The Lady Salonnières of the Enlightenment

Odd Salon Giving TuesdayThis GivingTuesday, we’re celebrating the great open knowledge projects of the past, seeking out tales of rogue scholars, underground educators, and projects for the diffusion of knowledge, useful and otherwise. DONATE TODAY> 

This post was contributed by Odd Salon Fellow Reigh Robitaille, who has brought stories to our stage of foundling tokens, globetrotting adventures of the real life Phileas Fogg, and the eccentric collections and fruit-laden portraits of Emperor Rudolf II. She also leads incredible tours in San Francisco dedicated to the amazing women of our city’s past. 

France’s famed salons were all the rage in the 17th & 18th centuries, when the wigs were white, the corsets were tight, and the social mores were stifling. The salon tradition fueled the flames of early girl power, sparked a revolution that toppled the aristocracy, and even informed the French language as we know it (ooh la la!).  France was shifting into an era of Enlightenment, and salons would be the ship that guided them there (SHIPS!)

It sounds pretty basic: gather about 20 – 40 people, once or twice a week (although some met daily!) with a bit of food to fuel the belly and a lot of ideas to power the mind. After sharing a meal, guests discussed a vast range of topics: philosophy, politics, literature, science (SCIENCE!), followed by hours of passionate debate. The hosts, a.k.a. “salonnieres” were typically ladies with money and savoir faire. They acted as agents provocateurs, selecting the topics, defining the decorum, and leading the discussion. Their guests joined to exchange ideas and elicit debate. In a society so stifled by their skivvies (SKIVVIES!), the salons had a big impact, including…

Femme fatales. During a time when ladies weren’t allowed to attend school, salons offered an informal education to erudite gals. They also gave gals a chance to lead. As hostesses, the salonnieres decided who to invite, and they also set the agenda and guided conversation. It might sound trivial today, but in an age where women were expected to be seen and not heard, this was a formidable way to make an impression upon some of the most influential philosophers, artists, and thinkers of the time.

Women's march French Revolution

Vive la révolution! In a restrained society, salons provided relatively democratic access to information: a place to share, debate, & foster ideas between classes. Interaction and intellect replaced wealth. All attendees were expected to contribute, and everyone’s contributions were encouraged and discussed with equal regard. Salons offered a space to discuss politics away from the constraints of the court, and the ideas of dissent that simmered there would eventually boil into the French Revolution.

Le mot juste. Some of the earliest salons included literary guests that would go on to create The Académie française. Inspired by discussions at the salons, the organization championed a reform of the French language into the tres magnifique bouquet of words that it is today.

Some of the many salonnieres worthy of mention include the Marquise de Rambouillet, who’s often credited as starting the French salon movement with her “chambre bleue” (blue room) gatherings in 1618. She was followed by Madame Geoffrin, a childhood orphan who went on to lead some of the most renowned philosophers and artists of her time in vivid discussions. She created dedicated salons to focus on specific topics, and her gatherings played a critical role in the development of the Encyclopedia (yes, that encyclopedia). Another thing that made Mme. Geoffrin la crème de la crème? On Sundays, she took the day off from her salon prep, to go about the city giving money to the poor. And then there were salonnieres who didn’t just guide discussion, but very proactively contributed their own concepts, writings, and cultural raison d’être. Among them, Madame de Lambert proclaimed feminist ideals and pushed gender boundaries well before it was cool.

Salons continued to flourish into the next century, and even blossomed on this side of the Atlantic. With branches in New York and Oakland, the Ebell Society is cited as one of the first women’s cultural societies in the U.S. Established in the early 1870s, their meetings inspired several local hospitals and schools that still exist today. These and similar salons eventually developed into gatherings that fueled the suffrage and other gender equality movements.

So next time you’re wondering what to do on a Tuesday night, channel the salonnieres of centuries past. Throw a lil’ beret on Harvey and come out to soak up the joie de vivre that learning inspires (especially with a cocktail in hand!)