14 Revolutionary Facts About Bastille Day

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 14, 1789, Parisian revolutionaries stormed the Bastille fortress, where Louis XVI had imprisoned many of his enemies—or those whom he perceived to be enemies of the state. For many, the place had come to represent nothing short of royal tyranny. Its sudden fall foretold the French revolution—along with a holiday that’s now celebrated throughout France and the world at large with cries of “Vive le 14 Juillet!

1. In France, nobody calls it "Bastille Day."

The day is referred to as la Fête Nationale, or “the National Holiday.” In more informal settings, French people also call it le Quatorze Juillet (“14 July”). "Bastille Day" is an English term that’s seldom used within French borders—at least by non-tourists.

2. Originally, the Bastille wasn't designed to be a prison.

The name “Bastille” comes from the word bastide, which means “fortification,” a generic term for a certain type of tower in southern France until it was eventually restricted to one particular Bastille. When construction began on the building in 1357, its main purpose was not to keep prisoners in, but to keep invading armies out: At the time, France and England were engaged in the Hundred Years’ War. The Bastille, known formally as the Bastille Saint-Antoinewas conceived as a fortress whose strategic location could help stall an attack on Paris from the east.

Over the course of the Hundred Years' War, the structure of the building changed quite a bit. The Bastille started out as a massive gate consisting of a thick wall and two 75-foot towers. By the end of 1383, it had evolved into a rectangular fortress complete with eight towers and a moat.

Such attributes would later turn the Bastille into an effective state prison—but it wasn’t actually used as one until the 17th century. Under King Louis XIII, the powerful Cardinal de Richelieu began the practice of jailing his monarch’s enemies (without a trial) inside; at any given time, the cardinal would hold up to 55 captives there.

3. The Bastille was loaded with gunpowder. 

In July 1789, France was primed for a revolt. Bad weather had driven food prices through the roof, and the public resented King Louis XVI’s extravagant lifestyle. To implement financial reforms and quell rebellion, Louis was forced to call a meeting of the Estates-General, a national assembly representing the three estates of France. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate held the nobility, and all other royal subjects comprised the Third Estate. Each estate had a single vote, meaning two estates could defeat the other estate every time.

The Estates-General met in Versailles on May 5, 1789. Arguments between the Third Estate and the other two boiled over on June 20. King Louis responded by physically locking the common people’s representatives out of the room. The third estate, now calling themselves the National Assembly, reconvened on an indoor tennis court and pledged to remain active until a French constitution was established.

The King sanctioned the National Assembly on June 27, but then sent troops into Paris to deal with growing unrest. He made his problems worse by dismissing finance official Jacques Necker, who supported the Third Estate. The National Assembly and everyday citizens began to take up arms. On July 14, 1789, revolutionaries burst into a soldiers’ hospital in Paris and seized 3000 guns and five cannons. Then, they broke into the Bastille where a stockpile of gunpowder lay. 

4. The July 14 "storming" freed only a handful of prisoners ...

The French revolutionaries who broke into the Bastille expected to find numerous inmates. In reality, the prison was almost empty except for seven captives who seemed to be in relatively good health. We may never be certain of their identities. Some accounts claim that four of the prisoners had committed forgery, two were regarded as lunatics, and one was a disgraced nobleman. Other sources are less specific. A report penned on July 24 agrees that four were forgers and another came from an aristocratic family—but that the other two vanished before anyone could definitively identify them.

5. ... and the Marquis de Sade was almost among them.

You probably know him as the man whose conduct and erotic writings gave rise to the word sadism. In 1784, the aristocrat was transferred from another prison to the Bastille, where he languished for the next five years. Within those walls, de Sade penned several books—including his notorious novel One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom.

He surely would have been freed when the Bastille was stormed. But on June 2, de Sade started yelling at the passersby beneath his window, claiming that people were being maimed and killed inside and begging the people to save him. The episode got de Sade transferred once again—this time to an insane asylum outside Paris. His removal from the Bastille took place on July 4, 1789. Ten days later, rebels stormed inside.

6. Thomas Jefferson donated money to the families of the revolutionaries.

As America’s minister to France (and a big fan of revolution), Jefferson took a lively interest in the Bastille incident—which broke out while he was living abroad in Paris. Although Long Tom didn’t witness the event firsthand, he eloquently summarized everything he’d learned about the siege in a detailed letter to John Jay. On August 1, 1789, Jefferson wrote in his diary, “Gave for widows of those killed in taking Bastille, 60 francs.”

7. A huge festival was held exactly one year after the Bastille was stormed. 

By July 14, 1790, the Bastille had been destroyed, its pieces scattered across the globe by souvenir collectors. France now operated under a constitutional monarchy, an arrangement that divided power between King Louis XVI and the National Assembly. Meanwhile, hereditary nobility was outlawed.

