Champagne, Oysters, and Philosophy

Salon til the break of dawn. Source: picture alliance

In his 1882 classic of German literature “Schach von Wuthenow,” Theodore Fontane paints a detailed historical picture of Prussian aristocracy, and with it, the important function of the salon in German society. One of the work’s main characters, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, offers a succinct but accurate definition of the social get-together: “Gentlemen,” he said after a meal with his illustrious male guests, “we have dined well, but what we lack are the women, and along with them the wine, the effervescence of our life.”

Food, wine, intellectual exchange and a co-ed atmosphere – these were the four pillars of salons that came to define the lives of thinkers, philosophers and artists in past centuries. Equally as important, salons became the forum in which the emerging bourgeoisie and gentry would interact – a form of gathering created and promoted in particular by women.

Historically, salons drew their vitality from the mixture of guests. In her essay “De l’esprit de conversation,” French author and salonnière Germaine de Staël (1766-1817) insisted that a good salon ignites sparks of wit among guests. Potsdam-based historian and salon expert Brunhilde Wehinger explains that this intellectual flourish “can be compared with the exhilaration that champagne imparts to those who know how to enjoy it.”

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