In the last post, we talked about the history of the beret, and today, we discover how it came to play an important part in the French stereotype.
Berets and Onions
In the mid 1900s, if you had asked nearly any British person what a Frenchman looked like, you would have gotten this description: He wears a beret, and he rides a bike with onions hanging on the handlebars.
Berets, Baguettes, and Wine
Today, most of us don’t associate onions with the French, but we all immediately recognize the caricature of a French person by his jauntily-placed beret. The onions have been exchanged for a baguette and bottle of wine, but the Frenchman of our imagination just wouldn’t seem French without his trusty beret.
Blame the Brits
So where did this idea of beret-wearing Frenchmen originate? It seems to have taken root on British soil in the 1800s. From there it spread to other English-speaking countries, then on to the rest of the world.
But the British didn’t just dream up this image. There was a very good reason they associated Frenchmen with berets. The French man in a beret, riding a bicycle and carrying onions was actually a fairly common sight all across Great Britain from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.
French Onion Johnnies
These beret-wearing, onion-laden cyclists arrived in the UK every summer to peddle their wares. They came from the area around Roscoff, Brittany in northern France. This area was (and still is) known for its special pink onions. They were sweet, had a long storage life – and the British loved them.
As it happened, many of these onion-sellers were called Yann, a common Breton name which is the French equivalent of Jean and the English equivalent of John. The British soon took to calling them “Onion Johnnies.” The Johnnies didn’t mind and happily adopted their new English nickname.
They would go door to door, wearing their berets and selling their onions, from July through December, then they would return to Brittany. Since the Onion Johnnies were the only contact that many Brits had with a Frenchman, they naturally assumed that all Frenchmen wore berets.
The Onion Johnny Story
How did it come about that these Bretons descended on the UK every year? The Onion Johnny story begins in 1828 when Henri Ollivier had a bumper crop of onions. The road to Paris was long and difficult and since he lived so near to the sea, it was easier to just sail across the channel to the UK to sell his onions.
So Henri loaded up a boat full of onions, took three or four of his friends and set sail. The British took a liking to their pink onions, and when Henri and his pals came home with their pockets full of money, everyone wanted in on their business venture.
All the would-be onion-sellers soon got together and organized themselves into companies. Each company had a boss who would go over ahead of the others and rent a building (a barn or warehouse) to serve as an onion depot.
The others would follow in July along with the shipment of onions. The voyage to the UK by sail boat could take 1 or 2 days, depending on the winds, and could be treacherous. One of the worst accidents happened in 1905 when the steamer “Hilda” sank near St. Malo. More than half of the 127 deaths were Onion Johnnies returning from their season in the UK. Despite the dangers, every year, boat-loads of Johnnies crossed the channel to sell their onions.
When they reached the British shores, they dispersed to their various onion depots. These buildings, which were scattered all across the UK, would be their working and living quarters for the next 5 months.
They often slept on straw in the space they shared with their onions. When they had sold all the produce they had brought with them, another shipment would arrive.
Life in the UK
It wasn’t an easy life. Strings of onions were heavy and men could start the day with 60-100 pounds of onions strung over a pole carried on their shoulders. When bicycles were introduced in the 1930s, it made their work easier and the bicycle became part of their image.
Every day except Sunday, the onion-sellers started their day by donning their beret, loading up their bicycle with onions and setting out on their sales route. They didn’t go home for dinner until they had sold everything.
The boss accounted for all onions and made sure the right amount of money came in. This led many Johnnies (especially the young boys who started working around 10 years of age) to quote the price and then say, “and a penny for myself, please.”
Rise and Fall of the Onion Johnnies
In the early 1900s, there were Onion Johnnies selling their wares in almost every city, town and hamlet in the UK. From the 3 or 4 men who originally went over in 1828, their numbers grew steadily. The peak was reached in 1929 when there were 1,400 Johnnies selling 9,000 tons of onions to the British. After the Great Depression, the trade fell off, and in 1934, only 400 Onion Johnnies and 3,000 tons of onions arrived in the UK. Today, Onion Johnnies are practically non-existent, and those in the UK who have a hankering for the pink Roscoff onion can order it online.
They Changed the Way the World Saw France
Even though the Onion Johnnies with their berets and bikes are no longer a part of the British landscape, their image lives on in the French stereotype. These hard-working men were just trying to make a living while wearing their regional headgear. They had no idea they were creating a beret-clad stereotype that would follow their countrymen for many years to come.
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In 2004 Roscoff opened an Onion Johnnie Museum to honor this almost-forgotten profession.
More about France – You can read more stories like this in my book Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond.
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Who knew there was so much history behind the cliché? Thanks for sharing, and for helping to debunk the beret-wearing myth!
You’re welcome. It seems there’s always a bit of history behind legends, myths, etc… It’s just tracking it down that’s the hard bit. 😊
What a fascinating piece. Thank you!
Glad you liked it!
I had absolutely no idea. How fascinating. I love the interesting directions your researches take. Many thanks. Paula
Hi Paula. Thanks! History is just full of fascinating facts, isn’t it.
That’s so interesting Margo, I remember well the French Onion Sellers when I was a child in Surrey!
It’s too bad they’re gone now. It is such a romantic image – although it was terribly hard work for them. I guess that’s progress.
This is great! I love the old photos. I had no idea this stereotype (onions) existed before I started dating my British boyfriend and living in England. As I’m currently living in France though- I must agree with the garlic stereotype- though I do my best to smell even more like garlic!! Love it!
