Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Juli 2004

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Jeff Bernard (Wien)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs
Moderation / Chair: Renée Gadsden

Culture, Conviviality, Urbanization in 1900 Bucharest, and What We Can Infer thereof Now

Mariana Net (Bucharest)


Abstract: The paper starts with various definitions of conviviality (i.e. "merry-making", "companionship") in up-to-date dictionaries and attempts to define this characteristic feature of quite a large segment of the inhabitants of New York and Bucharest at a crucial moment for the two cities' modernization, i.e. the turn of the 19th century. The intricate (and by no means polar) relationships and differences between old and new, the public and the private, the upper classes and the lower classes, men and women, order and disorder are analyzed in this light, with a view to sketching several configurations of daily life in time and space in relation to urbanization and modernity. The house, the courtyard, the garden, the street are among the favored spaces of conviviality emphasized, while trying to show (among other things) that no analysis of the present and no projection of/into the future is ever complete without a deep knowledge of the past, especially at such controversial and rather blurred moments as fins de siècles.



Conviviality is usually defined in dictionaries as "merry-making" and "companionship", and it is supposed to be rendered manifest especially (though not exclusively) by people partaking in meals.

My paper will leave aside the partaking in meals, and deal with conviviality in general, viz. with conviviality as a lifestyle, i.e. as a general attitude towards life and towards each other. I will refer to this special kind of conviviality, which was a characteristic of quite a large number of the inhabitants of Bucharest at a crucial moment in the modernization of the city, namely the latter half of the 19th century.

It was the epoch when all the typically modern devices were introduced (cf. Bulei 1990, Djuvara 1999, Giurescu 1979, Olteanu 2003, Potra 1990), such as electricity, sewerage systems, public transportation, telephones, etc. In this way, not only was the infrastructure of the city changed dramatically, but people's lifestyles had to adjust to the new realities.

Consequently, some intricate, and by no means polar relationships and differences were established between the old and the new, the public and the private, the upper class, the middle class, and the lower class, between men and women, etc. Several emblematic configurations of daily life can thus be detected, which are closely related to urbanization and modernity.

On the other hand, numerous details show that this turn of the century period could hardly be considered as an entity. Changes took place gradually, although at a fairly speedy pace. This also means that, in quite a lot of cases, the changes were rather incomplete. The degree to which changes were adopted depended on several well-known factors, such as political decisions, administrative policies, education, gender, social strata, individual characteristics, and so on.

I intend to deal here, very briefly (from a broad, and rather implicit, semiotic perspective), with a few favored places of conviviality, i.e. the house, the courtyard, the garden, and the street. They will be referred to in reverse order.


Women, hybrids and transition

As far as Romania was concerned, the development of urban and urbane lifestyles depended mostly on women. Women were always the forerunners. To give just one telling example in this respect, women were the first to adopt Western clothes, even in the former half of the 19th century (cf. Ciupeala 2003, Djuvara 1990, Marsillac 1991, Majuru 2003, Mihailescu 2001, etc.). Of course, this trend began in the upper classes, but it soon spread to the lower classes.

A detail found only once in a specialist bibliography (which means one cannot be absolutely sure of its authenticity, or at least of its general character) belonging to the memoirs of a Hungarian visitor in Bucharest in the former half of the 19th century (cf. Verres 1930: 379-381 apud Majuru 2003: 133) is worth mentioning, as it illustrates one possible way in which the transition took place between the old and the new.

The narrator describes an aristocratic soirée, where women were dressed according to the latest rage in Paris, and sat on chairs and couches, whereas most (elderly) men still preserved Oriental clothes, or at least some hybrid combination between Western clothes and Oriental ones, and sat on pillows placed directly on the floor. The younger generation of men had adopted Western clothes and hairstyle, but they still sat on the floor, in the Oriental fashion, because they found it more comfortable.

This detail is rather a caricature, but I think it is quite symptomatic of the transition between Oriental lifestyles and Western ones, between traditional, patriarchal civilization and the modern one just before the 1850s. Adopting European clothes was by no means an easy process. People had been used to certain clothes, as well as to a certain (domestic) environment, and to the familiary gestures and behavior appropriate for those clothes and to that environment, and now they were forced to reframe their whole universe in order to fit their new clothes (cf. Majuru 2003: 143).

They were forced to reconstruct the whole (domestic) surrounding world (cf. Majuru 2003: 132), whereas the surrounding world triggered fairly different codes and symbols of behavior, from conversation and etiquette to sundry, commonplace details of daily life.


The street

According to the philosopher Ciprian Mihali, the street represents "a world of all of us, [as well as a world] of each of us, the framing of which is the result of repeated, endless negotiations between opposed terms or contradictory ones" (Mihali 2001: 102).

