Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Dance Cards (Maynard, MA 1890-1910)

Associated Templars, 1895
Dance cards were used by women to record the names of the gentlemen with whom they intended to dance each successive dance with at a formal ball. A dance card was typically a small booklet with a decorative cover and a list of the scheduled dances. The cover indicated the sponsoring organization. A short pencil was attached via a cord, used by the women to write the names of their dance partners. The card would also serve as a souvenir of the woman’s evening.

The use of dance cards originated in central Europe during the 18th century, but their use first became widespread in 19th-century Vienna, spreading from there westward to France and England in the 1830s, and then across the ocean. Here in the U.S., the practice became common in the decades following the Civil War, gradually coming to an end circa 1910, with some persistence into the 1920 at dances held at colleges. In a society without inherited nobility, proper etiquette became the yardstick by which the lower and middle classes emulated the behavior of the upper classes. From one description:

Masons, Charles A. Welch Lodge
1891 (click to enlarge images)
“The act of asking a lady to dance had to be carefully orchestrated. A gentleman should stand at a comfortable distance from the lady, bow slightly toward her and request the honor of her presence as a dancing partner. He should never be hasty or overly sure of himself, and should never ask the same lady to accompany him for more than four dances; as such a degree of informality is improper in a ballroom. Furthermore, he should always be well acquainted with a dance before participating, since any mistakes he makes during a dance put his partner in an awkward position. A lady, in turn, should not refuse a gentleman's offer unless she has already accepted another's proposal.”

A fascinating part of Maynard’s musical history is a collection of dance cards in the Maynard Historical Society Archive. These can be viewed online by searching the archive on the term “dance.”  Dance cards were popular at dances held here in Maynard (and in neighboring towns) in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The cards would name the organization sponsoring the dance, name the performing band, the program, etc. These would include a list of the 16-24 dances to be conducted that evening.

One supposes that men would also have their own pencils and a slip of paper, to keep track of whom they had committed to dance with. Failing to show up at the scheduled time would be a serious faux pas. The managers of these dances were always listed on invitations and on the dance cards, showing that a dance was indeed an important social activity that required thorough planning and organization. What is shocking to our imagination is how late these dances went on. A program could start with a concert from 8-9 p.m., followed by dancing, an intermission at midnight to allow for a light meal, and then dancing continuing to 2, 3, or even 4 a.m.! No alcoholic beverages served. As to types of dances, typically half were describes as versions of Quadrilles (a square dance for four couples), the others being couples dances such as Waltz, Polka, Galop, Schottische or Newport.

List of dances at a 
"GAL-U-MET" dance
Many of these dances were by invitation. Basically, the organizations (Masons, Templars, Caldonian Club…) held dances so that their members’ single daughters and sons could meet other people of the same social class. Others were admittance by ticket – 25 to 35 cents – not sounding like much until one learns that average mill workers’ wages were a bit under two dollars a day.

An interesting oddity is that in leap years, some of the dances reversed roles – men would have dance cards, women would approach them to reserve a dance, men were expected to remain seated until escorted to the dance floor, then returned to their seats either immediately after the dance or at the end of a conversation with that dance’s partner, the woman reserving the right to terminate the conversation if she found it uninteresting, saying no more than “Excuse me for a moment.”

Remnant from the dance card era, people still say “My dance card is full” to indicate that they day is already fully scheduled, also “Please pencil me in” as a request for an appointment later in the day or days to come. Oddly, the very concept and use of a pencil is becoming as obsolete as a dance card.

Mark and his wife met at a dance, the reason being both being quite tall, their eyes met across the crowded dance floor, over the heads of others.

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