Circulation and visibility
Staging class aboard the omnibus
in Engine of modernity

This chapter considers the omnibus as a central urban site where class relations and class identity were articulated, debated, and contested. Contemporary writers noted that the name omnibus was particularly well-suited to a mode of public transport that was by law open to everyone regardless of class, rank, or social standing. In theory, this vehicle embodied democratic promise, class equality, and French Republican values. Yet a careful analysis of contemporary documents shows that the omnibus was a much more ambivalent class signifier than heretofore believed. While some works hailed it as a symbol of progress and democratic potential, a space in which social distinctions became irrelevant, and all passengers were treated equally, others bemoaned that the omnibus fell short as a vehicle of equality. Finally, some documents reveal a profound anxiety about class mixing aboard the omnibus, which for many symbolized the upending of existing social hierarchies. The omnibus was thus a locus for engaging with both class aspirations and class anxieties. Some urban observers perceived social mobility as a promise, while others saw it as a dangerous challenge to the social order.

Le voyage en omnibus unit toutes les classes sociales sans distinction ni division. De tous les milieux parisiens où l’on se puisse rencontrer, la voiture d’omnibus est évidemment celle qui offre la plus parfaite image de démocratie et de fraternité courtoise. Ouvriers, boutiquiers, rentiers, savants, poètes, financiers, comédiens et comédiennes, domestiques et maîtres, musiciens et chanteurs, académiciens et ramasseurs de bouts de cigare s’y coudoient chaque jour quelques courts moments dans le plein air de l’impériale, l’étranglement de la plateforme, sinon sur les coussins du box intérieur.

Octave Uzanne1

Writing at the turn of the century, Octave Uzanne paints an idealised picture of the omnibus interior, one where people from all walks of life and diverse social classes happily commingle and coexist in harmony, cheerfully sharing the omnibus bench with one another. Yet this romanticised and nostalgic vision of the omnibus as a ‘perfect image of democracy and fraternity’ stands in opposition to many of its textual and visual representations throughout the nineteenth century. As a unique space of class mixing – its name embodying the elusive democratic promise of post-Revolutionary France – the omnibus generated complex and often conflicting commentaries.

Some nineteenth-century observers celebrated the omnibus as a quintessentially democratic vehicle, one that became a focal point for the breakdown of social hierarchies and embodied both revolutionary change and a promise of social mobility. Others focused on the shortcomings of the vehicle’s democratic potential, highlighting instead how the modest fare still excluded certain populations. Finally, some observers expressed discomfort about the inevitable class mixing aboard the omnibus. This discomfort emerges in stories and images that span the nineteenth century and tell the tale of a society attempting to make sense of its rapidly changing social structures, one in which different groups sought to define and assert their class identity and belonging.

When the omnibus service was first proposed in 1827–28, it was intended primarily for a broad range of working-class patrons, or ‘industrial classes’, as they were called at the time. Nicholas Papayanis reminds us that the omnibus companies ‘wished to cast a wide net that would take in all respectable and employed people who needed to commute long distances but would not normally engage cabs’.2 But it was precisely the idea of class mixing that delayed the introduction of the vehicle in Paris. Guy Delaveau, the conservative police prefect, rejected nearly three hundred applications to start an urban coach service, in part because he was apprehensive about a vehicle open to all classes. Moreover, he was concerned that gathering together a large number of lower-class people could lead to public unrest and social disorder. Maxime Du Camp asserts that city officials during the Restoration feared ‘a political danger in the circulation of coaches destined for all classes of society’.3 In addition, the background of Stanislas Baudry, the entrepreneur who eventually launched the first omnibus service (L’Entreprise générale d’omnibus), played a role in the police prefect’s repeated rejection of his application: his revolutionary background, his service in Napoleon’s army and his alleged involvement with Carbonarism were deemed suspect.4

When an urban coach service was finally authorised in January 1828 by a new (and more liberal) police prefect, the most striking and distinctive feature of the conveyance was that it was by law open to everyone regardless of class, wealth or social status. This legal inclusiveness distinguished the nineteenth-century omnibus from its seventeenth-century predecessor, la carrosse à cinq sous, which excluded people of lower classes.5 Although the omnibus conductor was empowered to reject those who might disturb other passengers, were drunk, wore inappropriate attire or had a dog, no one could be excluded solely based on rank or social station, and anyone able to pay the fare was allowed on board as long as there were seats available.

But was the omnibus truly ‘for all’? By most historical accounts, the actual class composition of the omnibuses until the late nineteenth century fell far short of the ideal of universal inclusiveness. For one thing, the wealthy and status-conscious travellers eschewed it in favour of private carriages or individual carriages for hire. For another, poor and working-class city dwellers could not afford even the initial low fare of 25 centimes, which was raised to 30 centimes in 1830. Additionally, the system of free transfers between the lines (correspondances) was not established until 1834, so the cost of crossing the city could amount to as much as 60 centimes, a sum beyond the reach of most working poor. The impériale was more affordable at 15 centimes, but it was not introduced until 1855. Even at that price, it was not affordable to everyone. An image by Darjou (Figure 3.1) illustrates this well: the conductor explains that while for 4 sous you can ride on the impériale, the fare of 3 sous allows you the privilege of chasing after the omnibus on foot.

According to historian Michel Margairaz, urban transit did not truly become ‘mass transit’, open to all levels of society, until the late nineteenth century, when the fares were reduced as a result of negotiations between the Companie Générale des Omnibus and the municipal authorities, which at the time were dominated by radical republicans with socialist leanings.6 Furthermore, historian David Pinkney notes that omnibus service did not begin until 8 am, ‘a genteel hour that indicates how little the buses were intended for the mass of working Parisians’;7 and the placement of initial omnibus lines clearly privileged neighbourhoods on the Right Bank where wealth and commerce were concentrated. As a result, in those early years commercial and other petit-bourgeois passengers were most likely the majority, and the class composition of the vehicle’s interior was less heterogeneous than the omnibus literature suggests.8 And yet, more than any other aspect of the omnibus, it was the potential for class inclusiveness that captured the imagination of contemporary commentators. Despite historical evidence to the contrary, textual and visual representations of the omnibus interior consistently place travellers of widely diverse social classes within the confined space of the vehicle.

My central claim in this chapter is that the omnibus served as a complex and equivocal symbol of social class in nineteenth-century popular literature, rather than a straightforward emblem of class inclusiveness as the vehicle’s name asserts. What the omnibus meant as a class signifier in cultural representations was often inconsistent and contradictory, and it could not be contained in a single model. Indeed, the omnibus provided social observers and urban writers with multiple ways of thinking about social class. First and foremost, social commentary focused on class mixing inside the vehicle and the ways this mixing threatened – or promised, depending on the author’s perspective – to upend existing social hierarchies. At the same time, the omnibus’s potential as a socially diverse space provided an ideal setting for the performance of class identity at a time when it was continuously being negotiated and contested. In addition, the very mobility of the omnibus symbolically embodied the potential of social mobility, as the vehicle literally traversed differently classed neighbourhoods in Paris, offering the modest classes the possibility of circulation through parts of the city previously unavailable to them.

Indeed, urban space played a central role in shaping middle-class identity in nineteenth-century France. Historian Victoria Thompson traces shifts in how Parisian middle classes experienced urban spaces, suggesting that ‘space was used by members of the middle class to craft a distinctive and authoritative urban identity’, especially around the time of the July Revolution of 1830.9 Following the Revolution of 1789, there was a clear connection between social and spatial relations in the urban context; Thompson shows that in the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, popular literature about Paris presented different social groups as occupying the same spaces in unproblematic ways: ‘Although these texts depicted a city that was socially segregated, urban topography and social stratification worked together to give the impression that the organisation of Parisian society was orderly and stable.’10 However, Thompson identifies a marked shift after the July Revolution: it was around urban spaces that bourgeois fears of social and political upheavals crystallised. At the same time, urban spaces emerged increasingly as sites where the middle classes could differentiate themselves from popular classes in everyday practices and artistic representations.

The omnibus was among these sites, both aboard the actual Parisian omnibus and especially in the pages of popular literature. Because its enclosed space was in principle open to everyone, the middle classes experienced potential class mixing and exposure to the lower classes as particularly anxiety-provoking, while the working classes saw the omnibus as an arena especially suited to asserting their claim on urban space and, by extension, their place in society. The unique omnibus seating arrangement, with benches or stalls along the walls of the vehicle, exposed passengers to each other’s unrelenting gaze for the duration of the trip. This was perhaps the only urban space where such prolonged exposure was not only possible but unavoidable: in other public urban sites, such as parks, cafés and museums, people were free to move and circulate. But it was difficult if not impossible to avoid others’ inspection aboard an omnibus. Confined to a small, circumscribed space, omnibus passengers’ every word and gesture was open to interpretation and scrutiny by their fellow passengers. Passengers’ dress and demeanour, the crucial markers of one’s social status and respectability, were subject to continuous inspections by others. Even more so than café-goers later in the century, they were captives of each other’s gaze.11

This chapter traces the complex ways in which omnibus literature deployed the figure of the omnibus to stage class relations and the performance of class identity in the virtual space of the page. If the actual omnibus offered less class diversity than this literature might suggest, the omnibus imaginaire construed it as a defining feature of urban life, and as an emblem of changing social structures. The different cultural documents that I study in this chapter, from panoramic and didactic texts and vaudeville theatre of the 1820s, 1830s and 1840s to Second Empire lithographs and Third Republic fiction, express the sensibilities of the middlebrow public, which constituted both the intended readership of this literature and the intended ridership of the omnibus. Omnibus literature did more than reflect on the reality of class relations in the everyday experience of the omnibus: it articulated and shaped bourgeois anxieties and perceptions about class within the newly established urban spaces.

