The Chambre de Bonne: Living in 9m2 in Paris

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The Chambre de Bonne: Living in 9m2 in Paris
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. Photo credit: Poppy Pearce 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.”
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Lead photo credit : Parisian zinc roofs. © Flickr

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Inspired by the rich culture that France has to offer, Poppy Pearce moved to Paris as an au pair in August 2022. Having gained a degree in Theology and Religion with Arabic from the University of Exeter, Poppy has a passion for languages and experiencing new cultures. When she’s not working, Poppy loves to explore everything that Paris has to offer, from exhibitions and museums, to restaurants and second-hand clothing stores.

Comments

  • John Pearce
    2023-01-06 03:06:04
    John Pearce
    It’s a happy surprise to find another Pearce spelled the right way. My novel in progress features a chambre de bonne with a twist. You’ve given me an idea. Thanks for a nice story.

    REPLY

    •  Poppy Pearce
      2023-01-09 08:27:14
      Poppy Pearce
      Ahh, a fellow Pearce - it's a pleasure to meet you! I very much look forward to reading your novel ... good luck.

      REPLY

  • Peter
    2022-12-29 07:37:59
    Peter
    Thank you Poppy, just the thought of living in a cosy room in the heart of bustling Paris with those iconic cafes and markets, a scenic view over the rooftops, and to do it on a budget, makes me want to revisit the city soon. I loved the pictures too.

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