Balls and Assemblies were some of the most socially important events in the lives of the Georgian who was trying to climb the social ladder or, for those who had risen to the middle or upper classes, and wished to maintain their position. In this week’s post, we are going to look at the types of balls, their social significance, the etiquette of the ballroom, and other items that governed the “Ball culture” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Due to a lack of available documentation on the culture of the “Ball” here in the United States, the information we will discuss primarily focuses on England. While there may have been some small differences, it is doubtful that the “Ball culture” here in the United States changed very radically in the years closely following the American Revolution. One can hardly imagine George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison “rubbing elbows with blacksmiths or shopkeepers at a ball in the early Republic.
TYPES OF BALLS, THEIR VENUES AND THEIR SOCIAL PROTOCOL
There were three main types of Formal Balls in late-Georgian/Regency England and they played a significant role in many people’s lives. These balls included; Assembly or Assembly Room balls, smaller balls held at country inns, and Private Balls; given at a country home by a private citizen. These social events, as we shall see, were ways to network, establish business connections, and give young people an opportunity to meet prospective future spouses.
Assembly Room Balls Assembly rooms were public venues specifically built for public balls. These existed mainly in larger cities where the social life could support the cost of construction and upkeep. These assembly rooms were one of the few places of entertainment, besides theaters, that were open to both sexes in this period. In the larger towns, a set of assembly rooms might consist of a main room and several smaller subsidiary rooms such as card rooms, tearooms and supper rooms. In small towns, it was often just a single, large room.
Among the best-known Assembly Rooms are Almack’s in London, the New Assembly Rooms in Bath, and the Assembly Rooms at Harrogate, Yorkshire. However, a little oasis of wealth and culture was blooming in Truro, Cornwall, in the far west of England. The center of the social life in Truro was the beautiful Assembly Rooms, built in 1780, that held splendid balls once a month. The money to build the rooms came from the sale of 28 shares costing £55 each, over twice the average annual full time wage of a common laborer. What made the Truro Assembly Rooms unique was the way the ballroom was convertible into a theatre. When staging a play, they could take up part of the floor, allowing the ballroom to assume the appearance of a theatre. During the years 1810 and 1811 a theatrical company, who would perform 70-80 different plays, occupied the facility, however, the facility is best known for its great balls. Additionally, the Truro Assembly Rooms not only hosted balls and plays, but it was also the location for many other special events. (Truro Council , 2010)
In the American Colonies, Assembly Rooms also sprang up in the larger cities. In Philadelphia, of all the social functions in the city, the most exclusive was the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly. The Assembly, founded in 1748, was an organization that sponsored formal balls every other week during the winter social season. Following the model of English upper class society, its membership was restricted to those who were of high enough social status, who could afford the subscription fee, maintain the necessary wardrobe and who had the leisure time and self-assurance to learn to dance well. By the 1790s, the Assemblies had outgrown their usual venue at the City Tavern.
When Oeller’s Hotel, pictured above, far right, opened on the south side of Chestnut St. near 6th, they moved their fortnightly dances there. Its Assembly Room, according to Henry Wansey’s Excursion to the United States, was “a most elegant room, sixty feet square, with a handsome music gallery at one end . . . papered after the French fashion, with the Pantheon figures in compartments, imitating festoons, pillars and groups of antique drawings, in the same style as lately introduced in the most elegant houses in London.” (Wansey, 1798)
Each February, from 1791 to 1797, the Dancing Assembly hosted a birth night ball, in honor of President Washington. The Federal Gazette described the 1791 ball: “it is with particular pleasure we record one of the most elegant, numerous and splendid dancing assemblies ever in this city. At the ball were present besides our beloved General, his lady, the Vice-President of the United States and lady, several members of the United States and State Legislatures with their ladies, and a very brilliant concourse of strangers and citizens; the whole exhibiting the rapid growth and advancement of the refined and social pleasures in America.” In 1792, when a rival “New Dancing Assembly” formed, there were TWO birthday balls on consecutive nights; Washington attended them both. Some of the birth night balls were so large that the dancing took place in the Rickett’s Circus building (to the left of Oeller’s in the above picture) and served refreshments in Oeller’s Hotel, with communicating doors added between them.
