Social Mixing at the Palais Royal

Palais Royal (Paris)The Palais-Royal, Paris

Near the Louvre in Paris stands a rather grand building known as the Palais Royal. It was built on the site of the Hotel de Mercoeur and Hotel Rambouillet for Cardinal Richelieu in 1629 and originally named the Palais-Cardinal. After Richelieu’s death, the Palais was left to Louis XIII who left it in turn to Anne of Austria and her son, later Louis XIV. After several other changes of residency, the Palais was sold to the Orléans family, cousins to the Kings of France. it was inherited by Louis-Philippe, the Duc de Chartres, who, on his father’s death, became the Duc d’Orléans in 1785. He was later to renounce that title and become famous during the French Revolution as Philippe Egalité. [2]

Palais Royal (Paris)The Palais-Royal (1739)

Louis-PhilippeLouis-Philippe II, Duc de Orléans (1747-1793)
Porcelain, Musée Carnavalet, Paris

In the early 1780s, Louis-Philippe made a number of substantial changes to the Palais Royal, giving it a more commercial orientation, in order that he might offset the costs of his lavish expenditure on high living and boost his dwindling financial resources. Not least, he had built, originally in wood but later in iron, galleries or arcades filled with shops and boutiques selling all manner of consumer goods and services. These galleries were the forerunners of the famous Parisian arcades of the early nineteenth century, which in turn became the inspiration for the later department stores and shopping malls.

Before the Revolution in 1789, the Palais Royal was one of the places in Paris for people of quality, and those who aspired to be part of the cultured elite, to be seen. […] It was here also that men and women would come to buy the books of the Enlightenment philosophers and to read the latest journals and newspapers. […] It boasted cafés and restaurants, a stock exchange, and pavilions were constructed to contain the variety of commercial enterprises and entertainments that were open to the public. In addition to being a leading site in the consumer culture of eighteenth-century Paris, the appearance of the Palais Royal, therefore, would seem to be in keeping with the idea of a public sphere of Enlightenment: it was a site of openness, tolerance and civility as well as a space for rational and enlightened debate that played a significant part in the emerging civil society of the bourgeoisie. […]

Palais-Royale walkway (Paris)A covered walkway at the Palais-Royal

[14] […] During the late eighteenth century, the Palais Royal was in some ways like Covent Garden in London, perhaps combined with elements of Hyde Park. Like Covent Garden, the Palais Royal was the site of many coffee-houses that were fashionable at the time. […]

The coffee-house, taken as an idea by travelers to Egypt and Turkey and brought first to England and then to France in the middle of the seventeenth century, suited the puritan culture of England especially well. It was a space associated with the drinks of coffee and chocolate that, unlike alcohol, were seen to promote a convivial and open atmosphere of intelligent discourse and debate. Coffee-houses were places open to all men although not women in England. Women were, however, admitted to the cafés in the Palais Royal. On payment of a penny and recognition of the house rules, people were invited to mix with strangers of all social ranks and engage in discussions with them. During the late seventeenth century, the coffee-house became a site in which business transactions took place. The London stock exchange originated in a coffee-house, as did some of the major insurance companies like Lloyds. Coffee-houses were also places where auctions took place where business was conducted. They became places of trust, places in which the conditions of capitalism were encouraged and allowed to develop in a regulated way. […] [15] […]

Although coffee-houses had opened in Paris in 1643, it was not until the eighteenth century that their popularity began to grow. By 1716, Paris had 600 coffee-houses, a number which had doubled by 1788 on the eve of the Revolution. The cafés were popular with the bourgeoisie, the nobility, and members of the literary elite. Rousseau and Diderot, in their younger days, were often to be found in the Café de la Régence in the Palais Royal.

[Excerpt from Kevin Hetherington, The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering (New York: Routledge, 1997), chapter 1]