Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Ballgown from the 1850s

Ballgown 1854 - Metropolitan Museum of Art
This dress shows the layers of ruffles that were so popular in the 1850s. It is made of very fine fabric and all the layers and gathering make a very fluffy, yet still elegant effect.

Ballgown Back 1854 - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Private Ball in Antwerp, January 1842

Palais Palavicini in Vienna. These are the sort of marquetry floors that our narrator describes.

A different room in the Palais Palavicini, with marquetry floor and crimson damask panels on the walls.

Our English friend is envious of the fancy uniforms that show up in abundance at European balls and so am I! The chapeau bras that he mentions is a bicorn hat which can be folded and tucked under the arm. It was a common item in civilian as well as military dress in the early nineteenth century. At some point, civilian fashion replaced it with the top hat. It stayed on as a part of military uniforms for decades after civilians stopped wearing it. 

Our friend has better luck getting partners at this dance, perhaps due to the cousin's help. He still feels that it's work, so he jokes about it in business terms, as if waltzes, galops and contradances were being traded in the stock market.

Saturday, 15th.—A thaw commenced, filling the streets with black mud and water, and the atmosphere with a horrible fog.

Dined at the chief restaurant of Antwerp. The service was intolerably slow, and would not have been endured in Paris, where one of the peculiar excellencies of their restaurants is the brilliant cleverness of the garçons: a slow and stupid waiter is there put out of doors at once. I remember however, to have once met with a garçon at one of the most fashionable restaurants on the boulevards, who was drunk, so drunk as to be both stupid and insolent. I complained,—and his fellow-waiters said it was infamous.

After dinner, to the party, the first-fruits of my letter of introduction.

We were set down on carpeted steps, under a porte-cochere, and shewn into a small room, where ladies'-maids and a cheval glass were doing duty, respectively active and passive, and where people deposited hats, cloaks, and swords,—swords, because here all officers, as a general rule, appear at all dress parties, in uniform. As to hats, many men carry a small chapeau bras into the rooms. A servant enquired our names, and leading us through an ante-room, threw open the folding doors at the further end of it, and announced us at the top of his voice. Just within, we found the host, with his wife and daughter, all radiant with gracious and welcoming smiles.

I was handed over to a cousin, who took my arm, and plunged with me into the midst of a crowd of some three hundred people, where, with his help, I "* made my book' for the night: contredanses were still to be had, at a fair price, but valses and galops had been nearly all taken up, and were quite at a premium. A dancing stranger, among so many new faces, called by such strange and unfamiliar names, must use his wits, lest he should forget an engagement, or lose his lady or his vis a vis, all mortal offences.

The rooms had been recently redecorated, and this ball was, I believe, intended for a sort of house-warming after the process. There were five of them and a hall, on the ground floor, en suite; completing the square of the house, so that you could walk through them as long as you pleased, without turning back. They were elegantly and richly furnished, with silk hangings, turkey carpets, marble, and or-moulu chandeliers and candelabra. The principal dancing-room was a large square, the walls hung with crimson silk damask, let into panels, with white and gold wood-work and decorations, large mirrors, and a costly marble chimney-piece. The floor was of elaborate inlaid work, of various light-coloured woods and ebony, as fine as the marqueterie of a cabinet, and polished like glass. The lighting, by a profusion of wax candles, was perfect.

A crowd of guests, so dense that you could scarcely move, here waited for something to do, and talked as fast and as much as they could, in the meantime. At a given signal, the curtains of the centre window of three occupying one side of the room, were suddenly drawn back by an invisible hand, and disclosed the orchestra, in a small pavilion, opening by the window into the room, lined with crimson damask, and lighted by a lamp hanging from the centre of the roof: the effect was very theatrical and pretty. Simultaneously arose the preliminary groans and squeaks of the instruments, and immediately, partners were singled out, a space was cleared, and the dancing began. The band-master from time to time shouted out the names of the figures of the contre-danse, and directions for the different parts of them, and he did it in the oddest way, opening his eyes wide as he called out, so that they seemed to be worked by strings tied to his jaws, and puffing out his cheeks, and finally, appearing to make a violent swallow of a very large plum, exactly as if he went by clockwork,—all the time fiddling away, as for dear life.

One large room was appropriated to card-playing, in which both men and women here indulge most systematically. Ices and other pleasant things were carried about, and we had supper in a suite of rooms on the first floor. It was served out by servants standing behind long tables, as shopmen stand behind counters, and a welcome pair circulated about among the guests, one carrying a supply of Champagne, and the other, a basketful of long glasses.

