Early ID badge employing physiognomical features

'CHIFFONNIER' WORKER'S BRASS REGISTRATION BADGE, numbered 6086, for a certain ‘A. Vallet, Chiffonier’, describing his physiognomy in abbreviated code, dated

1855. Small oval brass pendant badge, 70 x 46 x 2mm; with suspension ring in upper part, engraved on both reverse and obverse, some light surface scuffing and tarnishing, but otherwise very good. A remarkable survivor of a ragpicker’s registration badge, which through the use of an abbreviated code, provides a surprisingly complete description of recognizable features, given the small surface area for engraving.
On the reverse is engraved the badge number, name and profession. ‘A. Vallet, Chiffonier’. The obverse reveals the date, ‘1855’ followed by what appears at first sight to be a cryptic code: ‘69 ans, 1m. 63, ch. et s. gs, fr. ht. y. rx. n. g’os, bo. g’de. m.r’d. ba. g’se, v. ov, 4 doigts à chaque m’in’.
Thanks to the work of the previous owner, our understanding is that these abbreviations in all likelihood can be read as: ‘69 ans, 1m. 63, ch. et s. gs (presumably cheveux et sourcils gris), fr. ht. y. rx. n. g’os (assumed front haut, yeux roux, nez gros), bo. g’de. m.r’d. ba. g’se. (presumed bouche grande, menton rond, barbe grise), v. ov. (visage oval), 4 doigts à chaque m’in’ (four fingers on each hand). Thus ‘A. Vallet’ was 163 centimetre tall, 69 years old, with gray hair and eyebrows, had a high forehead, reddish brown eyes, large nose, large mouth, round chin, gray beard and oval face. Most notably, he had only four fingers on each hand.
The Musée Carnavalet, which focuses on the History of Paris, holds three further examples of identity badges belonging to ‘chiffonnier’, dated 1852, 1855 and 1864. An itinerant profession, ragpickers had collected discarded cloth, glass, metal, bone, and other materials in order to resell them to industries for recycling for centuries. From 1828 the trade was regulated, and could operate only at night, though it was considered to be an honest, if lowly occupation. ‘A royal decree required ragpickers to wear a badge issued by the Police Department and to carry a small broom with which to “sweep up the mess after they have searched through a garbage heap” and a lantern. These badges were initially distributed to former convicts and prisoners in exchange for "information"—which did nothing to improve the reputation of the profession—then to old men and cripples, and finally to anyone who requested them, even children’ (online, Musée historique environment urbain, http://www.mheu.org/en/ragpickers/ragpicker-badge.htm).
‘The Paris police headquarters listed 1,841 ragpickers in 1829 and 12,000 in 1872, whereas in 1884 the ragpickers’ association counted 200,000 in the Seine department alone. However, in around 1870, cloth was replaced by wood pulp in papermaking. This meant that it was no longer part of the ragpicking trade, for which it had until then been the main staple. One decade later, for hygiene reasons, the prefect of Paris Eugène Poubelle introduced a system requiring waste to be deposited on the street in closed waste containers. As the cycle of rationalization and industrialization was completed, ragpicking was pushed out of the capitalist economy and was seen as dirty and polluting... Ragpickers were no longer necessary workers for the development of the modern city. Instead, they became folkloric, farcical, or sinister figures from an outmoded world (Caroline Ibos, Masculinity of male ragpickers and devaluing of female ragpickers in Paris (1830–1880) in Travail, genre et sociétés Volume 43, Issue 1, January 2020, pp. 31-49, translated and edited by Cadenza Academic Translations).
‘Although ragpickers continued their work in Paris well into the twentieth century, decrees in 1870 and 1883 attempted to limit their access to the refuse on which they made their living, spelling the beginning of the end of their profession. In the mid-1880s, their shanty towns in the heart of Paris were demolished, forcing their relocation to the industrial suburbs on the perimeter of the city, primarily the thirteenth, fourteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth arrondissements... these marginalized people were a continued source of fascination for artists throughout the mid-nineteenth century. From Honoré Daumier and Charles Baudelaire in the 1840s and ’50s, to Édouard Manet and Jean-François Raffaëlli in the 1860s and ’80s, writers, caricaturists, and painters alike thematized the lives of the lowly ragpickers’ (Claire Heidenreich, Chiffonniers in the Periphery: Émile Bernard’s Ragpickers of Clichy and Nineteenth-Century Artificial Cranial Modification, https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn19/heidenreich-on-emile-bernards-ragpickers-of-clichy). The periodical L’Histoire published the following description on April 3, 1870: [Ragpickers] represent primitive mankind in the big city, blissfully ignorant of laws, happy with nonentities, imbued with their vegetative way of life, retiring from society like a troglodyte of the caves’.

Bibliography: Similar examples located at the Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris

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