The vide-greniers have multiplied to such an extent these last years that the French State/tax administration (I'm not making this up) tried to find a way, new rules, taxes or whatever to limit its success. Something that thrives under the tax radar is often suspect in France... It goes like (I'm afraid I'm 100% on target) : "look, Mr chief of cabinet of the Service des Impots (tax dept.), something suspicious is going on here : brocantes and vide-greniers are all over the country and people are happily buying old junk from each other and we aren't making a centime of it !...we are being cheated and must act ! immédiatement !" A new law was thus quickly enacted, saying who could sell on these vide-greniers and who couldn't, which brought in return a salvo of resisting petitions.
Whatever, either they backpedalled or the law isn't enforced, but these popular sidewalk sales managed somehow to survive, and it was in one of them in the Loire that I happened to have bought a school calculation book full of dictated math exercises painstakingly written and solved (or not soved) in the year of 1915. It belonged to a boy named Maurice Georges, pupil at the Institution Charlemagne in Tours (Loire), probably a private catholic school. I don't know why I bought this math exercise book, I leafed a bit through it, found that funny and as the seller wanted just 1 Euro for it, I took it. The math exercises are inspired from real-life situations like they used to do in school, you know, a merchant buys such and such, how much must he sell each item to make such amount of money, and so on.
Monday, february 1st 1915
A dealer buys 7 casks of wine at 400 Francs per cask. To this wine, he adds 114 liters of water and sells the mix 1,7 Franc per 0,75 liter. His net gain (bénéfice) is 447,20 Francs. What is the volume of each cask ?
total price : 400 X 7 = 2800 + 447,2 = 3244,2
Number of liters : 3247,2/1,7 = 2845
Number of liters in a cask : 1845 + 114/7 = 279,85 (or 280 liters).
We see here that adding water to the wine was common then. Dealers, cafetiers and bougnats (bougnats used to sell both coal and wine) would mix water to the wine, I guess to compensate for transport fees or who knows why. If my maths are good, it's not that much water btw, maybe 5 or 6%. As the wine was already lower in alcohol than today, this water adding could explain why wine was 8° or 9° strong, as many people say it was.
Some one mixes 6 casks (pièces) of Burgundy wine, each with a 228-liter volume and costing 80 Francs each [I'm buying that cask right away...], with 750 liters of Hérault [South of France] wine costing 0,25/liter. Then, this mix is racked into 10 casks with a capacity of 230 liters each. Water is added to complement the total volume. How much does an hectoliter of this final blend cost, and how much water was added ?
Quantity of liters : 6 X 228 = 1368
Total volume of wine : 750 + 1368 = 2118
Quantity of liters of the other casks : 230 X 10 = 2300
Added-water volume : 2300 - 2118 = 189 liters
Bad in maths, the pupil gave up here and didn't answer about the hectoliter-mix cost....
Here we see that the Hérault wine is not much cheaper than the Burgundy. Burgundy was making then also lesser quality wine and the Hérault wine was chosen maybe for the color (if it's a red). The water addition is a bit higher here, about 8%.
A débitant [probably a wine shop selling wine directly from the cask] buys two 220-liter casks of wine, at 0,45 Franc a liter, and another 180 liters of wine at 0,38 F a liter. He blends the wines. How much must he sell a liter of the resulting wine to earn 25% on the purchase and 25% on the sale.
Price of the two casks : 220 X 2 = 440 X 0,45 = 198
Price of the 180 liters of wine : 180 X 0,38 = 68,40
He resells the liter at : 266,4/83 X 25 = 0,57
Here, the pupil seems to have stopped short of finding the soltuion and given up... Bad maths again...
A débitant (caviste) has three casks of wine. The 1st contains 320 liters of wine at 0,4 Franc a liter. the 2nd, with a capacity of 228 liters, costs 98,80 Franc, and the 3rd has a 1,9-hectoliter capacity and costs 39,5 Franc. He blends these wines. What is the cost price of the resulting blend ?
I'll not translate the solution, this pupil is muddle-headed indeed and I don't think he did it right. But for what concerns us, we see that the caviste makes his own blends with different volumed casks, coming probably from diferent regions, and the reason (if it did happen in the real world, which I think it did) seems obscure why one would blend a 320-liter cask with a 280-liter one, and with a 190-liter foudre in addition. A guess : Let's say we're dealing with red wine here. A cask from Burgundy, a foudre from the loire (or from the Paris region, which had still lots of vineyards) and a cask with a dark-colored wine from the languedoc for more tannins. Or...the other way around : a cask from Burgundy, a cask from the Loire, and a foudre from the cheaper Languedoc to dilute the formers.
Friday, june 2nd 1915
A vineyard with a surface of 1 hectare, 15 ares and 8 ca has been purchased for 0,6 Franc per square meter. It yielded 18 casks of wine with a capacity of 220 liters each. The wine was sold for 35 centimes a liter. But their were additional expenses for fertilizers and manpower, amounting to 225 Francs per hectare. Would have it been more profitable to invest the money in a bank at a rate of 5% ?
Price : 0,6 X 11508 = 69048,8
Quantity of liters : 18 X 220 = 3960 liters
Retail price : 0,35 X 3960 = 1386 Franc
Earnings from the vineyard : 1386 - 258,93 = 1127
Earnings from a 5% rate : 6904,80 X 0,05 = 345,25
It is more profitable to take the vineyard (il est plus avantageux de prendre la vigne).
Here, we learn the yields for this 1,15 hectare, which produced 3960 liters (18 casks/220 liters each). That's about 35 hectoliter/hectare, interesting because not too high, it could hint we have some possibility that this wine was good. Second, they already bought some sort of fertilizers then, but it is not clear if it was manure or some more serious stuff made by the industry.
But more than that, there is a lesson from the past, here : keep working on you vineyard, man, that's a smarter investment than the bank...
a last exercise unrelated to wine but yet interesting for the information it conveys about the daily rythms of life :
A worker works 9,5 hours per days. He works on average 7/8th of an hour [the boy's writing skills being far from perfect, I'm not sure of these last indications], he stopped two hours for his meals and finished work at 6:15am. At what time did he begin to work ?
Solution : [blackout, here, the boy gave up]
People were working a lot then, and had long pauses to eat. the text says "meals", so it could mean that they stopped twice at least to eat. There is one thing for sure, it is that workers drank a lot then, and I would bet that there was wine (mixed with water, of course) on the menu at each of their pauses.