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…