The word “salon” was first used in France in the 17th century, and derives from the Italian word, salone, which means “large hall.” It refers to a space, hosted in the home of a host, in which people gathered for certain purposes, often of which was to facilitate discussion that could lead to social and moral change within society. As historians have noted, the salon played an important and formative role within early feminism and the lives of women (1).
The salons provided a safe space for women (most of the mostly educated and privileged type) to gather and embrace their intellectual curiosities, as well as exercise their intellectual capacities and capabilities. It proved to be one means for women to possibly influence society. At the salon’s beginning it first included discussions about literary works before drawing both men and women into discourse about political thought and scientific ideas.
The first salon was established by Catherine de Vivonne, marquise de Rambouillet (1588-1665) and was located in her home in Paris. Salons soon after thrived across Europe during the 18th century with one of particular note being established in London and held within the Mayfair home of Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800). Montagu, married into a rich family of coal mind and estate owners, along with a wealthy Irish woman by the name of Elizabeth Vesey (1715-1791) established the Blue Stockings Society. This society created a space allowing educated women, as well as selected men, to engage in rational conversation that might lead to moral progress and improvement within society.
The Blue Stockings gatherings occurred once a month and often ran from the late afternoon into midnight. Served at these meetings was tea while other substances (like alcohol) and practices (like gambling) were banned. Those who attended them were more often than not talented letter writers who had written extensively. Montagu herself, for example, was a letter writer who had penned over 8000 letters in her lifetime. The meetings also had different styles depending on the hostess as sometimes chairs would be scattered around a room or else arranged in an arc with the hostess situated in the middle. The society’s main goal was to support women writers, their development, as well as their education, all of which challenged the common notions about the female’s inferior intellectual capabilities. As a result, the society produced numerous poems, novels, and plays written by its women members, and over time some of them could even earn a living from their work, meaning that they did not need to be financially dependent on others. The society’s reputation grew and received positive credit, some of which came from men who saw it as a space of female virtue and intellect.
Over time other important salons too came into existence such as the scientific salon hosted by Julie von Bondeli (1731-1778) in Bern (Switzerland), and the literary salon of Henriette Herz (1764-1847), an emancipated Jewish woman living in Berlin (Germany).
References and Recommended Readings
1. Lougee, C. 1976. Women, Salons and Social Stratification in Seventeenth Century France. p. 3-7; Pekacz, J. 1999. Conservative Tradition In Pre-Revolutionary France: Parisian Salon Women. p. 1-2.
McCann, H. et al. 2019. The Feminism Book. p. 25-27