To honor these advances, the government organized a huge event called the “Festival of the Federation,” which was to take place on the first anniversary of the Bastille showdown. As July 14 approached, French citizens from all walks of life came together and set up some 40,000 seats in preparation. When the big day finally arrived, King Louis arrived with 200 priests and swore to maintain the constitution. The Marquis de Lafayette—who’d famously helped orchestrate America’s revolution—stood by the monarch’s side. Later on, Queen Marie Antoinette got a huge cheer when she proudly showed off the heir apparent. Among the spectators was dramatist Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who later said, “I saw 50,000 citizens of all classes, of all ages, of all sexes, forming the most superb portrait of unity." 

8. Several different dates were considered for the French national holiday.

Here’s a trick question: What historical event does Bastille Day commemorate? If you answered “the storming of the Bastille prison,” you’re both right and wrong. In 1880, France’s senate decided that their homeland needed a national holiday. What the French statesmen had in mind was an annual, patriotic celebration dedicated to the country and her citizens. But the matter of choosing a date turned into an extremely partisan ordeal: Every available option irked somebody in the senate on ideological grounds. For instance, conservatives were dead-set against July 14 (at least at first) because they felt that the 1789 Bastille incident was too bloody to merit celebration.

Alternatives were numerous. To some, September 21 looked attractive, since the original French Republic was created on that day in 1792. Others favored February 24, which marked the birth of France’s second republic. Another option was August 4, the anniversary of the feudal system’s abolishment.

Ultimately, though, July 14 managed to win out. After all, the date marks not one but two very important anniversaries: 1789’s attack on the Bastille and 1790’s peaceful, unifying Festival of the Federation. So by choosing July 14, the senate invited all citizens to decide for themselves which of these events they’d rather celebrate. As Senator Henri Martell argued, anyone who had reservations about the first July 14 could still embrace the second. Personally, he revered the latter. In his own words, July 14, 1790 was “the most beautiful day in the history of France, possibly in the history of mankind. It was on that day that national unity was finally accomplished.”

9. Bastille Day features the oldest and largest regular military parade in Western Europe.

This beloved Paris tradition dates all the way back to 1880. In its first 38 years, the parade’s route varied wildly, but since 1918, the procession has more or less consistently marched down the Champs-Elysées, the most famous avenue in Paris. Those who watch the event in person are always in for a real spectacle—2015’s parade boasted some 31 helicopters, 55 planes, 208 military vehicles, and 3501 soldiers. It’s also fairly common to see troops from other nations marching alongside their French counterparts. Two years ago, for example, 150 Mexican soldiers came to Paris and participated.

10. In France, firemen throw public dances.

On the night of July 13 or 14, people throughout France live it up at their local fire departments. Most stations will throw large dance parties that are open to the entire neighborhood (kids are sometimes welcome). Please note, however, that some fire departments charge an admission fee. Should you find one that doesn’t, be sure to leave a donation behind instead. It’s just common courtesy.

11. The Louvre celebrates by offering free admission.

If you’re in Paris on Bastille Day and don’t mind large crowds, go say bonjour to the Mona Lisa. Her measurements might surprise you: The world’s most famous painting is only 30 inches tall by 21 inches wide.

12. Bastille Day has become a truly international holiday.

Can’t get to France on Bastille Day? Not a problem. People all over the world honor and embrace the holiday. In eastern India, the scenic Puducherry district was under French rule as recently as 1954. Every July 14, fireworks go off in celebration and a local band usually plays both the French and Indian national anthems. Thousands of miles away, Franschhoek, South Africa, throws an annual, two-day Bastille celebration—complete with a parade and all the gourmet French cuisine you could ask for.

Then there’s the United States, where dozens of cities organize huge festivals on this most French of holidays. New Orleans hosts a doggie costume contest in which pet owners are encouraged to dress up their pooches in handsome French garb. Or maybe you’d like to visit Philadelphia, where, at the Eastern State Penitentiary museum and historic site, Philly citizens re-enact the storming of the Bastille while guards keep the rebels at bay by hurling Tastykakes at them.

13. A huge solar flare once took place on Bastille Day.

NASA won’t be forgetting July 14, 2000 anytime soon. On that particular day, one of the largest solar storms in recent memory caught scientists off guard. An explosion caused by twisted magnetic fields sent a flurry of particles racing toward Earth. These created some gorgeous aurora light shows that were visible as far south as El Paso, Texas. Unfortunately, the particles also caused a few radio blackouts and short-circuited some satellites. Astronomers now refer to this incident as “The Bastille Day Event.”

14. You can find a key to the Bastille at Mount Vernon.

The Marquis de Lafayette, 19, arrived in the new world to join America’s revolutionary cause in 1777. Right off the bat, he made a powerful friend: George Washington instantly took a liking to the Frenchman and within a month, Lafayette had effectively become the general’s adopted son. Their affection was mutual; when the younger man had a son of his own in 1779, he named him Georges Washington de Lafayette.

The day after the storming of the Bastille, the Marquis de Lafayette became the commander of the Paris National Guard. In the aftermath of the Bastille siege, he was given the key to the building. As a thank-you—and to symbolize the new revolution—Lafayette sent it to Washington’s Mount Vernon home, where the relic still resides today

This story originally ran in 2016.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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How Gangsters and the Media Helped Make Trick or Treating a Halloween Tradition

Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
Criminal behavior was seen as an inspiration for trick or treating in the 1930s.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

On Halloween night in 1934, a scene played out in Helena, Montana, that the local newspaper, the Helena Independent, related as though it were a scene out of a mafia confrontation [PDF]. A group of teenagers roughly 15 to 16 years old knocked on a woman’s door and asserted they were there for the purposes of trick or treating. When the woman refused their request, they opted for a third outcome—property damage. The kids smashed her birdbath.

