Pailleux – The Strawmen of Paris

Wagon loaded with 850 bales of hay. September 1909. Station Paris-Reuilly (personal collection)

French “pailleux [adjective]: made of straw”. Unfortunately, no dictionary gives this word a professional definition. However, for two and a half centuries, it designated the carters who supplied the stables of the French capital with “straw” (pailles) from the large cereal-growing estates on its outskirts,

In the following lines, we will discuss the history of this trade, discover extraordinary transport teams and catch a glimpse of everyday life in this all too little-known trade!

A touch of history

Because of its history and its relative distance from the sea, Paris has always kept up important commercial relations with its immediate surroundings, whose resources in food and materials long remained sufficient for its expansion.

A hubbub of carts

Of all the agricultural production that supplied the capital, straw and fodder hold a special place.

Straw, in particular, had many uses. Bedding for stables, urban dairies, more or less exotic menageries and even for some dwellings, straw was also used to make cob (daub), to protect packages… Proportionally to the development of urban life, a problem arose as early as the Middle Ages: storage. To the fear of fires was added the inability to protect them from humidity and vermin. The only solution therefore consisted in multiplying small supplies, with a major drawback: adding to the cost of the supply, that of incessant transport.

The accounts of the great abbeys and medieval palaces thus reveal the high sums devoted to deliveries. Another example: in the illustration of two hagiographies of Saint Denis dating from the first half of the 14th century (National Library of France, manuscripts 2092 and 5286) which constitute a real inventory of medieval transport, only that of straw appears 4 times.

This is no doubt how the “sheaves traffic” functioned until the beginning of the 17th century, a period which provides us with a first set of regulatory provisions, behind which we can see the proof of a new importance taken on by these transactions. Following ordinances (in particular that of October 6, 1632, certain provisions of which have never been repealed), royal power acquires the means to monitor quality, flows, sellers and buyers.

If constant cart traffic continued to satisfy demand, river trade also seems to have been important.

Ever more horses

In the 17th century, equestrian culture, a pillar of social distinction, underwent a profound change.

While riding-school masters codified French-style riding, hitching in teams became a daily mode of movement and appearance. In 1640, the Police Authorities (“Le Châtelet”) estimated that about 10,000 “carriage, harness and saddle” horses were already circulating within its jurisdiction (for 400,000 inhabitants).

However, it is to the Court’s move to Versailles that we owe the real…revolution.

As early as 1683, the stables, which accommodated “only” 700 horses, already augured colossal needs to come. They were to house 1,700 horses during the reign of Louis XV and 2,200 in the early 1780s!

“Purveyor” contracts were multiplying. Those for Paris inside the city walls (private and administrative stables) were traditionally reserved for private networks north of Paris. The “Stables Accounts” of Versailles show a shift in trade towards south and west of Paris (Hurepoix and the Mantais regions).

Very few farming operations were actually able to honor large contracts. Only farms larger than 100 hectares could lay claim to this trade, which only concerns harvest surplus: most leases only authorized the sale of straw after substantial reserves had been built up.

It therefore often happened that behind the name of a supplier-farmer, there is a “company” hiding which could pool too-small individual stocks and was financially capable of maintaining a team dedicated to this transport alone. (Cf. on this subject J.M Moriceau, The farmers of Île-de-France, 15th-18th centuries, Editions Fayard, 1998).

At the very end of the 17th century, the French terms pailleur or pailleux confusingly designate both suppliers and carriers.

In the middle of the 18th century, the growth of the straw-supplying activity was such that innovative and specific agronomic thinking on how to handle it was required in cereal-growing areas. A new mode of seasonal sheep-breeding was adopted. In order to generate significant fodder surpluses, the farmers parted with part of their sheepfold for the winter, when the herds were reduced at the autumn fairs, then built up again in the spring to roam the fields according to the fallows and the harvests.

Since these temporary flocks produced less manure, a solution was found to improve the cultivated lands: bring back the manure from the stables to which fodder was delivered. This system, still attested at the beginning of the 19th century, seems to be rapidly disappearing due to the conversion of cereal surfaces with lower yields into artificial meadows, thus making it possible to maintain substantial livestock farming again.