Equality in motion

Many nineteenth-century observers enthusiastically embraced the democratic nature of the omnibus. In Physiologie de l’omnibus (1842), Edouard Gourdon envisions the vehicle as a kind of miniature model of society as a whole:

Je cherche une personnification de la société, je la trouve entière, vraie et juste, avec ses anachronismes, ses non-sens, son crétinisme, sa sottise et son amour-propre, dans l’omnibus. L’omnibus est un échantillon d’autant plus fidèle qu’il varie sans cesse. C’est un miroir où toutes les silhouettes, grandes et petites, sombres et bouffonnes, viennent se décalquer, où le ridicule et ses mille nuances se montrent de grandeur naturelle, de pied en cap. Tout le monde passe par l’omnibus; faire l’histoire de l’omnibus, c’est faire l’histoire de la société.12

(Looking for a personification of the society, I find it in its entirety – with all its anachronisms, its nonsense, its stupidity and self-centredness, I find all of it on the omnibus. The omnibus is a particularly faithful representation precisely because it is constantly changing. It is a mirror in which all the silhouettes, big and small, gloomy and comical, are reflected, where the absurd and its thousand nuances reveal themselves in their natural grandeur. Everyone passes through the omnibus. To write the history of the omnibus is to write the history of society.)

For Gourdon, the omnibus embodied the mobility and flux of post-Revolutionary French society. Old class categories no longer held true, and social mobility seemed possible. With its promise of equality, the omnibus served as a figure of progress and democratic spirit. If the mania for physiologies was linked to the frenzied attempt to describe and understand a society that was undergoing dramatic changes, morphing beyond recognition before writers’ very eyes, it is easy to see why a writer like Gourdon would seize upon the omnibus as its image.

In the view of many well-known writers and journalists, the omnibus was an idealised space where established social hierarchies were suspended. For example, in Paris-en-omnibus (1854) Taxile Delord equates the vehicle with democratic progress itself: ‘Il est certain que l’omnibus est un agent de progrès démocratique. L’omnibus rapproche les distances, confond toutes les classes de la société, mêle tous les rangs. Il a réalisé ce qu’on pourrait appeler le droit à l’équipage.’ (There is no doubt that the omnibus is the agent of democratic progress. The omnibus diminishes distances, combines all social classes, mixes up all the ranks. It created what may be called the right to carriage.) He then asserts semi-ironically that the absence of an omnibus service is a sure sign that a city is out of step with progress: ‘Il n’y a pas d’omnibus à Rome, à Naples, à Florence: aussi le peuple de ces villes est-il considérablement arriéré’13 (There is no omnibus in Rome, Naples or Florence, which suggests that the people of these cities are considerably backwards). Charles Friès, in the 1842 ‘Le Conducteur d’omnibus’, from Les Français peints par eux-mêmes, refers to the cadran, the conductor-operated device to count passengers, as a ‘symbole éclatant d’égalité sur lequel le riche et le pauvre sont cotés au même taux’14 (shining symbol of equality which counts the rich and the poor at the same rate). Similarly, Edmond Texier, in the 1853 Tableau de Paris, writes that ‘L’omnibus, c’est la démocratisation du véhicule, l’extension illimitée du droit de se faire voiturer au plus bas prix’15 (The omnibus is a democratisation of vehicle, an unlimited extension of the right to be driven at the lowest cost). And the anonymous author of an 1843 article from Le Magasin pittoresque insists that the class inclusiveness of the omnibus leads passengers of different walks of life to treat each other with equal respect, calling the vehicle a true ‘école de politesse’ (school of manners). Not only does the omnibus ‘sauvegarde contre les boues de Paris la très nombreuse classe des gens qui n’ont pas équipage’ (preserve against the mud of Paris numerous groups of people who do not own a carriage), but also, most importantly, it fosters proper codes of conduct in a public space:

Il ne permet point aux élégants de développer leurs poses, ou d’étaler leurs grâces sur les coussins; mais il apprend à tout le monde comment il faut se tenir le corps droit, n’occuper au plus que sa place, relever les basques de l’habit ou les bouts d’une écharpe, serrer les coudes contre le corps, retirer les genoux en arrière, et surtout ramener ses pieds sous la banquette.16

(It does not allow people of means to put on airs or to spread out on the seat cushions; instead, it teaches everyone how to keep oneself straight, to occupy no more than one seat, to gather coat tails or the end of a scarf, to keep elbows to oneself, to pull back one’s knees and especially to place one’s feet under the bench.)

In this view, the omnibus is a form of social policing, imposing corporeal control and restraint upon passengers’ bodies and even their clothing. The author then points out that in addition to fulfilling the didactic function of educating city dwellers in proper public comportment, the omnibus serves a larger common good for all social classes: ‘C’est qu’elle est une institution véritablement populaire, créée en vue d’intérêts généraux; c’est qu’elle prend son point d’appui dans la satisfaction légitime des besoins de toutes les classes de la société qui peuvent disposer de trente centimes.’ (This is a truly popular institution, created for the sake of general interest; it’s based on the legitimate satisfaction of the needs of all social classes who are able to spare 30 centimes.) In fact, the author credits the omnibus with myriad recent advances in urban development, such as ‘polices des rues, amélioration de la voie publique, tendance au nivellement du prix des loyers entre les faubourgs et le centre’17 (policing of streets, improvement in road conditions, a levelling of rent prices between city centre and the suburbs).

Likewise, Emmeline Raymond hails the omnibus and omnibus stations as exemplary social spaces of class equality, and as models of fairness. She notes that while getting a seat on an omnibus is a daunting task because these conveyances are typically overcrowded, when it came to allocating seats, strict order reigned in omnibus stations, an order that had nothing to do with the passengers’ social standing and everything to do with their place in line:

Mais une égalité inexorable préside à la distribution des places disponibles, et, quelle que soit la position sociale du numéro 10, il ne passera pas avant le numéro 9, celui-ci fut-il vêtu de la blouse la plus modeste. L’omnibus n’examine pas les individus, il tient compte seulement des chiffres; il n’admet aucun privilège, et ne reconnait qu’un droit, égal pour tous, préservé contre tout subterfuge par la surveillance générale, gardienne jalouse de l’équité, qui ne pourrait être violée en faveur d’un seul sans être atteinte dans la personne de tous.18

(An inexorable equality reigns over the distribution of available seats, and whatever the social position of number 10, he will never get ahead of number 9, even if the latter is dressed in the most modest of worker’s overalls. The omnibus does not scrutinise individuals: it takes into account only numbers. It does not accept any privilege and recognises only one right, equal for all, preserved from any violation by general monitoring, a protective guardian of equity that cannot be defied for the benefit of one without affecting all.)

The omnibus logic, as Raymond sees it, is based on reason and numerical order and thus serves as a model for a just social order.

Other commentators were more prescriptive, reminding readers that equality was the fundamental underlying principle of conduct on board a public conveyance. For example, in her 1829 Manuel complet de la bonne compagnie, Elisabeth Félicie Byle-Mouillard cautions omnibus passengers against taking advantage of their rank: ‘On serait également mal vu de profiter de sa qualité et de supériorité que donne le rang pour prendre toutes ses aises. Il faut au contraire avoir grand soin de ne gêner qui que ce soit, et montrer beaucoup d’honnêteté pour ses compagnons de voyage.’19 (It would be unacceptable to take advantage of one’s superior rank and to act as one pleases. On the contrary, one must not bother anyone and show courtesy to fellow passengers.)

The prolific popular writer Paul de Kock also expresses optimism about the social function of the omnibus: ‘Comme toutes les classes s’y mêlent, comme les rangs y sont confondus! … Si l’égalité doit regner un jour sur terre, c’est dans les Omnibus qu’elle aura pris naissance!’ (How all classes are mixed together, how the ranks are combined! … If one day equality should reign on earth, it’s on the Omnibus that it will have been born!) In describing the omnibus interior, he highlights the social diversity of the passengers: a lovely young lady, a worker wearing a casquette, a government clerk, a drunkard, a dandy sporting fashionable yellow gloves, a corpulent country woman with baskets overflowing with food, a grisette, a respectable older gentleman and, finally, an old marquise, who had lost her fortune in the Revolution. Yet, de Kock suggests, the omnibus space promotes what he calls a ‘co-fraternity’ among these diverse types of people: ‘Et bien! Malgré ses différences de rangs, de fortune, d’éducation et de costume, la voiture à six sous établit entre les voyageurs une espèce de confraternité qui se traduit ordinairement en échanges de petits services et de politesses.’20 (Despite differences in rank, fortune, education and dress, the voiture à six sous21 establishes a kind of fraternity among the passengers, one that manifests itself through small gestures of kindness and courteousness.)

