Today if someone mentions a “salon” you probably think about a haircut or manicure. But in the 18th century, prior to the French Revolution, salons were the focus of civil debate, intellectual curiosity, and culture. They were centres of discussion on everything from manners to literature to philosophy to science. And they were run by women. Salons were the bright stars of the Enlightenment; cauldrons of intellectual, cultural, and social development.
More than ever, we need a salon culture today. Social media is driving us to ignorance, stupidity, rigidly polarized views, and a culture of confrontation and abuse.
Guests to salons were invited to attend by the salonnières who ran them, and meetings were held in the host’s home, often in her bedroom. Should a guest engage too loudly, exhibit bad manners while there, express themselves too foolishly or show ignorance of the topics under discussion, they were not invited back. And in a highly social society like 18th-century France, to be exiled from participation was a humiliating loss of face. To be well-regarded, one needed to be an active and engaging participant in the salon culture: you gained more points for being amusing, witty, well-read, well-spoken, and polite.
Participants weren’t selected simply for their charm or wit: hosts wanted challenge, lively discussion, and even controversy. They chose people who could offer contrast; those who could speak to opposing views and raise difficult questions for proponents to wrestle with. Salons were even places for musicians, composers, painters, and poets to show off their work and have them critiqued by the guests.
Salons were egalitarian: men and women both participated and engaged in the discussions, breaking away from the male-dominated society of the time, and providing both an informal education for women and an opportunity for them to develop their own views. Women could engage in political discussion in salons while they were barred from them outside. But they also allowed the aristocracy and the bourgeoise to mix and mingle; to engage in ways they could not do outside the salon, breaking down the social barriers.