A few months ago, a friend and I were chatting about plans for a baby shower that she was hosting for another friend of ours. She told me that our friend’s mother had called to ask what the theme or the designated color of the shower would be in order to have matching flowers and decor sent. It was a shower held for an academic woman by a bunch of other academic women. My friend told me that she had suppressed a laugh and responded that the theme was shower. It was the end of the school year. We just wanted to eat cake and give our friend gifts.
I’ve been to low-key showers like that one and to meticulous ones where it seemed like Pinterest had delivered papier-mâché parachutes of elegance into the celebration. To be fair, although I lack this kind of artistry myself, I appreciate how some of my friends and acquaintances can create cakes that both taste and look amazing. One shower I attended for a friend’s son featured snacks formed like booties and baby carriages and a punch bowl of blue foam afloat with adorable rubber duckies.
In some ways, such picture-perfect glittering showers are the result of lives inspired by and curated for social media sharing. However, in other ways, they parallel some performative and ritualistic elements of the distant past. Although the shower as we know it in the United States is largely a creation of twentieth-century consumerism, women exchanged gifts to celebrate pregnancy and births long before the term “shower” came into use in the late nineteenth century. For example, elite women in sixteenth-century Italy and Spain often gave gifts of trays, bowls, and chests to kin, friends, and associates. Many of these offerings depicted talismans of motherhood such as weasels and martens.1
The banquets hosted by wealthy nobles to celebrate the births of princes and noble children during the early modern era often included visually stunning victuals that would put plenty of Instagram influencers to shame.2 There were recipes and instructions for preparing a peacock in its own skin and feathers and confections in the shape of fruit. Meanwhile, actual fruit was carved and sculpted into other objects for display on tables.3 In 1682, the Bourbon monarchy of France celebrated the birth of Louis XIV’s grandson with a confection designed like a baby emerging from a vagina, made from mechanical gears and marzipan.4 At similar celebrations, tables held trionfi (sugar sculptures) in the shapes of castles, mythical figures, flower garlands, and portraits of important ancestors if not generative genitalia.5
On some occasions, even those who weren’t dining could gaze upon the edible spectacles. When the future Spanish king Philip IV was born in the spring of 1605, the Constable of Castile held a dinner to celebrate and hosted some English visitors. The doors were left open so that the more humble inhabitants of Madrid could watch the 300 banqueters enjoy an array of dishes, including fresh fish transported across Spain by relay teams of draft animals.6 Elites often gave urban poor leftover food from feasts like these in displays of charity – an impulse not completely different from that of the Duchess of Sussex, whose recent New York City shower guests made flower arrangements that went to hospice patients and whose fans used social media to create a philanthropic campaign to shower charities with donations.
Lavish baby showers hosted by Serena Williams might be new for the British monarchy, but there is plenty of precedent for celebrating the births of children in European royal families. For example, in October 1629, Philip IV and his wife Isabel of Bourbon joyously welcomed their first son, Baltasar Carlos. After the sumptuous baptism ceremony in Madrid, the news spread to Spain’s provincial cities and overseas kingdoms.7 Subjects of all ranks, occupations, and ethnicities attended masses of Thanksgiving, participated in jousts and bullfights, staged performances of plays, and set off gun salutes and fireworks. Banquets lasted long into the night — even if hosts did not require their attendees to stay at the table until they correctly guessed various flavors of baby food. The Count of Monterrey, who was the Spanish ambassador to the papal court in Rome in the late 1620s, threw banquets and sponsored a fountain of wine. A Spanish poet who was living in Rome at the time remarked that the ambassador and his wife, the powerful and savvy Leonor de Guzmán, gave so many alms to convents, prisons, and the general populace that it was as if there was a cloud of silver showering down.8
When the royal letter of patent announcing Baltasar Carlos’s birth arrived in Lima, Peru in early November 1630, the Viceroy and many guilds and individuals prepared to hold their own festivals marking the important occasion.9 There were weeks of processions and cavalcades and banquets. One of the city’s confraternities (religious lay brotherhoods) with primarily mixed-race membership staged an elaborate multi-day performance of the Fall of Troy to demonstrate loyalty to the new prince. In the process, its members owned the festival scene and established their reputations as successful artisans and important members of society in the capital of the Viceroyalty.10
None of the showers I’ve been invited to have been attended by a duchess or involved a reenactment of the death of Hector at the hands of Achilles. Truthfully, none have involved pussies made out of pastry, either, but I have seen plenty of twenty-first century trionfi on dining room and coffee tables. As I read the news about the arrival of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, I thought about the malleability of tradition and how royal baby mania is nothing new. What is more recent is the mass production and commercialism that has democratized the spectacle of gift giving and the celebration of the arrival of new babies.
- Jacqueline Musaccio, “Weasels and Pregnancy in Renaissance Europe,” Renaissance Studies 15 no. 2 (2001): 172-87; María Cruz de Carlos Varona, “Giving Birth at the Habsburg Court: Visual and Material Culture,” in Early Modern Habsburg Women: Transnational Contexts, Cultural Conflicts, Dynastic Continuities, eds. Anne J. Cruz and Maria Galli Stampino (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), 151-73. Return to text.
- For more on these practices, see Ken Albala, Eating Right in the Renaissance (Berkeley: University of CA Press, 2002) and The Edible Moment: The Art of Food for Festivals, ed. Marcia Reed (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2015). Return to text.
- Bartolomeo Scappi, The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi: The Art and Craft of a Master Cook, trans. Terence Scully (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011). Return to text.
- Ian Kelly, Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef (Bloomsbury: New York, 2005), 39-40. Kelly claims that this was for the birth of the Duke of Angoulême, but it seems more likely that this spectacular edible anatomical display was for the future Dauphin. Return to text.
- Anne Willan, “Behind the Scenes” in The Edible Moment: The Art of Food for Festivals, ed. Marcia Reed (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2015), 163. Return to text.
- Jodi Campbell, At the First Table: Food and Social Identity in Early Modern Spain (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 57. Return to text.
- For more on this subject see, Rachael Ball, “Court Cities Celebrate Prince Baltasar Carlos: Loyalty, Status, and Identity in the Early Modern Spanish World,” Royal Studies Journal 5, no. 2 (Dec. 2018): 129-46. Return to text.
- Gabriel de Corral, Epístola que refiere las fiestas que al dichoso nacimiento del Príncipe de España hizo el Conde de Monterey en Roma, Embaxador de Filipo Quarto (Rome: Luys Grignano, 1629), 25. Return to text.
- Archivo General de Indias, Indiferente 429, Libro 37, fol. 203r-204v. Return to text.
- Ball, “Court Cities” and José R. Jouve Martín, “Public Ceremonies and Mulatto Identity in Viceregal Lima: A Colonial Reenactment of the Fall of Troy (1631)” Colonial Latin American Review 16, no. 2 (2007): 179-201. Return to text.