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When envisioning the typical Parisian building, you will likely conjure up the common Haussmannian edifice, with its cream-colored facade, solid stone balcony, grey mansard roof, and top row of small windows. It is these small windows that house the infamous chambres de bonne, former maid’s quarters that constitute today’s micro apartments.
Here’s the back story. Napoléon III was made president of France in 1848, and his rule initiated a major reconstruction of the city through his operation to “air, unify, and beautify” Paris. The population was booming, and more room needed to be made for the thousands of people flooding into Paris. To aid in this mission, Napoléon III promoted Georges Eugène Haussmann to the position of prefect of the Seine, an important role that involved managing and overseeing public building projects. It is thanks to Haussmann that Paris became the city that it is today. Once made up of dark, gloomy, and winding passages, Paris then gained wide boulevards lined with apartment buildings that were light in color, large and airy. (Today we think of these structures as “Haussmann” in style.) Haussmann also implemented a complete water and sewage system and the iconic train stations of Paris that still operate today. Napoléon III’s vision of a unified Paris was fulfilled by these uniform buildings: cream in color and six stories high, they have four-sided mansard roofs angled at 45°, and contain a row of small windows on the top floor, the chambre de bonnes.
Chambre de bonne translates to “maid’s room” in English, with “bonne à tout faire” being the colloquial French term for a maid. At the time of Napoléon III’s rule in the mid-19th century, Parisian society operated upon a strict hierarchical structure. Thus, these top-floor living quarters separated the servants from their masters. Chambres de bonne have had a controversial history, sometimes compared to prison cells, and often blamed for the increased spread of disease. Chambres de bonne typically do not have private toilets. There is one toilet situated on the landing that’s shared between the other inhabitants.
In the 20th century, legislation was enforced to protect the living conditions of those living in chambres de bonne as tuberculosis was rampantly spreading through the city’s cramped living areas. The 1904 Health Regulations of the City of Paris implemented a minimum size of 8m2. Then, in 2002, the legal minimum size of an apartment in France increased to a surface area of 9m2, with a volume of 20 m3. However, if the chambre de bonne is to be used as a second home or seasonal rental, these conditions do not apply.
Fast forward to 2022, and chambres de bonne dominate the cheapest rung of the Parisian housing ladder and are traditionally inhabited by students, low-income workers, and au pairs. Due to the negative historic connotations of the term chambres de bonne, these apartments are now advertised as “studettes” or “studio apartments.”
I fall into the bracket of an au pair living in a chambre de bonne, which has been provided to me by my host family. I am extremely fortunate with my chambre de bonne as I have my own toilet within my room. As a result, I have everything I need within 13m2: a sofa (which is also my bed), a desk (which is also my dining table), a shower, a toilet, and a kitchenette. The kitchenette is modest, with an electric hob not dissimilar to the ones you take camping, a microwave, a toaster, a mini fridge, and a sink. There is a large window above the sink that has a gorgeous view over Paris, and if you look hard enough you can see the Eiffel Tower peeping over the rooftops. Having moved to Paris from a detached cottage in the English countryside, I was slightly concerned that living in such a small area would be unfeasible. However, that concern has been proved wrong, and living in a chambre de bonne has changed my perspective on what is meant by living space.
Living in a chambre de bonne comes with many advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious selling point, and the reason why they are still so popular, is the price. These rooms exist all over Paris, especially in the smart, rich districts because these areas historically had a high demand for maids. Therefore, chambres de bonne provide the opportunity to live in exclusive postcodes for a fraction of the average price. What you sacrifice in living space is made up by the location.
Nonetheless, these apartments are often in a state of disrepair, with little changes having been made to them since the mid-19th century. Showers are often situated within the kitchenette with leaky pipes and minimal hot water, and good heating comes at a price when paired with drafty doors and windows. Due to the small surface area, there is never room for a bed and a sofa, and thus those living in chambres de bonne tend to opt for either a daybed, a sofabed, or just a simple single bed.
Living in a chambre de bonne forces you to be tidy as one misplaced sock can make the whole apartment look messy, and thus I have never lived in such an organized, clean, and well-kept space! On my second day in Paris, I undertook the essential trip to my nearest Ikea and purchased decorations to make the area feel like my own. It is funny how easily a space can be transformed with a few plants, posters, and knick-knacks. In fact, there were a few purchases I made that I deem as essential to living in a chambre de bonne:
- Candles (to obscure the cooking smells that will reach your bed in a matter of seconds).
- Mirrors (to reflect all of the possible light coming through your one window).
- Cordless hand-held vacuum (to prevent the vacuum from taking up the whole apartment).
- Drawer units (you need all of the storage opportunities you can get).
- Earplugs (the walls between neighboring rooms are paper thin).
Though the space, for some, may seem too small for even one person, I have still managed to host many friends in my chambre de bonne, with wine and cheese nights being a regular occurrence. Though if you receive an invitation, do not expect a chair or space at the “dining table” – often, these soirees mean sitting on the floor with plates on laps and drinks in hand! I have also welcomed my friends from England into my chambre de bonne for weekends at a time. Provided that you are very close friends, the space somehow does not seem inoperable for two people.
Living in a chambre de bonne has worked wonders for my fitness level. There is no lift in my apartment block, as is common with many Haussmannian apartment blocks, and so every time I leave and enter my apartment, I must manage seven flights of stairs. When I first moved into my chambre de bonne, this was a tough challenge that left me huffing and puffing. Four months later and I am flying up the 147 steps with ease.
Although I love my chambre de bonne, feelings of cabin fever do occasionally occur. Though having everything I need only five steps away from me at all times is very convenient, sometimes I need just a bit more space to move. This has meant that I am usually always out and about during the day, exploring my local area and soaking up all that Paris has to offer.
So, if you are considering a move to Paris and can only afford a chambre de bonne, fear not. Though the way of living is rather rustic and old-fashioned, it is easy to make a space your own, and you will grow to love the noisy pipes and flooding shower (at least, I have anyway!).
Lead photo credit : Parisian zinc roofs. © Flickr