Dance Cards in the Archives

Has someone ever asked you to save some room on your dance card for them, or declined an invitation because their dance card was too full? These days, a person’s “dance card” is almost always a metaphor for their schedule, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries the meaning was much more literal. Formal dances were a popular form of entertainment in those days, and dance cards were an essential part of the etiquette that went along with them.

Dance card for an event given in honor of Miss Covington, Miss Ellis, and Messers Ellis in Tallahassee, 1926. From Box 2, Folder 14, Meginnis Family Papers (Collection N2015-3), State Archives of Florida.

Dance card for an event given in honor of Miss Covington, Miss Ellis, and Messers Ellis in Tallahassee, 1926, in Box 2, Folder 14, Meginnis Family Papers (Collection N2015-3), State Archives of Florida.

The concept was fairly simple. Women–and in some cases men as well–used dance cards to keep track of who they had promised to dance with throughout the evening. This was necessary for a couple of reasons. First, while today’s sound systems can play for hours on end without complaint, the music at 19th and early 20th century parties came from live musicians who needed a break now and then. As a result, there was usually only a specific number of musical selections planned for dancing. If you really wanted to dance with someone, you had to make sure you were on their schedule!

Dance cards also allowed a party-goer to be strategic in asking for a dance partner. At a formal event, each musical number was designed for a specific kind of dance, and the dancers were expected to not just have good rhythm, but also know the proper dance moves. If you didn’t know how to waltz, for example, you certainly wouldn’t want to sign up to dance a waltz with a partner you were looking to impress. You might sign up for a reel or a two-step instead, if those were your stronger dances. Dance cards helped by including the form of each dance next to its number on the inside of the card.

Inside of a dance card from a dance in Tallahassee in 1926. From Box 2, Folder 14, Meginnis Family Papers (Collection N2015-3), State Archives of Florida.

Inside of a dance card from a dance in Tallahassee in 1926, in Box 2, Folder 14, Meginnis Family Papers (Collection N2015-3), State Archives of Florida.

The cards could be simple, or they could be very ornate, depending on the occasion. A Valentine’s Day dance might feature cards in the shape of a red heart, while dances given in a particular person’s honor might have cards with the person’s monogram. Tiny pencils for filling in the cards were a common feature, usually attached to the cards with a loop of string or ribbon. Sometimes a lady would also use this to attach the card to her wrist.

Dance cards typically came with a few unwritten rules of etiquette, many of which would seem out of step with the times in today’s world. When it came to making dancing engagements, for example, men were supposed to take the lead. Ladies were supposed to wait to be asked. A lady could turn a gentleman’s invitation down, even if the spot was open on her dance card, but if she did it was generally considered impolite for her to accept another man’s proposal to dance that same number. It was also considered improper for a lady to dance every dance at a ball or party.

Panhellenic dance at the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee (ca. 1935).

Panhellenic dance at the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee (ca. 1935).

Dance cards still make an appearance now and then at formal occasions, but for the most part they’ve been relegated to scrapbooks and boxes of memorabilia from years gone by. Here at the State Archives, we often see dance cards included in collections of family papers. They’re a unique kind of source–both a snapshot of a particular occasion and a tool for exploring the social lives of Floridians in a very different era.

 

Dance card for Theta Ribbon Society Initiation Ball, 1923, in Box 8, Folder 2 of the Lively and Wesson Family Papers (Collection N2014-14), State Archives of Florida.

Dance card for Theta Ribbon Society Initiation Ball, 1923, in Box 8, Folder 2 of the Lively and Wesson Family Papers (Collection N2014-14), State Archives of Florida.

What are some of your favorite dancing memories? Leave us a comment, and don’t forget to share this blog with your friends and family so they too can take a quick dance down memory lane!

 

Mardi Gras in the Sunshine State

Think Mardi Gras is something that only happens in New Orleans? Think again! Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” has been celebrated in many parts of the world at one time or another, including right here in Florida. And it isn’t a recent phenomenon. Some Florida towns were holding Mardi Gras celebrations over a hundred years ago.

Mardi Gras celebrants in Milton in Santa Rosa County, complete with royalty. Milton celebrated its first Mardi Gras 100 years ago this year (photo 1916).

