Masquerade Balls in the Eighteenth Century

Masquerade balls began in the fifteenth century and were similar to a carnival atmosphere with dancing, drinking, and gambling. By the seventeenth century they were introduced to London. The first of these promiscuous and fashionable assemblages was organized by “Count” John James Heidegger and held at London’s Haymarket. Anyone who could afford a ticket could attend a masquerade ball and that meant masked commoners were allowed to hobnob with the masquerading elite. The masquerade balls were also described as “a figurative leveller of society,”[1] as sharpers and prostitutes attended and nightly scenes of robbery, heated quarrels, and scandalous licentiousness occurred among party-goers. Yet, despite the robberies, quarrels, and licentiousness, “Heidegger was caressed by the court and the nobility, and gained both money and honors.”[2]

John James Heidegger. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

By the 1700s, masquerade balls moved into the echelons of royalty. For instance, Ranelagh (a public pleasure gardens located in Chelsea) became celebrated for its masquerade balls. The first one was given on 24 May 1759, the same day the Prince of Wales was born. John Moore, a Scottish physician and writer, published his memoirs in 1779 and while visiting Brunswick, Germany, he wrote about numerous masquerade balls held there. He noted the reigning family occasionally sat in a gallery in the masquerade room without their masks and watched the masked dancers. Moore maintained:

“The Germans, especially those of high rank, are fond of masquerades, being so much harassed with ceremony and form, and cramped by the distance which birth throws between people … I imagine they are glad to seize every opportunity of … the mask … that they may taste the pleasures of familiar conversation and social mirth.”[3]

Eighteenth century masquerade. Public domain.

Masquerade balls were somewhat typical. For instance, they usually started late in the evening and lasted into early morning with most revelers headed for home by half past six. Sometimes there was gambling and sometimes just entertainment with singers, dancers, or actors performing. They were also usually well-lit and decorated with a profusion of flowers. A year before the famous French socialite Madame Récamier was born, a masquerade was held in June 1776 at Carlisle House. The event was reported in a wide variety of newspapers, with the Hampshire Chronicle describing it in the following way:

“[It] resembled in part a large shubbery and flower garden; all the lower suite of apartments were filled with laylock trees, set in borders, and ornamented with a pleasing variety of flowers, which grew round the roots of the trees; a passage was formed out of the tea-room across the yard into the lower gallery, which was decorated in a similar manners, and as it had no covering but the ‘blue firmament,’ it was in fact a garden. The bridge room was laterally surrounded with shrubs and flowers, as at the two preceding masquerades, and the whole house exhibited as much of the Rus in urbe, as imagination can conceive.” [4]

Masquerade balls

Preparing for a masquerade ball. Courtesy of Horace Walpole Library.

The Wargrave Masquerade ball of 1790, was described as “truly splendid.” It was brightly illuminated with variegated lamps and “flowers were festooned with taste round the pillars of the boxes.”[5] It also consisted of decorations of the “highest taste … and a numerous assembly of beauty, character, and fashion.”[6]

Supper was usually included with masquerade balls and the meals were served anywhere from midnight to two, three, or even six in the morning. Meals were always plentiful and usually cold, although they could also be hot. In 1788, the same year that Anton Hinckel was busy painting a portrait of the Princesse de Lamballe at her desk writing, was the same year that a masquerade ball was held at London’s Pantheon, a place of public entertainment on Oxford Street. The February 1788 ball included cold foods and a bounty of wine served at half past one in the morning, with the only complaint being there was not enough room for diners. Apparently, they had to wait in succession to eat.

Another masquerade ball that had the Prince of Wales walking around unmasked, included supper. It was held in May of 1783. Cold viands were served and the menu listed the following:

“Chickens, Fowls, Lamb, Lobsters, … collared Eels, and various Meats; each … of the tables had its share of tarts, blanche mange [a dessert pudding with cream and eggs and, later, gelatin], ices, and other confectionary [sic]. The wines were Champagne, Claret, Maderia, Port, and Lisbon.”[7]

Lady holding a mask by French painter Jean Marc Nattier. Courtesy of Aspire Auctions.