It was a well-managed affair, and the company, the best of Antwerpian society,—the governor, the burgomaster, the two generals, the nobles, as they are called here,—that is, the class, who with us, are titled or untitled people, as the case may be, of established family and condition,—the consuls, leading merchants and bankers (many of the grandees here are in some way or other, engaged in mercantile pursuits) and a few of the staff, and officers of the garrison. Many of the women were strikingly handsome. We were, I think, the only English English there.

It is the established custom, for the invited to fee the servants handsomely on leaving the house, and you are sure to find a major-domo at the door, who receives the five-franc pieces quite as a matter of course. (Antwerp. A Journal kept there. London: John Olivier, 1847. p. 38-42 .)

1831 A gentleman in full dress still has his chapeau bras.

1813. These are the days when the chapeau bras was a regular part of full dress.

1878. The officer in the lower left has his chapeau bras tucked between his legs so that he can eat.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Ball Refreshments Served à la Pic Nic, Antwerp, February 1842

Carl Spitzweg The Picnic, 1864

Here's our English friend, describing another ball in Antwerp.
A ball to-night. Things of this sort, in a town like Antwerp, obtain a certain brilliancy and success that cannot be commanded in an ordinary English drawing-room. The continental city has at hand, perhaps a governor, and one or two generals, a garrison, a resident noblesse, and various consuls and functionaries, who all freely bring their titles, dignities, uniforms, and decorations, into the domestic society of the place, shining with a certain moral and physical aristocratic splendour of effect, among the plain gentlemen and ladies, the starless and crossless black coats, and the velvet and white satin gowns.

The supper was managed by bringing into the dancing-room a number of small tables and benches, the ladies sitting down round the walls, and the gentlemen helping them to dishes of all sorts of portable and pic nic viands, as sandwiches, pates, and cakes: one of the tables was covered with glasses and wines, which were served out in the same way.
(Anon., Antwerp; A Journal kept There. London: John Ollivier, 1847. p. 165-166.)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Philharmonie Ball, Antwerp, January 1842

Evening Dress 1846

I love finding travelers' descriptions of balls. They often mention things that are different from balls in their home country, but they also sometimes mention details that no one at home bothers to record.

This book is quite a treasure trove. The author is English, and is describing a visit to Antwerp, in Flanders, now part of Belgium. The Philharmonie Ball is a public ball for members of a club and their guests. It has dance cards, so the gentlemen can engage partners in advance. Apparently this causes a little stress to a new gentleman, since he has clearly asked more than one young lady, only to hear that she is already engaged to Prince So-and-so.

The couple dances are waltzes and galops. Presumably the polka craze will hit Antwerp soon, though it is not there yet.

The idea of ordering ball supper in a cafe-like setting is new to our English traveller and we find out that ball suppers in English public balls are likely to have casual seating at long tables.

It seems that ladies who don't dance are common everywhere, whether you call them wallflowers, or draperies, or les tapisseries.

Monday, 10th.—Called at a house to deliver a letter of introduction. It was one of the really princely mansions that abound in Antwerp, with a grand, broad staircase, and quite palatial altogether. An invitation from the lady there to her next party, and offers of further civilities.

We were this evening regaled at the house of an hospitable Fleming, with tea, gingerbread and cakes, Bordeaux, and Rhine wine, all placed on the table at the same time.

Afterwards we went, between eight and nine o'clock, to the Philarmonie ball. I have seen nothing in England, of the kind, so good in point of management and effect. The Philarmonie is a club here, and from time to time they give these balls: it is necessary to be introduced by a member.

Servants in livery passed us up the staircase, and into the ball-room, a very fine hall, having a vaulted ceiling, supported on columns, behind which, on each side of the room, runs a sort of cloister or corridor, with a raised floor, where the spectators stand, out of the way of the dancers. 

The decoration is in the Renaissance style, in colours and gilding. We found this room brilliantly lighted, and filled with some three or four hundred people, the greater part of them dancing vigorously, and in good time (people in an English ball-room never dance in time) to the music of an excellent band. 

Rigorous full dress is made a sine qua non: boots for instance, are not admissible in male costume, insomuch, that even officers in uniform wear shoes, which has a grotesque effect.

As you enter, a servant gives you a card, with directions as to the figures of the quadrilles printed on one side, and, on the other, the order of the dances in general, as, galop—contre-danse —valse—contre-danse—galop, and so forth, and also, on the same side, a table for engagements, as, 1st, 2d, and 3d contre-danses, &c,—1st, 2d, and 3d valses, &c,—and your very important business, if you care about dancing, is, at once to engage partners for the whole length and breadth of the ball, and, for the contre-danses, vis à vis also. If you do not look particularly sharp after this duty, you are certain to languish all night in ignoble idleness, among respectable fathers of families, and les tapisseries, as the ladies who immoveably line the walls, are here called. 

