American Balls in the 1800's

Excerpted Mainly from Old Etiquette Books

by Donald Daniel

Dec. 2000, Revised Oct 2010

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The above drawing is from the book "Dancing" by Marguerite Wilson, copyright 1899 published in Philadelphia.

Text between brackets [like this] are my own comments, the rest is direct quotes from the source. This article is about balls during the victorian period. To learn about current balls click here.

The Philadelphia Assemblies

by Thomas Willing Balch, Philadelphia, 1916

[This is an exception, a history book, not an etiquette book. p.119, describing an 1839 ball in Philadelphia, quoted from a newspaper of 1839]: There was much excellent dancing and waltzing to Johnson's brass band, and were we permitted we might indicate some remarkable displays of graceful motion.


by Frances Trollope, London, 1832

[This is from the travel writings of a British lady who went up the Mississippi river, stayed in New Orleans, Cincinnati, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Niagara Falls. From her chapter XIV. The page number varies depending on which edition you have.]

In noting the various brilliant events which diversified our residence in the western metropolis [Cincinnati], I have omitted to mention the Birth-day Ball, as it is called, a festivity which, I believe, has place on the 22nd of February, in every town and city throughout the Union. It is the anniversary of the birth of General Washington, and well deserves to be marked by the Americans as a day of jubilee.


by John H. Young 1883

[The publisher lists offices in Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Chicago, so one city of publication cannot be given. A note in the front cover of the volume I examined was from the original owner, who said as an 18 year old he sold 100 copies in rural Indiana as a summer job]

[Of the dances that were called round dances at this time, the most popular was the waltz, now known as the Viennese Waltz. In the chapter Receptions, Parties and Balls. p. 133]: It may be that the round dance is monopolizing the ballroom to a too great extent, and it is possible that these may be so frequent as to mar the pleasure of some persons who do not care to participate in them to the exclusion of "square" and other dances. America should not be the only nation that confines ball room dancing to waltzes, as is done in some of our cities.

[p.137] Persons giving balls or dancing parties should be careful not to invite more than their rooms will accommodate, so as to avoid a crush. Invitations to crowded balls are not hospitalities, but inflictions. [Virtually all etiquette books of this period make this point in one way or another, but none that I have found give numbers to guide the reader, an oversight that I remedy in my article "The Viennese Waltz ", Appendix E, at this web site].

[p.142]When dancing a round dance, a gentleman should never hold a lady's hand behind him, or on his hip, or high in the air, moving her arm as though it were a pump handle, as seen in some of our western cities, but should hold it gracefully by his side.

The National Encyclopedia of

Business and Social Forms embracing

The Laws of Etiquette and Good Society

by James D. McCabe, Cincinnati 1881

[p.441] The refreshment room should, if possible, be on the same floor as the ballroom, because it is not only inconvenient, but dangerous, for ladies heated by the dance to encounter the drought of the staircases, while it is most destructive to their dresses.

[p.446]Gentlemen should endeavor to entertain the ladies who dance with them with a little conversation, or something more novel than the weather and the heat of the room; and in the round dances they should be particularly careful to guard them from collisions, and to see that their dresses are not torn.

The Manners That Win

L.A. Clarkson(pub), Atlanta, 1883

[from the chapter evening parties and balls, p.117, complaining about late balls] The loss of sleep is serious to young men, who attempt to comply with the requirements of both business and society, and a sensible reform should establish earlier hours. Fashionable young damsels, if their indulgent mothers permit it, may restore their excited nerves by sleeping away the hours which their busier beaux are obliged to spend over dull accounts, or prosy correspondence, and may, perhaps, suffer less damage by the transformation of night into day.

[p.122] An English writer says: "The advantage of the ball is that it brings young people together for a sensible and innocent recreation, and takes them away from silly if not bad ones; that it gives them exercise, and that the general effect of the beauty, elegance and brilliance of a ball is to elevate rather than deprave the mind."

[p.123] An awning, to provide against bad weather, should reach to the sidewalk, and a carpet should be spread from the hall to the alighting place to protect the ladies dresses.

