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Why Was 5 PM Known as the “Green Hour” in Late 19th-Century Paris?

Margaret Lipman
Published May 28, 2024
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The Belle Époque, meaning “beautiful era,” was a vibrant period in French history that lasted from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 until the start of World War I in 1914. This period witnessed a flourishing of the arts, with absinthe—a potent alcoholic beverage—reputedly serving as a muse for many renowned artists of the time.

Absinthe is a bitter, herb-infused spirit traditionally known for its striking, bright green color. It was invented in Switzerland in the late 18th century by French doctor Pierre Ordinaire. He crafted this highly alcoholic drink using the flowers and leaves of the wormwood plant, along with 14 other herbs, including fennel and anise.

Absinthe’s popularity steadily grew throughout the 19th century. In the 1840s, it was even given to French troops to prevent malaria, although there is no evidence that it worked. In the 1860s, many French vineyards suffered from grape phylloxera infestations, which drove up the price of wine and made absinthe a more affordable option. Absinthe became a beverage enjoyed by all social classes, and by 1910, the French were consuming 36 million liters annually.

Absinthe was particularly beloved in the French capital, with the period from 5 to 6 pm dubbed “The Green Hour,” when many of the city’s bohemian inhabitants would gather in bars and cafes across Paris to drink the green liquor. Absinthe developed a reputation for inspiring artistic creativity and freeing the mind, earning the nickname "the green fairy." Many renowned artists and writers, such as Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and Ernest Hemingway, were avid absinthe drinkers. The drink also inspired notable artworks, including Édouard Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker and Pablo Picasso’s sculpture The Glass of Absinthe.

Absinthe has been linked to bizarre behavior in its drinkers and has been blamed for everything from hallucinations to epilepsy to tuberculosis. What is certain is that the absinthe drunk in Belle Époque Paris, was incredibly strong, typically containing about 80 percent alcohol by volume during its peak popularity. This high alcohol content likely accounts for the profound effects experienced by those who consumed it.

By the start of World War I, absinthe had earned a reputation for promoting immoral behavior. It was banned by the Minister of the Interior on August 16, 1914, as it was considered a threat to French morale.

The green fairy lives on:

  • *The traditional serving method involves placing a slotted spoon above a glass of absinthe with a sugar cube on top. Ice water is then slowly poured over the sugar cube, causing it to dissolve and drip into the absinthe. This process, known as "louching," gives the drink a cloudy green color.

  • *Absinthe continues to be enjoyed today, often diluted with water or used as an ingredient in cocktails. One popular absinthe cocktail is "Death in the Afternoon," inspired by the novel of the same name by Ernest Hemingway.

  • *During the 19th century, absinthe was believed to have medicinal properties and was prescribed by doctors to treat various illnesses, including digestive issues and fevers.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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