Social diversity and the purported role the omnibus played in fostering social equality continued to fascinate writers well beyond the early years of the omnibus service. In 1863, thirty-five years after its launch, writer Charles Soullier still marvelled at the class heterogeneity of the vehicle and its potential for symbolising equality. In an introductory poem to his volume on omnibus history and practical information, he wrote:

Les états et les rangs s’y mêlent confondus,

Là le gros commerçant coudoie un prolétaire;

Le froc sacerdotal touche au frac militaire;

On voit s’y réunir, en toute liberté,

Les filles de Vénus aux sœurs de charité.

L’on y trouve pressés, entassés pêle-mêle,

La bure et le velours, la serge et la dentelle.22

(The professions and ranks are mixed there all together

The stout shopkeeper is next to a worker

The priest’s frock mingles with military uniform;

You see here united in all liberty

Daughters of Venus and sisters of charity

There you find homespun wool next to velvet

Twill and lace, all thrown together in a jumble.)

It is readily apparent that social class is conveyed metonymically through the types of fabric that various passengers are wearing – that the diversity of fabric represents a diversity of social positions. Soullier extols the omnibus as the embodiment of equality: if in the past, only the chosen ones had access to carriages (‘Jadis les seigneurs seuls cheminaient en carrosses’), now everyone has the right to ride. This right, in Soullier’s view, is emblematic of his century’s move toward privileging merit over birth:

Une voiture à tous! Voilà du communisme

Pratiqué sans l’emphase et prêché sans cynisme!


Mais aujourd’hui, le siècle a annulé les races;

Il partage entre tous les faveurs et les grâces.

L’homme est ce qu’il devient, et non pas comme il nait;

L’on marche côte à côte et l’on se reconnait.

(A vehicle for all! What communism!

Practised without fuss and preached without cynicism!


But today, the century cancelled race distinctions;

It shares among all its favours and graces.

The man is what he becomes and not how he is born;

All walk side by side in mutual recognition.)

All these texts consider the omnibus as a utopian space of class equality, a place where difference in rank and fortune is subsumed under the equalising power of a modern conveyance governed by an order rooted in fairness and merit, rather than privilege. The omnibus instructs urban dwellers in this new social order and enforces it.

If the omnibus represented a hope for a more equal society and social transformation, it also embodied republican ideology through the image of the vehicle as a literal building block for revolutionary barricades. Numerous texts – from popular omnibus literature to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – evoke this image of the omnibus as an actual instrument of revolution. For example, Gourdon writes: ‘Le peuple aime l’omnibus… La première barricade a été faite avec un omnibus. Ce fut sur un omnibus qu’on planta le premier drapeau rouge, la veille du 6 juin 1832’23 (The people adore the omnibus. The first barricade was built using an omnibus. It was on top of an omnibus that a red flag was planted the night before 6 June 1832). Maxime Du Camp, in ‘Les voitures publiques’, reminds us that omnibuses were heavily used to build barricades during the revolution of 1848: ‘L’année 1848 a coûté cher à la Compagnie qui s’en souvient encore avec une certaine amertume’24 (The year 1848 turned out to be costly for the Companie (Generale des Omnibus), which remembers it with bitterness). And Edmond Texier recalls the ‘bruises’ incurred by omnibuses during insurrections when ‘il est si vite renversé et transformé en barricade!’25 (it is quickly tipped over and transformed into a barricade!).

The striking image of an overturned omnibus, its spire crowned with a red flag, appears most famously in Victor Hugo’s 1862 Les Misérables, testifying to its power in the nineteenth-century imagination. One of the central episodes in the novel is the construction and defence of a barricade during the insurrection of June 1832, spurred by the death and the funeral of a liberal general and former revolutionary hero Lemarque: ‘Les chevaux dételés s’en allaient au hasard par la rue Montedour, et l’omnibus, couché sur le flanc completait le barrage de la rue… La flèche de l’omnibus était dressée droite et maintenue avec les cordes, et un drapeau rouge, fixé sur cette flèche, flottait sur la barricade’26 (The detached horses were wondering off down the rue Montedour, and the omnibus, lying on its side, completed the barricade… The omnibus spire pointed straight up and was adorned with a red flag floating over the barricade). The events of 1832 expressed the revival of republicanism under the July Monarchy and the aspirations and discontents of the working class and the lower-middle classes. It is, then, not a matter of chance that the omnibus, the epitome of the republican value of égalité, completed the barricade, whose defenders were fighting ‘for all’. In a highly symbolic detail, the overturned omnibus originates at the Place de la Bastille, reinforcing its lineage from 1789.27 Hugo heralds the omnibus as part of the revolutionary heritage, thus pairing revolution and urban modernity. From panoramic texts by Gourdon, Delord and Texier to Hugo’s monumental masterpiece, the omnibus emerges as the utopian emblem of a new society that embodies republican values and the democratic potential of the French Revolution.28

Equality not delivered

Despite the plethora of texts extolling the equalising qualities of the omnibus, many social observers were keenly aware of the serious shortcomings of this conveyance as a space that erases social boundaries. Historical evidence suggests that most members of the working class could not afford its modest price, and even members of the middle class sometimes found it unaffordable. Balzac, for example, in his poorest moments, complained bitterly to his sister that an omnibus ride was out of reach for him (‘Un port de lettre, un omnibus me sont une horrible dépense et je ne sors pas pour ne pas user d’habits.’29 (Sending a letter or an omnibus ride are a huge expense, and I don’t even go out so as to not use up my clothes.)). Moreover, a regulatory provision gave conductors the freedom to exclude anyone whose attire seemed objectionable or who otherwise threatened to disturb order.30 Many writers and artists criticised the omnibus service for promising equality but not delivering it: far from being inclusive, the argument went, the omnibus was instead an emblem of social exclusion.

The suspicion about the vehicle’s practices appears early on in omnibus literature. For example, in his 1828 poem Réflexions d’un patriarche sur les voitures dites omnibus!, Félix Nogaret, an early critic of the service, laments that the poor and the poorly dressed are not admitted:

Quant à la classe malheureuse

Qui n’a pas de si beaux habits,

La manœuvre, la ravaudeuse,

Ces gens-là ne sont point admis

(As for the unfortunate class

That does not have beautiful clothes,

A labourer or a mender,

Those are not admitted on board).

The omnibus companies, Nogaret contends, are only interested in making a profit, rather than ensuring the well-being of the public or serving a greater good (‘Empilez, empilez; les sous font des écus’31 (Go on stacking your coins)). The service does not live up to the name’s promise: ‘Bon! Mais votre Omnibus est, vous dis-je, un mensonge; C’est un mot sur lequel il faut passer l’éponge’ (Well! I am telling you: your Omnibus is nothing but a lie; it’s a word we should all forget about).

Indeed, for several other commentators the omnibus became a visible symbol of inequality, the very embodiment of social exclusion. Madame de Flesselles’s didactic city guide for young people visiting Paris, Les jeunes voyageurs dans Paris (1829), echoes Nogaret’s reproach and even refers to his poem.32 This text features a conversation between a father and his teenage son, who is curious about the unusual-looking vehicles. The father explains the meaning of the name, and the dialogue is worth quoting in full for it captures well the vehicle’s perceived shortcomings:

PAPA: C’est comme qui dirait: la voiture à tous; c’est l’équipage de tout le monde: le pauvre comme le riche y sont admis au nombre environ vingt personnes à la fois, moyennant cinq sous par tête, et transportés d’un point central à un autre que la voiture ne saurait dépasser; ou elle doit se rendre sans se détourner de sa route.

LE FILS: Ainsi, papa, on peut se trouver là-dedans avec un chiffonnier, un mendiant? –

PAPA: Oui, si le chiffonnier ou le mendiant ont mis leurs habits des dimanches; mais sous les livrées de la misère, ils n’y seront point reçus.

LE FILS: –Alors il me semble que le nom d’Omnibus n’est pas rempli, car tous ne dit pas seulement les gens proprement vêtus.

PAPA: –Ton raisonnement est juste et tiens, il me rappelle une brochure que je lisais hier au salon littéraire. Dans ce badinage gracieux, le patriarche de la littérature, M. Félix Nogaret, également connu des hommes de lettres sous le nom de L’Aristenete français, adresse précisément aux Omnibus le même reproche.33

(DAD: It is, as they say, a vehicle for all; a conveyance for everyone: the rich and the poor are admitted there equally, about twenty people at once, for only 5 sous per head, and transported from one place to another. The vehicle goes to its destination without deviating from its route.

SON: So, papa, you can find a rag picker and a beggar there?

DAD: Yes, if the rag picker and the beggar put on their Sunday best; but if they are wearing their suit of misery, they will not be admitted.

SON: So, it seems that the name ‘Omnibus’ is not justified, because all does not mean only people who are well dressed.

