Sunday, November 1, 2015

Ascending the Staircase, 1848

Eugene Louis Lami, Grand Staircase at Buckingham Palace State Ball, 1848

In going up the staircase, it is rigorously the custom to give precedence to those to whom you owe respect, and to yield to such persons the most convenient part of the stairs, which is that next the wall. Above all do not forget this last caution if you accompany a lady ; and a well-bred gentleman, at such a time, should offer his arm. When there are many ladies, he should bestow this mark of respect on the oldest. If you meet any one on the staircase, place yourself on the side opposite to the one he occupies. (Emily Thornwell, The lady's guide to perfect gentility, in manners, dress, and conversation. New York: Derby & Jackson, 1857. p. 85.)

Unless, of course, you don't. These ladies and gentlemen arriving for a ball at Buckingham Palace are not arranging themselves according to the rigorous custom described in the etiquette book. They seem much less organized, and just intent on waiting their turn to get in the ballroom.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Dance of the Owls, 1892

No particular reason. I like owls and think the illustration is cute. Do you suppose the two owls in the front left are dancing the cakewalk?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

That Makes It All Right

Frédéric Auguste Dufaux, Le Bal Costumé

Hmm. This woman's clothes are skimpy, scant and scandalous. She's sipping champagne in front of a painting that belongs in a boudoir.  Looks pretty suspicious to me.

Oh. She's at a costume ball. Never mind.

I know nothing about this painting. I'm guessing from the hairstyles that it's from about 1900 and I'm guessing that it is more likely European than American.

Monday, April 7, 2014

To Wear Pink Slippers or Not to Wear Pink Slippers

Parisian Dancing Figure, La Belle Assemblée, 1807

Here is the description of the fashion plate above. I love that the young woman is dancing and that her outfit seems designed for dancing. Check out how short her skirt is.

PARISIAN COSTUME. No 2.—A Parisian Dancing Figure. A round frock of Italian crape, over a white satin slip, ornamented at the bottom with a pink and silver ribband. Long waist, laced up the back with pink or silver chord; a plain bosom cut very low, trimmed tel que la robe. The melon sleeve, formed of alternate stripes of pink satin and white crape; a narrow sash of pink ribband, tied loosely behind. Hair combed straight from the temples, and leaving a few simple curls on the forehead, is formed in full braids at the back of the head, confined with a coronet comb of pearl, and ornamented with a bunch of auricula or clove-carnation. A bouquet composed of the rose and myrtle. Necklace, earrings, and bracelets of fine Chinese pearl. Gloves of French kid, and slippers of pink satin, tied round the ankles with silver ribband. Plain silk stockings, a French white.

(Fashions for October 1807, La Belle Assemblée: or, Bell's court and fashionable magazine. Vol. III, from July 1 to December 31, 1807, p. 169.)

Apparently, pink dancing slippers were fashionable for a Parisian woman in 1807, but not for a London woman of 1817. There are far more nuances involved, but if you were small-town younger sister, and your London dwelling married sister said not to wear them, you probably wouldn't be caught dead in pink slippers.


MY DEAR Amy,-What changes does this London produce! Surely there is something in its air which totally causes a metamorphosis in all our ways of thinking and acting! Do not you recollect that good old lady, as we used to call her, who came to London last winter, in order to obtain the best advice against some obstinate spasms, which threatened to send her to her grave a few years sooner than, according to the promised length of our lives, she had a right to expect?

Well, my dear girl, this woman, so correct, so amiable in the country, is turned out the most extravagant kind of character you can possibly conceive; she has now no spasms but what is caused by her excessive sensibility. And she sets herself off for a young woman, even in my company; I have not the heart to contradict her, and Fitzosborne quizzes her most unmercifully, while she takes all his compliments for sterling truth. You know how thin she is, but she stuffs out her corsets, wears eight or nine petticoats, I really believe, that she may look fat; for it is the fashion in London for every lady after thirty to be quite corpulent. What is best of all, the good lady, though we know she is of Cornish birth, affects to be a native of London!

This woman is a source of amusement to us, particularly when she calls us her young rustics; and as by arriving in town before us she has seen a few more plays than ourselves, she affects to know all the actors and actresses, and all the secret history of the Green-Room. We once accompanied her to the Opera, where she called all the dancers fine actors, and laughed heartily at a most serious opera, declaring such and such sentences were excellent jests!

But enough of this curious character; a word or two in preference about my husband, who is actually as great a coquet as this old woman. He has bought a large wrapping great coat with two enormous capes, of an ugly olive green, and a pair of loose pantaloons, pulled out like a hoop petticoat; he would not wear a pair of boots that had a seam in them for the world; and as to his hat, I declare I do not know what to compare it to; it has a low crown, and the brim looks like a. spout. Yet he is always crying out about: my ridiculous French bonnets, as he calls them, and says my head is so loaded with flowers that it looks like a chimney sweeper’s garland, or else that my plumes of ostrich feathers put him in mind of a hearse. I am resolved, however, never to purchase any one fashionable article except at the Magazin de Modes, in St. James‘s-street; for I find that there are milliners here that impose on us country people, and those at the west end of the town are the only criterions of fashion.