Mardi Gras celebrants in Milton in Santa Rosa County, complete with royalty. Milton celebrated its first Mardi Gras 100 years ago this year (photo 1916).

Mardi Gras, for all its characteristic decadence, actually stems from religious origins. It is the final, culminating day of the Carnival season on the Christian liturgical calendar. Carnival season extends from Epiphany (also known as Twelfth Night or Three Kings’ Day) to the beginning of the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, which occurs about six weeks prior to Easter Sunday. Since the Lenten season typically involves a sober regimen of self-denial and penance, Carnival season and Mardi Gras serve as an opportunity to eat richly and celebrate joyously (hence the “fat” part of Fat Tuesday) before things get more serious.

Mardi Gras in Pensacola (1977).

Mardi Gras in Pensacola (1977).

A wide variety of colorful rituals and traditions have developed around this basic concept, many unique to the cities in which they were born. Common Mardi Gras activities include parades, costume balls, colorful decorations, and the designation of “royalty” to preside over the festivities. When Apalachicola celebrated its first Mardi Gras in 1915, for example, the event was reigned over by King Retsyo. Ten points if you can guess the significance of King Retsyo’s name!

King Retsyo ascends to his throne during Apalachicola's first Mardi Gras celebration in 1915.

King Retsyo ascends to his throne during Apalachicola’s first Mardi Gras celebration in 1915.

Apalachicola Mardi Gras parade (1915).

Apalachicola Mardi Gras parade (1915).

Lester Buer and Myra Franc Kaplan dressed in costume for Mardi Gras celebrations in Pensacola (circa 1916).

Lester Buer and Myra Franc Kaplan dressed in costume for Mardi Gras celebrations in Pensacola (circa 1916).

Pensacola was perhaps the first Florida city to observe Mardi Gras, holding its first celebration in 1874. A group of leading local socialites formed a Mardi Gras “krewe” called the Knights of Priscus Association to organize the festivities. The tradition fizzled after a few years, but was revived with gusto in 1900. Pensacola continues to celebrate Mardi Gras annually.

Pensacola’s Mardi Gras celebration of 1900 included the crowning of King Priscus, better known as local attorney Alexander Clement Blount, II.

Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated in cities all over Florida, featuring a blend of time-honored traditions and new ideas. Apalachicola, for example, recently instituted a Mardi Gras parade featuring both citizens and their pets. The event is spearheaded by the Krewe of Salty Barkers, adopting themes like “Barkaritaville” and “Woofstock” to guide both two- and four-legged participants in their costume choices.

One of the merrymakers at Apalachicola's Mardi Gras parade organized by the Krewe of Salty Barkers (2015). Photo courtesy of the Krewe of Salty Barkers.

One of the merrymakers at Apalachicola’s Mardi Gras parade organized by the Krewe of Salty Barkers (2015). Photo courtesy of the Krewe of Salty Barkers.

Farther down the peninsula, Orlando’s Universal Studios theme park offers an annual Mardi Gras event patterned after the popular New Orleans version of the festival. Hollywood also holds an annual Mardi Gras celebration titled “Fiesta Tropicale.” It originated in 1935 as the “Festival of Nations.” These are just a few examples; Florida towns from Dunedin to Lake Wales to Leesburg regularly celebrate Fat Tuesday with enthusiasm.

Mardi Gras celebration at the American Legion in Tampa (1926).

Mardi Gras celebration at the American Legion in Tampa (1926).

Does your Florida community do something special to celebrate Mardi Gras? If so, we want to know about it! Leave us a comment below, and don’t forget to share this post on Facebook and Twitter!

Florida’s Not-So-Native Tung

No, there’s no typo in the title of today’s blog. For several decades, northern Florida was home to thousands of acres of tung trees. Tung nuts, the fruit of these trees, contain an oil that could be used in paints, varnishes, inks, and even some medicines. The tree was imported from China, where it had been grown commercially for centuries. After a period of trial and error, Florida growers were able to cultivate the trees and produce thousands of tons of tung nuts per year.

African-American workers gathering tung nuts on a farm near Tallahassee (circa 1960s).

Workers gathering tung nuts on a farm near Tallahassee (circa 1960s).

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