Today we have one of the oldest items in my collection, a small dance card used for a ball held by the NCOs of the Royal Horse Guards in February 1882. The ball was held in the Town Hall in Windsor, a sensible choice as their role was to protect the Queen, who was often in residence at Windsor and so they were barracked in the town. The card has suffered some water damage over the last 129 years, but is still in reasonable condition. The regiment’s badge can be seen at the top, with red and blue borders to the card and a red and blue card tied to the corner:
The inside of the card lists the dances for the evening and has space for the names of dance partners to be recorded:
Etiquette at the time was quite strict around dances, as this description of a mid Victorian ball reveals:
The floor-managers gave the order to the orchestra to commence, and also took the lead in entering the Victorian ballroom. The Victorian gentleman either joined in the promenade, or conducted his lady to a seat. Upon entering the ballroom, the gentleman’s first duty was to procure a program for his partner, and to introduce his friends, who placed their names on her card for the dances engaged. The sound of a trumpet was generally the signal for the assembly to take their positions on the floor for dancing. A gentleman would, in all cases, dance the first set with the lady in company with him, after which he could exchange partners with a friend; or dance again with her, as circumstances or inclination would dictate.
A Victorian lady could not refuse the invitation of a gentleman to dance, unless she had already accepted that of another, for she would be guilty of an incivility. Ladies who danced often, would be very careful not to boast of the great number of dances for which they were engaged in advance before those who danced but little or not at all. They would also, without being seen, recommend these less fortunate ladies to gentlemen of their acquaintance. At a private ball or party, a lady would show reserve, and not show more preference for one gentleman than another; moreover, she would dance with all who asked properly.
The master of the house would see that all the ladies danced; he would take notice particularly of those who appeared to be wall-flowers, and would see that they were invited to dance. But he would do this wholly unperceived, in order not to wound the self-esteem of the unfortunate ladies. Gentlemen, whom the master of the house requested to dance with these ladies, would be ready to accede to his wish, and even appear pleased at dancing with the lady recommended. Frequently, some young Victorian gentlemen breached the rules of proper etiquette; they were so very particular that they considered it a remarkable inconvenience to dance with a lady unless she happened to be very pretty and interesting. Those young men rarely brought ladies with them, and were constantly bothering their friends and the floor managers to be introduced to the best dancers and the prettiest young ladies that they saw in the room. If there were not as many gentlemen as ladies present; two ladies were permitted to dance together in order to fill up a set, or two gentlemen could dance if there were a shortage of ladies. But it was not proper for ladies to refuse to dance with gentlemen, and afterwards dance together, or for gentlemen to do the same after having refused to be introduced to ladies. Engaged persons would not dance together too often; it was in bad taste; furthermore, it was considered a violation of etiquette for man and wife to dance together.
When introduced to a lady, a Victorian gentleman was particular about how he asked her to dance, and the manner in which he bowed to her, and also of requesting to see her card; ladies were susceptible of first impressions, and it depended a good deal upon the manner in which the gentleman first presented himself. In requesting a lady to dance, he stood at a proper distance, bent the body gracefully, accompanied by a slight motion of the right hand in front, he looked at her amicably, and respectfully said, “Will you do me the honor to dance with me;” or “Shall I have the pleasure of dancing with you;” or “Will you be pleased, or will you favor me with your hand for this or the next dance.” He remained in the position he had assumed until the lady signified her intention, by saying, “With pleasure sir,” or “I regret I am engaged sir.” The gentleman would then place his name on her card, and after having made the necessary arrangements, he would politely bow and withdraw.
When a Victorian gentleman danced with a lady to whom he was a stranger, he was cautious in his conversation. When the music ended, he bowed to his partner, presented his right arm, and led her to her seat; if the seat was occupied, he would politely ask her to what part of the hall she would like to be conducted; he would also bow as she took her seat. The gentleman was not at liberty to sit by her side, unless he was on terms of intimacy. Would he wish to dance with a lady with whom he was not acquainted, he applied first to his friends, who would try to procure for him the desired introduction. If not, the Victorian gentleman would make application to one of the floor managers, who would introduce him if he was acquainted with the lady; otherwise the floor manager would not present him without first demanding the consent of the lady. The etiquette of the ballroom differed slightly in the country. In country ballrooms, generally a gentleman would ask any lady to dance with him and, after an introduction, could enter into conversation or promenade with her through the room without being considered guilty of breeching proper etiquette.
Turning to the back of the card, the names of the senior NCOs acting as Masters of Ceremonies are printed:
The original owner of this card does not seem to have had any dances, so perhaps he was happier at the bar or had two left feet! Regardless, this is a very early piece of militaria and certainly an intereting souvenir form the height of Victoria’s reign.