The contemporary city, daughter of horses

After the troubles of the French Revolution, this “straw” activity continued to grow.

In Paris, in 1789, there were more than 20,000 horses (for 600,000 inhabitants), double that around 1850 (when the threshold of one million inhabitants was exceeded). In 1878, there were officially 78,051 within the city walls, and some 105,600 in the immediate periphery.

The traffic involved worried the authorities with some 17,000 vehicles in Paris in 1829. There were to be 82,000 in 1909 (including slightly fewer than 16,000 motor vehicles), but road engineers estimated that 430,000 vehicles were entering and leaving the capital every day.

The fodder trade figures were now dizzying. In her masterful study on Paris horses (Le cheval à Paris de 1850 à 1914, Ghislaine Bouchet, Editions Droz, 1993) indicates that before 1860, 6 to 9 million bales of fodder passed through the city’s toll-houses annually. This rose to nearly 20 million bales between 1880 and 1890, before decreasing from 1900 on (15 million in 1910).

Straw followed the same trend: 25 million bales in 1860, around 40 million around 1880-1890, 33 million in 1905.

A trade under strict control

The financial, and therefore tax, stakes were understood very early on by the Administration, which submitted the exchanges to its strict control. For the part of the fodder that did not have a buyer before it was transported, there were markets (changing over time) whose operation was highly regulated: it was forbidden to trade in the inns and the adjacent streets, to take a deposit, take out part or unload the goods on the way, to buy to resell on the spot, to introduce tobacco pipes (a notorious fire risk!), other carriages and saddle horses into the square! …

Carters arrested without a duly drawn up consignment note, on stamped paper indicating a particular destination, were fined and the load taken to the nearest market. No wagon cold leave a market without its driver also having a sales slip issued by the official agent, and the same went for unsold goods.

The weight of the bales and the quality of the loads were particularly monitored by the Police Prefecture officials but, considering that these prescriptions were contradictory to the regime of industrial and commercial freedom, this control was repealed in 1865. Sales were henceforth regulated voluntarily between seller and buyer.

Authorization of home warehouses in 1873 completely reformed the fodder trade. Municipal granaries and storehouses were soon no longer needed. In 1878, a single municipal market was annexed to the horse market on the Boulevard de l’Hôpital, but it closed in 1885, leaving the initiative entirely to private industry.

Peak use of the horse in the city

Considered as early as the 1890s, the decline of urban horse-drawn vehicles was well underway by 1910. There were 56,000 horses left in Paris in 1912; the Compagnie Générale des Omnibus handed over its last team on January 11, 1913, when its stables had housed nearly 13,000 horses ten years before!

The replacement of the carriage horse by the “inanimate motor” (moteur inanimé, an expression of the time) was massive in the 1930s. Soon only a few delivery horses remained for rare businesses (ice cream makers, dairymen, coal sellers)… Slaughterhouses (La Villette, Vaugirard) became the biggest consumers of fodder. If road transport and supply remained active it was increasingly taken over by lorries (trucks) and the waggoner-strawmen become lorry drivers.

The teams

It is obvious that in just over two centuries, the teams used for commercial transport of fodder changed significantly to meet ever-increasing needs.

No French agricultural vehicle earlier than the late 19th century has survived. The use of archival documents is therefore the only way to observe how vehicles developed. Notarial archives especially (inventories, leases, contracts) provide valuable descriptions for which iconography (paintings, engravings, drawings) still does not testify as precisely.

Until 1650, the only heavy vehicle on the farms around Paris was a cart (4 wheels) known as a brancart, with removable side rails varying according to the type of transport, provided with shafts (brancards), usually harnessed to two horses hitched tandem. The longest wagons reached 18 feet (5.85m). Only these seem to have had a rotating fore-carriage…

In the second half of the 17th century, wagons quickly disappeared from inventories in favor of carts (2 wheels). There were 2 sizes: the common chartil to carry a load of 8 to 9 feet long (2.60m to a little less than 3m long) and the grand chartil for a 12 to 15-foot load (between 4 and 5m). Their description echoes that of the carts we are familiar with.

