Berets and onions
In the mid 1900s, if you had asked nearly any British person what a Frenchman looked like, you would have gotten this description: He wears a beret, and he rides a bike with onions hanging on the handlebars.
Beret, baguette, and wine
Today, most of us don’t associate onions with the French, but we all immediately recognise the caricature of a French person by his jauntily-placed beret. The onions have been exchanged for a baguette and bottle of wine, but the Frenchman of our imagination just wouldn’t seem French without his trusty beret.
Do French men really wear berets?
The French are often baffled by their beret-wearing image. After all, the beret has never been a head-covering worn by the masses. It was donned by men in southern France, by artists, soldiers, manual labourers, and fashionistas, but there was never a time when it was the head-covering of choice on the streets of Paris.
Blame the Brits
So where did this idea of beret-wearing Frenchmen originate? It seems to have taken root in British soil in the 1800s. From there it spread to other English-speaking countries, then on to the rest of the world.
But the British didn’t just dream up this image. There was a very good reason they associated Frenchmen with berets. The French man in a beret, riding a bicycle and carrying onions was actually a fairly common sight all across Great Britain from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.
French Onion Johnnies
These beret-wearing, onion-laden cyclists arrived in the UK every summer to peddle their wares. They came from the area around Roscoff, Brittany in northern France. This area was (and still is) known for its special pink onions. They were sweet, had a long storage life - and the British loved them.
As it happened, many of these onion-sellers were called Yann, a common Breton name which is the French equivalent of Jean and the English equivalent of John. The British soon took to calling them “Onion Johnnies.” The Johnnies didn’t mind and happily adopted their new English nickname.
They would go door to door, wearing their berets and selling their onions, from July through December, then they would return to Brittany. Since the Onion Johnnies were the only contact that many Brits had with a Frenchman, they naturally assumed that all Frenchmen wore berets.
The Onion Johnny story
How did it come about that these Bretons descended on the UK every year? The Onion Johnny story begins in 1828 when Henri Ollivier had a bumper crop of onions. The road to Paris was long and difficult and, since he lived so near to the sea, it was easier to just sail across the channel to the UK to sell his onions.
So Henri loaded up a boat full of onions, took three or four of his friends and set sail. The British took a liking to their pink onions, and when Henri and his pals came home with their pockets full of money, everyone wanted in on their business venture.
All the would-be onion-sellers soon got together and organised themselves into companies. Each company had a boss who would go over ahead of the others and rent a building (a barn or warehouse) to serve as an onion depot.
The others would follow in July, along with the shipment of onions. The voyage to the UK by sail boat could take 1 or 2 days, depending on the winds, and could be treacherous. One of the worst accidents happened in 1905 when the steamer Hilda sank near St. Malo. More than half of the 127 deaths were Onion Johnnies returning from their season in the UK. Despite the dangers, boat-loads of Johnnies crossed the channel every year to sell their onions.
When they reached the British shores, they dispersed to their various onion depots. These buildings, which were scattered all across the UK, would be their working and living quarters for the next 5 months.
They often slept on straw in the space they shared with their onions. When they had sold all the produce they had brought with them, another shipment would arrive.
Life in the UK
It wasn’t an easy life. Strings of onions were heavy and men could start the day with 60-100 pounds of onions strung over a pole carried on their shoulders. When bicycles were introduced in the 1930s, it made their work easier and the bicycle became part of their image.
Every day except Sunday, the onion-sellers started their day by donning their beret, loading up their bicycle with onions and setting out on their sales route. They didn’t go home for dinner until they had sold everything.
The boss accounted for all onions and made sure the right amount of money came in. This led many Johnnies (especially the young boys who started working around 10 years of age) to quote the price and then say, “And a penny for myself, please.”
Rise and fall of the Onion Johnnies
In the early 1900s, there were Onion Johnnies selling their wares in almost every city, town and hamlet in the UK. From the 3 or 4 men who originally went over in 1828, their numbers grew steadily. The peak was reached in 1929 when there were 1,400 Johnnies selling 9,000 tons of onions to the British. After the Great Depression, the trade fell off; and in 1934, only 400 Onion Johnnies and 3,000 tons of onions arrived in the UK. Today, Onion Johnnies are practically non-existent and those who have a hankering for the pink Roscoff onion can order it online.
They changed how the world saw France
Even though the Onion Johnnies with their berets and bikes are no longer a part of the British landscape, their image lives on in the French stereotype. These hard-working men were just trying to make a living while wearing their regional headgear. They had no idea they were creating a beret-clad stereotype that would follow their countrymen for many years to come.
In 2004 Roscoff opened an Onion Johnnie Museum to honour this almost-forgotten profession.
See also: History of the French beret
More from Margo: www.curiousrambler.com