The ladies about the court, consequently those who reside at the west end, are generally attired with an elegant simplicity; they never wear glaring colours, a prodigious quantity of flowers, nor a profusion of ribband or other trimmings; while we in the country, it must he confessed, are something like the rich citizen‘s wives here, we love every thing showy, profuse, and glittering.

Poor Fitzosborne does not much like the late hours of London; you know he scarce ever takes any thing between breakfast and dinner: now, as we breakfast at eleven and dine at half past seven, he is obliged to conform to the London fashion of lunching (I am sure that term would be laughed at if it came from a country gentleman or lady). Well, at this lunching you would be shocked to see how tine delicate young ladies will eat fried fish, beef-stakes, potted eels, and toss off half pint tumblers of ale and porter, and not unfrequently drink as much as half-a bottle of madeira before dinner. While, for my own part, I take as much gravy soup, and perhaps veal outlet or cold fowl, as would serve me for dinner at our homely country hour of three o'clock.

You ask me about the fashions; pray then, I beseech you, dance no more in those vile blue or pink satin slippers, which we both once so much admired: only white shoes are worn at balls. The waists are worn short, but not in that foolish Grecian style we were once so pleased with: no, it is now a pretty little waist, very tight at bottom, but with the bust well marked out: the feathers in the hat I send you, must balance in that easy way as they are now placed; and you must not, by an ill-placed pin, make them more towering, or more apparently firm. Have your silk gowns trimmed with blond; and when you throw a shawl over your dress, dispose it in an elegant kind of drapery about your form, and by no means let it be wrapped round you for the purpose it was first intended; that of shielding you from the cold.

I have paid innumerable visits this morning; one was to our old aunt, the Baronet's widow, whom neither you nor I have seen since we were little children: she embraced me with a transport, which I know was not sincere, for she is not at all altered in temper, but is as ill-natured as a wasp. However, she has introduced us to some of her noble friends, and through her means we have received an invitation to the Honourable Mrs. Verdantique‘s private masquerade.

We next went to call on two conjugal turtles, cousins to Fitzosborne, and the conduct of the gentleman put him in an ill humour for the rest of the day: yet the lady is so pretty that she deserves to be indulged in every thing; though the husband certainly carries his attentions too far: she has lately been confined with her first child, and the husband is constantly beside her, addressing the terms, my jewel, and my life; first to the mother, then to the infant. The new patent cot stands on the table; for every article of luxury and case, both for child and mother, is attended to in this metropolis: well, this quean-cot of a husband arrange the pillow, the covertures, &c. hands around the caudle to the guests, and presents a mess of broth to his dear wife; holds the screen between her and the fire or the sun: cries hush! if she has the headache, and runs to call the servant that the ringing of the bell may not disturb her. "Ah!" said I, “Fitzosborne, do you think you will ever make so good a nurse?" He was too much enraged to answer me then, but when we got home he told me, and very justly, that though every politeness and attention ought to be paid to a woman, he could not endure to see a man make such a fool of himself.

I am happy to hear that you have quite left off pockets; they are entirely exploded in London: nevertheless, fashion is never fixed; it is in London as in the country, beauty that gives laws to it: if a celebrated fair one was to wear pockets on the outside of her gown, or even tyed round her neck, I doubt not but all the world would follow it. Fashions too are sought after and found out; they are not invented: a woman of taste and fashion wishes to have a large hat, and she puts it on in that style that it; becomes universally adopted. Another has a bonnet on, or a turban put strangely together, made up in a hurry; nevertheless it is becoming, and every one is eager to have the same.

Adieu! I am sorry to tell you I have lost all the roses in my check; the lily has taken place of them, and which, if I do not lead a more quiet life, will, I fear, give place to the jonquil. --


(La Belle Assemblée: or, Bell's court and fashionable magazine. Vol. XVI – new series, from July 1 to December 31, 1817. p. 37-38.)

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dancing and Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens with his two daughters, Mary (Mamie) and Catherine (Katie) 1869
I have said before that Charles Dickens was not much of a dancer. Here is an excerpt from his daughter's memoir that shows, while he was not a good dancer, he was an enthusiastic dancer. The incident of teaching her father and Mr. Leech to dance the polka must have happened in the 1840s or early 1850s, while the girls were still children and the polka was wildly popular. From Mamie's description, it sounds like Dickens was a real cut-up on the dance floor. He was shy about dancing in formal situations, but eager to cut loose and have fun when with family and friends.

