Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Ball: A Primer

A ball is a ball is a ball. Right?

Well, not quite. There were actually a few different types of balls that we ought to go over...so here we go!

Public Balls: Also known as "assemblies." Most towns of any size from the 1770s onward had "assembly rooms", often located at an inn in smaller towns or in their own building in larger, where local society met for lectures, concerts, and other cultural events (some even included lending libraries)... and of course, dancing! (That's the Bath Assembly room at left). The wealthier local families would often pay a subscription fee to defray maintenance costs and pay for the services of a master of ceremonies, who ran all events (hiring an orchestra, arranging refreshments, etc.) Tickets were required for admission, with cost varying. Jane Austen was an avid assembly-goer, as can be seen from her letters...as were her beloved creations, the Bennett sisters. Attendance at these assemblies was generally self-limited to the gentry--that class of smaller landed families and professionals who could be considered "gentlemen" (the clergy, military officers, physicians, barristers), though assemblies for other classes might also be held. This may sound strange to modern American ears, but don't forget that in the 19th century, class distinctions were very real and accepted, and members of different social classes did not, on the whole, like to mingle socially.

In London, public balls were also held at places like Vauxhall (the orchestra stand is seen here at right) and Ranelagh, a cross between a public garden and a circus/carnival fairway. Most notorious were the masked balls held here, where all wore dominoes (voluminous hooded cloaks with masks) that concealed identity and promoted flirtation and secret assignations in the shrubbery for clandestine lovers. Again, anyone who could pay the admission fee could come.

That certainly wasn't the case with private balls, which were, of course, by invitation only (though gate-crashing was certainly a common phenomenon!) The season was prime ball-giving time, and a ball given by her family was often part of a debutante's presentation to society. Of course those were the most elaborate: the flowers and other decorations, the food and drink, the musicians must be the best. But elaborate balls were also part of entertaining in the country, either for the neighboring "families" or during the house parties that were common during the times when Parliament was not in session and the ton vacated London for their country estates.

Next week I'll be chatting about that early 19th century institution, Almack's-- a peculiar cross between a public and private ball...but in the meanwhile, stay tuned for Friday's dance lesson from Regina. White gloves prefered but not required.


Unknown said...

What a fabulous idea for a blog! I love history, especially the era about which you write. I'm so glad I fond you!
I hope you will take a minute to stop by my blog and check things out. I have started a group for bloggers who live in New England. The only obligation is to post our button.
Found you through your profile location.

Christina Farley said...

When I went to France two summers ago, I always loved the ballrooms. They were so airy and decorated with such elegance. I could imagine a room full of beautiful dresses and hair styles, but it would be neat to see something like that in real life.

Marissa Doyle said...

Thank you, Elizabeth--I'll check it out!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post! I love learning about this :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the images and explanation of what a "domino" was. Those ballrooms are beyond impressive. I think I'd rather stay home with a good book!