DAD: Your reasoning is correct. It reminds me of a booklet I read yesterday in a reading salon. In this graceful banter, the literary patriarch, Monsieur Félix Nogaret, known among men of letters as the French Aristaenetus, reproaches the Omnibus for the same thing.)

In a classic move, truth comes from the mouth of a child: Madame de Flesselles brings attention to the unjust contradictions and the false promise inherent in the omnibus project as the boy points out the inconsistency in calling the vehicle ‘for all’ but excluding passengers based on their attire. If the overarching pedagogical mission of Les jeunes voyageurs is to instil good morals and a sense of ethical responsibility in young people, the injustices imposed on the omnibus passengers despite its egalitarian promise underscore society’s hypocrisy and exclusionary practices.

Like Madame de Flesselles, Louis Huart, in his 1834 essay ‘Les voitures publiques’, deploys the omnibus as shorthand for a critique of inequality. He begins by associating the omnibus with the utopian socialism of Saint Simon, a philosophy that flourished in the 1820s and endorsed the idea of democratic equality, noting that that the omnibus service and the philosophy were created at about the same time. Yet the narrator’s irony is inescapable, as he recalls the demise of Saint-Simonian philosophy, thus implying that the democratic potential of the omnibus, if not the vehicle itself, will be equally short-lived: ‘Les apôtres ont vu s’écrouler bien vite tous leurs beaux rêves, tandis que l’omnibus continue à faire son chemin dans le monde’34 (The apostles saw all their beautiful dreams crumble fast, whereas the omnibus continues on its merry way). Like the utopian vision of society it once embodied, that of the omnibus as a social equaliser will give way to commercial interests.35

Huart insists that the omnibus is decidedly not meant ‘for all’, but, rather, that it serves to reinforce existing social divides. He constructs a kind of hierarchy of Parisian vehicles in which each mode of transport is associated with a differently classed neighbourhood, here personified:

Le noble faubourg St. Germain a ses équipages aux panneaux armoriés; la Chaussée-d’Antin monte dans ses calèches et dans ses coupés attelés de chevaux fringans [sic]; le commerçant qui fait sa fortune se contente du cabriolet en attendant mieux; les bourgeois et les petits propriétaires prennent les fiacres, et enfin les petits rentiers, les étudiants et les grisettes se blottissent dans les omnibus.36

(The noble faubourg St. Germain has its carriages emblazoned with coats of arms; the Chaussée-d’Antin goes in its coupés pulled by elegant horses; the shopkeeper busy making his fortune resigns himself to a cabriolet, for lack of a better option; the bourgeois and the small business owners take a hackney cab while the small rentiers, students and grisettes crowd inside omnibuses.)

Huart places the omnibus – and, by extension, its passengers – at the very bottom of the social ladder of vehicles, reserving it for rentiers, students and grisettes. In doing so, he contests the democratic utopian ideals that some writers attached to this vehicle, seeing it instead as a continuation and perhaps even an expansion of old hierarchies. By using the verb ‘se blottir’ (‘to crowd’), Huart reminds his reader that the omnibus was the transport for the masses, rather than ‘for all’. Ultimately, he sees the omnibus as an incarnation and a visual symbol of old hierarchical structures, rather than an embodiment of progress. Like Madame Flesselles, he highlights the hypocrisy of the purportedly democratic omnibus project.

This critique is also at work in an image by Daumier published during the revolutionary year of 1848, in which an older working-class woman is refused entry because of her dog (Figure 3.2). The caption reveals a curious interplay of class tensions among members of the same class: ‘Désolé, citoyenne, mais on ne reçoit pas de chien. –Aristocrate, va!’ (Apologies, citizen, but we don’t take dogs! – Go on, aristocrat!) The conductor addresses the rejected passenger as ‘citizen’, a term made popular during the Revolution of 1789, and referencing urban modernity’s potential for social equality, symbolised by the omnibus. Yet the woman takes it personally as an insult to her class position, the underlying suggestion being that the woman and the dog have equal social standing, since neither is permitted to board. She calls the conductor an ‘aristocrat’, mocking his attempt at upward mobility via the omnibus. The conductor is, of course, not an aristocrat – he is merely one member of the working class putting down another, who happens to occupy a position one step lower on the social ladder than his own.

Taken together, these texts and images highlight how contemporary observers deployed the omnibus not as a symbol of equality embedded in its name but as its opposite, a vehicle that brings to the fore bourgeois hypocrisy, makes visible social divisions and calls out society’s inability to achieve progress. Yet other texts take up the idea of inclusiveness and treat it ironically. As we shall see, nineteenth-century vaudeville proved a perfect vehicle for satirising the idea of the omnibus as a class equaliser and a site of class performance.

A journey to nowhere: vaudeville and the performance of class

In ‘Un voyage en omnibus’, Ernest Fouinet proclaims that the interactions among passengers are a form of entertainment far superior to theatre:

L’omnibus, c’est la vie, le monde, le public, l’homme; c’est tout: le latin le dit. Ah! Que ne peut-on, au lieu de ces immobiles planchers où des hommes presque immobiles, quant à l’âme, viennent chanter l’opéra et déclamer l’alexandrin, que ne peut-on nous donner des représentations d’omnibus! Profonde comédie, drame au puissant intérêt, malicieux vaudeville, bouffonnerie à faire pouffer Héraclite ou Chodruc-Duclos, on y verrait tout cela mieux qu’aux Français, au Gymnase, aux Variétés.37

(The omnibus is life, it is the world, it is the public, it is the man – it is all of this – the Latin sums it up well. Ah! Why, instead of the stale performances on static stages where inert actors drone on their old-fashioned alexandrines, why can’t we have omnibus performances instead? Hilarious comedy, profound drama, vicious vaudeville, you can see it all on an omnibus so much better than in any theatre – be it Théâtre des Français, Théâtre du Gymnase or Théâtre de Variétés.)

Fouinet’s assertion is undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek, and yet he rightly captures the intrinsic theatricality of the public transport experience in drawing an explicit parallel between the social world of the omnibus and that of the popular theatre. On the one hand, the omnibus passengers enjoyed the moving spectacle of the modern city in all its multiplicity. Most importantly, however, the interior of the omnibus doubled as a roving theatrical stage where passengers are at once spectacle and spectators:

O théâtre ambulant, comédie roulante, tu n’as pas besoin de souffleurs, la nature en sert à tes acteurs! Ils n’ont point de fard, de déguisement: ils sont spectateurs les uns des autres, ils jouent leurs rôles en se voyant jouer, toujours comme dans le monde, et tous ils paient trente centimes pour amuser le public et pour s’amuser. Quelle meilleure école dramatique que l’omnibus?38

(Oh you, the roving theatre, the rolling comedy! You do not need the prompter – nature does this for your actors! They don’t need makeup or costumes. They are spectators of one another; they perform just as they watch themselves perform – and all this for only 30 centimes. Can there be a better drama school than an omnibus?)

If the omnibus interior and its diverse passenger body lent themselves particularly well to theatrical situations, actual theatrical productions, conversely, took up the omnibus as a favoured topic and setting. Vaudeville was particularly well suited to the kind of social commentary and satire that pervaded all forms of omnibus literature; and with its focus on everyday situations and its dependence on slapstick humour, dramatic irony, stock characters and formulaic plot turns (such as mistaken identity, quid pro quo, chance encounters, reversal of fortunes or a threatened marriage plan), it was particularly well suited to working out tensions about class mixing on the omnibus. While urban literature stages class performance within the virtual space of the page, we find social class literally performed on the vaudeville stage: vaudeville reflected the everyday concerns of the middlebrow public, concerns that invariably revolved around jockeying for position in an unstable class hierarchy, for which the omnibus provided a perfect setting.39

Consider J’attends un omnibus (1849), a vaudeville play that capitalises on the inherent theatricality of the omnibus experience and setting in order to stage – and ultimately resolve – tensions associated with class mixing. It offers an ironic take on performing class identity, using the omnibus both as a setting and a device to engage with questions of social mobility.

Like many vaudeville plays, J’attends un omnibus features a complicated marriage plot. The play is set inside an omnibus station, where passengers wait to board an omnibus or to transfer between different lines; a ‘cachet’, a ticket dispensed by a conductor, was necessary for the transfer. Stage directions call for abundant realistic details in reproducing a setting presumably familiar to the majority of the play-goers: ‘Porte au fond donnant sur la voie publique. Large vitrage de chaque côté. Banquettes pour les voyageurs. Cadres d’annonces sur les mûrs. –A droite, vers le fond, le bureau du contrôleur entouré d’un grillage’40 (A door in the back opening to the street. Large windows on both sides. Benches for passengers. Announcement posters on the walls. On the right, in the back, the conductor’s desk separated by a railing). The setting, with its walls plastered with posters, its seating for the waiting passengers and its door at the back, is a mirror image of the theatre, where members of the audience, like the omnibus passengers, are thrown together by the luck of the draw. They are, in a sense, looking at themselves.

