The word “salon” was first used in France in the seventeenth century and derives from the Italian word, salone, that means “large hall.” It refers to a space, hosted in the home of a host, in which people gathered to engage in discussions that might lead to social and moral change in society. As historians have noted, the salon played an important and formative role in early feminism and the lives of many women (1).
The salons provided a safe space for women (of the mostly educated and privileged type) to gather and embrace their intellectual curiosities, as well as exercise their intellectual capacities and capabilities. It was 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) in her home in Paris. Salons soon thrived across Europe during the eighteenth century. One important salon was established in London and was held in the Mayfair home of Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800). Montagu, married into a rich family of coal mine and estate owners, with the help of the wealthy Irish woman Elizabeth Vesey (1715-1791), established the Blue Stockings Society. This society created a space allowing educated women, and select men, to engage in rational conversation that might lead to moral progress and improvement in society.
The Blue Stockings gatherings happened 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 were often talented letter writers who had written extensively. Montagu herself, for example, was one such writer who had penned over 8000 letters in her lifetime. The meetings also had different styles depending on the hostess. Sometimes chairs would be scattered around a room or else arranged in an arc with the hostess stationed in the middle. The society’s main goal was to support women writers, their development, and their education. These efforts challenged the common notions about the female’s inferior intellectual capabilities. The society produced numerous poems, novels, and plays written by its women members. Over time some of them would even earn a living from their work, which meant that they did not need to be financially dependent on others. The society’s reputation grew and received positive credit. Credit also came from men who saw the society as a space for female virtue and intellect.
Other important salons also came into existence. There was 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