the most scandalous victorian institution -- the "french ball" -- 11/8/19

Today's selection -- from City of Eros by Timothy J. Gilfoyle. In the mid-to-late 1800s, the most scandalous place to be in New York was the French Ball:

"The demand for new forms of public erotica culminated in the most sexually charged Victorian institution -- the 'French Ball.' Sponsored by the Cercle Francais de l'Harmonie, this was an annual erotically charged masquerade held in a leading public auditorium. For over two decades, the Academy of Music (1866-87) housed the proceedings; it was succeeded by the Metropolitan Opera House (1888-90, 1892) and by Madison Square Garden (1891, 1893-1901). The French Ball was probably the most significant public forum for testing the boundaries of urban sexual behavior. According to a frequent participant, one could find everyone from Wall Street businessmen to prostitutes and gay drag queens at masquerades. The annual event included a one-hundred-piece orchestra and was usually sold out, attracting over four thousand partic­ipants in 1876 and seven thousand by 1882.

"Masquerades were not unique to late-nineteenth-century New York.

In eighteenth-century London, the Haymarket Theatre was renowned for the gorgeous prostitutes attending such events. Similarly, antebel­lum brothels, taverns, and inns held weekly 'balls' to attract customers. Even private households sponsored masked balls, inducing the short­lived Society for the Suppression of Vice to call for their prohibition. In 1829 and 1848, the city reacted by passing laws to restrict such masked affairs. While the former mayor Philip Hone conceded that some mas­querades were 'conducted with decorum and propriety,' he feared their abuse, enabling 'licentiousness to go abroad in public places with its face concealed.'

"Despite vocal opposition and legislative prohibition, masked balls con­tinued to flourish at mid-century. Municipal statutes tended to go unen­forced, and during the 1850s the French Association (nicknamed the Friends of Gayety) staged 'fancy dress balls' at Tammany Hall. Local ward leaders like Jim Turner also sponsored masked balls, which by one account were 'attended by hard characters and a sprinkling of politi­cians, at which dresses and manners were decidedly free and easy.' By the Tweed era, New York's Democratic party organization promoted numerous masquerades as part of its fund-raising efforts. 'Young men were lured by the fascinations spread for them at these monster but usually vulgar entertainments,' claimed the Times.

"The popularity of the masquerade reached its height after the Civil War, and the most conspicuous of these erotic assemblies was the French Ball. Despite the overt sexuality, sponsors of the event aimed at a cross section of New York society and even invited public officials. One observer concluded that male patrons ranged from 'maskers plebeian [to] mas­kers of Knickerbocker descent.' A wide variety of females, too, partici­pated. One reporter insisted that there 'were modest and well-behaved women, and there were women not burdened with modesty. 'While most ladies in attendance were usually "of the highest respectability," others came "whose presence would be tolerated only at a masquerae."'

"For middle-class New Yorkers, the French Ball represented an excursion from propriety to concupiscence. The Times described it as 'the "naughtiest" of the respectable masked balls.' The annual event offered a liminal social space where participants could probe the limits of public sexual behavior. Through fantasies of dress, New Yorkers temporarily dropped their standard conceptions of proper, 'respectable' behavior. 'The costumes were daring,' wrote one observer; 'in many instances they were more than daring.' Police Chief George Washing­ton Walling wrote that 'women in black tights, women in red tights, women in blue tights, men and women in every picturesque garb imag­inable,' from that of Cleopatra to that of Oscar Wilde, moved about at the ball. 'Husbands and wives often go,' Walling observed, but 'gen­erally with somebody else's wives and husbands.' The ball climaxed in 'a bacchanalian orgie -- a hot and crazy revel, a whirl of passion.'"



Timothy J. Gilfoyle


City of Eros


W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Copyright 1992 by Timothy J. Gilfoyle


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