The first lines of the dialogue emphasise the diverse background and social standing of the passengers: one passenger asks for a ticket for ‘le faubourg Saint-Germain’, inhabited by high aristocracy. Another passenger is on his way to Batignolles, a newly developing part of town on the outskirts of Paris popular among the bourgeois merchant class. Finally, a female passenger is heading for ‘la rue Notre-Dame de Lorette’, an area linked to prostitution.41 The social heterogeneity of the omnibus is thus masterfully sketched in the first few lines of the play by associating the travellers with their destinations. The play presumes that the audience is familiar with the social topography of Paris; and, later on, when the audience learns that the mistress of the protagonist, Tiburce, lives on rue Bréda, also located in the neighbourhood of Notre-Dame de Lorette, it would not have missed the connotations of improper behaviour and loose morals.42

The omnibus station provided an ideal setting for vaudeville because it also served as a plot device: in J’attends un omnibus, the space brings together and allows for spontaneous comings and goings, unexpected encounters and social interactions among a wide array of characters, who, it turns out, are all connected to each other: two provincial ladies, Mme Barège and her niece Athénais, out shopping for the young woman’s trousseau; Tiburce, Athénais’s fiancé, who is on his way to salvage his savings from a corrupt banker; Francfort, a stereotypically comical German shoemaker, who is Tiburce’s creditor; Stanislas Bouillabaisse, who happens to be both Athénais’s guardian and Tiburce’s rival with his mistress Amanda; and Cigarette, Tiburce’s former mistress and mother of their illegitimate daughter, who is now Bouillabaisse’s wife. Here the vaudeville exploits and literalises the idea of ‘correspondence’, meaning literally ‘omnibus transfer’ but here signifying a web of complex relationships and connections among the characters.

The plot revolves around Tiburce’s attempts to recover his money from Gorinflot, his banker, who is about to flee with his clients’ funds, and at the same time to conceal his wayward past (and present) from his fiancée and her aunt, who insists that Athénais be Tiburce’s first love: ‘Il faut à ma nièce un Coeur tout neuf, qui n’a jamais été habité’43 (My niece must have a heart that’s all new, one that has never been possessed before). His marriage to Athénais, which, thanks to her handsome dowry, will secure his financial future, is predicated on his success in these two pursuits. Athénais, for her part, is looking forward to moving to Paris from her native provincial Pithiviers (‘Il est bien plus agréable d’habiter la capitale’44 (It is so much more pleasant to live in the capital)). For both characters, the marriage will lead to a different form of upward mobility and social advancement.

Mobility, or lack thereof, is at the heart of the play: Tiburce, who is in a hurry, keeps missing his omnibus. While other characters come and go, ferried by various omnibuses to their destinations, Tiburce spends the entire play trapped in the station: his upwardly mobile aspirations notwithstanding, he is literally going nowhere. The irony of this situation does not escape him as he exclaims, ‘Que de choses on apprend en voyageant… Mais, à propos de cela… c’est que je ne voyage pas du tout’45 (You learn so much by travelling… But about this… it’s just that I haven’t travelled anywhere). Paradoxically, Tiburce manages to settle both his financial and his amorous affairs without ever leaving the omnibus station, as other characters act as his proxy by securing his money (Francfort) and neutralising his jealous mistress (Bouillabaisse), thus ensuring him both an advantageous marriage and social advancement.

The main objects of satire are the play’s two central male characters, both of whom are clearly recognisable types. At first, Tiburce and Bouillabaisse appear to be polar opposites in terms of their social standing: Tiburce is ostensibly a scholar, a ‘professeur de langues vivantes et de littérature morte’ (professor of living languages and dead literatures). He is intellectual but poor. Meanwhile, his foil Bouillabaisse is a wealthy fabricant du noir animal, an industrialist in the bone-char business, whose ridiculous name points to his propensity for physical pleasures and consumption.46 The play seemingly opposes men of different social spheres, of cultural and financial capital. Tiburce engages in intellectual but not very lucrative pursuits, while Bouillabaisse has built a fortune from a lowly trade. Yet the play debunks the opposition of the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘material’ by showing that the two men are eminently interchangeable. Tiburce, despite his intellectual pretensions, appears neither particularly intelligent nor wise. Throughout the play, dramatic irony is used to emphasise his lack of understanding of the unfolding events; as spectators, we often see him failing to recognise connections among characters. Moreover, as a professor of ‘langues vivantes’, Tiburce presumably possesses a mastery of his own native language, yet he repeatedly fails to understand what others say. When Cigarette informs him that her husband is ‘cossu’ (wealthy), he immediately chastises her for what he assumes is improper use of language, assuming she meant ‘cocu’, or cuckolded: ‘Cossu!… pourquoi cette cédille? C’est une faute d’orthographe Cigarette… Vous avez une prononciation défectueuse, ma chère amie’ (You’re making a spelling error, Cigarette. Your pronunciation is defective, my dear friend). He not only denigrates Cigarette by making assumptions about her virtue and by presuming that her language is faulty, but he displays his own ignorance by misunderstanding ‘cossu’.

Having dismantled Tiburce’s supposed intelligence, J’attends un omnibus proceeds to undercut the social distinctions between Tiburce and Bouillabaisse through complex marriage and adultery plots. As different as the two men may seem, they sleep with and are involved with the same women: Bouillabaisse, it turns out, is the lover of Tiburce’s current mistress, the husband of his former mistress, and his fiancée’s guardian. Sharing women as well as the omnibus (and the omnibus station) neutralises their ostensible differences. The play thus points to a confusion of class distinctions, a phenomenon of which the omnibus is a symbol. The vaudeville concludes with a formulaic happy ending: Tiburce and Athénais are united, Bouillabaisse and Cigarette are reconciled and social order is restored.

Similar to the plot of J’attends un omnibus, that of Mon voisin d’omnibus (1846) exposes and mocks obsession with social mobility and class tensions. This vaudeville play features a central male character who is diminished and on the brink of financial ruin but saved through an advantageous marriage. Mon voisin d’omnibus explicitly taps into class issues and different forms of upward mobility characteristic of the first half of the nineteenth century. Although this play is set in a ‘salon bourgeois’, we learn that the plot is launched on – and thanks to – an omnibus. The protagonist, Charles de Varennes, is so deeply in debt that he is literally chased by his creditors and a bailiff, who is about to arrest him. To avoid the bailiff, he jumps on a passing omnibus, only to discover that he does not even have the requisite fare of 30 centimes:

Je dis au conducteur que je demeurais rue Lafitte 42, que je m’appelais Charles de Varennes, lorsque mon voisin, sur la banquette, un monsieur d’une physionomie originale et ayant le dos assez remarquablement vouté .. parut frappé de mon nom, me demanda la permission de payer pour moi, et cela, avec une si gracieuse et si joviale insistance que je ne pus refuser.47

(I was telling the conductor that I live on rue Lafitte 42, that my name is Charles de Varennes, when my seatmate, a gentleman with an interesting face and an extremely bent back, appeared impressed by my name and asked if he could pay my fare, and he did this so graciously and with such jolly insistence that I just couldn’t refuse.)

Charles, who claims to be the illegitimate child of an aristocratic father, presumes that Clérisseau, the omnibus neighbour of the title, is smitten by his aristocratic name and that he assists him out of pure deference to his presumed higher social status. Clérisseau becomes Charles’ benefactor, arranging an advantageous marriage for him with Hortense, daughter of a merchant, paying off his debts, and helping him conceal his past sexual indiscretions. At the end of the play, we learn that far from being an admirer of Charles’s pedigree, Clérisseau is, in fact, his creditor; securing a respectable wife with a good dowry was the surest way for him to be paid. If he were struck by de Varennes’ name on the omnibus, it was because he recognised it as that of his debtor.

The play makes visible and at the same time satirises the upwardly mobile class aspirations of the bourgeoisie, the declining aristocracy’s financial woes and the wiles to which the latter resorts to improve its financial standing (even if the authenticity of de Varennes’ aristocratic origins is questioned). Godibert (Hortense’s merchant father) is willing to give away his daughter solely because of the aristocratic particle in de Varennes’ name; and Charles himself sees this marriage to Hortense merely as a way to secure his shaky financial situation. As Mary Gluck rightly points out, vaudeville ‘was unambiguously identified with the newly enriched and increasingly respectable commercial middle classes’,48 the very classes that constituted a majority of omnibus passengers. Although Mon voisin d’omnibus concludes with the formulaic happy ending and marriage, it is Clérisseau, the shrewd and prudent omnibus passenger, who emerges as the clear winner – and as an author figure who crafts the play’s plot. Mon voisin d’omnibus thus invites the audience to recognise themselves in the play’s characters, to gently laugh at their own social practices – and yet, in the end, to feel justified in upwardly mobile social ambitions.

These plays served as a privileged space in which to work through class tensions symbolised by the omnibus, a space where aspirations of social mobility are lightly mocked and thoroughly vindicated. The vaudeville experience provided the audience with a comforting mirror of its own social world. But if these plays bring class tensions to a satisfactory resolution, other works present the potential inclusiveness of the omnibus as threatening and disruptive. Rather than a space where tensions are resolved, the omnibus is figured as a stage where class conflicts come to the fore.

