Friday June 4, 2021
In a world where technology moves at an ever increasing pace – where the cars we buy now bear little relationship to those we drove even ten years ago and of course will be very different to those we have in ten years’ time, where the TV’s we watch are almost as thin as a credit card yet offer many hundreds of programming choices compared to the house bricks we used to gather round to squabble over the three or four channels we thought it may be fun to have a little peek at the history of the Marquee.
In some ways there’s a comfort in the consistency of its elegant and simple design but a reassurance that where it counts that the simple pole tent has been modernised, made more long lasting, robust, cost effective and aesthetically pleasing.
To give it its proper name, a “pole marquee”, also known as a pole tent, is a large tent that we often associate with providing shelter for summer events such as shows, festivals, and weddings. We have grown to know and love them as an integral part of a typical British country garden wedding or village fete (although in previous and forthcoming articles you’ll see they’re much more versatile than this).
Such a tent’s simple design has changed little in thousands of years. A pole marquee consists of a roof canopy supported by tall central poles ( known as king poles) tensioned using side lines connected to ground pins (or stakes) and smaller supporting poles (“side poles”). The king poles support the bulk of the weight, while the side poles give the fabric shape.
They’ve been with us for centuries in one form or another. Their origins probably were from when they were used to provide shelter, a portable place to live in relative comfort and shelter from the elements.
The word ‘marquee’ was derived from the French word ‘marquise’. There is no evidence that the actual pole tent we know, love and probably (unless like us, you’re in the industry) take for granted originated in France or a French speaking country or colony, nevertheless we would thank that nation for the actual word. The definition of “Marquise” is that of a large linen tent with a canopy and was named as such in the 1600s by French soldiers. You’ll see examples of such “Marquise” deployed in the field on depictions of campaigns painted around that time or later, initially French but within a short space of time by armies of other nations also.
Imagine, the marquees that have hosted those joyful ceremonies, wild receptions, family gatherings, birthdays and (in more recent times) covid testing and even jab delivery actually have significant ties to battle. If you cast your mind to some of the costume and historic films and television shows you may have seen that feature a battle, it’s typically inside a marquee that the Generals huddle around a map where those last moments of courage and plotting take place. The mobile headquarters was very much the order of the day. Hopefully, a hugely different experience to the one you’ll enjoy “under canvas”.
Both the etymology and the actual military history gets a little foggy at this point and depending on who you ask, both America and Britain adopted the word, as well as the device and functionality of a marquise, either in the 1700s or the 1900s. Regardless of when this happened, the word changed to drop the plural, making it ‘marquee’ as we now know and refer to it today.
Indeed, some etymologists claim that the first recorded use of the term in American English dates back only as far as the first world war whilst others say that the term was used in the English language by the British for hundreds of years before this. In English it seemed to have been deemed that “marquise” (pronounced “mar-kwii” in French but “mar-keys” in English) was a plural term and that the pronunciation “mar-key” referred to a singular such tent. Hence the word as we know it today, “Marquee”.
The use of a canopy to complement a tent or outside area dates back much farther than this of course. We know that they were used by many different populations throughout history, including nomads and Roman soldiers but they didn’t seem to have a specific name until the seventeenth century.
From Battles to Balls
Marquees began to see more use away from battlefields, and they became known to many members of the public as light, temporary structures used to protect people from the elements during special events such as balls or banquets. This, of course, gave them a very “upper class”, affluent image. Something that is still felt today, especially with today’s luxury marquees that are now available.
All those centuries ago, marquees were made by draping light, luxurious materials over high wooden poles. This resulted in the sweeping curves for which the marquee is still known today. Strong poles, as well as ropes, were used to maintain the structure, and that’s pretty much how we maintain marquee structures today.
Where Marquees have developed and changed is the materials used for their construction. Modern materials have developed the classic structure or the modern age. Canvas (or more typically waxed canvas), heavy, cumbersome, high maintenance and prone to insect or fungal attack, has been replaced by lighter more durable, more weather resistant and compactable manmade materials with the added advantage of easy clean and a more distinct and brighter white finish.
Wooden poles, heavy and easily damaged through impact are now metal poles. We used galvanised steel, strong, corrosion resistant and easy to slot and bolt together. Also, easier to store when broken down and of course metal doesn’t rot or dry out!
Dinners, weddings, or just fun summer parties. Marquees are great for all of these uses and many more and they clearly have been for hundreds of years. They’ve long evolved past their early adopted utilisation as safety necessities in harsh nomadic times or as headquarters on the battlefield.
From corporate events to cultural celebrations, we are of course delighted that the marquee is here to stay. Just as we wouldn’t expect someone to reinvent the wheel, likewise, don’t expect its’ beautiful, elegant, and simplistic design to change all that much throughout the next few centuries.