Good conversation should bring about a transcendental melding of minds and dissolve class and ideological differences.

The funniest things Washington State University historian Steve Kale ran across in researching his latest book were the accounts of how much early 19th-century French women hated going to England. For England was much like the provinces. In other words, it was not Paris.

On social occasions, English men and women would eat dinner together, but not talk much. Afterwards, the men would retire to the salon, where they would smoke cigars and talk politics. English women would drink tea and chat. “The French women,” says Kale, “found it atrocious.”

Parisian women, after all, had their own salons. And these salons, Kale found, made French women far more influential politically than anyone had imagined.

A salon, says Kale, was simply a room. A lavishly decorated room, though, where aristocratic Parisian women received guests for conversation. But conversation in 19th-century France was an art form that followed certain rules: Conversation should be spontaneous, but elevated. Everyone should participate. Good conversation should bring about a transcendent melding of minds and dissolve class and ideological differences. One should never talk about oneself. Neither does one ever criticize another person. Imagine!

Ideally, the salon was a work of art, and the saloniere an artist. Not only did she choose the décor of the room, she designed the balance of personalities and points of view on the guest list that would keep the conversation piquant but civil.

Salons reach back to the 17th century, says Kale. But during the Revolution and after, salons came into their own, serving as informal political institutions. Kale argues that by the early 19th century, contrary to the status to which many historians have relegated them, women were presiding over an institution that played a vital role in public life. For several decades, says Kale, one of the central institutions of French political life was presided over by women.

After the Revolution, salons became increasingly political. They became places where people made connections and defined their ideological positions. Over the long run, says Kale, this had two effects on the salon tradition. As they became more political, men started to take center stage. Along with this, and contrary to the rules, people started to argue.

Ironically, the resulting gradual demise of the salons resulted in a wealth of material for Kale. By the 1860s, during Napoleon III’s dictatorship, salons had largely disappeared. Many of the salonnieres, aging and bored and yearning for the Restoration years during which the salons thrived as political institutions, turned to writing their memoirs.

French Salons: High Society and Political Sociability from the Eighteenth Century to the Revolution of 1848 will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press.