Tuesday, March 3, 2009

You Want to Dance with Me? I Want it in Writing!

Okay...first, old business. The winner of the drawing for a signed copy of Sarah MacLean's The Season is:
Starry*Night!

Starry*Night, you'll be hearing from Sarah shortly to arrange mailing your prize. Thank you to everyone who stopped by and commented! Now, for today's topic...

The nineteenth century was a century of progress. I mean, think about it: at the beginning of the century, if you wanted to go somewhere you rode a horse or a horse-drawn vehicle; by the end there were railroads and automobiles. At the beginning of the century, your house was lit by candles; by the end, gas and electric lighting were available almost everywhere. And at the beginning of the century, you pretty much had to dance with whoever asked you at a ball; by the end, there were dance cards. See what I mean? Progress!

Okay, I’ll settle down now.

So what were dance cards?

Like technology, they evolved over the century. From what I’ve been able to find, they were probably first in use in Austria and may have been spread as everyone returned home to their various corners of Europe from the Congress of Vienna, that huge year-long party—ahem, series of negotiations—that ended the Napoleonic Wars (for you hard-core history geeks out there, I highly recommend David King’s Vienna 1814 for a highly readable account of the Congress). At this time, “group” dances like country dancing and the highly formal minuets where precedence and etiquette decreed whom you could dance with fell out of favor, to gradually be replaced by “pairs” dances like the waltz and later on the polka and others. And because there were now more dances per evening (as opposed to the fewer but longer country dances of the past) it became harder to remember which young men you’d promised to dance with. So young women used the adorable little notebooks that opened like fans that they already carried about in their reticules to note down shopping lists and so on, and used them to record dance partners for the evening. I've posted a photo above of a few from my collection--you can see the varying materials (bone, ivory, mother of pearl, tortoise shell, silver) and styles, as well as ways of carrying them (see the little ring on the fan-shaped one and the clip on the Indian chief one so that it could be fastened on a belt?) A few are even inscribed "Bal", or ball in French (see close-up at left). I've seen varying opinions as to when dance cards were in general use...most likely, their use grew through the 1830s until they were a commonplace by the time Victoria was queen.

Towards the middle of the century, dance cards changed: they were pre-printed booklets of paper or cardboard listing each specific dance that the musicians would play, in order. Tiny pencils were attached by a ribbon or cord to the program, and the whole could dangle from a wrist or belt, and later be preserved as a memento of the evening. They became progressively more decorative and elaborate as the century moved on, peaking with the astonishing “ballspenden” popular in Austria before World War I (check this site out for a look at how crazy they could get!)

7 comments:

Emily Ruth said...

how interesting! I'm curious.. will there be any more betraying season giveaways?
I'm just so excited for it :)

Marissa Doyle said...

Yes! I'll be doing some later on in the spring (since Betraying Season will now be a September release), accompanied by more "guess the mystery object" game and a new game we've come up with...stay tuned, probably in April...

Addie said...

Sounds fun!

Emily Ruth said...

can't wait! xD

adrian said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
-For the Love of Clever- said...

Hello! I am currently researching dance cards and remaking them for an 1860's ball and I just read your lovely post. I was wondering if you know the date of the dance card/booklet on the right of your very last picture? I am wanting to make one that is similar in shape to that one, but I of course want to make sure it would be accurate. Thank you! :)

Marissa Doyle said...

Unfortunately I don't. Ones with sterling covers can be dated through hallmarks, but of course the mother-of-pearl and ivory/bone ones don't have that very useful information. I wish I knew, but I have dates for very few of the pieces in my collection.