Class conflict ‘for all’

In an 1856 letter to Louise Colet, Gustave Flaubert provocatively suggests that it was the invention of the omnibus that lead to the demise of the bourgeoisie: ‘Depuis l’invention des omnibus la bourgeoisie est morte; oui, elle s’est assise là, sur la banquette populaire, et elle y reste, toute pareille maintenant à la canaille, d’âme, d’aspect et même d’habit: (voir le chic des grosses étoffes, la création du paletot, les costumes de canotiers, les blouses bleues pour la chasse).’49 (Since the invention of the omnibus the bourgeoisie is dead; yes, the bourgeoisie sat on a bench next to commoners, and it remains there, all similar now to the riff-raff, both in their souls, in their appearance and even in their clothing (just look at the ‘chic’ rough fabric, paletot, sailor suits, or workers’ blue overalls some now wear to hunting parties).) In Flaubert’s view, the inevitable physical proximity of omnibus passengers belonging to different social classes fostered destructive uniformity, an ultimate erasure of boundaries between social groups and the disappearance of distinction (here manifested through its most visible marker, clothing) that had long been the hallmark of the upper classes.50

Flaubert was not alone in voicing his dismay about the enforced intimacy that came with sharing the cramped space of an omnibus. Visual and literary representations of the omnibus interior frequently staged scenes of class tensions that either reflected or mocked the anxiety about the potential mixing. This unwelcome proximity of different social classes threatened the stability of social structures based on the strict separation of space according to class and suggested the breakdown of existing social hierarchies. The erasure of physical boundaries between bourgeois and working-class passengers was associated with the ‘contamination’ and contagion – both physical and moral – to which sharing such close quarters could lead. In the rest of this chapter, I explore how the genre of lithography laid bare and ridiculed bourgeois anxieties about class mixing, and then turn to a short story by Guy de Maupassant that offers a different, more sombre, vision of this phenomenon.

Visualising class

The uneasy coexistence of different classes was writ large in visual representations of the omnibus, and especially in lithography, the urban, middlebrow audience for which also constituted the majority of omnibus riders. Lithography was the medium of choice for many of the omnibus images I consider in this book. Invented at the end of the eighteenth century as a cheap and easy way to disseminate Revolutionary caricatures, lithographs, unlike the older media of etching and engraving, could be reproduced in the thousands at a low cost. Not considered a form of high art, lithography was often disdained by the art establishment. According to art historian Patricia Mainardi, it ‘represented modernity, creeping industrialization, and opposition politics, while etching and engraving signaled tradition, the high standards of artisanal craftsmanship, and respectable upper-crust taste’.51 Moreover, Mainardi shows that lithography quickly became a favoured medium for representing modern life ‘because of the ease with which it could be executed… and its ability to depict the ephemeral and shifting scenes of a rapidly changing society’.52 As such, lithography was an ideal form for depicting the omnibus, a modern urban phenomenon. Well-established masters like Grandville and Daumier, as well as numerous lesser-known and often anonymous artists, capitalised on the popularity of the omnibus as a vehicle for social satire and commentary and on lithography’s association with oppositional politics and social critique in order to expose and mock bourgeois anxieties about class mixing, encapsulated by the omnibus.53

Visual representations of class tensions on the omnibus appeared almost at the same time as the omnibus itself. Consider, for example, an 1829 lithograph by Ratier in which the artist placed travellers of widely varied social classes within the confined space of the vehicle as a way to tackle both social mobility and class privilege in post-Revolutionary French society, characterised by instability and flux (Plate 4). A cross-section of an omnibus, the image makes the vehicle’s social diversity visible through the passengers’ clothing and body language. On the far left, a young woman, whose apron and bonnet suggest her working-class status, is seated uncomfortably next to an officer or a gendarme holding his hat. The interaction between the conductor, who is standing, and the nearly-seated officer highlights how the omnibus setting upsets traditional social relationships: inside the vehicle, it is the conductor, who collects the fare and assigns seats, who is clearly in charge.

At the centre of the image, a foppish young gentleman sports a fashionable cream-coloured redingote, whose tails he carefully holds in his hands so as not to crease them; his bright-yellow stylish cravate and matching yellow gloves, reminiscent of the yellow gloves so coveted by Balzac’s hero, Eugène de Rastignac, mark him as a dandy and indicate that he belongs to a higher social sphere than his fellow passengers – or perhaps, like Rastignac, his clothes and posture are symbols of his social aspirations. Contrary to the precepts of the contemporary conduct manuals cited earlier, the gentleman asserts his social and sartorial superiority by extending his elbows and knees into his fellow passengers’ space without any regard for his seatmates, as he crushes a petit-bourgeois man to his left and a woman in a humble grey dress to his right, likely a grisette.54 Other passengers – the man in a worker’s blue cap, and a woman in a modest green dress but fashionable shoes, holding her child next to her – add to the social diversity of the image. The woman appears to be speaking – but to whom? her seatmate? no one in particular? – thus invading everyone’s auditory space and violating rules of proper conduct.

Finally, the corpulent and solidly bourgeois couple rigidly seated on the right end of the bench looks on in disapproval as the conductor orders them to make room for the officer. The woman’s lavish purple shawl, her gigantic purse, and the man’s umbrella all indicate that they are well off. This couple embodies ideals of bourgeois propriety and moral rectitude, and their displeasure with their fellow passengers is visible. This image is just one of many that exploited the idea of class mixing embedded in the name ‘omnibus’ to reveal the social complexities and tensions of the vehicle’s public but paradoxically intimate space (see also Figure 3.3).

Other artists tackled class tensions on public conveyances more explicitly. In Grandville’s lithograph from Les Métamorphoses du jour, a well-dressed bourgeois bird couple enquires in horror whether the obviously low-class monkey and mouse couple behind them are boarding as well (Plate 5). The birds’ faces express disgust and disdain, not only because the other passengers belong to a lower class but because they are a ‘mixed-species’ couple, thus stirring the spectre of miscegenation. The birds convey their fear of exposure to the lower classes, here literally figured as different species. The conductor’s reply (‘Omnibus!!! Madame!’) implies that the sharing of the space is in the nature – and the very name – of the vehicle, and that the bird’s indignation is misplaced: monkeys and birds must travel together.

In another example, Daumier’s ‘Madeleine–Bastille’ depicts two elegant young women and a gentleman, who look on disapprovingly as an extremely corpulent lower-class woman boards the omnibus (Figure 3.4). The corpulent woman, who invades a good deal of space in the vehicle as well as most of the foreground of the image, literally eclipses some of the middle-class passengers and squeezes others out of the way. The man in a hat on the left of the image appears practically crushed by the woman’s heavy hips. Her massiveness embodies the masses, and the reaction of her fellow passengers points to the underlying class threat that she represents. Notably, although the young ladies look contemptuous of the woman and of the way she invades the common space of the omnibus, that is exactly what their own ample skirts do. The title of the lithograph, ‘Madeleine–Bastille’, refers to the itinerary of one of the main omnibus lines and alludes to the two different social worlds to which the passengers belong: Madeleine is an elegant and affluent part of town, while Bastille is a working-class neighbourhood, evocative of the revolutionary spirit.

Another Daumier image, ‘Intérieur d’un Omnibus’, presents a close-up of a young woman squeezed between an obviously drunk gentleman indecorously asleep next to her, and a rough-looking butcher clad in an apron (Figure 3.5). Hands on his hips, the butcher aggressively asserts his claim on the omnibus space without regard for the young woman. Although she most likely belongs to the working class as well, we can call her class belonging ‘aspirational’, perhaps a few steps above her seatmates based on her clothes and her fashionable umbrella, or parasol. The drunkard appears to be down on his luck: his clothes display vestiges of elegance, evoking downward mobility.

These lithographs visually staged performance of class identity in the discursive space of the page. Addressed to – and circulated among – a middlebrow audience, they portray the omnibus as a battleground where the lower and middle classes confront the need to continuously renegotiate their social space, reflecting the changing structures of a society in flux.

‘Un musée des grotesques’: Maupassant’s ‘La Dot’ and a journey through smells

While lithographs from the middle decades of the nineteenth century offer a satirical take on class mixing aboard the omnibus, a late-nineteenth-century short story by Maupassant, ‘La Dot’ (1884), presents a very different, darker vision of what the omnibus meant in terms of class. In this story, the omnibus functions as a site of bourgeois anxiety and discomfort, a space that symbolises the heroine’s dramatic downfall. Although by the late nineteenth century public conveyances had long been a common feature of everyday life, and their heterogeneous composition a commonplace, Maupassant’s tale shows that they continued to serve as a powerful emblem of class tensions.