Around 1680-1690, the large carts took on the name (ambiguous, depending on the province) of guimbarde (long wagon). In the 18th century, transport to Paris was essentially based on these wagons which, paradoxically, as agricultural vehicles escaped the most restrictive provisions of the traffic police (ancestor of today’s highway code). For these larger and heavier models, there are more and more frequently mentions of iron axles (and no longer wooden ones).

At the beginning of the 19th century, wheel rims were still nailed around their circumference (and not iron-rimmed) to prevent wear (ed. note: perhaps “strakes”, Bob Powell). The good roads that led to Paris could resist the repeated passage of heavy carts, but reports alerted the authorities to the disastrous state of the rural roads damaged by these protruding nail heads. Can we see in this more proof of densification of traffic?

For most agricultural vehicles, those for road transport and a good number of commercial wagons, the last quarter of the 19th century was the era of improvement and specialization. With the advent of the “big” draft horses (which did not exist before), new types of wagons were adopted, which were highly perfected and would remain in use until the disappearance of the straw-supplying activity in its horse-drawn phase.

The rest of the discussion will focus on the years 1900 – 1950, based on five personal testimonies (collected too briefly 30 years ago), from my own corpus of 58 photographs and observation of four wagons.

Geography and typology of hitched teams

There were three types of “straw” teams, geographically well defined.

North of Paris, drawbar carts (ed. note: fitted with a “pole” or “tongue” instead of shafts, Bob Powell) were usually used. Four horses were normally harnessed there and driven from a seat with crossed lines, more rarely on foot and with a line. Picture 1 and picture 2

Fig. 1: Postcard (personal collection)
Fig. 2: Private collection (Photo by E. Petitclerc)

From the east to south-east of Paris, shaft wagons had a monopoly on road transport, were harnessed to three to five horses in line, led on foot, by line. Picture 3 and picture 4

Fig. 3: Original photograph (personal collection)

Fig. 4: Original photograph (personal collection)

From the south to the west of Paris, there were exclusively large two-wheeled gerbières (sheaf carriers), usually harnessed to three or four horses, driven on foot and by a line. Picture 5 and picture 6

Fig. 5: Private collection (Photo E. Petitclerc)

Fig. 6: Private collection (Photo E. Petitclerc)

The large carts carried about 800 bales of hay or straw at 5 kg each, a little less for the large gerbières.

Slices of life

“The travel time obviously set the departure time. In any case, we had to get up well before the sun. At a rate of 4 to 5 kilometers per hour on average, it took 6 hours for carters from the most distant farms to reach the gates of Paris and sometimes even more than an hour to reach the place of delivery. The wagons of the strawmen generally passed through the city toll-gates between 6 and 8 o’clock in the morning. Picture 7

Fig. 7: Postcard (personal collection)

In winter, the cold wind and icy rains penetrated to the bones, making your joints ache. Sitting on his simple seat, the strawman was relatively protected by his load but, empty or on foot, he was exposed to the vagaries of the weather. Simple canvas sacks, for example, provided him with a cover that was as economical as it was effective against wind and rain showers. In the summer, the same road turned into another hell: heat, dust, dehydration. Suspended under the wagon, a civière (stretcher) made it possible to transport “clothes” and all sorts of small equipment, horse rations and snacks. Picture 8

Fig. 8: Original photograph (personal collection)

The rain was “enemy number one”. We always took great care to lash the car with a strong Y-shaped rope (fixed to the front, the two branches being attached to the rear winch, Fr. moulinet) but when the weather was wet, you had to cover the valuable merchandise with a heavy oilcloth tarpaulin. Picture 9

Fig. 9: Postcard (personal collection)

Once you arrived at your destination, unloading was quick, motivated by wanting to leave as quickly as possible, crossing the “gateway” before noon and starting the road back, where there was a stop where the straw men used to meet up. The horses stopped by themselves in front of the bistro! The break was not supposed to drag on, since the team was expected to take on a new load. Picture 10, Picture 11, Picture 12, Picture 13

Fig. 10: Original photograph (personal collection)
Fig. 11: Postcard (personal collection)
Fig. 12: Rare and valuable scene of a team loading a cart in Livilliers (today in the Val-d’Oise) [Sarazin farm, to be confirmed]. In the farmyard, two sturdy horses are enough to manoeuver this imposing vehicle, but they would need four horses for the road…
Fig. 13: At the entry to Etablissements Marchand in Santeny (today in Val-de-Marne), this wagon seems to be cleverly loaded and tarpaulined, ready to be hitched. It would leave before dawn to supply a Paris hayloft. You can make out two other carts or wagons in the courtyard. Original photograph (personal collection)

