Every January, the Viennese court put on its finest to party at the Hofburg Palace. But some people just bitched about the food.
During the reign of Emperor Franz Josef (1848–1916), the hofball was the biggest party of the year. Of the two royal balls held during Carnival season, the hofball was the larger and less exclusive.
No one got an invitation. A royal announcement was simply posted, and anyone eligible to attend court could show up. That included diplomats, nobles, churchmen, politicians, and soldiers of the Vienna garrison. For non-royals, this was their best — and possibly only — chance to see what life was like behind palace walls.
The ball was held in the Hofburg, home of the Habsburg dynasty.
In the early years of Franz Josef’s reign, they used the Rittersaal ballroom. If you arrived by 8:30 pm, you got to see the simultaneous lighting of every candle in the room. How on earth did they pull this off? They connected the candles with a cellulose nitrate (gun cotton) thread. When you lit the end of the thread, a series of fiery bursts lit each candle’s wick. Pretty rad, right?
In 1893, organizers moved the party to a bigger space, the Redoutensaal. Decorated in white and gold, it featured 13 Gobelin tapestries on one wall, with huge mirrors on the other side. Electric light shone from 13 crystal chandeliers above. Potted palms, roses, lilacs, orchids, and azaleas decorated the room and the staircase leading up to it.
Why so many flowers, you ask?
It wasn’t because the imperial gardener was showing off. (Okay, it was partly that.)
Today, events at the Redoutensaal allow a maximum of 750 people. For the hofball, between 1,500 and 2,000 people crowded into the ballroom. In other words, you were in a fancy mosh pit sans deodorant. As the Wiener Salonblatt put it in 1882, the temperature was “the inevitable consequence of large crowds in closed rooms lit by thousands of candles.” ¹ The scent of those gorgeous flowers helped camouflage the smell of food, sweat, and boot polish.
On this occasion, the men were more flamboyant than the women.
With their polished leather boots, glittering gold braid, bejeweled orders, and satin sashes, the royal and noble men in their military uniforms were a visual riot of color and sparkle. Polish nobles wore purple and red uniforms with diamond aigrettes on their fur caps. The Hungarian nobles were eye-catching in red and green uniforms with gold embroidery and beaver fur trim. The Austrian uniforms were relatively plain by contrast, accented with fur-trimmed cloaks and silver clasps.
The rest of the men were severely sartorially outclassed. Churchmen wore red and purple robes, while the diplomats wore plain old tailcoats.
As for the women, married matrons wore off-the-shoulder gowns with long trains, all trimmed with jewels, lace, fur, and embroidery. Matriarchs like Archduchess Isabella of Austria-Teschen blazed with their best parures of jewels, including tiaras, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and enormous devants-de-corsage.
In 1882, one of the rare years Empress Elisabeth attended, she wore a dove-gray court gown with silver lace and embroidery, with ruby and diamond jewelry. If she was a no-show (or, after 1898, deceased), the senior ranking archduchess, Maria Josepha, took her place as hostess.
In contrast to their mothers, the young, unmarried women wore white or pastel dresses, often decorated with flowers to symbolize youth and freshness. In 1893, the Wiener Salonblatt name-checked Princess Dorothea Hohenlohe as one of loveliest women present. She wore a simple white dress with a red belt, her black hair braided into a bun. Her only jewel? A coral pin in her hair.
The party officially started at 8 pm, but by 7:30 pm, the hall began to fill with early birds. Until the imperial family arrived, you could hang out, socialize, and gawk at the emperor’s tapestries.
Meanwhile, the emperor and any available members of the imperial family gathered in the Alexander apartments until the Grand Master of the Court (Obersthofmeister) told the Lord High Steward (Oberstkämmerer) that everything was ready. At exactly 8:30 pm, those two men led the royals, walking in pairs in order of precedence, into the Hall of Mirrors, where they welcomed the gathered diplomatic corps.
This formal chitchat, called the cercle, took an hour.
There wasn’t time to say more than a few words to each person, so everyone needed mad small talk game to get through it quickly and gracefully.
When the cercle was done, the Grand Master led the royals to the Redoutensaal.
At precisely 9:30 pm, he rapped his staff three times to call for the crowd’s attention.
Everyone present fell back, silent, clearing a path.
Again, the imperial family and diplomatic corps marched two by two in order of precedence, each lady on a gentleman’s arm. At the end of the room, Emperor Franz Josef left the hostess at a raised dais decorated with palm trees, exotic flowers, and plush red furniture.
That was the signal — the party could officially start.
Imperial Vienna was known for its love of music and dancing, and the hofball was no exception.
In 1846, Johann Strauss Sr. became the official Hofball-Musikdirector. The family held that position for three generations. A Strauss always composed original music for the event, and conducted it when it premiered that night. The orchestra played around 15 songs, each noted and timed in the ball’s official program — a combination of waltzes, polkas, quadrilles, and a cotillion.
A ritual opening dance kicked things off.
A handsome officer of the Austrian life guards, called the Vortänzer, danced with a young, high-ranking woman. In 1882, for example, Lieutenant Count Choloniewsky danced with 20-year-old Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria-Tuscany.