‘La Dot’ tells the story of Jeanne, a newly-wed young woman from the provinces who comes to Paris with her husband to deposit her dowry with a notary, whose practice the husband ostensibly intends to buy. Upon arriving in Paris, Jeanne is scandalised by her husband’s decision to take an omnibus rather than a fiacre. After he scolds her for being a spendthrift, Jeanne cautiously acquiesces. While she takes a seat inside the vehicle, her husband goes up to the impériale on the pretext that he wishes to smoke. After a long and arduous journey through unfamiliar and frightening city streets, Jeanne discovers that her husband has disappeared, along with her dowry, never to be seen again. At the end of the story, when the conductor informs the station manager that there is a woman abandoned by her husband (‘C’est une dame que son époux a lâché en route’ (It’s a lady whose husband dumped her along the way)), the other man’s response is emblematic of the alienation and indifference characteristic of the big city: ‘Bon, ce n’est rien, occupez-vous de votre service. Et il tourna les talons.’55 (Well, it’s nothing, mind your own business. And he turned away.)

The main body of the story describes Jeanne’s nightmarish and anxiety-ridden experience of the omnibus ride. Her intense anguish during the journey is the story’s focal point. The omnibus becomes a vehicle of destiny beyond Jeanne’s control, carrying her off to an uncertain and ominous future. As her husband pushes her toward the vehicle, ‘le conducteur, qui l’avait saisie par le bras pour l’aider à escalader le marchepied, la précipita dans la voiture, et elle tomba, effarée, sur une banquette, regardant avec stupeur par la vitre de derrière, les pieds de son mari qui grimpait sur l’impériale. Et elle demeura immobile entre un gros monsieur qui sentait la pipe et une vieille femme qui sentait le chien’56 (the conductor, who had seized her by the arm to help her up the step, pushed her inside, and she fell into a seat, bewildered, looking through the back window at the feet of her husband as he climbed up to the upper deck. And she sat there, motionless, between a fat man who smelled of cheap tobacco and an old woman who smelled of dog). Jeanne is but a feeble victim at the mercy of destiny, personified by the omnibus conductor.

From this point on, the narrative is focalised through Jeanne’s sensory perception. If for Edouard Gourdon, writing in 1842, the omnibus, with its multiplicity of human types, was an exciting microcosm of society, and if other mid-century observers presented the omnibus interior with bemusement and curiosity, Maupassant depicts it as an assemblage of terrifying and grotesque caricatures:

Tous les autres voyageurs, alignés et muets, - un garçon épicier, une ouvrière, un sergent d’infanterie, un monsieur à lunette d’or coiffé d’un chapeau de soie aux bords énormes et relevés comme des gouttières, des dames à l’air important et grincheux, qui semblait dire par leur attitude: ‘Nous sommes ici, mais nous valons mieux que ça,’ deux bonnes sœurs, une fille en cheveux et un croque-mort, – avaient l’air d’une collection de caricatures, d’un musée des grotesques, d’une série de charges de la face humaine, semblables à ces rangés de pantins comiques qu’on abat, dans les foires, avec des balles.57

(All the other passengers were lined up in silence – a grocer’s boy, a female worker, a soldier, a gentleman with gold-rimmed spectacles and a big silk hat, two ladies with a self-satisfied and crabbed look, which seemed to say: ‘We are riding in this thing, but we are worth better than that,’ two sisters of charity and an undertaker. They looked like a collection of caricatures, a museum of grotesque figures, a series of cut-outs with human faces, similar to the target dummies you knock over to win prizes at fairs.)

What is striking in this description of omnibus passengers is their profound dehumanisation. Silent and akin to static images, these anonymous characters are reduced to caricatures, or practice targets; they seem to embody the alienation of the modern city. Rather than describing Jeanne’s hellish ride through Paris in visual terms, Maupassant conveys it through a series of oppressive olfactory experiences, generated by her working-class fellow passengers, each emitting smells associated with their trade or social position:

Les bonnes sœurs firent signe d’arrêter, puis elles sortirent l’une devant l’autre, répandant une odeur fade de vieille jupe. On repartit, puis on s’arrêta de nouveau. Et une cuisinière monta, rouge, essoufflée. Elle s’assit et posa sur ses genoux son panier aux provisions. Une forte senteur d’eau de vaisselle se répandit dans l’omnibus. […] Le croque – mort s’en alla et fut remplacé par un cocher qui fleurait l’écurie. La fille en cheveux eut pour successeur un commissionnaire dont les pieds exhalaient le parfum de ses courses.58

(The sisters motioned to the conductor to stop, and they got off one after the other, leaving in their wake the pungent smell of camphor. The omnibus started up and soon stopped again. And in got a cook, red-faced and out of breath. She sat down and placed her basket of provisions on her lap. A strong odour of dishwater filled the vehicle. The undertaker went out and was replaced by a coachman smelling of the stable. The young girl was succeeded by a messenger, whose feet bore the odour of his errands.)

What emerges from this passage is the idea of contagion through smells within the confined space of the omnibus.59 Since the smells permeating the omnibus interior indiscriminately envelop and contaminate all passengers, regardless of class or rank, the slippage among these classes appears unavoidable. This journey told through odours conveys Jeanne’s mounting anxiety and desperation and perhaps prefigures her tragic destiny: we are left to wonder what lot could be reserved for a young provincial woman abandoned penniless in the midst of the metropolis.

Maupassant’s story brings into sharp relief the representational power of the omnibus as a class signifier. Although class mixing in public spaces – aboard the omnibus, in parks, boulevards, cafés and department stores, which were staples of the urban landscape – was most certainly a reality of city life in 1884, in the cultural imagination it was the omnibus that remained a symbol of menacing class diversity, a literary device to convey bourgeois anxiety about shifting social structures.

The omnibus served as a flashpoint of class aspirations and anxieties in nineteenth-century France, where social mobility was perceived as a promise by some social observers and as a dangerous challenge by others. The omnibus was discursively constructed in literature and visual culture as a key urban site where class identity was continuously negotiated and contested, and where central questions of equality, social mobility and class distinction agitating the nineteenth century were mediated. Just as the vehicle’s physical space made lower classes visible to their bourgeois fellow passengers in unprecedented ways, popular literature replicated this visibility within the discursive space of the page, making the lower classes doubly present through representation and circulation. By populating newspapers, works of urban observation, city guidebooks and other genres with images of class mixing, popular literature and visual culture amplified both the anxieties and aspirations of their prime target audience.

If Maupassant’s ‘La Dot’ showcases the symbolic power of the omnibus to represent class tensions, it also points to another set of anxieties that were pervasive in omnibus literature throughout the nineteenth century: the profound disquiet on the part of male bourgeois observers about the presence of women in the public space. It is to these concerns that the next chapter turns.


