Museum inn ‘In de Zwarte Kat’ (The Black Cat) has been turned into a typical late 19th-century popular café (pub). Around 1900, Bruges counted no less than 1,296 drinking establishments. One in eight houses was a café! In particular in poorer working class neighbourhoods, such as here in Sint-Anna, public houses and gin palaces sprung up like mushrooms. A place where locals used to gather to share and drink away their problems.
During festivities such as fairs, street parties and weddings, cafés were a place to dance, and that obviously required some form of music. Before 1850, the violin was the café instrument of choice. Thereafter the diversity of instruments grew: piano, barrel organ, orchestrion (mechanical organ), harmonium, accordion, etc. In 1913, seven Bruges cafés had a pianola, a mechanical cylinder piano that plays ten or so different tunes, permanently installed. The museum inn includes a rare example dating back to 1910.
High alcohol consumption among the lower classes was a concern for the bourgeoisie and city council. The more affluent classes used to meet in chic coffee houses or cafés on the Market Square or in the more prosperous trading quarters. They had rather grand names such as "Grand Café", "Au Panier d'Or" or "Café Royal".
The name of the inn refers to the first cabaret in Paris, Chat Noir (1881), and the Bruges Literary Circle of the same name. Similar to its Parisian namesake, the Black Cat brings together an audience with a cultural interest in literary lectures, concerts and exhibitions. They meet in the back room of the Au lion belge café in Langestraat. The museum has retained a few relics of the Black Cat: a speaker’s barrel (1898) and large poster based on a design by Théophile Steinlen (1896).
The Bruges example of Théophile Steinlen’s poster is now almost as recognisable as the Parisian original. The expression ‘Here in the Black Cat we serve all the food and drink you need’ can be taken literally. Even today, you can drop in for a drink and a bite to eat. The volunteers at the inn will be only too happy to help you choose one of the delicious local beers.
On top of the glass shelf is a ‘zageman’, a small metal man with a long saw that can be activated at the side of a table or bar. It was a subtle hint to tell those propping up the bar that it was time to go home and that the café was about to close. As long as the ‘zageman’ was still moving there was time to drink up. After that, there was no argument and punters had to go (straight?) home.
The pianola was a typical café instrument, few of which are still remaining. The music is formatted as perforations onto paper rolls, similar to the perforated cardboard books used for barrel organs. The piano plays by itself, powered by a pneumatically operated system. You will discover what it sounds like if you insert 20 cents.
The gramophone was developed at the same time as the pianola. The introduction of electrical record players with amplifiers and radios heralded the demise of the pianola era. The first jukeboxes enlivened the nightlife in Bruges from 1950 onwards.
Behind the speaker’s barrel is a roll painting (1896) by Victor De Loose, a member of the Kunstgenegen art society. The seat of the Kunstgenegen art society was located in café Vlissinghe. The painting depicts 15 scenes that tie in with the 15 verses of a song entitled “Van de vogel en de vis” (“About the bird and the fish”). It is a ‘stacked’ song in which a verse is added each time and all previous verses are repeated, usually in reverse order. A well-known example in the Dutch language is ‘De boom staat op de bergen’ (‘The tree sits on the mountain’).
‘Van de vogel en de vis’ was the theme song of the “Kunstgenegen” art society. Later the roll painting came into the possession of the “De Parispointen” curve bowl society of café Vlissinghe. It was donated to the museum in 1982.
Another typical café tradition in the 19th century was setting up a savings account at the inn. Many inns included a savings society. Members would put some savings in the savings box at regular intervals. The secretary would collect and take the money to a financial institution, i.e. the post office, ASLK savings bank (1865), where it would gain interest. The money collected would then be used to organise an annual party or outing.
Don’t jump! Aristide is the museum’s black house cat. He owes his name to Aristide Bruant (1851-1925), who in the Parisian cabaret ‘Chat Noir’ (Black Cat) on Montmartre used to sing the famous ‘Autour du Chat Noir’ ballad. There has been a black tom cat wandering around the Volkskundemuseum since 1984. The current incumbent has the illustrious title of Aristide IV.
Black cats feature prominently in popular folklore. Here it is a symbol of evil and a harbinger of bad luck, but in Britain it is thought to bring luck. Others see the alter ego of a witch. What do you think?