I once dealt with the Romanian codes of politeness and worldly manners in the latter half of the 19th century (cf. Net 2001). I will not enter into details now, but the analysis clearly showed that such codes at first attempted to implement urban civilization, and this process was quick enough to take place, so that by the end of the 19th century there was absolutely no difference between the way in which urban civilization was reflected in Romanian codes of behavior, and the way in which it was reflected in any other Western European code.

I will mention here just one detail, in order to show the interdependence between codes of behavior, conviviality, and changing lifestyles. An anonymous code translated from French and published in Bucharest in 1869 (cf. Codul... 1869) prescribed the appropriate manners in horse-driven streetcars, as well as towards les dames galantes (viz. prostitutes), once a man met them walking or driving in the street.

The social acceptance of the presence of prostitutes, as a social phenomenon which had to be dealt with in a convivial, as well as non-hypocritical way is, I believe, a sign of modernization, viz. of emancipation of society, to the same extent to which it is also a sign of democracy.

In actual fact, I think there is a strong relationship between conviviality and democracy.

Historians of daily life and of mentalities also agree that a new co-relation was established at that time between the public space and the private one (cf. Majuru 2003: 143).

This happened, among other reasons, because the women's universe acquired a broader contour, as did their imaginary. Flirtation was tolerated, courtesy was enhanced, women were allowed to make appointments in the public space, too. Such matters were no longer confined to the private space, broad as it may have been (i.e. including not only the house, but also the courtyard, the garden, the family grounds, etc.). One of the causes of this broadening of the women's universe was the appearance of public parks, of cafés, and even of some restaurants where the presence of women was tolerated (provided they had a male escort, of course).

In effect, from the very beginning of the 19th century (and increasingly so towards its ending), the street acquired a new dimension, from a psychological point of view, as well as from a socio-cultural one (cf. Majuru 2003: 143).

The street was the main axis of the public space.

It is, once again, Ciprian Mihali who emphasized that "while one's dwelling is rooted in the past and one's work[ing place] is a projection into the future, the street could be considered as unmistakably determined by its present potential of events" (Mihali 2001: 134).

In the latter half of the 19th century, the street acquired a new look (cf. Bucarest sans frontières? 1996) to the same extent to which both one's dwelling and one's working place were (fundamentally) altered. Nevertheless, no major shocks were experienced for this reason. Not only was the street determined by potential events, but most people perceived it as an event in itself. Townspeople became more and more aware of the eventful potential of the street.

The above example about the prescribed behavior in streetcars and towards the dames galantes accidentally met in the street is quite telling in this respect.

In the latter half of 19th century Bucharest, events seemed to have been a daily phenomenon, because this was a period of almost permanent changes. On the other hand, events were speedily assimilated, appropriated by an ever increasing segment of the population, and therefore they ceased to be (considered as) events.


The street and the courtyard: between the public and the private

As far as conviviality is concerned, a street can be seen sometimes as an extension of the private space. Or rather, there are cases in which the difference between the public sphere and the private one becomes rather blurred.

This happens mainly with the lower middle class, the members of which are supposed to be both conservative and somehow dis-oriented by so many changes in their environment, no matter whether they themselves adopt these changes or not.

An incident is reported in the memoirs of a mid-twentieth century writer (cf. Bîlciurescu 2003[1945]: 20), who says he had heard it narrated in his early childhood, and which is supposed to have taken place more than a century before. The reference cannot possibly be entirely reliable, because there are too many filters in-between the "raw" event and its written narration. It is more of a legend than a "reality."

The narration of the incident is meant to account for the name of a street in Bucharest, viz. Scaune (Chairs).

The inhabitants on both sides of that street are said to have been very companionable together, in very good neighborhood relationships. Therefore, everyday, by 6 p.m., they are said to have taken chairs out of their houses and put them in the street. Entire families thus sat together drinking coffee (offered by each family in turn) and chatting together for about two hours. Then the chairs were taken back into the houses, until the next afternoon, when people used to come together again, while the coffee was offered by another family, and so on.

Even if it was like that (and why should it not have been like that?!), it was still an isolated phenomenon, accounted for in the writings of a single author, such rural, un-citadine behavior is still characteristic of the Mediterranean space as a whole. Similar examples can still be found nowadays in Sicily and Greece, namely in big, important towns like Palermo and Thessaloniki. The difference between the rural kind of conviviality and the urban one seems to be sometimes blurred, to this very day.

Another characteristic phenomenon of a very similar kind is the permission given to some people whose houses were not situated in a main street to pass through their neighbors' courtyards in order to get home (or to go downtown) quicker. In most cases this permission also extended to the neighbors' visitors, too. Of course, permission could be also denied, and people could maintain their privacy.

This is also a phenomenon characteristic of the lower middle class, and it can be found, to this day, in some periphery districts of Bucharest and in some (small) provincial towns in Romania. It can also be found in present-day Lyon, where, as far as I know, sometimes you are even allowed to pass through people's houses to get to the next street.

