It’s strange to think of how small the world really is. In September 2010, a stranger e-mailed our Curator of Collections stating that he had found something that we might find interesting. Mr. Cecil Leslie of Wooster, Ohio had found an early twentieth century fan during a fundraising auction he was running and decided to contact us. Upon further discussion, we were told that the fan had “Dances held at Village Hall, given by the social club of New Paltz,” written across the top edge. Not only that, but each stick of the fan, front and back, had names written on them; and not just any names, but the familiar surnames of New Paltz history: Deyo, DuBois, Hasbrouck, etc. After a little research and some brainstorming, the ladies of Huguenot Street determined that the fan was actually a dance card for several dances held in town at the turn of the century.
While the names, of course, make the fan especially important to us here at Historic Huguenot Street, the fan itself invites us to take a glimpse into a social world quite different from our own.
The dance card was used so men could “sign-up” to dance with a lady; so she in turn could keep track of who she was dancing with and to which song. This allowed for a smooth night where there was seldom a chance for a man or woman to be found without a partner. It also ensured that women did not discriminate against certain men or spent too much time dancing with one partner.
The dances listed on this dance fan are the Lanciers (a dance for four couples in a quadrille or square), the Two-Step (a quick partner dance) and the Waltz (a fluid, romantic partner dance), three popular dances of the era which allowed for fun as well as propriety.
While New Paltz is still a popular spot to go dancing on the weekend, there aren’t any dance cards or really any structure at all. However, in the early twentieth century, dances held in the area included rules and important forms of etiquette.
Dance cards, or Ballspendens, came into popularity around the 1830’s in Vienna in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Austria). The host or organization giving a ball would provide elaborately decorated booklets to the ladies attending. Each dance card would have the date of the dance as well as a detail in the decoration indicating the host, whether it was a coat of arms or a picture. They came in a variety of forms, such as the fan we have, or in booklets of various shapes. Dance cards were so important that a lady’s ticket was slightly more expensive than the man’s in order to cover the cost of the dance card, but everyone was willing to pay. Dance cards eventually became extremely popular throughout Europe and then became fashionable in America in the late nineteenth century. However, instead of mother-of-pearl and ivory for royal balls, the dance card was made from simpler materials to match the middle-class events in America.
The fact that dance cards were made in the form of a fan is very telling of two important cultural formalities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the dance card itself, and the fan as a tool. The fan was an important accoutrement to women in the nineteenth and twentieth century centuries. They could be used to cool oneself off after dancing, but they could also be used as an important device in flirtation. In the countless etiquette books written during the nineteenth century, lists of the secret messages were included that could be communicated by the flick of a wrist. Some are:
A half closed fan pressed to the lips = You may kiss me
Touching the tip of the fan with a finger = I wish to speak to you
Letting the fan rest on the right cheek = Yes
Letting the fan rest on the left cheek = No
So from one little artifact we have learned so much about the young ladies of early twentieth century New Paltz. It’s moments like these when we’re reminded of why we became historians in the first place.
~Kate Long (Intern)