Critics claimed such masquerade assemblages encouraged an excess of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and unrestrained eroticism. Masquerade balls also reputedly allowed women to revel in sexual inhibition, just like men. Moreover, sometimes such large affairs included thousands of attendees. Costumes ranged from fantasy characters and prominent citizens to transvestites, animals, or historical figures. One ball at the London Pantheon, attended by more than 1500 people and given on 19 April 1782, supposedly surpassed all other masquerade balls and included a wide variety of costumed characters. Among the characters were the following:

“[A] Savoyard girl; [the inventor] Merlin in the character of Fortune … a man in a pair of bellows … a heavy-heeled Harlequin; half a dozen fresh-water sailors; some old women without tongues; a yeoman of the guards, a country parson … two warriors of Sandwich islands … some American Indians, and two Laplanders … beautiful women, decked in a profusion of jewels and the most elegant dresses…[and] sultanas, slaves, [Circassians and Persians].”[8]

masquerade balls

“A Masquerade” published in 1795. Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library.

Despite the popularity and numerous participants, not everyone was a supporter of masquerade balls. For instance, on 6 January 1724 a sermon was preached by the Bishop of London deriding masquerade balls. His sermon “produced so great an effect … orders were issued, that there should be no more such amusements than had been already subscribed for at the beginning of the month, which were six.”[9] Isaac Watts, an English theologian noted of masquerade balls:

“They deprive virtue and religion of their last refuge … If persons of either sex will frequent lewd and profane … assemblies of any kind, they have their reward, they are sure to be marked … Indeed, there is not a more effectual way to enslave a people, than first to dispirit and enfeeble them by licentiousness and effeminacy.”[10]

This was also the beginning of the anti-masquerade protestors — clergymen, moralists, and journalists — who argued masquerade balls were salacious events that encouraged immorality and sexual transgression, as well as homosexuality, adultery, and prostitution. The anti-masquerade movement grew slowly and then the Lisbon earthquake happened in 1755. Anti-masqueraders declared the earthquake occurred because of sin. They also decried masquerade balls were part of the reason the world was so corrupt. Their vocal opposition was heard and heeded in England. Masquerade balls were banned the following year because of the outcry and because George II also opposed them. However, Horace Walpole noted in a letter dated 6 May 1770 that masquerade balls “proceed in spite of church and King.”[11]

Horace Walpole by John Giles Eccardt in 1755. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Afterwards, the Norfolk Chronicle noted that masquerades “suffered a kind of prohibitory banishment, until … restoration by the Majesty of Denmark in the year 1763.”[12] The resurgence of masquerade balls after 1763 encouraged clergymen to preach their evils, moralists to decry their sins, and journalists to write scathing articles reviling such affairs. However, despite anti-masqueraders protests, efforts to squash them were desultory at best, although their popularity did wane by the late 1700s.


  • [1] Agnew, John Holmes, The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, 1848, p. 549.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Moore, John, A View of Society and Manners in France, Switzerland, and Germany, 1779, p. 80.
  • [4] “Masquerade Intelligence,” in Hampshire Chronicle, 10 June 1776, p. 1.
  • [5] “Wargrave Masquerade,” in Reading Mercury, 4 October 1790, p. 3.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “Masquerade Intelligence,” Derby Mercury, 22 May 1783, p. 2.
  • [8] The Hibernian Magazine, Or, Compendium of Entertaining Knowledge, 1782, p. 202.
  • [9] Ireland, William Henry, The Universal Chronologist, and Historical Register, Volume 2, 1835 p. 763.
  • [10] Watts, Isaac, The Improvement of the Mind, or a Supplement to the Art of Logic, 1801, p. 277.
  • [11] Walpole, Horace, Letters of Horace Walpole, 1842, Vol. IV, p. 28.
  • [12] “Masquerade Intelligence, in Norfolk Chronicle, May 9, 1778, p. 1.

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