In 2015, the Museum of the Art and History of Provence received the donation of a Nallino cylinderbased player piano, made in 1923 and engraved with the name of «Raineri Alexandre – Grasse». It is an exceptional addition in several ways: as a well-preserved and rare object, this monumental instrument, by its sole presence, brings to life a society of popular amusement in the Third Republic.
By highlighting this acquisition, which was the forerunner of the juke box and a typical source of entertainment in cabarets and cafés, the 2016 temporary summer exhibition entitled De l’Assommoir au boudoir, une histoire des cafés à Grasse dans les années 1900 (From Watering-Hole to Boudoir: a History of Cafés in Grasse in the 1900s) invites visitors to discover the city of Grasse in the early twentieth century from another angle: French-style sociability in «café-bar-restaurants».
Echoing the International Perfume Museum’s summer exhibition on the period from the Belle Epoque to the Roaring Twenties, we propose plunging headlong into a world of festivity, working-class amusements and conviviality, to the sound of a Java or a Charleston echoing in the turn-of-the-century streets and boulevards of Grasse.
The liberalisation of drinking establishments in 1880 – there were around 480,000 of them in 1912 in France – provoked a specifically French phenomenon by creating inescapable places for sociability and entertainment, where all levels of society came together to eat, drink and have fun. Not always erroneously, these vital centres were also considered to be dens of perdition. Delineating an ill-assumed paradox, the history of these cafés, where prostitution was frequent, reveals the contradictions of society at the time.
The vanished witnesses of a world where television, computers and sometimes even electricity were not yet found in homes and the symbols of living together at a time when cultural isolationism had no meaning, the café-restaurants of the Third Republic should represent more to us than mere nostalgia-tinged memories of the good old days. They should make us think about the basis of society and how its appearance can enlighten us. In this respect, leisure activities, however futile they may be, are often an indication of the real status of a civilisation.