The birth night balls in Philadelphia became a tradition honoring America’s highly esteemed first president. The first of these was in February of 1798, almost a year after Washington had left office. The same invitation was sent to President John Adams as was sent to everyone else. Feeling slighted and perhaps insulted by the fact that there had been no ball honoring his own birthday the preceding October, Adams’ reply to the Dancing Assembly managers was short and to the point:
“I have received your polite Invitation to a Ball on Thursday the 22nd inst. & embrace the earliest opportunity to inform you that I decline accepting it.”
I am, Gentlemen,
Your most obedient
& humble Servant.
In Charlestown, SC, balls were held inside the building today called the Old Exchange. In 1791, President George Washington visited South Carolina. He spent a week, May 2 through May 9, in Charleston and the Old Exchange played a huge role during his stay. From the west elevation of the building, he addressed the citizens of Charleston upon his arrival. During his visit, four lavish events, including a ball and concert, were held inside the exchange in his honor. (Miller, 1986)
As mentioned above, these public assemblies were a way for young men and women to meet a potential partner from outside their immediate social circle. Etiquette deemed that, at a public assembly, no young lady could dance with a partner unless they were properly introduced. In small towns, this would not present a huge obstacle but in cities, such as London or Bath, one might well know who that person across the floor was, but if you had not been properly introduced you might as well be strangers. The solution to this was the Master of Ceremonies. It was the responsibility of the Master of Ceremonies to inform himself of the background of the young men and women present and to introduce acceptable pairings so they could dance.
While these assembly balls were ostensibly “open to the public,” access to them was limited to those of sufficient social status by the requirement to purchase season-long “subscriptions” to them. For example, at the assembly rooms at Bath, a subscription to the dress balls for the season cost 1£ 10s and provided the purchaser with three admissions to each ball – “one for the subscriber and two for ladies. A subscription of 15s (3/4 of a £) shall entitle the subscriber to one ticket, not transferable.” (Eagan, 1819) In order to provide some understanding of just how much this was, the average laborer in England in 1800 earned just 12£ per year and the average woman who worked earned just 8£. This means that the subscription of 1£ 10s amounted to 12.5% of the annual earning of a laborer. To put this in a modern perspective, this would be the equivalent of someone working full-time at minimum wage ($15,080/year) paying $1,885 to attend a series of dances.
Dances at country inns were similar, in that, they were usually public, but they were on a much smaller scale. Usually held in smaller towns and villages, and organized by locals, they consisted of dancing and dining, and were much less exclusive than the Assembly Balls in the large towns. Here, in small towns, there was less of a problem with introductions since most everyone knew and interacted with each other regularly.
Finally, there were the Private Balls. These were the smallest gatherings, thrown at private estates by individuals. These balls, like the country inn balls, consisted of both dancing and dining. Usually, dinners were very late at night, often around midnight, and could consist of anywhere from a few courses to as many as ten. At these private balls, a young woman was free to dance with any gentleman who asked her.
PLAYING BY THE RULES
As we discussed earlier, the assembly balls in England, while theoretically open to the public, catered to the well-to-do classes. Because of this, the rules set down for balls at the various assembly rooms meant to maintain propriety. At the New Assembly Rooms at Bath, England, a general meeting of the subscribers to the dress and cotillion balls appointed a committee to set up rules for the season. What follows are the rules for the winter 1816 season.
- “That the power of direction and control, as to the amusements at these Rooms, is vested in such ladies and gentlemen as shall subscribe both to the Dress and Cotillion Balls.
- “That not less than nine subscribers to the balls be competent to call a general meeting upon any business relative thereto; the said subscribers to leave a summons, signed with their names, upon the table in the lobby, for the space of one full week previous to such meeting; which summons shall also express the particular purpose for which such meeting shall be called, and be advertised in the Bath Newspapers.
- “Resolved , That these and all future regulations agreed to in general meetings, be inserted in the book containing the subscribers’ names, signed by the chairman of the meeting for the time being; such rules and regulations not to be altered by any authority, on any pretense whatever, but at a General Meeting of the Subscribers; and that one copy of these rules and regulations be deposited with the Master of the Ceremonies for the time being; and another with the Renter of the Rooms, to be produced at any time when a meeting of the committee, or of the subscription to both Balls, shall be assembled; or, when three or more subscribers shall desire to see the same.
- “That the Renter of these Rooms have agreed to furnish lights, music, &c. for twenty-two Dress Balls, (including the two Balls for the Master of the Ceremonies, and the Ball on the night of the King’s Birth-day,) and twenty five Cotillion Balls, no annual account of expenditure will be required of him.
