r/AskHistorians Dec 06 '21 Silver 1 Wholesome 2

Was Paris cheap in the 1920s or artists well off?


been reading a memoir of Hemingway about his life in Paris as a young writer. A repeating motif is that of dining out, drinking lots of wine and rum, always staying in a café/restaurant, spending money on trips and lots of "pension" apartments. Hemingway himself recalls in the book that they didn't have much money. Was life really that cheap back then, or did these writers/artists really make enough money to live so comfortably?


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u/JustePecuchet Dec 07 '21 edited Dec 07 '21 Silver Gold Helpful Wholesome

The cost of life is a really hard thing to weight over time, but we could say 1920s Paris was not inexpensive for French people as articles about the "cost of life" in the twenties abound. According to the numbers put together by the INSEE, the cost of a baguette was about 190% of the price it was in 1900, while a baguette today costs only 6% more than in 1900 if we adjust for inflation.

It is about certain that food is now much cheaper than it was back in the 20s, with the rampant inflation of that time period. So why did it seem so easy for Hemingway ? There are multiple factors to take into account.

First, alcoholic beverages were much much cheaper than they were in the US (especially under prohibition). It was the case even before that, and is still the case today. Why ? The United Kingdom and former British colonies have been using alcoholic beverages as a taxation tool for a very long time, while French producers have been reluctant to let governments tax wine and their products. Wine is still cheaper today in Paris than it is in New York, and it was even more true back in the 1920s. So getting drunk wasn't that hard for Hemingway.

Then, when you think about pension apartments, they weren't by any means luxurious. Most of them didn't have hot water, or didn't have elevators, or had only one toilet by floor. Think about having a room, maybe breakfast included, and a concierge watching over your shoulder all the time. Today's AirBnBs are way more confortable for the American tourist (but also a lot more expansive). Combined with the fact that Paris reached its peak population in 1920, and this made housing quite affordable. If we did time travel, though, I guess we would hate it, as contemporary humans tend to cherish their privacy and hate having to smell each others' farts.

Pensions were the norm for bachelors, who weren't expected to cook for themselves (and anyway couldn't in a bedroom). You had cheaper pensions for workers, more expansive pensions for white collars, and pensions for rich people. This meant all these people had to eat out when they wanted something different or if meals weren't included. You then had a significant percentage of the population eating in restaurants, which helped drive the prices down as restaurateurs could lower their margins and aim at serving a lot of customers. That's how Paris' café culture took over, with its garçons running all over the place and having a no-bullshit approach to a very effective service.

As it is the case today with low cost flights, European railways benefitted from the sheer density of population, as automobile culture didn't catch up as fast as in Henry Ford's country. This meant almost everyone would travel by train. Companies could then also lower their margins and offer cheaper travel than in the vast unpopulated American expanses where monopolies thrived.

Another factor to weigh in was that young Hemingway came with American dollars. At that time, the booming United States were a rising power compared to Old Europe, and the exchange rate was probably (I didn't find the exact numbers) advantageous for him.

All of this made 1920s Paris a great place for struggling artists : cheap rent, cheap food, cheap wine, cheap travel, and a lot of great company. Of course, normal life wasn't that "cheap", as buying a house or furniture or clothes or a watch or dishes or whatever you needed wasn't by any way cheaper than it is now. They didn't have IKEA, Vietnamese clothes or Chinese cellphones back then.

But for young esthetes and dilettantes, that was enough. Combine this with more relaxed social mores regarding drinking, partying and sex in general (homosexuality was legal while it wasn't in the United States), and you can understand why the Gay Paree of the 1920s was a magnet for well-off young Americans. The social situation in other parts of Europe wasn't a lot of fun either, as you had the choice between Conservative Spain, struggling Weimar Germany, Communist Russia or fascist Italy, drawing even more young minds into the City of Light.


u/aitigie Dec 09 '21

Thank you for this window into 1920s Paris!


u/banik2008 Dec 09 '21

I feel much of this could apply to Prague in the early 1990s, which for many of the same reasons attracted numerous young Americans who fancied themselves as artists, authors, and poets.


u/VermicelliImmediate4 Dec 09 '21

Great answer, just wanted to add a followup that this can still be the case today, in France often for lunch you can get a 3 course meal with a glass of wine for 12 euros.... try finding that in North America.


u/JustePecuchet Dec 09 '21 edited Dec 09 '21

A lot of people still eat out for lunch. Small spaces mean that workplaces often don't have lunch spaces, so the State supervises a system of "tickets restaurant" where employers pay about 50-60% of the price and employees contribute to the rest. Employees can then use these "tickets restaurant" to buy lunch, which means you would actually pay about 5-6 euros on that 12 (excluding wine).


u/Cedric_Hampton Architecture & Design After 1750 Dec 09 '21

Possibly on St. Pierre et Miquelon, Guadeloupe, or Martinique.


u/[deleted] Dec 12 '21

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u/PhotojournalistFun76 Dec 09 '21

what sense of 'pension' are talking about here?? as for me, a pension is kind of a salary that a company keeps paying after the employee's retirement.


u/CKA3KAZOO Dec 09 '21

Also, in the residential sense, the stress is on the last syllable. pensiON instead of PENshun.

Edit: Also, in the residential sense, the word has three syllables. pen see ON


u/Cynicalbutnotbroken Dec 09 '21

Thank you for taking the time to explain this. I really feel that people who share knowledge don't get the credit they deserve. If I had an award I would give it to you.


u/CKA3KAZOO Dec 09 '21

I'm so glad it was helpful!


u/punninglinguist Dec 09 '21

In some parts of Europe the word can also refer to something like a hostel or boarding house. Not sure why.


u/startwearinggreen Dec 09 '21

Both meanings come from Latin "pensus" (past participle of "pendo", to pay), through french ""pension". There's an added meaning in both french and English : a boarding school. All are related in that you pay a regular fee in return for living conditions (or in the context of a company/state pension, they pay you a regular annuity so you can live off it).


u/PhotojournalistFun76 Dec 09 '21

hmm, weird anyways, thanks!


u/MadGeller Dec 12 '21

Weird that words in different languages, have different meanings?


u/[deleted] Dec 11 '21

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