Historical Reads: On The Origins Of “Let Them Eat Cake”

Over at The “Treasure For Your Pleasure” blog, Anne Amber discusses the origin of “Let Them Eat Cake”, the catchphrase wrongly associated with the tragic queen Marie Antoinette. To quote:

Erich Kaestner’s books were translated into numerous languages, although I was unable to find out of this particular book was translated into English, and it is possible that by including the story in his book, Kaestner helped to cement the connection between Marie Antoinette and “Let them eat cake!” in the eyes of readers and eventually, in popular culture. I hesitate to say that Kaestner was the catalyst of the cemented connection between Marie Antoinette and “Let them eat cake,” … however, most of the early newspaper records which connect Marie Antoinette to the phrase began in the 1930s. It is possible that by including the story in his popular book, it was spread to more children’s books and from there into the minds of parent—teachers, editors and journalists, and from there into newspaper articles to newspaper reader, etc etc, until it became a larger part of popular culture as a whole. What was once an anecdote sometimes associated with Madame Victoire, sometimes Maria Theresa, sometimes Marie Antoinette became associated with just Marie Antoinette. Countless newspaper articles, ad campaigns and other popular culture pieces from the mid-1930s until modern day include the phrase “Let them eat cake” being attributed or associated with Marie Antoinette, although once in a while they do add the caveat “She may have never said it, but…”

But why Marie Antoinette? Why don’t we, for example, read “Is This Female Politician the New Madame Victoire?” in our headlines? Interestingly enough, the reasons for the insistence of “Let them eat cake!” sticking to Marie Antoinette may be those same reasons that calumnies against Marie Antoinette made during the revolution stuck to her so hard that they were considered evidence at her trial. In the 20th century—and in particular, in the 1930s—Marie Antoinette was once again being transformed in the eyes of the public. But instead of a transformation into a harpy-like she-beast or a hated bloodthirsty Austrian by caricatures and satirical pamphlets, Marie Antoinette was transformed into a glittering, dazzling queen who was capable of capturing public attention in a big, big way. She was not just a queen who was executed during the French Revolution, the constant subject of romantic 19th century biographies. She became the tragic but oh-so-frivolous queen who wore gauzy ball gowns on book covers, whose memory sold replica earrings to housewives and who engaged in a dramatic, love-torn affair with a dashing count in a major MGM motion picture. She became the French queen, the queen associated with French history, with the downfall of the monarchy. How could Madame Victoire, Maria Theresa, Madame Sophie or any other royalty to whom the phrase has been latched compare?

To read the entire article, click here.

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