SUBSCRIPTIONS and ADMISSION.
- “That a subscription of 1£ 10s to the Dress Balls shall entitle the subscriber to three tickets every ball-knight; one for the subscriber, not transferable, and two for ladies. These two latter tickets will be transferable, once endorsed by the subscriber, without which form the bearer will not be admitted. A subscription of 15s shall entitle the subscriber to one ticket, not transferable.
- “That a subscription of 1£ to the Cotillon Balls shall entitle the subscriber to one ticket every ball-night: this ticket not transferable.
- “That no person whatever be admitted into the Ball-Rooms without a ticket; nor any visitor or stranger, unless he shall previously have inserted his name and place of abode in a book to be kept for that purpose, under the control of the Master of Ceremonies.
- “The subscribers are respectfully requested to observe that their subscriptions cease when they leave Bath; and it would be of much public utility, if they would be pleased to give notice at the Rooms of their departure, which would prevent their tickets being improperly used.
RULES RELATING TO THE BALLS
- “That the Balls at these Rooms do commence at eight o’clock in the evening; a quarter of an hour before which time the Rooms shall regularly and properly be lighted up; and that the dancing shall cease at half-past eleven o’clock precisely, except on the night of the King’s Birth-day, and on the nights of the two balls given for the benefit of the Master of the Ceremonies, when the time of dancing shall be unlimited.
- “That every person, on admission to these Rooms on ball-nights, shall pay sixpence for their tea.
- “That the three front benches at the upper end of the room be reserved for ladies of precedence, of the rank of Peeresses of Great Britain or Ireland.
- “That a reasonable time shall be allowed between the Minuets and Country-Dances for ladies of precedence to take their places in the dance; and that those ladies who shall stand up after the dance shall have commenced, must take their places successively at the bottom.
- “That no lady, after she shall have taken her place in the set, does permit another to come above her in the dance.
- “That ladies are to be considered perfectly free in regard to accepting or declining partners.
- “That it is the positive order of the Committee, that no servant whatever shall be admitted into the vestibule or gallery, on any occasion, or on any pretense whatever, on ball-nights.
- “That no gentleman in boots or half-boots be admitted into the Ball-Rooms on ball-nights, except Officers of the Navy, or of the Army on duty, in uniform; and then without their swords. Trowsers or coloured pantaloons not to be permitted on any account.
MASTER OF THE CEREMONIES
- “That the Master of the Ceremonies do attend at a quarter of an hour before eight o’clock on ball-nights to receive the company.
18.” That the Master of the Ceremonies on observing, or receiving information of any person’s acting in opposition to these resolutions, do signify to such person, that, as Master of the Ceremonies, it is his duty to see that proper decorum be preserved, and these orders obeyed; in the proper and impartial execution of which duty he will be supported by the subscribers at large, “Resolved,—That these regulations be printed, framed and glazed, and fixed in a conspicuous part of the Rooms, for public information; not to be taken down on any pretense whatever, in order that they may remain as a public document. (Eagan, 1819)
A month later, the Committee and published the following additional rule for the winter season.
“A person inadmissible to these rooms having been admitted to the Dress ball, on the night of the 12th instant, and having in consequence been desired by the M.C. to withdraw, the Committee feel themselves bound to express their approbation of the conduct of the M.C. on that occasion.
And it having been represented to the Committee, that many improper persons have at various times obtruded themselves into these assemblies, it is unanimously resolved, that no Clerk, hired or otherwise, in this city and neighborhood–no person concerned with the retail trade–no theatrical nor public performer by profession, shall be admitted.” (Eagan, 1819)
Eagan, P. (1819). Walks Through Bath. Bath, England: Meyler and Son.
Miller, R. M. (1986). Witness to History: Charleston’s Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. Orangeburg: Sandlapper Publishing, Inc. Retrieved from The Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon.
Skiba, R. (2012, February 13). Yes, Washington Danced Here. – Part I. Retrieved from The Philadelphia Dance History Journal: http://philadancehistoryjournal.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/yes-washington-danced-here-part-i/
Truro Council . (2010). Places in Truro. Retrieved from Truro Uncovered: http://www.trurouncovered.co.uk/step-back-in-time/places-in-truro
Wansey, H. (1798). An Excursion to the United States of North America in the Summer of 1794. London: J. Easton.