Cantinières in Advertising

An add for Specifique Victorieux foot tonic, late 19th century.

One of the most fascinating aspects of cantinières' existence has been their continued use as pop culture icons, particularly in advertising and marketing. From the mid-19th century (arguably the period of the birth of modern consumer culture) on to the present, many companies and products have used cantinières as symbols. While the products and specifics of the advertisements varied, they all had (and have) one common theme—that cantinières were women who knew quality food and drink, and that therefore any product they approved of would be the best a consumer could buy.

This suggests a few conclusions. One is that the image of cantinières in the public mind was overwhelmingly positive. Few historians have expended much ink on cantinières, but those who have debate whether these women were positive or negative influences, and also whether their public image was positive or negative. Several historians-and art historians in particular-have argued that the public saw these women as monsters—gender-transgressing, cross-dressing shemales who degraded the soldiery and threatened society.

However, if this was true, why did so many major companies use cantinières as their public image, and even as the name of a product line? These companies, after all, were in business to make money, and they made money by making sales to a mass public market. Such businesses are historically very risk-averse, and would hardly brand themselves with the public image of depraved attackers of the social order. On the contrary, they would have chosen the cantinière as their public face precisely because they believed that cantinières had a positive, healthy public image, and they would have continued in this course only when sales proved them right.

Thus, major French companies used cantinières to sell coffee, coffee substitutes, brandy, cheese, and even pasta. It is worth noting that the Dubonnet Company, one of the most iconic and publicity-conscious entities in the world, used cantinières in its advertising. A master of clever and effective publicity, Dubonnet's use of cantinières to sell its products is compelling evidence that the French public saw cantinières as fundamentally positive—wise, knowledgeable connoisseurs of fine food and drink who would not steer the soldiers (or the public) wrong.

On Dubonnet's own website, there is a discussion of the company's rich tradition of using iconic art to sell its products, and this final statement—"Through the ages, Dubonnet continued this artistic tradition by commissioning the finest artists of the time to depict the brand." Note that the art "depicts the brand," and therefore must show "the brand" only in a positive light. An ad featuring cantinières is more than just a fun bit of nostalgia. It is proof that the advertising executives at Dubonnet had confidence, backed up by solid market research, in the cantinières' positive public image.

With that in mind, I've assembled a few images below of cantinières used in advertisements. Over time, I will replace these with new ones, so do check back occasionally to see what else turns up.

A 1939 ad for Dubonnet featuring cantinières.

This 1939 ad from L'illustration is titled "Les cantinières" and shows a historically inaccurate but sales-boosting projection of cantinières (and Dubonnet) back into history as far as ancient Greece. The images are (left to right, top to bottom) ancient Greece, medieval/Renaissance Europe, the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, The Crimean War, and French North Africa. This illustration appears on page 102 of Intrepid Women. The poem at the bottom reads:

Si je ne l'avais pas vu
je ne l'aurais pas cru
que la Cantinière avait un si bon crû
(air connu)

De son tonnelet
Au flanc rondelet
Messagère du réconfort
La Cantinière au plus fort
de la bataille versait
du DUBONNET

A rough and literal translation that loses its poetry but keeps the meaning would be:

If I hadn't seen it
I wouldn't have believed it
that the cantinière had such a good drink
(a well known tune)

From her tonnelet
At her curvy side
Messenger of solace
The Cantinière at the height
of the battle poured
DUBONNET

An ad for Black and Company coffee substitute.

At left is a sales card produced to promote the "Cantinière" brand of chicory coffee substitute—one of three lines produced by Black and Company near Cambrai.

There were many designs for these cards. Some were fairly accurate in depicting uniforms, but most were more fantastic. All of them, though, showed cantinières as beautiful, feminine, healthy, and colorful. One item to note is that real cantinières wore short skirts over trousers. The cantinières in these advertisements wore very long, impractical dresses with no visible trousers. Thus, they were forced to ride sidesaddle into battle! This is something no real cantinière would do.

In presenting these women to a 20th century audience then, Black and Company toned down the rugged practicality of their historical uniforms and presented instead women who were brave and in the thick of the fight, but nonetheless knew how to dress (and ride) like ladies. This is another example of how careful we have to be with illustrations as sources. Drawn after the fact, and designed to push a specific agenda, these illustrations are blatantly ahistorical as representations of real cantinières. Their value as historical sources is as indicators of the values of their own time and place (and of those who commissioned and created them).

Check back for more advertising images on an occasional basis.