Working on my digitization project yesterday, I came across this announcement printed in a theater program for a production of Shakespeare’s King Henry V performed at the Hollis St. Theatre here in Boston in April of 1901.
TO LADY PATRONS
The established rule at the Hollis St. Theatre, requiring ladies to remove their hats, bonnets, or other head-dress while witnessing the performance, applies to all parts of the auditorium, including the boxes and loges. It is essential to the comfort and convenience of all of our patrons in general that this rule be strictly enforced.
Ladies who are unwilling or unable to conform to the rule are earnestly requested to leave the Theatre without delay, and to recieve the price of their ticket at the box office.
I’m sure someone who knows a great deal more about theater history than I do could talk at more length about the shift in attitudes this represents in the cultural acceptance of women attending the theater and, bless me, being encouraged to sit in a public space with bare heads! I think my favorite bit is the “earnestly requested,” as it has such a polite imploring tone. Contrast that with the “turn off your cell phone” announcements today, which are so often couched in cajoling humor. Not that one method is better or worse, but I do think it says something about the audience that the managers of the theater expected their plea to be taken seriously.
I came across similar guidelines when reading about female film-goers in the early days of cinema. There is often this anxious tone to them which is hilarious.
The commentary I read explained the tension as being due to a lack of definition as to whether the cinema was a public or a private space as “rules” for female behaviour were usually for one or the other. I think for the theatre the social and behavioural conventions are deeper embedded than for cinema so anxiety about wanting to follow the rules may be more extreme.
thanks for the comment, soirore, that's a great comparison! I thought, after I posted this, that there may be class issues at stake too. Going to see Shakespeare at the theater with boxes and loges is different than going to the cinema which (at least in my understanding?) was a primarily working-class, communal, urban activity in the early years (see Cheap Amusements, by Kathy Piess). I'd be interested to know whether the advice and tone of the advice differed from space to space…
Yeah I wondered that too after I posted. Perhaps it may not have been such an issue for the more working-class venues as only the more ostentatious head-gear would have obscured people's views and those hats would have been worn by wealthier women who could afford to keep up with fashion. Of course working-class cinema patrons would still have had their bodies policed, but in different ways.
The book I'm reading at the moment covers North America and Europe and fifty years so it's tricky to find specifics. It is wonderful though: Red Velvet Seat: Women's Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema by Antonia Lant and Ingrid Periz. There is fascinating discussion about cinema audiences and who were in them.
The introduction has some stuff on hats including “An Atlanta city ordinance of 1910 compelled the removal of large hats in theaters; motion picture managers demanded the ordinance's annulment, since women were staying away” (rather than removing their hats).
Sorry to go off on a cinema tangent when you were writing about your archive work (which sounds really fun by the way).
Don't apologize for tangents, soirore — tangents are often where the most interesting stuff happens!
The archives work is fun; I only hope it goes “live” online someday and I'll be able to share it with a broader audience :).