A French Subscription Ball in 1801: A Popular Diversion

Balls were a popular diversion in the early 1800s and an English traveler attended a French subscription ball in Paris held by a society known as le salon des étrangers in December 1801. The ball was held in a well-known hotel in the Rue de la Grange Bateliere, which is today in the 9th arrondissement of Paris. The Englishman noted attendees included not only Frenchmen but also “most of the foreign ambassadors, envoys, &c … and many of the most distinguished persons of both sexes in Paris.”[1] Frenchmen were admitted by ballot, and foreigners were introduced by a member and paid the annual subscription rate of five louis to attend.

French Subscription Ball: La Walse, Le Bon Genre, Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

“La Walse, Le Bon Genre.” Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library.

The Englishman explained that the hotel hosting the French subscription ball had an elegantly decorated suite of apartments. These included a billiards room and a reading room, which included all sorts of reading materials, such as newspapers, journals, and books. On this particular evening, besides the billiards and reading rooms, there was also a room for playing cards and another room set aside for conversations with acquaintances. The rooms were also brightly lit, and the music from the ballroom drifted casually into the other rooms. No supper was served, but there were “substantial refreshments of every kind … procured on paying; and other smaller ones, gratis.”[2]

The Englishman estimated that the number attending the French subscription ball was “seven or eight hundred, [and] occasioned so great a crowd that it was by no means an easy enterprise to pass from one room to another.”[3] Although French balls usually commenced at midnight, in this case because of a long line of carriages, the Englishman reported it “was near two o’clock [in the morning] before I could arrive at the scene of the action.”[4] Moreover, he found he could hardly enter the ballroom as it was extremely crowded. When he finally squeezed through, he reported, “the spectators were … so intermixed with the dancers that they formed around a border as complete as a frame to a picture.”[5]

The Englishman also reported that there were many lovely women in attendance:

“[The women were] irradiating the space around them by the dazzling brilliancy of their ornaments; others, without jewels, but calling in every other aid of dress for the embellishment of their person; and a few, rich in their native charms along, verifying the expression of the poet. Truth compels me to acknowledge that six or eight English ladies here were totally eclipsed.”[6]

Yet, despite the eclipse of several English ladies by French beauties, the traveler did point out that there were no women “handsomer than the English, in point of complexion and features.”[7]

When it came to grace, the Englishman thought French women were “unrivaled.” He noted French ladies demonstrated “an ease, an affability, a desire to please and be pleased, which not only render[ed] her manners peculiarly engaging, but also influence[d] her gait, her gestures, her whole deportment.”[8] Moreover, he pointed out that the French woman’s “natural cheerfulness and vivacity spread over her features an animation seldom to be found in our English fair … Hence that striking expression which exhibits the grace of the French belles to superior advantage.”[9]

Parisian Ladies in their Winter Dress for 1800, Courtesy of New York Public Library

“Parisian Ladies in their Winter Dress for 1800.” Courtesy of New York Public Library.

The English traveler also provided one scandalizing and shocking surprise that had to do with the “nakedness” of the female attendees at the French subscription ball:

“I had heard much of the indecency, of which some females were guilty, in respect to costume at Paris, and I had already seen specimens of the thinness of their apparel, but till this even, I thought it only the failing of a few … Naked necks, naked backs, and their form, scarcely concealed by a transparent petticoat, left nothing to the powers of fancy.”[10]

Moreover, he claimed the naked and revealing charms were evident in about two-thirds of the female attendees and that the naked fashions were worn by every type of female ranging from the young and the old, the handsome and the ugly, to the fair and the brown. Among the well-known women regularly cited to have popularized such revealing fashions were Josephine de Beauharnais, Madame Juliette Récamier, and Madame Thérésa Tallien. In fact, these three women were at the time considered to be prominent members of a fashionable aristocratic subculture in Paris called the Merveilleuses, female counterparts to the Incroyables, who likewise embraced luxury, decadence, and exaggerated fashions.

Example of the Merveilleuses during the Directory period. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Seeing the female’s nakedness at this French subscription ball, caused the Englishman to make several vocal comments that were overheard by a Frenchman de l’ancien régime. He remarked to the Englishman “that excepting the foreigners, there was not one woman de bonne compagnie in the room.”[11] This caused the traveler to take extra note of the term bonne compagnie (good company), and he said of it:

“[It] is so frequently used and so seldom explained, that I really do not know, whether he meant that there was not a woman of the old court, or that there was not a virtuous female present. If he intended the former, it only proved, that these balls were not frequented by the noblesse; if the latter, he was much severer in his remark than I had been. I only complained of the ladies being indecent; he asserted that they were profligate. At any rate, the one fault leads so rapidly to the other, that it was difficult to make a mistake.”[12]


  • [1] Blagdon, Francis William, Paris As It Was and As It Is, 1803, p. 376.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 375.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 370.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 371.
  • [7] Ibid., p. 371-372.
  • [8] Ibid. p. 372.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Lemaistre, John Gustavus, A Rough Sketch of Modern Paris, 1803, p. 93.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 97.
  • [12] Ibid.

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