Thursday, November 22, 2012

Firemen's Balls in Philadelphia 1846-49

A fabulous dance invitation from 1846 (The Dance Card Museum)

The American Dance Card Museum is selling 7 pieces of ephemera from Philadelphia in the late 1840s. They include 6 dance invitations and a very early dance card. This is a wonderful glimpse into the social life of an American city in the mid-nineteenth century.

In these 7 pieces of paper, we can see 5 fire companies, holding annual balls, dress balls, complementary balls, sometimes more than one ball in a season. These balls take place at the Philadelphia Museum, the Museum Building, Odd Fellows Hall and Musical Fund Hall.  5 of the 6 ball invitations are for balls on Monday nights. The odd night out is Thursday night, but it is during the Christmas-to-New Years season, so I wonder if that is significant. Notice that one ball is held on Christmas night. This is a small sample, but we can see that these balls were held in either November/December or March.

Each invitation has a list of names. It's more enticing to attend a ball that your friends will be at and I suppose this is an important form of advertising. Somewhere between 10 and 95 men are listed as managers. I assume these are all members of the fire company. If you multiply that by two (each man will presumably bring a lady) and add in some friends, you can probably get a feeling for the size of the balls. In 5 of 6 examples, only one floor manager is needed, The other ball has two floor managers. The floor managers have assistants, ranging in number from 1 to 8.

The seventh piece of ephemera is a dance card, likely from the same time period. Dance cards from these earlier years are quite rare. This one has 7 sets of dancing and six refreshments breaks. All dances but one are quadrilles, and the card begins with the only different dance, a grand march. We know that the polka craze hits America in the early 1840s and the waltz is popular at the same time. It seems odd that these dances are not listed on the card. Perhaps they were danced at this ball, but they were considered more personal and intimate, so they did not need the same advance commitment to a partner. Maybe they were not danced at this ball.

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