Bring back the salon
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Why don’t people host salons anymore?
I’ve been thinking about this question (and falling down a salon history rabbit hole) a lot this week. For those unfamiliar, salons were regular and formal gatherings that were popular across Europe for nearly four centuries (between 1500-1900). These gatherings were typically hosted in someone’s home and served as a forum for intellectual, artistic, philosophical, and cultural discussions—free from the influence of governing bodies.
I’ve long romanticized the idea of hosting a salon, but up until recently, I didn’t know that women historically hosted these events! It seems that the history of salons is closely tied to many women’s desire to alter their place in society, extending their purpose beyond their familial roles. Salon hosts, later called “sallonières,” typically arranged all guest invitations, and curated the evening’s conversation, art and music. It was a rare opportunity where women could both exert control and express themselves, all while remaining at the center of an exchange of important ideas in an otherwise male-dominated culture. Given that women were not allowed to receive a formal education when salons were in their heyday, these gatherings also provided a socially acceptable way for women to educate themselves.
It’s worth noting that these salon hosts have largely been written out of history, and often misrepresented as frivolous. But salons had sweeping impacts on social and cultural shifts throughout history. For example, the philosophical discourse that happened in salons changed the nature of the Enlightenment, making it more immediate and interactive. Before salons, ideas were typically exchanged among men through written letters, but the in-person and collaborative format of salons accelerated intellectual progress. Sallonières were considered leaders and thinkers, regardless of gender, having stepped out of their expected roles in pursuit of education, power and a position in society beyond the home.
“Since a charming hostess was at the heart of just about every salon, the gatherings have also been seen as islands of proto-feminism, places where exceptional women could advance their private ambitions at a time when they were largely blocked from public life.” — Jeremy Eichler, NY Times
It’s worth noting that the responsibility of sallonières was to choose and direct topics of discussion at these gatherings, which was often considered a personal attempt by women to push against the fact that they were not allowed to publish their own books or original thoughts. If you think about it, these events gave women a position of power before they had any power. TBH—it brings me so much joy to imagine these sallonières scheming, pushing to have their voices heard before they were given any official platform.
While many of the earliest salons were hosted by and intended for nobility, salons eventually became forums for all classes to meet and converse, all under the masterful guidance and curation of a salonnière. It honestly reminds me of pseudonymous spaces on the internet today—women still converse without focusing on who they are but rather what they have to say, simply because that’s how their ideas effectively get heard.
It seems to me that we could all benefit from starting up salons again today. Just think about it—a safe setting to exchange thought, no matter what side of the table you sit. The idea of that kind of space feels as relevant today as it did all those hundreds of years ago. Who wants in?
If you were to host a salon, what topics would you want to talk about?
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Till next week,