Literally meaning "closed house," the French expression maisons closes refers mainly to brothels, and is most associated with those in Paris in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries.

Once merely considered a historical curio, in my estimate these establishments are something from which we could draw inspiration nowadays. Considering that Vernon Coaker and Harriet Harman, here in Britain, with claims and horror stories about abuse and human traffic to back them up, are intent on making it so that being the buyer of sexual services will become a criminal offence. I oppose this because, surely, if you're after stopping human traffic and so forth, why not go after the organised crime that profits from it? But that is a whole other node. However, methinks that they have overlooked the attitude taken by our Continental neighbours around a century ago, and as such, the maisons closes are something worthy of consideration at least. And, from my reading on these places, there's quite a similarity between the maisons and the system of legalised, regulated brothels that currently exist in Nevada, USA.

The maisons closes, were, in a nutshell, regulated, legal, and licensed knocking shops that subsisted primarily in Paris, but also in other parts of France, during the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century. They existed to keep prostitution off the streets (for the most part) and in places where the authorities could keep an eye on it. This had a number of advantages in dealing with vice and pimping and other such unpleasantness without resorting to a more, shall we say, ham-fisted, approach, which would serve only to drive the trade underground - and out of the sight and protection of the authorities. Furthermore, it was not seen as the business of the State to dictate to the citizenry on public morals. Hence prostitution in general was, at a national level, tolerated, thus giving these places their alternative name of maisons de tolérance. Instead it was up to municipal authorities to decide on how they would deal with the question of the sale of sexual services. In Paris, the various mairies broadly adopted a similar approach to each other, and thus the maisons closes were born.

A maison close had to abide by a certain number of regulations in its operation. Firstly, it could not be evident, from the outside, that a given building was, in fact, a brothel. Secondly, all working girls at each establishment had to undergo a medical inspection every six months, in order to ensure that they weren't spreading the pox to half of France. Thirdly, all such establishments had to be owned and managed by women, a lot of whom were current or former prostitutes themselves, in order to cut down on the problem of pimping and exploitation. This is not to say, though, that all those who forged their living amongst these brothels were women; there is evidence that rent boys were on hand for clients who were of such tastes. And finally, they had to be at least 100 metres from a church or a school, a measure aimed at the protection of public morality. In addition, the ladies of the maisons were arranged as independent contractors. They paid a fee to the house for use of its facilities, usually a percentage of their takings, and kept the rest for themselves.

As a result of this unprecedented laxity with regard to prostitution, and the general ambience of Paris at the time, the top establishments became an integral part of the Parisian tourist trail. Business and diplomatic entertainment at the time was incomplete without a trip to a maison close. Many an artist and writer was a regular there; one story exists about Honoré de Balzac, being a regular at one establishment, who was practicing semen retention for he was of the opinion that semen reduces creative output, got carried away on one trip and could only lament afterwards, "I lost a whole novel this morning!" Furthermore, the future King Edward VIII was also an avid brothel-goer, and had a firm of custom furniture makers generate him a "sex chair" for use in the maisons. This particular installation consists of a stool-like upper half with a cushioned bunk-like lower half, with stirrups on the corners of the top bit. How he managed to use this item is open to debate, but that's getting off topic.

You may gather, from the fact that princes and kings and eminent society people visited these places that they were expensive. They were. And it showed. One of the most prestigious of the maisons was known as Le Chabanais, after the street (Rue de Chabanais) on which it was located. There, punters entered through a nondescript door on a nondescript street in the 2e Arrondissement into... into what, exactly? The Selection Salon, as it was known. Here, sumptuous fixtures and fittings in the art nouveau style adorned the walls, liquors of all types were available, and paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec were in evidence, for Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular amongst the maisons. As you entered and were seated, the Selection Salon would live up to its name as a number of working girls - or boys if you leant that way - appeared before you, competing for your patronage. From there, you could proceed to... well, whatever depraved, perverse, filth you had in mind (as long as she was willing) in one of many different settings. There was a room mocked up to look like an ocean liner's cabin, and similar surroundings. Or, for the truly decadent, you and your business associate could cavort in a champagne bath (which, nowadays, would probably be contrary to some sort of health and safety regulation, but that's by the by) before progressing elsewhere. Of course, all this would come at a price, naturally.

