What Did Dance Cards Actually Look Like?


As an avid reader of 19th-century novels (and L.M. Montgomery), I am well aware of the tradition of the dance card, a courtly tradition which lingers today only as a figure of speech. But because movies rarely bother filming that bit of it, I’ve often found myself kind of lost for a visual. I remember Anne wearing one on her wrist at the dance she attended with Diana in the Anne of Green Gables miniseries. But in general I hadn’t a sense of how large or ornamental these things were.

Happily, the Internet was pleased to inform me. It turns out they come in a few different forms. They could have paper, pasteboard, or even leather covers. Some were just a standard little booklet, others more multipurpose. And a lot of them were totally beautiful. Like this one:

This is the dance card from Kansas City’s Priests of Pallas festival, circa 1890.

This one was issued by the High Priests of Mithras, a secret society in New Orleans, for a Mardi Gras ball in 1901. The quote is from Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake.”

This one, apparently from the French regency period, has a mother-of-pearl cover. You also got to write in your own songs as well as the dance partner.

This peacock one is American, dating to somewhere between 1850 and 1860.

Here is a more minimalist model from a tennis club dance, though I suspect that pencil is new.

This leather model apparently dates to Napoleon III.

For the environmentalists among you, this one apparently doubled as a fan.

Here’s one in the shape of a shoe, and which further actually listed out the kinds of dances attendees could expect. I want someone to do the Esmeralda for me.

Even early-20th-century church youth groups allowed their students to record their harlot activities on paper.

The metal-cover models, like this 1800s French specimen, strike me as the most practical.

I include this second fan, dating to 1913, because I like how this woman recorded “Eats” with a small drawing of what appears to be molded Jell-O for her 16th and 17th dances. A woman after my own heart.

This embedded-clock variety was reusable, I hope. (it was likely a case a woman carried again and again but… I wonder if it wasn’t heavy.)

Which reminds me: I’ve wondered why the steampunk folk don’t seem to have revived this as a trend. Etsy yields a healthy sample of modern-ish versions, but not enough to suggest they even amount to a passing fad. C’mon, hipsters! You find every other patriarchal tradition worthy of re-appropriation. Why not this one?