[p.129] Never attempt to step over a lady's train; walk around it. No offense tries the temper of women like the tread of a careless foot upon that most useless--in man's opinion--but dearest part of her dress, her train, and he who would save himself from falling into disgrace, must instantly "beg pardon," and if he has torn it, with becoming humility, offer to conduct her to the dressing room for repairs.


by Emily Holt, New York, 1901

[From Chapter 6, balls]

[p.158]It is quite proper for a man, immediately on introduction to a woman, to ask her for a dance, register his name on her card, and then, excusing himself, go on to others to ask dances of them. He, of course, registers the ladies' names on his card, and directly the music for each dance begins, he seeks her who his card shows is to be his partner. May I put my name down for a waltz, Miss Blank? or I see number five is not taken. May I have it? or I hope your card is not filled yet, Miss Brown, and that you will give me the second two-step or the first lancers, are the simple and conventional phrases in which a gentleman requests a dance.

[p.160]So few are the cities, towns, or even small villages where dancing classes are not held that there seems hardly any excuse for a man to attend a ball and refuse to dance, assigning as his reason that he does not know how.


by Maud C. Cooke, Boston 1896

[From the chapter "Balls Dancing and Masquerades"]

[p.241] Balls should begin at about nine o'clock in the evening, and terminate at two or three in the morning.

[p.243]Good music is a prime necessity. An orchestra, even if it must be a small one, is needful for a ball. Four pieces are enough: violin, piano, violincello, or harp, and cornet.

[p.244] At a ball elaborate refreshments are to be expected, and are usually served all the evening from a long table loaded with silver and glass and softly but brilliantly illuminated. No one is expected to sit down at such a supper, but the guests as they come in, a few at a time, are served by waiters in attendance.

Both hot and cold dishes are to be had; and substantial food, as well as all manner of sweets, should be furnished for an amusement that begets a most unromantic hunger. Small game birds may be served cold; the larger fowl hot. Boned turkey (cold) is especially liked. Game pates, oysters, cooked or raw, all manner of truffled dishes, and a variety of salads are served, while fruits, ices, confections, cakes, and so on, ad infinitum, do fitly furnish forth the feast.


New York, 1883

[From the chapter "Giving and Attending Parties, Balls, and Germans".]

[p.90]Generally the early part of the evening is spent with the waltz, and after supper the "German".


Finally, it should be noted that cultural fads can be carried to extremes. Even though I would assert that balls are a good thing, the impossible extremes of etiquette promoted by etiquette books of the time were a very bad thing. These extremes were primarily reached in the English speaking countries, not so much in continental europe, much to the consternation of English speakers visiting the continent. The extremes to which the nineteenth century popular culture of "refinement" were carried were derided at the time by Gilbert and Sullivan in their musical shows. Their "Ruddigore" (1887) lampooned an over reliance on etiquette books, their "Patience" (1881) lampooned affectation of refinement. These operettas are available in printed form or on video. Opposition of a more determined kind at the time of the balls was provided by the adversaries of dance. The popular music of Lehar and his predecessors often expressed and valued the goodness and beauty that life has to offer. Current popular music revels in coarseness and crudeness. The motion pictures of Lubitch also championed the spirit of the 1800's. See especially Lubitch's 1934 movie of Lehar's 1905 "The Merry Widow". Unfortunately, the Viennese waltz dance is deformed and misrepresented in the movie, no doubt the fault of a Hollywood choreographer. Lubitsch died in 1947, and Lehar in 1948, the last champions of an uplifting, romantic philosophy of popular culture. Today, in the age of automobile, television, airplane, and computer, the cultural pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme from the 1800's. Popular music and social dance of today bear a disturbing resemblance to what one imagines they must have been like among cannibals in the jungle 10,000 years ago. Some of today's young people dance cannibal dances to cannibal music, wearing cannibal tattoos and cannibal nose rings. At least they are consistent. All that is missing is the huge cannibal pot in the middle of the dance floor to boil the victim. It seems that the style of popular music defines the style of popular culture. One could summarize the philosophical underpinning of popular culture in the 1800's as "be the best that you can be". Conversely, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, "you are no good unless you are no good". One wonders if this is anything more than an exaggeration of Marx's teaching that the capitalist is no good, the bourgeoisie is no good, only the proletariat is any good.

Other References

A modern book about ball etiquette from the 1800's is "From the Ballroom to Hell", by Elizabeth Aldrich, Northwestern University Press, 1991. It is not to be confused with a very different book by the same name published in 1892. The newer book is well worth getting. Especially interesting is "Handkerchief Flirtations" on p. 103, for those who always wondered about hanky dropping etiquette. Some of the old books about balls and dancing are online at http:// ammem/ dihtml/ dihome.html.

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