When "the boys" came home for the holidays there were constant rehearsals for the Christmas and New Year's parties; and more especially for the dance on Twelfth Night, the anniversary of my brother Charlie's birthday. Just before one of these celebrations my father insisted that my sister Katie and I should teach the polka step to Mr. Leech and himself. My father was as much in earnest about learning to take that wonderful step correctly, as though there were nothing of greater importance in the world. Often he would practise gravely in a corner, without either partner or music, and I remember one cold winter's night his awakening with the fear that he had forgotten the step so strong upon him that, jumping out of bed, by the scant illumination of the old-fashioned rushlight, and to his own whistling, he diligently rehearsed its "one, two, three, one, two, three" until he was once more secure in his knowledge.

No one can imagine our excitement and nervousness when the evening came on which we were to dance with our pupils. Katie, who was a very little girl, was to have Mr. Leech, who was over six feet tall, for her partner, while my father was to be mine. My heart beat so fast that I could scarcely breathe, I was so fearful for the success of our exhibition. But my fears were groundless, and we were greeted at the finish of our dance with hearty applause, which was more than compensation for the work which had been expended upon its learning.

My father was certainly not what in the ordinary acceptation of the term would be called "a good dancer." I doubt whether he had ever received any "instruction in "the noble art" other than that which my sister and I gave him. In later years I remember trying to teach him the Schottische, a dance which he particularly admired and desired to learn. But although he was so fond of dancing, except at family gatherings in his own or his most intimate friends' homes, I never remember seeing him join in it himself, and I doubt if, even as a young man, he ever went to balls. Graceful in motion, his dancing, such as it was, was natural to him. Dance music was delightful to his cheery, genial spirit; the time and steps of a dance suited his tidy nature, if I may so speak. The action and the exercise seemed to be a part of his abundant vitality.

While I am writing of my father's fondness for dancing, a characteristic anecdote of him occurs to me. While he was courting my mother, he went one summer evening to call upon her. The Hogarths were living a little way out of London, in a residence which had a drawing-room opening with French windows on to a lawn. In this room my mother and her family were seated quietly after dinner on this particular evening, when suddenly a young sailor jumped through one of the open windows into the apartment, whistled and danced a hornpipe, and before they could recover from their amazement jumped out again. A few minutes later my father walked in at the door as sedately as though quite innocent of the prank, and shook hands with everyone; but the sight of their amazed faces proving too much for his attempted sobriety, his hearty laugh was the signal for the rest of the party to join in his merriment. But judging from his slight ability in later years, I fancy that he must have taken many lessons to secure his perfection in that hornpipe.

His dancing was at its best, I think, in the "Sir Roger de Coverly "—and in what are known as country dances. In the former, while the end couples are dancing, and the side couples are supposed to be still, my father would insist upon the sides keeping up a kind of jig step, and clapping his hands to add to the fun, and dancing at the backs of those whose enthusiasm he thought needed rousing, was himself never still for a moment until the dance was over. He was very fond of a country dance which he learned at the house of some dear friends at Rockingham Castle, which began with quite a stately minuet to the tune of " God save the Queen," and then dashed suddenly into "Down the Middle and up Again." His enthusiasm in this dance, I remember, was so great that, one evening after some of our Tavistock House theatricals, when I was thoroughly worn out with fatigue, being selected by him as his partner, I caught the infection of his merriment, and my weariness vanished.

As he himself says, in describing dear old "Fezziwig's" Christmas party, we were "people who would dance and had no notion of walking." His enjoyment of all our frolics was equally keen, and he writes to an Amer
ican friend, apropos of one of our Christmas merrymakings: "Forster is out again; and if he don't go in again after the manner in which we have been keeping Christmas, he must be very strong indeed. Such dinings, such conjurings, such blindman's buffings, such theatre goings, such kissings out of old years and kissings in of new ones never took place in these parts before. To keep the Chuzzlewit going, and to do this little book, the Carol, in the odd times between two parts of it, was, as you may suppose, pretty tight work. But when it was done I broke out like a madman, and if you could have seen me at a children's party at Macready's the other night, going down a country dance with Mrs. M., you would have thought I was a country gentleman of independent property, residing on a tip-top farm, with the wind blowing straight in my face every day."
 (By Mamie Dickens, My Father as I Recall Him, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1900 p. 25-32.)

Charles Dickens, painting by William Powell Frith, 1859

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Early Twentieth Century Dance Halls

Dance Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1914
Since I've been looking at a certain type of dance hall, I have noticed the features they have in common and the era in which they flourished. If you are the kind of person who likes to think about why an activity came to be, I have some connections and conjectures for you.

