top of page

Oyster harvesters

It is believed that oysters are a powerful aphrodisiac. (They actually aren’t, but

that’s a talk for another time). It looks like the magical stimulating effect of the

bivalve “mouthful of the sea” is so strong that even late 19th and early 20th

century oyster harvesters became an object of erotic fantasies. More or less

like modern-day flight attendants. This can explain the enormous numbers of

rather playful vintage French postcards featuring photographs of oyster farm


In the times of the Second Empire (mid-19th century), special oyster farms were

established on the Atlantic coast of South-Western France. Women play an

important role in this profession, and they must fulfil the most painstaking tasks:

separating young oysters, setting them in beds, and cutting off the molluscs that

have grown too close to each other. This must be done carefully and meticulously,

not to damage the oysters. It is believed that women are much better at this than

men. In addition, as a rule, women are lighter, so they won’t sink that much into the


Oyster farm workers are known as parqueuse and are separated into two categories: the

harvesters (les femmes au marais or marsh women)

and sorters (les femmes de la côte or shore women).

It’s been noticed that it is the representatives of “costumed” professions that are

often considered as objects of sexual fantasies: flight attendants, nurses, maids.

Oyster farm workers could also be counted as such.

The usual parqueuse outfit consists of a loose-fitting blouse, broadcloth or flannel

culottes, apron and a rather coquettish hat. And those strange shoes.

These shoes, named patin, are specially made to walk over marshy mud without

sinking. The square board with a wooden shoe base that secures the heel,

and leather and string fastenings. Each of these shoes weigh 3–4 kg.

The photographer clearly took a liking to this young harvester so he photographed her in

different equipment versions.  He even asked her to put on boots that were normally only

worn by men. A pair of such boots weighs about 10 kg. Sand rake and basket are necessary

pieces of oyster hunting equipment.

In order to work on the marsh, patin are worn on bare feet. In winter and in summer.

Women roll up their trousers to knee-height to keep them dry. It may seem funny

now, but in those days, the rolled-up trousers of the oyster gatherers urged many

men to travel to Arcachon specifically to ogle at the young workers’ bare legs and


Red flannel trousers of the parqueuse women become one of the symbols of Arcachon.

Paul Kaufman, journalist and illustrator, described in 1901 the set-up of the oyster parks, as

well as the life and daily routines of their workers, doesn’t hide his excitement when

describing the clothes of the lovely harvesters of Arcachon: “Underneath their woollen

blouse one can see the outline of their often uncorseted, free breasts and their supple forms.

Their legs are clothed in red broadcloth trousers, rolled up as high as possible.”

“They work in open air in any weather, come scorching sun or pouring rain, either in shacks,

on the beaches, or the farm, until the water rises to their waist, forcing them to put their work

on hold until tomorrow. Should a stranger gawk too intently at their bare legs, they pelt him

with such barbs that he is forced to take his leave immediately, chased by their jeers.”

A French author François Coppée gives this description of the oyster harvester clothes in a

letter published in 1883 in the 2 nd volume of his collected works: “all sandy shoals are

covered by groups of workers of both sexes. However, you can only figure out the sex close

by, as even the women here wear breeches. These are made of red flannel and joyfully

rolled up above the knee. The women are distinguished by a bénèze—the large cotton hat

which protects them against the sun.”

The hat, called in Arcachon either bénèze or benaise is a part of traditional harvester garb.

The similar oyster harvester hat in the islands of Orleon or Ré is called quichenotte,


“ki-sheh-not”, and, according to one of the versions, the origins of that name are rather erotic

themselves. Legends say that this headdress was invented by the French already in the

times of Hundred Years War. Joan of Arc’s contemporaries hid their faces from intrusive

Englishmen. No kisses, no, can’t you speak French? Kiss me not. Kiss-not. And hide behind

the frills. Everyone knows that this is actually the opposite! Think nurses, hidden up to the

eyes behind face masks.

Oyster harvester hats were usually either white, red and white gingham, or sometimes blue,

to match their shirts. The construction maintained its form thanks to willow framework. The

hat hid the worker’s head and neck, and framed the face to protect the skin from the

scorching sun. The ties—two ribbons from the same fabric—make a bow under the chin.

Paul Kaufman wrote: “Having completed their work at eleven at night, they return

home by midnight, sleep three and a half hours, cook and go to work at half past

four. On Sundays they work until midday, return and spend the day and most of the

night dancing.” No idea where they could get enough strength and good health for

that. Must have been snacking on those oysters that they harvested, no doubt.

Here are a few more postcards depicting lovely oyster harvesters from various eras.

You can take a look at their outfits and hairdos.

After you’ve done that, I recommend you go out and if not gather, then at least eat

some oysters.

Many old Arcachon postcards at

Original source:

71 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page