1 Uzanne, ‘Omnibus de Paris’, 483.
‘Omnibus travel unites all classes without distinction or division. Of all the Parisian sites where people gather, the omnibus offers the most perfect image of democracy and polite fraternity. Workers, shopkeepers, people of independent means, scientists, poets, financiers, actors and actresses, servants and masters, musicians and singers, members of the Academy and cigarette-butt pickers all rub shoulders with one another every day for a few brief moments, in the open air on the upper deck, among the crowds on the platform, or upon the seats inside.’
2 Nicholas Papayanis, Horse-Drawn Cabs, p. 57.
3 Maxime Du Camp, Paris, ses organes, ses fonctions et sa vie dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle, vol. I (Paris, Hachette, 1869–75), p. 200. Quoted in Papayanis, Horse-Drawn Cabs, p. 58.
4 Papayanis, Horse-Drawn Cabs, pp. 58–9. See also Maxime Du Camp, ‘Les voitures publiques’, 342.
5 For a history of the carrosse à cinq sous, see Introduction.
6 See ‘Les histoires et chronologies melées des transports parisiens (1828–1997)’, in Zuber et al., Guide des sources de l’histoire des transports publics urbains à Paris, pp. 37–8.
7 David H. Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), p. 167.
8 Papayanis, Horse-Drawn Cabs, pp. 61–3.
9 Thompson, ‘Telling spatial stories’, 527.
10 Thompson, ‘Telling spatial stories’, 537.
11 As I pointed out in the Introduction, sociologist Georg Simmel was the first to indicate that public transport created for the first time a setting where urban dwellers were exposed to each other’s gaze for prolonged periods of time.
13 Delord et al., Paris-en-omnibus, pp. 11–12.
14 Friès, ‘Le Conducteur d’omnibus’, p. 102.
15 Edmond Texier, ‘Les voitures à Paris’, in Tableau de Paris, vol. 2 (Paris: Paulin et le Chevalier, 1852–53), p. 315.
16 Quelques remarques sur les omnibus’, Le Magasin pittoresque (1843), 103.
18 Raymond, ‘L’omnibus’, 351–2.
19 Elisabeth Félicie Byle-Mouillard, Manuel complet de la bonne compagnie, ou guide de la politesse, des égards, du bon ton et de la bienséance, 5th edn (Paris: F. Ancelle, 1829), p. xxx.
20 Paul de Kock, ‘Etudes de mœurs. Les pensionnats à voiture’, Musée des familles (1 January 1841).
21 The omnibus was often referred to as voiture à six sous – a six-penny carriage.
22 Soullier, Les omnibus de Paris, pp. 3–4.
23 Gourdon, Physiologie de l’omnibus, pp. 105–6.
24 Du Camp, ‘Les voitures publiques’, 351. Du Camp provides a vivid account of how the omnibuses were used during insurrections: ‘L’omnibus qui pouvait, sain et sauf, regagner son dépôt, avait été favorisé du ciel; à tous les coins de rues, les insurgés le guettaient; on se jetait à la tête des chevaux, on les arrêtait, on faisait descendre les voyageurs, on laissait au cocher le temps de dételer; puis la voiture, en deux coup d’épaule, était jetée bas, les roues en l’air; on l’assurait de quelques pavés, on la flanquait de deux ou trois tonneaux remplis de sable; au sommet du timon redressé comme un mât, on arborait un drapeau, et la barricade était faite. L’omnibus devenait ainsi un instrument de désordre ou de victoire, selon les péripéties de la journée’ (The omnibus that was able to return to the depot in one piece had been blessed by heavens. At every corner, the insurgents were lying in wait. They would pounce on the horses and stop them; they would make all passengers get off; they would leave the coachman just enough time to unhitch the horses. Then, with a kick of the shoulder, the vehicle would be thrown on its back, wheels in the air. The omnibus was set on the street, complete with two or three barrels of sand; at the top of the beam, straightened up like a mast of a ship, a flag would be planted, and the barricade was ready. Thus, the omnibus became an instrument of the upheaval or of victory, depending on the events of the day), pp. 350–1.
25 ‘On a remarqué qu’en temps de révolution, l’omnibus faisait comme bon nombre de citoyens, honorables d’ailleurs, et surtout comme ceux-là qui font le plus de bruit après la victoire. Ils se hâtent de regagner leurs asiles ignorés, leurs lointaines remises, cachées dans les rues les plus obscures des banlieues. Ce n’est pas sans raisons : un omnibus n’a qu’à perdre à l’émeute, il est si vite renversé et transformé en barricade ! A ce rôle, il ne peut que gagner des renforcements et de funestes horizons; la bataille ne lui est d’aucun profit, et il se retire toujours avec quelque fracture, quelque lésion considérable.’ (During revolutions, the omnibus behaved the same way as a good number of honourable citizens, and especially like those who make the most noise after a victory. They hasten to return to their far-away depots, hidden away on an obscure suburban street. And this is not without reason: the omnibus always loses during an insurrection, because it is quickly turned over and made into a barricade! In that role, it can only gain from reinforcements and sinister horizons. It does not gain anything from the battle, and it always leaves with a fracture or a considerable wound.) Texier, ‘Les voitures à Paris’, pp. 315–16.
26 Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (Paris: Garnier 1963), pp. 335–8.
27 On Hugo and the barricade, see David Charles, ‘Le trognon et l’omnibus: faire de sa misère sa barricade’, in Alain Corbin and Jean-Marie Mayeur (eds), La Barricade (Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1997), pp. 137–49.
28 We also find the topos of an overturned omnibus in Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale, in a scene describing the detritus of a barricade during the 1848 revolution: ‘L’insurrection avait laissé dans ce quartier-là des traces formidables. Le sol des rues se trouvait, d’un bout à l’autre, inégalement bosselé. Sur les barricades en ruine, il restait des omnibus, des tuyaux de gaz, des roues de charrettes; de petites flaques noires, en de certains endroits, devaient être du sang.’ (The insurrection had left formidable traces on the neighbourhood. From one end to another, the ground on the streets was unevenly bumpy. On a destroyed barricade, there remained omnibuses, gas pipes, cart wheels. Red spots here and there must have been blood stains.) Here Flaubert draws on the existing repertoire of images that were ingrained in the cultural imagination. Gustave Flaubert, L’éducation sentimentale (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1942), p. 169.
29 Honoré de Balzac, Correspondance (1832), R. Pierrot (ed.), vol. 1 (Paris: Garnier, 1960–66), p. 380.
30 Papayanis, Horse-Drawn Cabs, p. 64.
31 Félix Nogaret, Réflexions d’un patriarche sur les voitures dites omnibus! (Paris: Leclerc, 1828).
32 Nogaret’s slim volume was well known and frequently quoted by authors writing about the omnibus. For example, Jules Clarétie cites him in his article ‘Les omnibus parisiens’, in Les annales politiques et littéraires, 1200 (24 June 1906).
33 Madame de Flesselles, Les jeunes voyageurs dans Paris (Paris: Locard et Davi, 1829), pp. 233–4.
34 Huart, ‘Les voitures publiques’, p. 177.
35 As Nicholas Papayanis shows, the launch and development of the omnibus service was indeed motivated not by a belief in equality or common good but by commercial interests in the context of nascent capitalism. Papayanis, Horse-Drawn Cabs, pp. 162–71.
36 Huart, ‘Les voitures publiques’, p. 164.
37 Fouinet, ‘Un voyage en omnibus’, p. 61.
38 Fouinet, ‘Un voyage en omnibus’, p. 61.
39 For a discussion of the connection between vaudeville and omnibus, see Chapter 1.
40 J. Gabriel and P. Vermond, J’attends un omnibus (Bruxelles: J-A Lelong, 1849), p. 3.
41 For an illuminating discussion of the figure of the lorette, see Thompson, The Virtuous Marketplace.
42 Xavier Aubryet, in ‘La Chaussée d’Antin’, from Paris-guide par les principaux écrivains et artistes de la France, tells the story of rue Bréda’s name, which belonged originally to a respectable entrepreneur: ‘En 1825, Breda (sic) n’évoquait à l’esprit que l’idée d’un spéculateur de terrains; vingt ans après et encore aujourd’hui, Bréda fait sourire les gens mariés et froncer le sourcil aux belles-mères. Ce nom vertueux et légitime sent le péché mignon et le fruit défendu, il est incorruptible et il est corrupteur!’ (In 1825, Breda evoked only the idea of land speculation. Twenty years later, and still to this day, Breda makes married men smirk and mothers-in-law frown. This virtuous and legitimate name smells of sweet vice and forbidden fruit: it is incorruptible, and it is corrupting!) He then laments that the neighbourhood is trying in vain to correct its reputation: ‘Seulement, le préjugé tient bon, et il faudra peut-être des siècles de chasteté pour effacer l’effet de quelques années trop légères’ (Only the prejudice sticks, and we’ll need centuries of chastity to erase the effects of a few years of frivolity). Paris-guide par les principaux écrivains et artistes de la France (Paris: Edition de la Découverte, 1983), p. 98.
43 Gabriel and Vermond, J’attends un omnibus, p. 9.
44 Gabriel and Vermond, J’attends un omnibus, p. 5.
45 Gabriel and Vermond, J’attends un omnibus, p. 31.
46 Bone char is a by-product of animal bones.
47 Gustave Albitte and Louis Dugard, Mon voisin d’omnibus, in La France dramatique au dix-neuvième siécle (Paris: Tresse, 1841), p. 2.
48 Gluck, Popular Bohemia, p. 48.
49 Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, 1856 (Paris: L. Conard, 1926–54), p. 21.
50 Flaubert was not the only writer to express dismay over the paletot, a loose overcoat introduced in the nineteenth century. According to Anne Green, for many writers, the paletot became a symbol of bourgeois mediocrity and dull uniformity. For example, Eugene Chapus (pseudonymously ‘Vicomte de Marennes’) was outraged by the erasure of class distinctions and the way they were expressed through dress; in his Manuel de l’hommes et de femmes, he reserved his strongest vitriol for the paletot: ‘Class distinctions, professional values and character hardly exist. And so what did we do? We adopted the paletot, which is not made to fit anyone, and which doesn’t suit anyone (…) The order went out to tailors; practicality, ease, comfort, vulgarity, anonymity; and the paletot was created. They tossed us the paletot, that absolute annihilation of dress, the ultimate egalitarian garment, a veritable uniform of the phalanstery’, pp. 68–9, quoted in Anne Green, Changing France: Literature and Material Culture in the Second Empire (London: Anthem Press, 2013), p. 123.
51 Patricia Mainardi, Husbands, Wives, and Lovers: Marriage and Its Discontents in Nineteenth-Century France (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), p. 77.
52 Patricia Mainardi, Another World: Nineteenth-Century Illustrated Print Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 14. The book discusses the invention and cultural significance of nineteenth-century print media.
53 On lithography as a medium for oppositional politics, see Richard Terdiman, Discourse/Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), pp. 151–2.
54 This image represents what we might call today ‘manspreading’. The Oxford Dictionary, which recently added the word, defines it as ‘when a man sits with his legs wide apart on public transport, encroaching on other seats’. In 2014, the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority unveiled a new public advertisement campaign aimed at curbing the behaviour, after it gained notoriety through a campaign in feminist social media.
55 Guy de Maupassant, Contes et Nouvelles, Albert-Marie Schmidt and Gérard Delaisement (ed.) (Paris: Albin Michel, 1957), p. 564.
56 Maupassent, Contes et Nouvelles, pp. 561–2.
57 Maupassant, Contes et Nouvelles, p. 562.
58 Maupassant, Contes et Nouvelles, p. 562.
59 On urban smellscapes, see Victoria Hanshaw, Urban Smellscapes: Understanding and Designing City Smell Environments (London: Routledge, 2014).

Engine of modernity

The omnibus and urban culture in nineteenth-century Paris


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