Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army

This site is dedicated to providing information about cantinières and vivandières. It focuses specifically on cantinières and vivandières of the French army, but it also provides some information on cantinières and vivandières from other countries and cantinières serving such non-military entities as the sapeurs-pompiers (firefighters). Those interested in more information on French army cantinières may wish to read my book: Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army for a detailed discussion of those women.

What is a cantinière or a vivandière?

Cantinières and vivandières were women who served as official auxiliary personnel to French (and other) army combat units from early modern times until about the time of World War One. Their official task was to sell food and drink to the soldiers of their regiment to supplement the always inadequate army rations. This would make their English equivalent "sutler," but this is misleading, since cantinières and vivandières had much closer and stronger ties to their units than civilian sutlers tended to in the English and American military traditions. Regulations required that each cantinière and vivandière be the legitimate wife of a soldier in the regiment she served with. (Depending on the period in question, this requirement was enforced with more or less severity, and in certain theaters of war, not at all.)

A cantiniere circa 1840.

A cantinière circa 1840.

(Left): Sold by an antique dealer as a cantinière of the Second Empire (1852-1870), this woman's uniform clearly places her in an earlier period: the July Monarchy of 1830-1848. Cantinière uniforms of the Second Empire were much more ornate and elaborate than this rather simple affair. This cantinière wears a loose blue uniform jacket and tricolor skirt over read trousers, as well as a lace shawl under a black marinier hat with red ribbon. This mode of dress was common among cantinières of the 1830s, and is similar to the uniforms seen in paintings of the siege of Antwerp in 1832. (See Intrepid Women for details and examples of period paintings.) She carries a wooden tonnelet for dispensing brandy to the troops.

From about 1830 until 1890, French cantinières wore uniforms modeled on the uniforms of their regiments. These uniforms usually included a tight-fitting pelisse (military jacket), striped military trousers with a feminine cut, and a skirt in regimental colors that went over the trousers. In some cases (like the woman pictured below), some form of uniform trousers were worn alone, without the skirt.

A cantinière of the chasseurs à pied circa 1859.

A cantiniere circa 1859.

(Left): A soldier and cantinière of a regiment of chasseurs à pied during the Second Empire of Napoleon III, at the time of the war in Italy (1859). The chasseurs à pied were a type of light infantry trained to move rapidly into combat. They were known for their high morale, which made generals tend to use them as shock troops. They gained lasting fame in 1845 at the Battle of Sidi Brahim, where approximately 80 chasseurs fought off 10,000 Algerian troops, leaving in the end only 11 surviving chasseurs.

Cantinières also wore some type of hat, which varied, but which was often a brimmed hat common among sailors and known as a marinier ("sailor's hat"). This protected their complexions somewhat from the sun, since they spent a good deal of time outdoors. Before 1830, cantinières did not wear uniforms. Their dress was civilian, with an occasional item of military clothing thrown in.

A cantinière of the First Empire with her family.

A cantinière circa 1812.

(Right): A cantinière of the First Empire (1805-1815) and her husband and child, during the reign of Napoleon I. Cantinières and vivandières of this period did not wear regimental uniforms, but rather wore civilian clothing with occasional pieces of military clothing picked up on campaign. Many years later, people used to seeing the cantinières of the mid-late 19th century in uniform would assume that early cantinières also wore uniforms. This resulted in a good deal of artwork erroneously showing women of the period 1700-1815 in uniform. (For an accurate representation, see the cover illustration of Intrepid Women. It shows a painting by General Louis Lejeune, an eyewitness to a cantinière's battlefield heroics in 1811 at the battle of Chiclana.)

After 1890, new regulations forced cantinières to give up their colorful uniforms and wear simple grey dresses, with a metal identification plaque tied to their arm to show their status. This marked the end of an era, and the beginning of a concerted effort by male officers and politicians to rid the army of these women.

An identification plaque that replaced cantinière uniforms in 1890.

A surviving example of the required metal identification plaque that replaced cantinières' uniforms in 1890. The sets of double holes are attachment points for a cord or thong that would tie the plaque to the woman's arm.

The true trademark of the cantinière, though, was the tonnelet, a small brandy barrel slung by a leather strap across the cantinière's shoulder, with a fill spout on top and a spigot on one end. Regulations requiring a metal identification plaque date back to 1756, and were renewed in 1832, but the independent-minded cantinières often ignored them, and did so universally after 1832. Instead, they used their tonnelets as identification, since they were never without them. They painted their brandy barrels in bright, patriotic colors (usually but not always the blue, white, and red of the French flag) and painted their names and unit names on the end or side of the barrels. The result was a highly functional and individualized mark of identification that also dispensed hard alcohol on demand. These barrels were made of wood up until the mid-19th century, after which they tended to be made of metal, with increasingly sophisticated and elaborate designs. (See Intrepid Women for more details as well as additional photographs.)

A tonnelet, circa 1870.

A zinc tonnelet from approximately 1870. Though badly worn with age, the paint scheme is still apparent—blue, white and red panels with the gold trim on the seams almost completely worn away. Two crossed tricolor flags are still visible near the top of the white panel, while the cantinière's name and unit are hand painted at a 45 degree angle below, but are now illegible.

 

A tonnelet, circa 1870, seen from the side.

The same tonnelet, seen from the front. One interesting feature of this more modern design is that one side is flat. This would make carrying it much more comfortable for the cantinière, since the weight of the heavy, full barrel would be distributed more evenly across her body than with a fully rounded tonnelet. Other innovations seen in later metal tonnelets included two internal compartments with two spigots, allowing for the two types of drink to be carried at once. (See Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army for additional photos and discussion.)

By the mid-19th century, cantinières had become pop culture icons. In their colorful and elaborate uniforms, they always marched at the head of their regiments in parades, making them highly visible to the public. They were the subject of plays, a major opera, magazine illustrations, greeting cards and postcards, and even many advertisements for food and drink. All of these pop culture manifestations continued in full force long after the War Ministry banned cantinières in 1906, and nostalgia for the old days when cantinières served alongside male soldiers continued throughout the 20th century and up to the present day.