These halls were built in the earliest years of the twentieth century, and fell out of favor (got converted to other uses) in the 1920s. Their popularity depended on young working people who had their own money to spend and access to transportation that could bring them all to one spot - the streetcar. Dance halls rose with the advent of the streetcar and fell with the introduction of prohibition. Once access to beer was eliminated, people followed the alcohol to speakeasies and nightclubs, and the dancing followed them there.

The dances of the dance halls ranged from the turn-of-the-century two-step to ragtime one-step and always included waltzes. You wouldn't see contra dances (too organized, not enough touching, too old fashioned) or charlestons (too individual, not enough touching, and not yet invented.)

The popularity of the dance halls provoked a hysterical response from local government and police and from writers like T. A. Faulkner, author of From the Ballroom to Hell. It is my theory that the authorities simply didn't trust huge crowds of young people having unsupervised fun. They seem to have felt that it was a tiny step from unsupervised fun to white slavery and depravity.

Obviously, other kinds of dancing coexisted with this movement. There were society dances and formal balls and dancing in the parlor to the music of a Victrola. This dancing was dependent on a particular moment in time, a particular technology, and a particular type of society.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Some Early Twentieth Century Dance Halls

Let's take a postcard tour of some early twentieth century dance halls.

1909 Dance Hall, Olympic Park, Irvington, NJ

I love that there are people in this photo to give you a sense of scale. The women are wearing hats, presumably because they are spending time outdoors at the amusement park as well as dancing. There is probably no place to check the hats.

This dance hall shows up in a lot of postcards. I assume this is one of the earlier ones. See how open the beams in the ceiling are. The hall looks pretty rustic here compared to later photos. I love the Chinese lanterns. I don't know if they contain electric lights or candles.
1910 Rhodes on the Pawtuxet,  Pawtuxet RI
This is the same hall. The beams are now painted white, and there are more architectural details (spindles, columns and arches) around the edge.
1910 Rhodes on the Pawtuxet,  Pawtuxet RI

This is the same hall and the same photograph, just colored differently. Isn't it interesting how the coloring the swags of bunting changes the look? Both photos show that the lights are electric. There is sunlight coming in through the arches and the electric lights are on at the same time. The first colorist minimizes the sunlight.

1915 Dance Pavillion, Rhodes on the Pawtuxet,  Pawtuxet RI

Now the ceiling is filled in with lattice work. There are electric fans as well as electric lights. Now we can see  there is a gallery running around the edges of the room. I can't tell if it was there before. I believe this photo was taken from a spot under the gallery, and that the solid looking section in the top right is the floor of the gallery.

1923 Casino, Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, Pawtuxet, RI

I can't quite tell if this is the same photo. The photographer seems to have moved a few steps out from under the gallery, or else the bottom of the gallery in the upper right has been overlaid with lattice.

1916 White City,  Worcester MA
This dance hall was in an amusement area near Worcester. It was named after the White City of the 1893 World's Fair and advertised early on as the Land of Fifty Thousand Electric Lights. Like many amusement parks of the time, it was built at the end of a trolley line, to encourage weekend ridership

1915 Canobie Lake Park, Salem,  NH

I'm fond of this one because Canobie Lake Park is still functioning, about 30-45 minutes from Boston. The interior photo shows the glossy waxed floor and lots of small electric lights wrapped around the ceiling beams. It doesn't have exterior walls or little pens for the non-dancers to stand in. Canobie Lake Park was built in 1902, at the end of the Massachusetts Northeast Street Railway Company's trolley line.

1920 Coney Island, NY

I can't tell if this is a hand colored photograph or a drawing. The dance hall looks huge, doesn't it? It follows the plan of several we've already seen, with the second floor gallery, but there is another level of windows over the gallery, making it look three stories high.The postcard is captioned "Palace of Joy, Dancing Hall and Skating Rink. I've seen the double use of dance halls and roller skating rinks before.

1927 Albers Castle Hall, St. Louis, MO

You may have noticed that the pictures I am looking at have a New England/East Coast bias. This one is from St. Louis. I chose it because it looked more substantially built than the others and somehow classier. It turns out to be a fascinating subject. Here is a photo of how the hall appears today:

Eeek! Let's go back to it's glory days. It was built on the site of an earlier dance academy. It was huge, taking up almost the entire block. It was on a streetcar stop, necessary for getting young working people to the dance hall. When it was built in 1908, it was called "Cave Hall," but the name was changed to "Castle Hall" in 1922, presumably to honor/cash in on the classy reputation of Vernon and Irene Castle. You can see in the postcard that it had a gallery along one side, but windows and mirrors along the other. It's ceiling was finished with a solid surface rather than exposed beams or lattice. Both the mirrors and the finished ceiling were details that distanced it from the cheap and commercial "pleasure palace" aspect of modern dance halls and reminded onlookers of the respectable dance academies of the past.