. It is an earnest of kindliness for all the coming year ! And thus in pleasant fashion are spent the social hours of the year's first day.
National Magazine.  London: 1861

Stalls of bon-bons - Charles Dickens
All Paris is out of doors. Along the line of the Boulevards runs a double row of stalls, like the stalls at a English fair…Paris is out of doors in its newest and brightest clothes. Paris will eat more bon-bons this day, than in the whole bon-bon eating year. Paris will dine out this day, more than ever. In homage to the day, the peculiar glory of the always-glorious plate-glass windows of the Restorers in the Palais Royal, where rare summer-vegetables from Algiers contend with wonderful great pears from the richest soils of France, and with little plump birds of exquisite plumage, direct from the skies. In homage to the day, the glittering brilliancy of the sweet-shops, teeming with beautiful arrangement of colours, and with beautiful tact and taste in trifles.
Household words, a weekly journal conducted by Charles Dickens.  Jan. 1, 1859

Comparing French gifts to British "compliments"
This is the time for the renewal of friendship and the confirmation of acquaintance. The first is marked by gifts, the second by compliment. In this country "the giving vein" is fast subsiding, and the complimentary one dwells only on the lips. In France, they order these matters differently; young and old, rich and poor, make ready their etrennes for the new year, and ruin themselves in purse or constitution, by bestowing or devouring sweetmeats; and as to compliment, every one there contrives on New Year's Day to remember that he has acquaintance enough to devote at least one pack of the visiting-cards to their service. Here we are more chary of our pasteboard, and more liberal with our mahogany; we offer suppers instead of sugar-plums, and brawn and barrelled oysters in lieu of bouquets and bon-bons. The heartiness of the season is more observed in England, its gaiety more developed in France. The national characteristic speaks for each country in every thing that belongs to them.
The New Monthly Magazine.  London: 1846

Image: Le marchand de bonbons et pavés rafraîchissants à la vanille de la place Maubert.  Jan. 8, 1855.  Illustration, Journal Universel  from the Brown University Library.

©2018 Patricia Bixler Reber
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