The Paris Moustache Strike of 1907 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Paris Moustache Strike of 1907

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Waiters with signs saying 'Liberte, Egalite, Moustaches!'
PARIS, April 18 [1907]
The strike of Paris waiters has spread until every café in the city is affected, and extraordinary scenes were witnessed at many of the establishments today.
The strikers demand a weekly day of rest and the right to wear moustaches.
Clean-shaven men are somewhat at a disadvantage in Paris since the waiters struck... The police... in their zeal have ordered many American and English visitors who happened to wear no moustaches to 'Move on'...

- Marlborough [NZ] Express, Vol. XLI, Issue 135, 10 June, 1907

In 1907, Paris was shaken by the Great Moustache Strike. Waiters walked off the job in droves, forcing restaurant owners to repurpose female cashiers, sous-chefs, and other employees as wait staff. Thousands of francs were lost for want of waiters to convey food to tables.

As the industrial action in the food service sector spread throughout France, some newspapers were supportive of the outraged strikers.

Les moustaches prolétariennes rentreront dans le grand tout, tandis qu'en vertus de la loi de l'équilibre, les moustaches bourgeoises repousseront... Et cette histoire de moustaches, pareille à la chanson de l'éléphant, deviendra, une véritable barbe.
- Mémorial de la Loire et de la Haute-Loire, 21 avril 1907, p1
The working class moustache will become part of the whole, whereas, in accordance with the principle of equilibrium, the bourgeois moustache will grow again... And that moustache business, like the elephant song, will become a real bother2.

This quote gives us a hint of what was at stake for the waiters: it was all about masculinity and status.

Liberty, Equality, and a Moustache

Mr. Carlile looked like a retired colonel who had dressed by mistake in clerical raiment. His hue was ruddy, his eye clear, and his moustache martial.
- Arnold Bennett, Paris Nights, 1913

As the quote from Arnold Bennett demonstrates, European moustaches tended to have a military connotation. In France, they went all the way back to Napoleon's army. Moustaches were a symbol of masculine pride and social status. In the early 20th Century, the French bourgeoisie adopted the moustache as a sign of having 'arrived' socially. The distinction of the moustache went back decades: Guy de Maupassant's short story 'The Moustache' dates from the 1880s. It takes the form of a letter from a woman devastated by her husband's shaving off of his facial hair. The story ends with the words, 'Long live the moustache!'

Waiters in Paris had a hard job. They didn't get paid by the restaurant owners. In fact, sometimes they had to pay the restaurant owners for the privilege of serving their food. Often, they even had to share their tips, which was what they lived on. Still, competition for waitering jobs was high because a proficient waiter could make money.

Why didn't the restaurant owners and, presumably, many patrons not want the waiters to wear moustaches? It didn't have anything to do with hygiene: it was about social status. Waiters were doing 'women's work' by serving at table. They were being subservient, not a good masculine trait. After all, that's what the patrons were paying for: the illusion of being aristocrats who had servants to bring their dinners. And aristocrats' servants didn't wear moustaches.

The waiters, on the other hand, felt the need to assert their rights as free French citizens. They were as good as the next Frenchman. This was a commercial transaction. So they went out on strike and won the right to keep their moustaches – which made them and their wives happier.

Why Were the Police Picking on the Americans?

During the strike, the Paris police wanted to discourage unruly waiters from stirring up trouble. Since most of the waiters still didn't have moustaches (or they would not have been working), the policeman hustled clean-shaven men out of restaurants. This really upset some visitors from North America who didn't happen to be sporting facial hair.

In the United States, beards weren't in style with younger men, and moustaches had been losing in popularity since at least 1903. A Chicago reporter did an informal study in that year:

The year 1903 may be taken as the tipping point. An enterprising reporter for the Chicago Tribune illustrated this fact by careful count. Standing on a busy street corner in downtown Chicago, he counted in one hour 3,000 men, of whom 1,236 wore mustaches and 108 some kind of beard. The rest (1,656) were clean-shaven.
- Oldstone-Moore, C. (2011). 'Mustaches and Masculine Codes in Early Twentieth-Century America', Journal of Social History, 45 (1), 47-47. Quoting 'Types of Chicago Beards,' Chicago Tribune, April 3, 1904, 42.

The question of waiters' moustaches in Paris seemed to have been settled. But a little more than a decade later, issues of facial hair resurfaced.

PARIS, Oct. 9 (by the Associated Press). – Waiters in seven or eight of the largest cafés on the Paris boulevards have been stirred to angry protest by orders to shave their mustaches or quit. One of the bitterest grievances the waiters had when they went on strike last April was the edict of the employers to the effect that waiters must sacrifice their mustaches. The waiters triumphed and the employers agreed they should be permitted to adorn their visages as they pleased.

Now an attempt to revive the ban on mustaches has roused their indignation. 'The waiters are sufficiently humiliated to have to earn their living by extending their hands to receive what often proves to be a ridiculous tip, without being forced to forego one of the privileges of manhood,' said the secretary of the union. 'Really the ferocious employers know little about psychology. Should they maintain this iniquitous measure destined solely to give their staff a servile appearance toward the customer, they are picking out a poor time for it. Whether through snobbishness or in the hope of appearing original, customers choose to make their faces as glabrous and depilated as that of the Americans or aim to copy the two commas on the upper lip of a well known moving picture actor; that is their business. We must Insist that the conventions entered into at the time of the strike be respected, that the mustache has always been in vogue in France and to suppress it is an indignity and diminishes the morale, value and patriotism of the personnel of the cafés.

- Sacramento Union, Volume 211, Number 10, 10 November 1919

No matter what Americans personally thought about facial hair, their newspapers seem to have fully supported the right of Frenchmen to wear them, whatever their reasons.

Does Facial Hair Matter?

Ask a hippie. Or the article in Journal of Social History quoted above, which argues that 'the performative function of facial hair', rather than politics, was responsible for the defeat of Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential  election.

1Translation provided by Superfrenchie.2Literally, 'a real beard'.

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