For a quick history of the famous Paris salons of the 17th and 18th centuries, you can go to Wikipedia; for a more detailed discussions you can read the writings of, and the writings about, the graceful, charismatic, and generally witty women who established them. Gatherings of Paris’ sophisticated men and women, they were instrumental in generating and sustaining the culture of literature, etiquette, fashion, and politics that marked the Enlightenment.
My student, though, was not one who read the introductory material in her textbook or, evidently, listened to me in class. I can sympathize with both of those deficiencies: I can remember my own student days—swamped with reading, I sometimes skipped intros and other “extra” reading, trusting the professor to tell me any background I needed (how naïve was I, to think that a lecture or two could tell me all!); groggy from too much reading, too many extracurricular activities, too much time spent in anguished thought over some guy, and too many all-nighters, I frequently zoned out and sometimes nodded off as a professor talked sincerely on…and on…. From my perspective now I bemoan so many lost moments and opportunities to learn, but I do sympathize just the same.
She was not writing about a sister of the French king’s, though, and so there was no reason to refer to the woman’s brother’s “reign,” no matter how domineering French men can, or could, be.
Anyway, let’s get on to “salon.” You and I KNOW she didn’t mean “literary gathering.” We KNOW she thought this French lady opened a beauty parlor, don’t we?
I imagine it was primarily the American attraction to French words as emblems of sophistication that prompted some enterprising woman to call her curl-and-perm place a “beauty salon” rather than a “beauty parlor.” My mother used to take me and my sisters to a barber (talk about barbaric!) for our haircuts when we were little, but sometimes she’d take us with her when she had her hair done at a salon. Thinking about it now, I can see a logical transition from a place where men and women gathered to talk about politics, beauty, and society, to a place where women gathered to attend to their beauty needs while talking about society, romance, and local politics.
So my student was jumping to the end of the term’s evolution, while the class was back there in the early stages, when things were quite different. She reads a term that is linked with women’s intellectual and social independence and equates it with the small entrepreneurial ventures that gave some 20th-century women a measure of financial independence.
What kind of beauty parlor was she envisioning? Come to think of it, those wigs and hair arrangements of the late 17th and 18th centuries would have fit quite snugly under the hair dryers of 20th century beauty salons. Whatever she imagined, it wasn’t strange enough to make her think twice about how she was defining the term. That means the world of the past becomes an odd hodgepodge of times and things, jostling one another in a juxtaposition that is bizarre only to those who actually know something about the world of the past. For more on this tendency, go to my post on “rap group.”
The process of education should instill, somewhere along the way, some sensitivity to the fact that language changes along with culture, and modern definitions do not always apply to the world of the past. I urge my students, and particularly those who are English majors, to make a habit of consulting the OED to check the currency of definitions vis-à-vis the texts they read. This is good advice!