The paper identified the group’s “leader” as “Pretty Boy” John Doe, a nod to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a notorious gangster who had been killed in a police shootout just two weeks before. In media and in the minds of kids, the then-novel practice of trick or treating on Halloween was not quite innocent fun. It was emblematic of the public’s infatuation with civil disobedience and organized crime, and it would take no lesser positive influences than Donald Duck and Charlie Brown to make adults believe Halloween wasn’t merely a training ground for America’s youth to become hoodlums.

 

Trick or treating is a relatively new phenomenon in North America. The concept of going door to door and requesting candy on Halloween was virtually unheard-of prior to the 1920s, though it did have antecedents in ancient history. In the Middle Ages, following the Catholic Church’s re-appropriation of Celtic celebrations, kids would dress as saints, angels, and demons in what was known as “guising,” from “disguising.” These cloaked figures would go from one door to the next, requesting food or money in exchange for singing their benefactors a song or praying. This solicitation was known as “souling,” and children and poor adults who engaged in it were known as “soulers.”

Scottish and Irish immigrants likely brought guising over to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Around the same time, kids were in the habit of dressing up for other holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve, and requesting money. When costumed events for Halloween became more prevalent and citywide celebrations were organized to help discourage kids from playing pranks, private groups began planning door-to-door visits in the 1920s. That’s when the disparate elements of costumes, mild pranks like ringing a doorbell and then running off, and getting treats all converged, seemingly taking a more sinister turn.

Early trick or treating was serious business.Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Writing in the American Journal of Play in 2011 [PDF], author Samira Kawash took a closer look at the rise in popularity of trick or treating and the seeming glorification of organized crime figures during the economically turbulent period of the 1930s. It’s little coincidence, Kawash wrote, that kids began to approach trick or treating as a form of extortion just as antiheroes achieved infamy in newspapers. The media reflected this influence, often writing of pranks in breathless terms. The threat of soaping windows if targets didn’t pay up in the form of treats was nothing more than a juvenile version of a mobster offering “protection” to a shopkeeper. Demands for candy could be considered a “shakedown.” The treats were “edible plunder.” Roving groups of costumed kids were “goon squads.” Some kids even bypassed requests for candy and demanded money instead.

In some parts of the country, the idea of making a choice between handing out food or suffering from a “trick” was new. In Beatrice, Nebraska, in 1938, a group of young boys told local police chief Paul Acton about their success. “We knock on the door,” one said, “and ask if they’d rather give us a treat, or have us dump over the garbage pail. Boy, have we been eating!”

The media took a critical approach to this new tradition, warning readers that such activities could be creating the criminals of tomorrow. Not everyone responded kindly to it, either. In Brooklyn, a school principal responded to a trick or treat offer by slapping a child across the face after he was admonished by a tyke to “hand it over or else.” Trick or treating had morphed from a pitiable request for charity to a sneering threat of property destruction in lieu of a candy bar.

 

Trick or treating began to lose some of its edge during World War II, when sugar rationing disrupted the entire concept of Halloween and vandalizing homes seemed especially cruel considering the global threat to democracy. In Reno, Nevada, in 1942, a school superintendent named E.O. Vaughn told principals and teachers to caution kids against knocking on doors, both because of the war and because it had a “tinge of gangsterism.” By the time candy had resumed normal production and the nation was no longer mired in war or a financial crisis, it had settled into something mostly innocent. (But not totally without mischief. In 1948, local police in Dunkirk, New York, advised adults to phone them when a group of kids was spotted so cops could “round up the children.”)

By the 1950s, trick or treating was less about property damage and more about having fun with friends.Joe Clark, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Helping restore the reputation of trick or treating were two familiar icons in popular culture. In 1951, Charles Schulz drew a series of Peanuts comic strips that featured Charlie Brown and his friends going door to door. (Peppermint Patty uses Charlie Brown’s head as inspiration for her pumpkin carving.) The strip, read by millions of people daily, normalized the practice. So did Trick or Treat, a 1952 Donald Duck cartoon that was released theatrically and featured Donald caught in a battle of tricks with nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

Further legitimizing the practice of demanding treats was the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, or UNICEF, which provided boxes for kids to collect their sugary bounty as well as request spare change. The effort eventually raised $175 million and returned trick or treating to its more charitable origins.

Although Halloween has settled into a widely understood arrangement in which candy is distributed without any overt threat of birdbath-bashing, not everyone has abandoned the brute force aspects of the 1930s. According to data compiled by GateHouse Media and taken from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, there were 19,900 acts of vandalism on October 31 over a 10-year period from 2009 to 2018. Only New Year’s Day was more eventful, with 21,000 acts committed in the same timeframe. For many, Halloween is a time to collect treats. For others, it remains the season for tricks.