by Doireann Kavanagh, BA History Student
The object of this blog is a set of three dance cards from the Armstrong collection. The Armstrong family resided in Moyaliffe Castle in Tipperary. They were an upper-class family and regularly attended high-profile balls. They were even invited to a dance in Buckingham Palace!
Dance cards first made an appearance in the second half of the eighteenth century. They quickly became a staple piece of both function and fashion. The role of the dance card was simple but useful. They were typically quite small in size, the outside decorated to show the grandeur of the women whose wrist it hung off. When opened, the left-hand side contained a list of dances in the order in which they would be played, the right side was blank, to be filled with a record of the names of the gentlemen they were going to dance with. These small cards ensured that social order and etiquette were followed. 1
Women could keep track of who they were going to dance with and which dances they would share, ensuring that these ladies would not forget who they promised a dance to. Only men were allowed to ask women for a dance; a scandal would have occurred if a women asked a man for a dance! Women could politely refuse a dance by saying ‘my dance card is full’ whether it was actually full or not. The last dance was typically the most sought after, hence the common phrase, ‘save the last dance for me’. 2
Dance cards from the Armstrong Collection
P6/1168(3) is a brightly coloured dance card. It measures 10.5cm by 9.5cm. The front is decorated with pink and gold flowers and features three people dancing. A woman dressed in a long dress with balloon sleeves and a collar with frills around her neck is in the middle. The two men have their arms linked with the woman. The man on the left is wearing clothes with balloon sleeves and pants paired with a hat, while the man on the left is wearing a cape with what looks like horns on the top.
P6/1168(4) is a brown dance card with gold leaf detail around the edges, measuring 9.5cm by 12cm. The front shows an image of a well-dressed girl with a shy expression. Her outfit, complete with a pearl necklace, a bonnet, fishnet sleeves and an oriental fan, shows the grandeur these dance cards represented.
These two dance cards were made by the same company, M. W. & Co Ltd, whose logo can be found on the back of these cards. They both feature gold detailing and similar drawing styles of both people and clothes. The word ‘programme’ is in the same font as well. The remains of a punch hole can be seen at the bottom of the spine of these cards, where a string with a pencil attached typically was. The title on the left of the inside of these cards is ‘Dances’.
P6/1168(5) differs from the other two. The front of the card seems plain in comparison to the others, it is 9cm by 12cm. It has no gold detailing or drawings of people on the front. It is light blue and black, with the word programme written across the front. There is little embellishment, 4 four-leaf clovers, a symbol of luck and good fortune, and decorative swirls. There is no brand on this card, but it is clear that it was not made by M. W. & Co Ltd due to the differences in this card compared to the other two. This dance card still has the string attached and is in better condition than the others.
These dance cards belonged to one of the Armstrong girls. While unclear which one, it is likely to have been Jess or Lisalie. Across the dance cards, a gentleman’s initials, ‘RM’ or simply ‘R’ can be found. Presumably, this man had a keen interest in the Armstrong girl and booked most of her dances at all of these events. In P6/1168(3), ‘R’ is written in large print across slots fifteen to twenty, he was clearly eager to spend time with this woman.
A variety of dances are listed in these programmes: valses, lancers, polkas and quadrilles. There were typically twenty dances at formal events, such as balls, attended by the likes of the Armstrong girls. Valses, known today as waltzes, were slow dances shared by two people; polkas were also usually danced by a duo. Quadrilles and lancers on the other hand were square or round dances performed by at least four couples. All of these dances became fashionable in Britain and Ireland from the early- to mid-nineteenth-century 3.
Attending a ball was an opportunity for people to socialise, have fun and potentially meet a future spouse. Whether the dance was a valse or a quadrille, an individual needed to have a partner for each dance. Dance cards provided organisation and opportunities for everyone in attendance to couple up.
- Erica Travis Frazier, Pencil Me In: The Fashion and Function of Dance Cards, Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York, (2020) pp 1-3.
- Kate Kershner, ‘What does it mean when a dance card is full?’, How Stuff Works, (2021).
- Katrina Faulds and Wiebke Thormahlen, 2021. Domestic and social Dance in Georgian Britain, ed. Wiebke Thormahlen, https://sound-heritage.ac.uk/dance/