Etiquette of the Era
"A ball is the only social function in America to which such qualifying words as splendor and magnificence can with proper modesty of expression be applied"
- Emily Post, 1922
Based on the materials in her scrapbook, we know that Olive Ruby Henty (ORH) participated in many types of activities during her time at Simmons College. The many invitations to dances and handwritten dance cards that she included, however, suggest that dancing was one of her favorite, or at least most frequent, activities.
In Boston ORH would have encountered a venerable ball scene; according to Emily Post, Boston was the best place in the country to attend a social dance (at least for those with the proper social credentials). Post describes the ball scene in Boston as follows:
There are three reasons (probably more) why the balls in Boston have what can be described only by the word "quality." The word "elegance" before it was misused out of existence expressed it even better.
First: Best Society in Boston having kept its social walls intact, granting admission only to those of birth and breeding, has therefore preserved a quality of unmistakable cultivation. There are undoubtedly other cities, especially in the South, which have also kept their walls up and their traditions intact-but Boston has been the wise virgin as well, and has kept her lamp filled.
Second: Boston hostesses of position have never failed to demand of those who would remain on their lists, strict obedience to the tenets of ceremonies and dignified behavior; nor ceased themselves to cultivate something of the "grand manner" that should be the birthright of every thoroughbred lady and gentleman.
Third: Boston's older ladies and gentlemen always dance at balls, and they neither rock around the floor, nor take their dancing violently. And the fact that older ladies of distinction dance with dignity has an inevitable effect upon younger ones, so that at balls at least, dancing has not degenerated into gymnastics or contortions. (Post)
Post explains the distinction between balls and dances as one of simple scale: a dance is a smaller event than a ball, with fewer invited guests and simple decorations. For Post, however, the most important difference is "that invitations to balls always include older people-as many, if not more than younger ones-whereas invitations to a dance for a debutante, for instance, include none but very young girls, young men and the merest handful of the hostess' most intimate friends" (Post). Post draws further distinctions between a formal dance and an informal one; in this case, the distinction lies in the intimacy of the event, since at an informal dance, the guests are generally all acquainted with one another.
While Post's discussion of dances emphasizes an intact set of social rules that restricts guest lists and maintains decorum, contemporary historians argue that the end of the 19th century marked the beginning of a long-term process of informalization, including a relaxation of the rule-governed social conventions that Post describes. Public dance halls, for example, were spaces where a "lack of parental control" allowed "the young [to] become partners and hold and touch each other for the duration of a dance" (Wouters, 6). Class distinctions blurred at these dance halls where almost anyone could get in, even those who would not have been invited to a private dance.
At any private dance, of course, hostesses and guests would be careful to abide by certain rules of etiquette. There were often more women than men in attendance at dances; as a result, it was considered rude to ask for an extra woman to be invited to a dance. Many of ORH's dance cards list female names as well as male names, suggesting that at times there were not enough men to go around, and women had to dance with each other.
Dance cards, which women used to record the names of their partners for the various dances of the evening, appear to have originated in the 18th century, and to have first become popular in Vienna in the 19th century.Post explains the benefits of dance cards as follows:
The program or dance-card of public balls and college class dances, has undeniable advantages. A girl can give as many dances as she chooses to whomever she chooses; and a man can be sure of having not only many but uninterrupted dances with the one he most wants to be with-provided 'she' is willing. (Post)
Post sees dance cards as an excellent alternative to the practice of "cutting in," which allowed men to interrupt a dance after a couple had taken a turn around the dance floor and potentially left a lady with an unsatisfactory partner.
A dance card was generally a booklet with a decorative cover, usually indicating the sponsoring organization of the dance. These covers could be made from a variety of materials, including paper, cardboard, leather, wood, metal, and silk. Generally, the card also had a cord that attached to the lady's wrist or ball gown and sometimes contained a small pencil for the lady to write down her partner's names. The inside of the booklet listed the type of dance as well as the name of the lady's partner.
Once the dance was over, the dance card was often kept as a souvenir, as evidenced by the many dance cards saved in ORH's scrapbook.back to top
Post, E. (1922). Etiquette in society, in business, in politics and at home. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. Retrieved November 12, 2007, from www.bartleby.com/95/
Wikipedia. (2007). Dance Card. Retrieved November 17, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dance_card