After this highlight, anyone who wanted could step out onto the dance floor. Word to the wise: be prepared to bump into just about everyone else.
There were occasional stumbles and falls, but the trick was to smile, laugh, and get up as gracefully as possible.
By this point, the imperial ladies had joined the hostess on the dais. Being royal, they got easy chairs. The other court ladies and ambassadors’ wives only got a bench off the dais, where they had to sit in order of rank.
As the dancing began, the emperor mingled, talking with his friends or people he found interesting. The rest of the gentlemen asked ladies to dance or chatted amongst themselves. Archdukes asked businessmen about money-making opportunities, while diplomats struck up informal deals to advance their nations’ interests.
As the temperature inside heated up, servants dressed in red coats and white knee breeches began to circulate, carrying trays of refreshments. The palace only served Moët et Chandon champagne. With about 2,000 guests and an average of 500 bottles consumed, there’s a good chance you might have had a little buzz.
Now, the hostess performed her own cercle ritual. Her Mistress of the Robes brought up two ladies at a time for a short conversation. While on the dais, the ladies could sit beside the hostess. When their time was up, they had to walk backward down the steps of the dais, bowing and wrangling their trains while trying not to trip and fall.
Good luck with that.
After cercle, the hostess moved her little party into an antechamber, where she could receive all the debutantes making their society debuts. For the 18-year-old daughters of royal and noble houses, the hofball was their coming out party. In 1900, for example, there were three important debutantes: the emperor’s granddaughter Elisabeth (only daughter of Archduke Rudolf), Margaret (the Duke of Tuscany’s daughter), and Maria Anna (daughter of the Duke of Austria-Teschen).
During the cercle and presentation, a few lucky ladies would be invited to have tea with the hostess later.
At around 11 pm, usually after the second quadrille, everyone was hot and thirsty and needed a break. It was time for tea.
The hostess, her invitees, ambassadors’ wives, and the imperial ladies moved to the Hall of Mirrors and the Pietra Dura Salon, where they were served tea at small tables. Colored cards indicated which tables you were allowed to sit at based on your rank.
Didn’t get invited to tea? No worries — you could feed yourself at the buffet, set up in an adjoining room for your snacking pleasure from 10 pm to midnight. If you could get near it, that is…and didn’t pass out from heat or dehydration on the way.
The buffet contained a bewildering array of dishes: salmon, lobster, trout, turbot, cold venison, roast beef, chicken, tongue, pâté de fois gras, and a famous soup that was only served at the imperial court. ² There was wine for gentlemen, and almond milk for the ladies.
Not everyone liked the food, though.
One woman bitched about the “10,000 dried up patties which for years they have had the effrontery to serve at the Hofball.” ³
And there are rumors that the special soup, made from a 300-year-old recipe, was god-awful.
So what did the men do while the women were having tea?
They had tea, too. The emperor, archdukes, and ambassadors had theirs in the Alexander apartments. Just like on the women’s side, if Franz Josef had invited you, you could come, too.
After tea, everyone went back to the Redoutensaal for more talking and dancing.
If you hadn’t been invited to tea, chances are your feet were killing you — you’d probably been standing for five hours.
But there was one final showpiece of the evening.
The cotillion was a slow, formal dance that lasted about 40 minutes. The imperial florists made 500 little flower bouquets with white ribbons attached for the gentlemen to give to their dance partners, and cockades for the ladies to give to the guys. There were larger bouquets with the best flowers for the archduchesses, while debutantes got all-white bouquets with lilies of the valley and orchids.
Afterward, there was a final waltz.
But, as the poet said, nothing gold can stay.
At midnight, most of the imperial family left, which was the signal for everyone else to start wrapping things up. They left the way they had come in — led by the Grand Master, paired up in order of precedence.
On the way out, you received a souvenir — a box of candy, usually with a picture of the imperial family on it.
By 1 am, the party was over and your carriage turned into a pumpkin again.
Everything from the dancing to the food to the conversation was beautiful and delicate and gentle, choreographed within an inch of its life. Such was the glory and the paralysis of imperial Vienna.
¹ Wiener Salonblatt, January 15, 1882, 2.
² Moore, Recollections, 217.
³ Cassels, Clash, 3.
Cassels, Lavender. Clash of Generations: A Habsburg Family Drama in the Nineteenth Century. London: J. Murray, 1973.
Fugger, Princess. The Glory of the Habsburgs. Translated by J.A. Galston. London: George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1932.
Levetus, Amelia Sarah. Imperial Vienna: An Account of Its History, Traditions and Arts. London: The Bodley Head, 1905.
Moore, George Greville. Society Recollections in Paris and Vienna, 1879–1904. London: John Long, 1905.
Mutschlechner, Martin. “Der feine Unterschied: Hofball und Ball bei Hof.” Die Welt der Habsburger. Accessed 8/6/20.
Rumbold, Sir Horace. Final Recollections of a Diplomatist. London: Edward Arnold, 1905.
Freeman’s Journal (Great Britain)
Pall Mall Gazette (Great Britain)
Sport und Salon (Austria)
Wiener Salonblatt (Austria)
Header image, background: Room of Archduke Ludwig Victor in the Hofburg. Drawing by Franz Alt, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.