The quintessential 19th century party, the one most celebrated in thousands of Regency and Victorian novels, is the ball. And what’s not to love? Dresses and jewelry to die for, handsome young men in evening clothes, and license to flirt (discreetly, of course) with several of them over the course of an evening…it just didn’t get better for a nineteenth century girl.
Early on in the century, balls could be public--held in a town’s Assembly Rooms (a sort of public gathering place) and attended by anyone who paid the subscription fee--or they could be private parties, by invitation only. Assembly balls fell out of fashion by the 1830s, and thereafter most balls were private parties thrown by an individual or by a private organization (for example, charity balls for fundraising purposes).
So what happened at a ball?
Well, dancing, of course. But it was also customary to provide a room for elderly or less spry guests to play cards for the evening while the younger and more active folks danced. There was also generally food--ices and cool drinks in a room near the ballroom for a quick pick-me-up between sets, and a supper buffet served sometime in the wee hours of the morning.
So say you’re the Honorable Miss Petunia High-Instep, dressed to the nines like the young ladies in the prints I’ve posted here (note that the dresses worn to balls are a little shorter, presumably to avoid anything so catastrophic as tripping on one’s hem). What happens when you go to a ball?
You’ll arrive with your parents or other relatives…certainly not alone and without a chaperone! You leave your cloak or other wrap in the ladies’ cloakroom (staffed by a maid who was available to repair wardrobe or hairdressing mishaps). You might be greeted by the host and hostess if it’s still early in the evening (sometimes you might attend two or even three balls in one evening!) and then your mother or aunt or married sister or whoever has accompanied you will set up camp on the chairs lining the ballroom, preferably near friends to chat with…and you seat yourself with your gown becomingly arranged and wait for an invitation to dance.
When a gentleman approaches, he'll ask you to dance…meanwhile, Mama has a few seconds to check him out and nod approval. If you (or she) don’t like his looks, you can refuse…but that means you're doomed to sit that dance out, as it was not done to refuse one man and accept another after that. More than likely you say yes, both because it's dreadfully boring to sit there and watch other people dance, and so that you won’t appear to be a wallflower whom nobody wants to dance with.
You make some amount of polite conversation during your dance, and then the gentleman escorts you back to Mama and either leaves you there or asks permission to take you to the refreshment room for a quick glass of lemonade (if he's cute and you want to prolong the encounter, you can encourage this by fanning yourself and dramatically proclaiming how parched you are as he walks you back to your chair). If you're lucky, someone you like asks you for the “supper dance”, the last dance before the musicians take a break and everyone troops down for the buffet supper.
As you go to more balls, you get to know the usual crowd and learn whom you like and whom you don’t, which men are definitely worth encouraging (wealthy, titled or heir to a title, well-behaved and interesting) and which aren’t (younger sons who wouldn’t inherit much, utter boors/bores, rakes who are only looking for a good time).
Balls could be great fun if the music was good, if there were more men than women (which would help cut down on the percentage of wallflowers), if the guests were amiable…or they could be dreadful if the reverse were true. But everyone went to them.
There’s a lot more to talk about--the types of dances, for one thing--but we’ll cover that in a future post.