French Quarter Life

People and Places in the Vieux Carré

St. Peter St. and Royal St. (ca. 1970) by Robert Malcolm RuckerThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour—but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands—and who knows what to do with it?”

—Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

Saint Anthony's Church, Corner of North Rampart and Conti Streets (1912) by William WoodwardThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“It is not an easy thing to describe one’s first impression of New Orleans; for while it actually resembles no other city upon the face of the earth, yet it recalls vague memories of a hundred cities. . . . I fancy that the power of fascination which New Orleans exercises upon foreigners is due no less to this peculiar characteristic than to the tropical beauty of the city itself.”

—Lafcadio Hearn, “At the Gate of the Tropics” (November 19, 1877)

Bishop Dominic (2004) by Jan Hill KeelsThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“If I had to live in a city I think I would prefer New Orleans to any other—both Southern and Catholic and with indications that the Devil’s existence is freely recognized.”

—Flannery O’Connor (November 24, 1962), in a letter to John Hawkes

Dauphine Street (1963) by Rolland GoldenThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“The visitor will find . . . a strange and fascinating jumble of antique shops, flop houses, tearooms, wealthy homes, bars, art studios, night clubs, grocery stores, beautifully furnished apartments, and dilapidated flats. And he will meet débutantes, artists, gamblers, drunks, streetwalkers, icemen, sailors, bank presidents, and beggars. The Vieux Carré is definitely the place in New Orleans where people go to live their own lives.”

—Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, New Orleans City Guide (1938)

Nuns in Jackson Square (1960s) by Keith TempleThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“Happening to be in the French Quarter this morning I was struck with the extreme beauty of the shrubbery and flowers that embellished the Square opposite the Cathedral. Every thing is kept in the most complete order, and I observe the hand of improvement busy in the rear of the Cathedral as well as in front. That neighborhood has changed more than any other part of the city since I first knew it in June 1845, and the alterations are generally for the better, and of a substantial and enduring character. The breeze blows fresh from the river over a garden of lovely plants in place of the parched sterile square of former years.”

—Thomas K. Wharton (May 23, 1854), in a journal entry reprinted in Queen of the South: The Journal of Thomas K. Wharton (1999)

French Quarter Book Store (ca. 1930) by Alberta KinseyThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“I alight at Esplanade in a smell of roasting coffee and creosote and walk up Royal Street. The lower Quarter is the best part. The ironwork on the balconies sags like rotten lace. Little French cottages hide behind high walls. Through deep sweating carriageways one catches glimpses of courtyards gone to jungle.”

—Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961)

Court of Two Sisters (ca. 1940) by Clarence MilletThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“New Orleans is like your first raw oyster. You must suspend your squeamishness and take it on its own terms to enjoy it. If you keep your distance, you’ll never get it. If you go for it, though, you will be rewarded with the fulfillment of lust. Lust is an urge you need to have to live in this city successfully. Without lust, you’re probably better off living somewhere else.”

—Tom Fitzmorris, Hungry Town (2010)

French Market (ca. 1935) by Alberta KinseyThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“The pile of buildings that composes the French Market consists of several different edifices—the Meat Market, the Bazaar Market, the Fruit Market and the Vegetable and Fish Market. All of these are under different roofs."

"The medley throng of life that goes on is as picturesque, as unique and as vari-colored as if overhead were the gay tents of Constantinople stalls.” 

 —Catherine Cole [Martha Reinhard Smallwood Field], The Story of the Old French Market, New Orleans (1916)[

A Street in the Old Quarter (completed between 1927 and 1929) by Harry Armstrong NolanThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“There was the familiar odor of the French Quarter: the wet mustiness from the nearby river and wharves, blended with acrid smoke from ships tied up at the water’s edge, a faint stench of garbage, and the perfume of flowers in the courtyards beyond the brick walls, and of women who had passed or whose aromas seemed to reach out from the houses they lived in.”

—Robert Tallant, Angel in the Wardrobe (1948)

Restaurant de la Renaissance (1904) by William WoodwardThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“I dined at a score of different restaurants . . . . . none of the great and famous ones. I couldn’t afford them. But the standard of good cooking is higher in New Orleans than in the North. There were little French restaurants which served wine with the dinner, just as in France. Oysters, fresh from the bayous, were ten cents a dozen over the bar . . . . . and how delicious they were! I made the acquaintance of many dishes new to me, such as shrimp remoulade, jambalai, the famous New Orleans risotto, full of shrimp, peppers and other mysterious ingredients. I well remember a little restaurant, below the Market and just inside the levee. The patrons were, for the most part, Italian longshoremen. It looked like a pirate’s resort . . . . . and it may well have been so, back in the days when pirates swaggered in the streets of New Orleans.”

—William C. Odiorne (ca. 1933), unpublished memoir in THNOC’s holdings

Stoop Scene (1970s) by Robert Malcolm RuckerThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“New Orleans has accrued centuries of street-level stoop culture, many Creole cottages and shotgun houses built right up to the sidewalk, neighbors communicating concern and sharing news through stoop sitting and ‘door popping.’”

—Anne Gisleson, The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading (2017)

The Night Prowler, New Orleans (between 1930 and 1939) by Holger W. JensenThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“Of the buildings on Burgundy, most were four-room Creole cottages that lacked the shady courtyards where, out of sight of tourists and photographers, the true social life of the Quarter transpired. Here, residents sat on their stoops instead, yet even thus exposed, they managed to protect their privacy. A stranger could watch their languid movements, hear their laughter and music, smell the spicy foods they ate, but could never expect to be a part of those things. And when they went inside and shut their doors, their habits became as unknowable as those of ancient Congolese. . . . New Orleans watches less television than any town its size in the nation. What does it do, then, behind those closed shutters? What, indeed?”

—Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume (1984)

Orleans Street (1932) by Colette Pope HeldnerThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“This is not the best known view of it. Most persons prefer its facade, as seen from Jackson Square, with the sun shining brightly upon it. But the aspect which seems to me most significant is the one it presents after nightfall, then the great white statue of Christ, with arms outspread, casts a shadow on the wall behind it, and the green plot in which the statue stands is veiled in darkness.”

—Frances Parkinson Keyes, All This Is Louisiana: An Illustrated Storybook (1950)

Woman on Balcony (between 1965 and 1985) by Robert Malcolm RuckerThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“Some prosperous Frenchman had built the house in the late 1700s to house a menage of wife, children, and spinster tantes. The tantes had been stored up in the attic along with the other excess and unattractive furniture, and from the two little dormer windows in the roof they had seen what little of the world they believed existed outside of their own monde of slanderous gossip, needlework, and cyclical recitations of the rosary.”

—John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)

Louisiana Fishing Industry and French Market (between 1935 and 1940) by Hans MangelsdorfThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“[T]he fishermen have a nice way of filling the wells of their boats with fine fish all alive, which they scoop up with a net, and string on Palmetto fibres in a twinkling as the numerous orders pour in upon them. We brought home a string of a dozen which were scarcely dead when we got to the house at 8, so that we had a delightful fish supper. . . .”

—Thomas K. Wharton (June 18, 1856), in a journal entry reprinted in Queen of the South: The Journal of Thomas K. Wharton (1999)

Mother Cabrini Playground on Barracks Street (between 1939 and 1943) by Clarence MilletThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“[The houses’] chief beauty is the deep, warm, varicolored stain with which time and the weather have enriched the plaster. It harmonizes with all the surroundings, and has as natural a look of belonging there as has the flush upon sunset clouds. This charming decoration cannot be successfully imitated; neither is it to be found elsewhere in America.”

—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)

Original Jazz Band (1963) by Noel RockmoreThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“There were many different kinds of people and instruments to inspire me to carry on with my music when I was a boy. I always loved music, and it did not matter what the instrument was or who played it so long as the playing was good. I used to hear some of the finest music in the world listening to the barroom quartets who hung around the saloons with a cold can of beer in their hands, singing up a breeze while they passed the can around. I thought I was really somebody when I got so I could hang around with those fellows—sing and drink out of the can with them.”

—Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954)

An Old Court New Orleans (probably 1928) by Wilson Henry IrvineThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“Yes, how different the Quarter was then from the Quarter of now! Because, like the old sections of Paris, it looked old and it felt old. It had no pretensions. It was not “spruced up” or “slicked up” to appear something other than what it was. It was itself—without apology and without pretense.”

—Clarence John Laughlin, “Lost Louisiana: An Essay in the Poetry of Remembrance” (undated), unpublished manuscript in THNOC’s holdings

Antique Shop, New Orleans (1927) by Clarence MilletThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“The French names . . . on street signs and over shops seem archaic; and in the curio shops, instead of tomahawks and Indian masks, they sell oil lamps, Sevres vases and the art objects as remote as that of the Hopi or the Navajo Indians: pearl necklaces and barbaric headdresses, porcelain and chandeliers, strange idols.” 

"There are many bookshops in this part of town; the tiny shops overflow onto the sidewalks; entire bins of old, soiled volumes are for sale. There are also many curio shops and confectioners.”   

 —Simone de Beauvoir (March 30, 1947), translated by Patrick Dudley, in America Day by Day (1953), quoted in Louisiana Sojourns: Travelers’ Tales and Literary Journeys (1998)

French Quarter Courtyard (probably 1928) by Wilson Henry IrvineThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“Somebody said that the only interesting thing about New Orleans was that it smelled different. There are whiffs of ground coffee and a congeries of smells which one imagines to be the ‘naval stores’ that geography books were always speaking of. Yet the peculiar flavor of New Orleans is more than a smell. It has something to do with the South and with a cutting off from the South, with the River and with history.”

—Walker Percy, “New Orleans Mon Amour,” in Harper’s Magazine (September 1968)

House Decorated for Mardi Gras (1998) by Joseph KonopkaThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.”

—Mark Twain (March 1859), in a letter to Pamela Moffat

French Quarter House, Corner of Bourbon and Dumaine Streets (ca. 1935) by Clarence MilletThe Historic New Orleans Collection

“Some of the houses have outlived their usefulness, like so many of the old, and while you may look upon them as much as you please, you must look with friendly eyes. If you do not, you may come away with only the idea of dirt and squalor—and you may miss altogether that lingering charm which clings to these old mansions even in the last stages of their decay.”

—Lyle Saxon, Fabulous New Orleans (1928)

Restaurant de la Renaissance (1904) by William WoodwardThe Historic New Orleans Collection

French Quarter Life

For more than 150 years, artists from around the world have worked to capture and share their impressions of New Orleans’s most iconic and historic neighborhood. This exhibition gathers 22 paintings from the museum’s permanent collection, including intended gifts from Louisiana art collector Laura Simon Nelson. From the bustle of the French Market to the jazzmen of Preservation Hall, these artworks explore the streets, buildings, and people of the French Quarter over time and through a variety of techniques. Additionally each image has been paired with a literary quotation selected by our museum staff. Though the choices are subjective, we hope that the words and images together will convey a vivid sense of how life is lived in the French Quarter.

Credits: Story

This virtual exhibition was assembled by the staff of The Historic New Orleans Collection, which gratefully acknowledges the generosity of donors Laura Simon Nelson, Jan Hill Keels, Rolland Golden, Anice P. Temple, and Casimera Konopka.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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