Well, it looks like we have a couple of things in common – we are both curious and we both like garlic. It tastes great and it keeps the vampires away. 😉
Bonne année Margo! I’d heard of Onion Johnnies but didn’t know just how many of them there were nor how organised and important the industry was. I also didn’t realise this was where the beret image stereotype came from, so thanks for teaching me all that! And thanks for linking it to #AllAboutFrance
Bonne Année to you too, Phoebe! Thanks for organising #AllAboutFrance so we can all share our France knowledge. Best -Margo
I just love the Onion Johnnie story. The villagers in our village in France had no idea what used to happen, but a lady who now lives here, but was brought up in Wales, remembers them calling to her Mother.
When I was researching this and talking to people about it, I was surprised how many still remember the Onion Johnnies. It’s too bad that they have fallen by the wayside now. I guess it’s just much more convenient to order online.
This is fascinating – I never knew this. I love how much history and what a great story behind the caricature. #allaboutfrance
Thanks! It’s true that there is always a story behind traditions, stereotypes, etc… and I like to try to find them when I can. 🙂 Thanks for commenting! Best -Margo
Thanks for digging deeper into this cliche! I see the military in berets a lot but not everyday men on the street. Although I do see men wearing hats, just not beret style. #allaboutfrance
It’s too bad more men don’t wear berets – I think they are very sophisticated looking. I even like them on the older guys playing pétanque. 🙂
This is so interesting. I remember buying a beret as a present for my father after my first exchange trip to France.
It’s funny that something that seems so completely French to us foreigners has really only ever been worn by a minority of French people. Those onion sellers were pretty influential! 🙂
What a cool story! Yes, the beret stereotype lives high and mighty where I come from in California! Great post on #AllAboutFrance!
Thanks! It’s kind of like seeing a caricature of an American in a cowboy hat – those stereotypes are far reaching. Thanks for commenting. Best -Margo
This is a fascinating piece of history, thank you for sharing. I did know a bit about the onion sellers who came to the UK but you have added so much more detail and the photos are wonderful. Some are heading straight to Pinterest and I am about to sign up for your emails. Great post and thank you #AllAboutFrance
Thanks, Rosie! I’m glad you enjoyed the article and learned a bit more about the Onion Johnnies. History is so interesting, isn’t it! Best -Margo
Thank you for enlightening me on the beret mystery! What an interesting story! I’ve always wondered how this stereotype grew to prominence. Very informative. Thanks for sharing on #allaboutfrance
Hello Wander Mum. Glad you enjoyed the post. It is strange that the stereotype has lasted so long. Wonder if it will continue? Thanks for commenting. Best -Margo
really fascinating! #allaboutfrance
Thanks Tanja, I appreciate that!
Wow, I love your article, I had no idea where the stereotype came from, thank you for writing it. Have signed up to your blog, all your articles look so fascinating #AllAboutFrance
Thank you so much! Glad you liked the article and glad to have you as a subscriber. Thank you! 🙂
Sorry, as much as I love this article, it is in part patronizing and in part inaccurate. The French associated the beret with Basque shepherds, but then the beret caught on in the early 1930s. It was a common sight in France. My uncle fought in the Maquis, who adopted black berets as part of their streetwear so they would go unnoticed. Excellent article as far as it goes–but it has far to go to be comprehensive!
Thanks for commenting and sorry you thought the article was patronizing – it certainly wasn’t meant to be. I try to go for light, informative, and a bit humorous. 🙂 But since you said you liked it anyway, I’m glad of that.
I’ll try to address your comments about inaccuracies. I assume you took exception to the part where I said that “the beret was never a head-covering of the masses.” As far as I know, the beret has been mostly associated with certain regions (mainly the southwest and Brittany) and certain groups (artists, military, etc.). I haven’t seen anything that said it was a popular hat for the whole country. Of course, just because I haven’t seen it doesn’t mean it isn’t so. It’s just what I found from my research. I wrote another article about the history of the beret – which you may, or may not, want to read, but here’s the link just in case. http://curiousrambler.com/2015/09/19/french-beret-a-hat-with-attitude/
Of course, the main point of my article was that the stereotype of the beret-clad Frenchman came from the UK and the Onion Johnnies who were a common sight there in the late 1800s through the mid-1900s. Again, all my research points in this direction. Even though there might have been other French people wearing berets in France, the British had regular contact with the Onion Johnnies who shaped their ideas of all Frenchmen.
As for the Maquis, I hadn’t heard of this Resistance group, but a quick Wikipedia search showed that they operated mostly in Brittany and southern France (both areas where the beret was more common).
Anyway, thank you for reading and thank you for your comments. I really do appreciate them.
Lovely article Margo; gracious lady 😀.
Thank you Andrea. That’s very kind.
This was really fascinating. I had no idea about the onions. Before my time I guess.
Hi Arnie, Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading and commenting. Best -Margo
An extremely interesting and well written read. Thank you so much for the history. I never knew how the berets came to be so French. I live in Paris – granted only for a year so far – and nope, not one person wears a beret. The bike riding image will never fade though due to the hire bike system (although it’s also in many other parts of the world). As for the baguettes, it’s one of my favourite weekend sights. Having people, including myself, buy baguettes on the weekend is often more about the friendly exchange between customers and venders and if I get to the boulangerie early enough, my baguette is still warm when handed to me. Using my motorised wheelchair I’m home in time to spread butter on the warm baguette and crunch into that deliciousness happily.
Hi Sandra, Thanks so much for commenting. I love the baguettes too, but I don’t wait for the weekend… and I don’t wait until I get home to start nibbling. 🙂 There’s nothing like a fresh-from-the-oven baguette. Yummm! 🙂
This is very interesting, thank you. Did you know that there was only one artisan beret maker left in France? Their berets are things of beauty. Look at the Laulhere website and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll be wearing one soon…
Thanks Emily. Actually, I did know about Laulhere. What a shame they are the only ones still hanging on in France. I even have one of their lovely berets, but unfortunately, I just don’t look very good in berets. I wish I did because they are so practical. Thanks for commenting!