If you like bread, then when you’re in France you probably stop by the boulangerie, or bakery, every day to buy a baguette, croissant, or one of the other tempting treats that you will find inside. But if you were a bourgeois, or wealthy, family in the nineteenth or early twentieth century you wouldn’t need to. Your daily bread would be delivered before you even got out of bed. Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful to wake up to a nice fresh croissant or pain au chocolat? Yum! …
But let’s get back to our story… The job of bread delivery usually fell to women who were called les porteuses de pain, which means bread delivery women (pain sounds like “pan” without pronouncing the “n” and has nothing to do with hurting). These ladies would start work about 5:00 in the morning – as soon as the bread came out of the oven. Some delivered the bread in baskets or wooden frames carried on their backs, while others carried the bread in their large specially designed aprons. The lucky ones worked for bakeries that provided pushcarts.
These hard-working women could have up to 300 clients and they had to memorize all of their addresses, their likes and dislikes, and the amount of bread they required. When they arrived at the client’s home they often had to climb to the top floors with aprons loaded with bread. Even though some of these buildings would have had elevators, they wouldn’t have been permitted to use them. Elevators were only for residents – servants and service people were required to take the stairs.
Since the French were (and still are) quite fond of their bread, the porteuse de pain performed a very important service. (I wouldn’t complain if one would show up at my door this morning.)
“La Porteuse de Pain” is also the title of a book written by Xavier de Mentépin. It started as a series in a newspaper in 1884 and tells the story of Jeanne Fortier, a young widow with two children who is wrongly accused of murder. She goes to prison for 20 years and later in her life she becomes a porteuse de pain, a bread delivery woman. Of course, she has many adventures along the way, trying to track down her children, searching for the real murderer, etc. This popular story has been adapted for theatre, inspired six films made between 1906 and 1963, and became a television series in 1973.
More about France – You can read more stories like this in my book Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond.
A bit more about bread:
- Legends, Laws, and Lengthy Loaves – History of the French Baguette
- Cocteau, Picasso, and a Tale of two Breads – A case of mistaken bread identity.
- History of the French Croissant – Is it really French?
- Bread and Bad Luck – A French bread superstition.
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- Beatrix Potter: Mushrooms, Bunnies, and Sheep - 1 March 2023
- Lovelorn Seek Help from Juliet and Beatrice - 12 February 2023
- Wassailing: Blessing the Apple Trees - 1 February 2023
I love French bread and will never eat it again without remembering this interesting snippet!
Just writing about it made me hungry. And since I don’t think anyone is going to deliver it to me, I’m afraid I’ll have to go out to get it myself. 😉
The pictures and article are really interesting ! I do love the French bread.
Thanks. As you know, my favourite is pain au chocolat! 🙂
Really interesting! How nice would it be to have fresh baked bread delivered in the morning?! Love the sketch – an army of bread couriers! In Istanbul there were men who carried an assortment of bread in a basket on their head to sell in the streets – it made you realize that fresh baked bread pretty much always sounds yummy – hard to resist! 😊
There are several bakeries really close to me, and I only have to go a few steps to get fresh bread, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. But sometimes you just feel like staying in your PJs. 🙂
Dear Margo, again your blog is as delightful as you! Thanks for sharing a slice of French history with me. Next time we meet up you’ll have to autograph my copy of your book French Holidays & Traditions; I’m taking it with me on vacation next month so I can always keep a bit of France with me thanks to you!
Hello Ella, thank you for the kind compliment. Of course, it would be an honor to sign the book for you. Hope you have a wonderful vacation and hope to see you soon in Nice.
All the best!
This is fascinating, and I was somehow not aware of this former job for women. As you probably know, though, in the countryside in France there are still delivery trucks that drive around to isolated villages to sell bread, although I imagine their numbers are declining. Also I’m sure the bread is not hot; one would hope it would be fresh, though!
Interesting! I would have thought all villages would have a bakery. In Nice one of the bakeries has something like a tricycle with a large basket that apparently makes some kind of deliveries. I’ll have to ask them about it. Maybe I can be put on their route. 🙂 Thanks for commenting.
All the best!
I live in a town of about 1,400 people, and we do not have a proper bakery and haven’t for over 10 years, although we do have two other shops that serve as “dépôt de pain,” or places that sell other bakers’ bread. Some smaller villages or hamlets of Aveyron are extremely isolated, so they could easily be 10-15 miles from anywhere that sells bread.
Wow, I guess I’m just spoiled. In Nice it seems there’s a bakery on nearly every street. Well, maybe it’s every other street – but there are lots of them.
I find a lot of traditional shops like bakeries, butcher’s or cafés have only survived here in the 1,500+ villages. There are of course exceptions, especially for bakeries — some towns smaller than ours do have bakeries. Many of them have closed down even over the years I have lived here. Of course in Rodez and Millau there are plenty of bakeries, though.
I have never heard of the porteuses du pain, so once again I learn something from your fabulous blog Margo…I’m always learning things from your blog! However I do know about the vans delivering bread in small villages as Betty mentions, as this still happens in my in-laws villages in Lorraine (and I mentioned it in a post I wrote abut bread last year). Is it terrible that I haven’t heard of the book and all the various films & plays? Thanks for linking up again Margo, I missed you last month! #AllAboutFrance We must get a Riviera Bloggers Meet Up organised, are you around this month?
Hi Phoebe. Sorry I missed last month, I was just snowed under with work – finishing up a book about Nice. But now it’s done and I plan to be here all month. Great idea to have a meet-up with Riviera Bloggers – maybe we’ll finally get to meet! 🙂
Now that’s my sort of holiday bring back the home delivery of croissants!!! Although actually maybe not, it is one of the great pleasures of a French holiday to go and oggle at all the delicious breads and tarts at the boulangerie!
I think delivery would be better for me – they would just bring me what I ordered. I wouldn’t walk out of the bakery with all the extra things I hadn’t intended to buy (or eat)!
What a fascinating post – thank you. We do have a bread van that delivers “pain” twice a week but I had never heard of “les porteuses de pain” – the pictures are wonderful (I am a sucker for old photos) so these are heading straight to my Pinterest boards. #AllAboutFrance
Thanks Rosie. Bread delivery trucks are great, but they just aren’t as romantic as the “porteuses de pain” are they? Glad you liked the photos.
This is really interesting – thank you! I hadn’t realised that it was generally women who delivered the bread, nor that they had to perform such amazing feats of customer service (and memory) to do so. And like you, I would be delighted if this tradition could be re-instated.
Thank you, glad you enjoyed it. I guess it’s progress, but the “porteuses de pain” have now been replaced by bread trucks and even automatic bread dispensing machines. How times have changed!