Bonnie Calhoun


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the London coffeehouse and the Parisian salon functioned as what Jürgen Habermas has identified as the public sphere: a place for social interaction outside the private sphere (the home) and the sphere of public authority (the state/court). Although there were many other public sphere institutions—in the form of clubs, theaters, Masonic lodges and the like—coffeehouses were the most important public sphere institutions in London and the same was true for the salons of Paris. Three key characteristics were shared by the coffeehouses and salons as public sphere institutions: sociability, equality and communication. Within the realm of the coffeehouse and salon, a heterogeneous group of people came together to engage in rational debate without regard to rank. Although they shared these three public sphere characteristics, coffeehouses and salons had two important differences. The first is that women were not participants in coffeehouse life, whereas they were the creators and leaders of the salon. Second, coffeehouses were public businesses, open to any man who could afford the penny for coffee. Salons, meanwhile, were firmly in the hands of the salonnières (hostesses), who had the power to choose the guests and deny entry to whomever they saw fit. Through a comparative study of the coffeehouses and salons a better understanding of the public sphere in general and these two institutions in particular can be gained.