Once again, this is a case of blurred limits between the public sphere and the private one, between (the functions of) the street and (those of) the courtyard. On the other hand, this un-citadine, though highly convivial, behavior also testifies to a relatively high degree of civilization. The owners of the courtyard through which neighbours and even complete strangers were supposed to pass any moment could hardly risk being found quarreling or dressed in négligé. They could hardly risk being found behaving in too intimate a manner with each other either. The intrusion of the private into the public was always backed up by an intrusion of the public into the private.


The garden, the courtyard

One of the characteristic features of Bucharest houses in the latter half of the 19th century (actually over a much longer period, extending roughly from the early 1800s until the end of World War II) was the possibility to spot their owners' social status by looking at the pots of flowers adorning their gardens or their window-sills.

Marjoran, rosemary, basil, sweet peas, fuchsias, and especially geraniums(1) were the favorite (pot and garden) flowers of the lower middle class in Bucharest, as well as in other Romanian towns. Houses of a higher social status (and located closer to downtown Bucharest) used to display gardens full of mignonettes, heliotropes, vervains, petunias, dahlias, carnations, and roses (cf. Bîlciurescu 2003[1945]: 64). To stick to such a separation certainly over-simplifies things, but broadly it was like that. Actually, the choice of flowers was more a matter of education and imitation (of one's neighbors) than a matter of personal taste.

In most cases, the houses of nearly all social standards had big courtyards. As a rule, the courtyard and garden were much larger than the house itself. In summer, nearly all activities - including events related to conviviality - took place in this semi-private outdoor space. Most people used to have their lunch and dinner outdoors (cf. Bîlciurescu 2003[1945]: 64-65), in a kiosk, under a vineyard, or under a big tree. Once again, this phenomenon has roots which are older than the 19th century, and it still exists (in nearly all Romanian households - Stahl 2002: 56-57 - in Bucharest, as well as in other towns and even villages), at least as wishful thinking.

On the other hand, this craving for fresh air also implies that, in most cases, there was/is not enough space indoors, or that the space indoors was/is too stuffed with furniture.


The house

It is time to wonder what the inside of a house looked like at the turn of the 19th century. The answer to this question depends, of course, on various factors, such as social status, wealth, education, open-mindedness to new ideas, etc.

As a rule, a middle class house consisted of a salon (living-room), a dining-room, a variable number of bedrooms (usually three: one for the parents, one for the boys, and one for the girls), a kitchen and a bathroom. Depending on the family means, there was also a servant's room. Interestingly enough, it was the dining-room and not the salon which was the biggest and most important room in the house. Families used to entertain especially by having dinner parties.

It is perhaps not irrelevant that even nowadays, at the beginning of the third millenium, the word "sufragerie" (dining-room) is deeply rooted in most Romanians' vocabulary, even if, quite often, it has lost its original meaning, and has come to designate the living-room, the study, or whatever room is the most important or the biggest in the house. Without giving it too much thought, most people still call such a room "sufragerie," although it is no longer the room where meals are taken. It is also fairly relevant that the word "sufragerie" has a Turkish origin. It is a reminiscence of pre-modern Romanian lifestyles, a token of the Oriental habits in citadine households.

Nevertheless, it is also a fact that, at the turn of the 19th century, Oriental lifestyles had almost completely disappeared in urban Romanian households. Aristocratic houses (actually villas and palaces) still preserved a "Turkish" room (furnished with sofas, small tables, Oriental carpets, Oriental weapons, Turkish brassware, and a big nargileh). However, such a room functioned, as a rule, merely as a reminder of times past; it was a kind of indoors museum, showing that the family cherished their childhood souvenirs and were not ashamed of their past. Sometimes, the Turkish room (which was perhaps the only spare room in the house) could also function as an occasional guest-room. In other cases, the aristocrats chose to move the Turkish room from their town residence to their rural one(2).

As always, as everywhere, the lower classes imitate the upper classes. Although lengthy, the following description of various typical houses in Bucharest at the end of the 19th century is fairly relevant and therefore worth quoting:

As regards the inside furnishing of aristocratic houses, they were nearly always the same, i.e. in the middle of the drawing-room there was a wooden table made of mahogany, rose tree, walnut, Brasilian rosewood, ebony, or gilt wood, placed under the lamp or the candelabrum (lit by spermanceti candles) hanging from the middle of the ceiling; on this table there were always albums with family photographs and albums with postcards from the places where the family had travelled [...], against the wall, usually between two windows, there was a chest of drawers with a window above it, [...] as well as a fireplace, [...] two armchairs, etc. [...] The same furniture was to be found in less wealthy households, though it was of lesser quality and price. [...] In the dining-room there was a table with six chairs around, a cupboard, a sideboard, and sometimes one or two chromos representing fruits. [...] The inside of a lower middle class house (not exactly from the slums) consisted of two rooms separated by a lobby, which, if the household was a big one, was also used as bedroom or dining-room, but only in winter, since in summer everybody used to take their meals outside, under a tree (Bîlciurescu 2003[1945]: 64).