The quadrilles differ somewhat from those danced in England. The valses and galops last only a certain fixed time, as to which, and also, the intervals between all the dances, the orchestra have their instructions beforehand. As a notice of the commencement of each dance, they play a few bars of its appropriate music.

A valse or a galop is a very animated scene here. Not a thin stream of couples, but a broad belt of them, composed, perhaps, of two hundred men and women or more, encircles the dancing arena, all furiously whirling round and round, faster as it seems, and faster, every moment, with an effect of motion indescribable.

Decidedly, the ladies were better dressed, on the average, than in England, and there was a very satisfactory display of handsome faces and fine figures,—more belles femmes,—which may by no means be translated, pretty girls,—than I have seen together for a long time.

About twelve o'clock, people began to think of their suppers. Instead of a general arrangement of long tables, as at our public balls, where people are squeezed uncomfortably together, and eat and drink at haphazard, a number of small tables were placed up and down the refreshment rooms, as in a cafe, and at these, different little parties sat, their several suppers having been previously bespoken at a sort of bar, and the names of the bespeakers, on cards, being then pinned to the table-cloths to mark the places as taken. Pates de foie gras, oysters, cold fowl, and Champagne, were the average refreshments in vogue.

A lady, young, and so forth, is soon engaged for all the dances of the night, and, when asked for the honour and pleasure, &c., she will refer to princes, like those of Genoa and Venice,—worthy gentlemen of magnificent taste, and right liberal patrons of art. (Anon., Antwerp; A Journal kept There. London: John Ollivier, 1847. p. 9-18.)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Two Mid-Nineteenth Century Ballrooms

Mechanics Hall, Worcester Massachusetts.

The Commonwealth Vintage Dancers are planning a ball in Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA and I'm really looking forward to dancing there! If you're not familiar with Massachusetts, or if you're a near-sighted Bostonian, you may not realize that Worcester is a great nineteenth century city with amazing architecture and institutions.

Mechanics Hall was built in 1856 by the industrial leaders of the city. It's Great Hall is absolutely spectacular, with a sprung floor and impressive acoustics. It was a must for presidential debates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the time it was built, it was estimated to hold 4,500 people (allowing 2 1/5 square feet per man) and it was recorded to have held 3,000 for a memorial service for assassinated president William McKinley in 1902. More conservatives estimates from the recent days of fire regulations say that the great hall seats 1615 as a theater (including 575 balcony seats) or 600 at banquet tables. The great hall measures 80 ft. x 105 ft.

Mechanics Hall in Worcester

"The third floor is devoted wholly to the great hall, and its appurtenances.The hall will measure 128 feet by 80, and 40 feet in height; allowing each man 2 1-5 square feet, this hall will contain standing room for four thousand five hundred men; at the eastern end is the speakers' platform, 40 feet by 20;
at the western end are two large ante rooms, and over them the galleries, which also extend along each side of the entire hall; the galleries on the side are 9 feet in width; there are six staircases leading out of the hall to the floors below; the finish and decorations of the interior are not yet completed; but are to be panel work overhead with columns and arches at the sides.

It will be thoroughly lighted and ventilated, and will no doubt be one of the most beautiful halls in the country. The style of architecture of the building is the Corinthian, and the appearance of the whole will challenge the admiration of all. Elbridge Boyden is architect; H. N. Tower, superintendent; Tilley Raymond,carpenter."  (Henry Jenkins Howland, The heart of the commonwealth, or, Worcester as it is. Worcester, MA:Printed and published by Henry J. Howland, 1856 p. 66)

Buckingham Palace Ballroom as it appeared in 1856.

Now that I've been admiring Mechanics Hall, I notice it has similarities with the ball room at Buckingham Palace. The ball room was added to the palace in 1856. It also has a paneled ceiling and is built on a similar scale to Mechanics Hall. You can see from the painting of the opening ball that there was no balcony, but that there were seats around the edges. This ballroom measures 60 ft. x 118 ft, a little more rectangular, but basically the same dimensions at Mechanics Hall. It is 44 ft. high, where Mechanics Hall is 40 ft high. The exuberant mid-nineteenth century decorating scheme of the palace ballroom has been toned down over the years.

Both halls were built to show grandeur and importance and both were built with dancing in mind. It's fun to compare the democratic American with the royal British versions.

Buckingham Palace Ballroom in the present day.

Buckingham Palace Ballroom set for a banquet.