They did a roaring trade. One author claims that at le Sphinx, some evenings the denizens, both public and staff, got through a thousand bottles of champagne. But this is not to say that the existence of the maisons closes was totally accepted without criticism. For every public figure that was a regular, there was another that decried them as a den of degradation and indignity. Victor Hugo wrote, with regard to the brothels, that "it is said that slavery has disappeared in our civilisation, however, it only continues to affect women." And indeed, the existence of the maisons closes was not a panacea to the more unpleasant aspects of prostitution; however, by corralling a lot of the demand into a place where the authorities could keep an eye on it, they helped to cut, at a stroke, a lot of the abuse associated with the world's oldest profession. Indeed, vigorous enforcement of laws against proxénetisme or pimping were also enforced as a "stick" to go with the "carrot" of the maisons closes. However, even those who were morally against the existence of legalised brothels could not doubt that such a system had more of an impact on the gangsterism and organised criminality that pervades prostitution under other régimes, and even today, although a survey in 2005 showed that around 62% of people polled were not in favour of prostitution in general as it was seen as degrading to those who partook in it, 67% were in favour of bringing back the brothels on practical grounds.

Speaking of perversions, allegedly one common form of pervert that would hang out at the maisons closes were the "juicers." They would hang around outside the rooms waiting for the gentlemen currently therein engaged to sling his muck before rushing in and slurping it up from wherever it was deposited.

You may be thinking, at this point, of the film "Moulin Rouge." Well, yes and no. The only dancing that really went on in establishments like le Chabanais, le Sphinx, One Two Two (named after its street number, and which supplanted le Chabanais as the top establishment in the city by the mid 1920s) was of the horizontal variety. There just wasn't space for anything else due to the fact that all the maisons were built into apartment blocks - and as someone with acquaintances who've done the Paris appartement experience, this precludes any such activity. The scene in the elephant is probably accurate though - well, ish.

Where are they now, though, you may ask? Gone. In 1946, one Marthe Richard, a minister in the government of Charles de Gaulle, aiming to safeguard public morals, refused to tolérer them any more. The decor was stripped and sold off, the Lautrec paintings put in museums, the champagne baths emptied for the last time. Nowadays, 122, rue de Chabanais, arguably the Studio 54 of knocking shops, is a bog-standard apartment block. As is the One Two Two, and le Sphinx; all are gone. Despite that just a few short years beforehand they were going like the clappers, they were thoroughly out of favour all of a sudden in the new IVe République. Why was that? Well, the War happened. During the Occupation, the maisons closes were taken over by the Germans and dealt with a steady stream of Wehrmacht officers. As such, they became hotbeds of collaboration. Indeed, one of the maisons was notorious in the War for having its girls trained to pump their punters for intelligence about the activities of the Résistance. With this in mind, one cannot help but feel that more than just a moral crusade against vice, it was more of a cleansing, an expurgation of the trappings of collaboration. Thus ended France's dalliance with legalised, regulated whoring.

That's not to say that this business model hasn't been taken up elsewhere in the world. Nowadays, folks that way inclined can trip out to certain counties around Reno, Nevada, and visit the Mustang Ranch or one of its competitors. Just as their homologues in Paris during the belle époque were regulated in that medical inspections and the idea of having the ladies as independent business people who were free to take advantage of the facilities of the house in return for a cut were all instituted, so too are similar items in the Nevada brothels. Indeed, from what I've seen of the ranches (not in person, I hasten to add!) there's a similar style of decor. Think "expensive but trashy" and you've got the idea.

And I suppose that really sums up the maisons closes and their surrounds, expensive but trashy.


"La vie quotidienne dans les maisons closes," Laure Adler, Paris: Hachette, 1992
Bizarre magazine, issue 103, article, "In search of the King's sex chair" (in French)

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