Apartments in Paris: social hierarchy of the chambre de bonne

MyFrenchLife™ - apartments in Paris - Haussmann - PissarroIn many ways, to love Paris is to love Haussmann. Under the guidance of Napoleon III, Georges-Eugène Haussmann helped design Paris, contributing to the aesthetics of la ville lumière today. 

Within his buildings, high above Parisian parks and cobbled streets, youll find an array of chambres de bonne. These apartments in Paris traditionally housed maids who worked for the wealthy residents in the lower, more luxurious (and certainly spacious) apartments. Nowadays, students flock to these single room apartments for cheap Parisian housing.

However, the chambre de bonne does more than house semi-starving students and hopeful expats. It serves as a prism into the pastan architectural reminder of a social structure still alive and well in la ville lumière. 

The French social class

Once upon a time, before the royals lost their heads, the French monarchy drained the royal treasury. The gap between les riches et les pauvres fostered an entire revolution, resulting in the current pillars of the French government: liberté, égalité, et fraternité.

MyFrenchLife™ - apartments in Paris

Whether or not the French have succeeded in creating a society fostered on ‘égalité’ is a delicate question. One things for certain: the chambre de bonne allows an antiquated social structure entirely void of equality to thrive in modern day Paris. 

Chambre de bonne living

The Parisian chambre de bonne is essentially an overpriced cupboard advertised as an apartment. Described as cozy and intimate, a typical room ranges from between eight to twelve square meters just enough space for a twin bed, sink, and if youre lucky, a shower.

MyFrenchLife™ - apartments in Paris While the astonishing lack of space may appear difficult to manage, most residents generally feel fortunate to be living in Paris at all; we find few reasons to complain. But perhaps we should.

Landowners reportedly take advantage of the high demand for Parisian housing and rent illegal storage spaces: anything under nine square meters and 1.8m in height, or without adequate heating, running water, electricity, and access to a bathroom, shower, and kitchen. La Fondation Abbé Piere (FAP), a housing action group, estimated that one-fifth of all their housing situations concern illegally small living spaces.

Whats more, most chambre de bonne are inaccessible via the apartment buildings primary entrance with people using entirely different staircases. In my former Parisian residence, red carpeting and ornate, gilded mirrors adorned the front hall. I entered through a side door next to the dumpster, followed by a narrow trek into the basement to access my apartment. My friend climbed a spiraling staircase outdoorsto reach her chambre de bonnequite the hazard in Parisians springtime showers or anytime at night. 

A new life for apartments in Paris?

Despite proclamations of égalité, the poor continue to live in a world separated from the upper class the chambre de bonne, as a prism of the past, reveals how society once functioned, with maids relegated to the unkempt, unglamorous staircases, to their tiny cupboards high above an old-world city.

MyFrenchLife™ - apartments in Paris - SarkozyNotably, in 2009, Sarkozy supported an architectural revolution of the cityone that mayeliminate the chambre de bonne, and with it, the old world French societal infrastructure.

Only time will tell.

The most recent debate over Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s Triangle Tower skyscraper proves just how protective the Parisians feel of their beautiful city.  For now, people will continue living in chambre de bonne and hiking up separate staircases with pride. I may have shared a shower with five residents, and my hot plate may have short-circuited my power, but at least I had a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower.

Have you ever stayed in a chambre de bonne? What are your thoughts?

Image credits:
1. The avenue de l’Opéra by Pissarro, via Wikipedia.
2. Jim Morrison’s apartment in Le Marais, via Wikipedia.
3. Flowers on the balcony, by Quinn Dombrowski, via Flickr.
4. Nicolas Sarkozy, via Wikipedia.

About the Contributor

Alexandria Rogers

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  1. Ronnie Hess Jan 3, 2015 at 6:26 AM - Reply

    Dear Alexandria — I enjoyed your post. Years ago, I lived in a chambre-de-bonne in the 7th for just a month and that was enough. Although my apartment’s staircase was indoors, the room was cold cold cold in winter and the w.c. at the very end of the hall. I was glad when I found another place. Ronnie Hess, Madison, WI

  2. Jill Craig Jan 5, 2015 at 5:19 AM - Reply

    I had several friends who lived in miniscume chambres de bonne in Paris; and although it’s bearable in the short term, itès certainly not in the long-term – being able to reach your fridge and step into your showert within a step of your bed is not ideal. That said; I visited a friend who lived in an enlarged chambre de bonne with her boyfriend. The walls of three adjoining chambres de bonne had been knocked through to create one, and although it was still one room, it was much more along the lines of the Parisian dream I had envisioned…

    • Ellen Burns Jan 5, 2015 at 9:44 AM - Reply

      Interesting to hear you say that Jill, because I was wondering how you would go about changing these flats to bring them up to standard. Obviously you wouldn’t just want to leave whole floors of buildings uninhabited; knocking down a few walls to make bigger apartments would be a good way to make these places a bit more livable. And then the landlords could actually be renting out rooms that were up to code!

      • Jill Craig Jan 7, 2015 at 2:11 AM - Reply

        It seemed like a win-win situation Ellen! Gorgeous views, enough space (not for a family, but for a couple it was ideal), and cheaper rent. Something that still bewilders me though: how on earth do people get all their furniture and luggage up those tiny flights of stairs?!

  3. Matt Harvey Jul 15, 2018 at 12:02 PM - Reply

    I was lucky enough to be introduced to a French girl who lived in a chambre de bonne and to spend some happy nights with her there. I could not, however, have moved in even if invited! I am happy to say she has made it out into something larger, but still think they will do for a student and I certainly found it romantic – a perfect Parisian experience!

  4. Barbara A mitchell Sep 16, 2019 at 9:02 AM - Reply

    In 1963-4, I lived in a chamber de bonne for 10 months which cost me the equivalent of 10 dollars a month. I was friendly with the people who owned the apartment below and gave English lessons to various members of the family in exchange for lovely meals and an intro to many French people. The room was miniscule and dingy and the Toilet and water spigot were in the hall. Don’t know if there is still such a thing as the public baths in Paris but I made good use of them! The whole experience is a very fond memory.

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