The horses were chosen with care: males, bought at 4 or 5 years old, Percherons, Boulonnais, “Normans” (in fact, there were pure Percheron or Boulonnais horses or crossbreeds bred outside the breeds’ strict geographic areas), brought back by merchants from Normandy fairs, between Beauce and Perche, from Berry. Generally tall, good walkers, energetic and powerful, they weighed 700 to 800 kilograms, with a tolerance of 850 kg for those who controlled the wagon: “above that, horses drag their weight, no longer the load”! Picture 14

Fig. 14: Original photograph (personal collection)

These horses were kept up with care: three daily rations, each made up of 5 liters of oats, half a bale of hay and, in the evening, of refreshing foods such as carrots, beets, moistened bran, linseed cake.

Particular attention was paid to their feet. The shoes, which wore out quickly, were changed every 8 to 10 days, despite initially being thicker than for other horses. In winter, the road became slippery, specially augured shoes (ed. note: drilled and tapped for screw in fittings, punched for hammer in, Bob Powell) with 4 holes (2 at the toe and 2 at the heel) made it possible to screw in crampons (ed. note: called “frost nails” or “sharps” here in Scotland, Bob Powell). But we had to be extra vigilant… Picture 15

Fig. 15: Postcard (personal collection)

The strawmen were proven and serious carters. They occupied a special place in the profession, with a salary equivalent to that of a first carter.

The strawman had above all to spare his team. Harmonizing the gaits was essential to avoid exhausting the horses too quickly, as well as adjusting the harness to the “millimetre” in the line of traction (ed.note: enabling all the horses to pull evenly with all their trace chains evenly taut, Bob Powell). You had to especially be careful of the shaft horses (Fr. limoniers, called “wheelers” by Bob Powell) of the large 2-wheeled gerbières (sheaf carriers). Picture 16

Fig. 16: Original photograph (personal collection)

When strawmen were not delivering fodder, they carted wood, fertilizer or grain. The horses never remained inactive, a “walk” was a minimum in order to avoid digestion problems. Picture 17

Fig. 17: Deliveries were exceptionally interrupted during harvest, a crucial period when the carrying capacity of this gerbière (sheaf wagon) was truly appreciable. Their large size and weight made them hard to take onto cultivated land. All the rest of the year, this type of large cart was never used off-road. Postcard (personal collection)

The low number of reported accidents reinforces the idea of ​​the professionalism of straw workers. The greatest danger was from densification of road traffic in the interwar period. In 1935, the road already belonged to the automobile! During the war, strawmen were also targeted by Luftwaffe fighters, and several lost their lives…

When the fodder trade with the center of Paris was decreasing, and before animal draft completely disappeared from “big agriculture”, straw workers found their way back to the fields for a short-lived last attelée (hitching up teams). A few continued behind the wheel of a truck. Many left the horses for the factory, with or without regrets. Although they do not have bad memories of their years on the road, these exceptional carters invariably testify to the hardship of a job that spared men no more than horses. Picture 18

Fig. 18: one of the very first automobile lorry pailleux (strawmen’s deliveries), photographed in 1911 (?) during a Concours Agricole de Paris (Agricultural Competition). Original photograph (personal collection)

Fig. 18: one of the very first automobile lorry pailleux (strawmen’s deliveries), photographed in 1911 (?) during a Concours Agricole de Paris (Agricultural Competition). Original photograph (personal collection)

Author: Etienne Petitclerc

Editor’s Thanks: Bob Powell is an unconditional fan of Etienne Petitclerc’s and proud owner of his book Attelages! (Campagne & Compagnie, Editions France Agricole, 2016, 341pp, with many colour and black/white illustrations). Bob kindly added a few comments in parentheses above regarding technical terms in English. The original French version of Etienne’s article is also available on the AIMA website at:

Editor’s Note: Article originally published in AIMA Newsletter N°17, reproduced here with permission of the author.