Various pieces of information seem to corroborate. At the turn of the 19th century, Bucharest was a convivial European city.


What we can infer thereof now

A conclusion to the above remarks seems hardly necessary, since the facts are rather obvious. Therefore I will just sum up very briefly a few ideas which seem to be still relevant for the development of the city of Bucharest (or any other city, for that matter):

  1. In order for a city('s lifestyles) to change, there must be a political will to change, as well as strong and coherent administrative measures taken to this effect.
  2. Changes begin with the élite and go down to the "silent majorities", not the other way round.
  3. In order to understand the present and to change it, viz. to project the future, you should know your past, your roots, and understand the causes of events.
  4. You should be aware of the general trend and follow it.

© Mariana Net (Bucharest)


(1) Even nowadays, in Romanian culture geraniums are supposed to revive an old world middle class atmosphere, not only owing to the remote souvenirs of one's (parents') childhood, but also due to the inter-war literature on this topic. V.I. Popa's play Muscata din fereastra (The Geranium in the Window) is the most emblematic literary piece in this respect.

(2) I. Teodoreanu's novel La Medeleni (At Medeleni Estate), the first volume of which is located in Iasi (the second important Romanian city) at the very beginning of the 20th century, with many glimpses in the near past (end of 19th century) explains this phenomenon at length.


Bîlciurescu, Victor (2003[1945]). Bucuresti si bucuresteni de ieri si de azi. Bucuresti: Paideia

Bucuresti... (1996). Bucuresti sans frontières? Case obisnuite din vremea lui Carol I. Bucuresti: Muzeul National de Arta al României / Fundatia Anastasia

Bulei, Ion (1990). Atunci cînd veacul se nastea. Bucuresti: Eminescu

Ciupeala, Alin (2003). Femeia în societatea româneasca a secolului al XIX-lea. Bucuresti: Meridiane

Codul... (1869). Codul conversatiunei polite sau arta d'a iesi în lume, cuprinzînd legile, regulamentele, usurile si aplicatiunea langagiului elegant si polit. Opera prelucrata dup? codurile francese pentru usul junimei de ambe sexe care doresce a sci sa se presinte în societate într-un mod avantagios. Bucuresti: unspecified ed.

Deciu, Andreea (ed.)(1999). Povestea caselor. Bucuresti: Simetria

Djuvara, Neagu (1999). Între Orient si Occident. Tarile Române la începutul epocii moderne (1800-1848). Bucuresti: Humanitas

Giurescu, Constantin C. (1979). Istoria Bucurestilor. Bucuresti: Sport - Turism

Majuru, Adrian (2003). Bucurestii mahalalelor sau periferia ca mod de existenta. Bucuresti: Compania

Marsillac, Ulysse de (1999). Bucurestiul în veacul al XIX-lea. Bucuresti: Meridiane

Mihali, Ciprian (2001). Inventarea spatiului (Arhitecturi ale experientei cotidiene). Bucuresti: Paideia

Mihailescu, Sorin (2001). Emanciparea femeii române. Antologie de texte. Vol. I: 1815+1918. Bucuresti: Editura Economica

Net, Mariana (2001). "Identités urbaines et codes de belles manières: Remarques sur les débuts de la modernisation de Bucarest". Grenzgänge 8(15): 41-62

Olteanu, Radu (2002). Bucurestii în date si întîmplari. Bucuresti: Paideia

Pippidi, Andrei (2003). Bucuresti - istorie si urbanism. Bucuresti: Domino

Potra, George (1990). Din Bucurestiide ieri. Bucuresti: Editura Stiintifica si Enciclopdica

Stahl, Henri (2003). Bucurestii ce se duc. Bucuresti: Domino

Verres, Andrei (1930). "Pictorul Barabàs si românii". Cultura Nationala, Academia Româna. Memoriile Sectiunii Literare. Seria III, vol. IV: M.E.M. Bucuresti, 379-381 [apud Majuru 2003: 133]

Grundlagen/Fundamentals Teil 1/Part 1:
Teil 2/Part 2:
Teil 3/Part 3:
Teil 4/Part 4:
Nonverbale Zeichen/Non-verbal Signs
Moderation / Chair: Renée Gadsden

1.2. Signs, Texts, Cultures. Conviviality from a Semiotic Point of View /
Zeichen, Texte, Kulturen. Konvivialität aus semiotischer Perspektive"

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For quotation purposes:
Mariana Net (Bucharest): Culture, Conviviality, Urbanization in 1900 Bucharest, and What We Can Infer thereof Now. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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