We publish a lot of books. It can be tough to keep them all in your head. Sometimes a book flies under the radar but then arrives with a wallop. Yours truly was just walloped by Dairy Queens. What a luscious book this became!
The book, by Meredith Martin, is everything you wanted to know about pleasure dairies but were afraid to ask. Or, rather, didn't know to ask. Because, really, who’s heard of pleasure dairies? Not enough of us.
From Martin’s Introduction:
This book tells the story of an early modern building type that today has been largely forgotten: the pleasure dairy, or what is known in French as the laiterie d’agrément, or laiterie de propeté. Most of us are familiar with the legend of Marie-Antoinette dressing up as a milkmaid and, together with her aristocratic female friends, churning butter at her faux-rustic hamlet, or hameau, at Versailles. Some are also aware of the luxurious white marble dairy that her architect Richard Mique built for her as part of this pastoral enterprise in the mid-1780s. From the time of its creation, Marie-Antoinette’s pleasure dairy has been an essential site in the development of her bad reputation, both as a thoughtless and extravagant queen and as a historical figure who violated the boundaries of her class and gender.
The Hameau de Versailles, in fact, has two dairies: the pleasure dairy and the functional preparation dairy, or laiterie de preparation. Marie-Antoinette’s servants used the preparation dairy to fabricate milk products that were then brought to the pleasure dairy to be admired and consumed by the queen and her guests. Though the two dairies resembled each other in exterior appearance and interior layout, the pleasure dairy’s furnishings were made of sumptuous white marble (rather than a plainer stone), and its interior stone walls were painted to resemble marble, complementing the trompe l’oeil coffered ceiling and rich crown moldings. The room was also outfitted with a lavish set of gilded porcelain dairy ware that was produced at Marie-Antoinette’s own porcelain manufactory in Paris and that imitated the basic stone and tin utensils used in the preparation dairy, including settling pans and milk jugs. The Hameau’s pleasure dairy constituted an elegant re-creation of a typical working dairy, one whose “work” centered less on production and more on consumption, royal symbolism, and aristocratic play. It provided Marie-Antoinette with a venue in which to enjoy the pleasures, and embrace the values, of rural life in a manner fit for a queen.
How can we begin to make sense of this curious building type and its historical and cultural significance? First, it is important to understand that the Hameau’s pleasure dairy was neither an isolated example nor the product of Marie-Antoinette’s frivolous imagination, as has been assumed. To the contrary, it was part of an established tradition of dairy construction in French royal and elite gardens that began in the mid-sixteenth century with Catherine de’Medici at the court of Fontainebleau.
Martin goes on to explain that after having long been overlooked or dismissed as a trifling historical footnote, pleasure dairies need to be taken seriously because they can help us understand early modern culture and society, and also how the self and its environment were shaped within it. Pleasure dairies appealed mostly to royal and elite women, for several reasons. In early modern art and literature, dairies were related to images of fertile, nurturing female bodies. Agricultural manuals also associated dairies with virtuous and industrious women. And, in the eighteenth century, these connections were strengthened when jean-Jacques Rousseau led a campaign that Martin describes as “encouraging aristocratic women to cleanse themselves of the impurities and wanton values of the city by returning to their country estates and also by breastfeeding their children themselves rather than hiring wet nurses.”
So… these marble-carved pleasure dairies were ornate stages erected at great expense for aristocratic women to play at matronly production and a return to the countryside? Not exactly. As Martin points out, pleasure dairies often embodied “that conflicted impulse to honor but also to transcend the role that (their builders) were expected to play as women.” It’s notable that they weren’t typically erected in the countryside or in the provinces, the places that, as Martin notes, “moralists and physicians insisted that women had to go, voluntarily or not, to be sheltered from the temptations of urban life.” No, most pleasure dairies were constructed in or near Paris. The women could play at the matronly purity demanded of them without giving up on their access to city life. In other words, despite what we may think of a Marie-Antoinette frolicking in her pleasure dairy, there were subversive aspects to how women employed these dairies.
Pleasure dairies reflect a broad history of social and political change, as well as how the monarchy, the nobility, and the financier class were responding to those changes through their architectural and landscape commissions. Again from Martin:
These buildings emerged in sixteenth-century France during a time of great civil strife but also cultural development, a time when some of the old nobility began leaving their feudal estates for residence at court. Pleasure dairies enabled the crown and the nobility to project an image of Arcadian peace and prosperity and to profess an enduring devotion to the land, while also playing with new forms of courtly refinement, leisure, and display—thus merging old and new forms of the aristocratic self.
And this book, that wallop. It’s full color throughout, and includes architectural drawings, portraits and landscape paintings, photos of surviving pleasure dairies, and even a shot of Josephine Baker in her own dairy in France in the early 1950s. A beautiful and meaningful new object, to explain a strange old social and architectural phenomenon, itself full of meaning. And milk.