Hippophagy, meaning the eating of horse meat, wasn’t even legal in France until 1866, although there was a black market for horse meat long before that, especially in times of crisis.
According to the French historian Sylvain Leteux, horse meat lost its taboo status and became a popular food in France between 1870 and 1960, especially among the “urban working classes”, particularly because it was inexpensive, costing only about half the price of pork or beef.
When hippophagy was legalized, it was also highly regulated. Horse meat was allowed to be sold only in specialized equine butcher shops, not in ordinary butcher shops where it might be confused with other kinds of meat. These special shops were required to be clearly marked with pictures of horses, so no one would be in any doubt about what they were buying.
One of the first equine butcher shops in Paris was this one in the Marais district at 56 rue du Roi de Sicile (= Street of the King of Sicily), at the corner of rue Vieille-du-Temple. The shop was established in the 19th century in the ground floor of an older building called the Hôtel de Vibraye, but it didn’t get its distinctive façade made of bright ceramic tiles until 1946.
The slogan in the mosaic reads Achat de Chevaux, meaning ‘Purchase of Horses’. The façade is now protected as an historical monument (along with other features of the building), but the butcher shop has been replaced by a clothing store.
At least a dozen equine butcher shops are still operating in other parts of Paris, even though the market for horse meat has been declining since the 1960s. The decline started because there were no longer enough horses in France, so it was “necessary to import carcasses from abroad to meet the demand” (Leteux, page 12). As a result, horse meat has become an expensive kind of meat, losing the price advantage it used to have.
By the way, the “Street of the King of Sicily” got its name in the 13th century, when the King of Sicily was a brother of the King of France, Louis IX, now better known as Saint Louis. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Les vêpres siciliennes, which he composed for the Paris Opera using a French text, takes place in Sicily in this period, specifically during a rebellion (against the French) in the year 1282.
Location and aerial view of the Hôtel de Vibraye on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2011. I wrote the text in 2021.