These little mementos are reminders of the past.
Long before young people of opposite sexes were allowed to go on dates together, most people would have socialized in groups at highly-scrutinized gatherings like dinner parties or for tea. But, dances were another favorite way for men and women to mingle- with everyone watching of course. Lest there be any confusion about who was dancing with who, dance cards were a way to keep track of it all.
Women could jot down the names of their would-be partners in order, usually using a very discreet little pencil. At very formal events the order of the dances was laid out in the card card (usually it was more like a booklet). This way you’d know who waltz #3 was reserved for and who was planned for the 2-step. Sometimes the songs were laid out as well, making it even easier to remember who was set to dance when.
For the unattached woman who might have many people asking her to dance she could could simply say that he dance card was full and any polite gentleman would have to conceded that he wasn’t going to dance with her that night.
Since paper and pencils weren’t as cheap back then this was a more upper crust way to dole out the dances starting in the 18th century. The example above is an opulent reminder of just how grand these affairs could be. The 1850 dance card has a mother-of-pearl cover with sterling silver filigree and “pages” made of ivory!
Some dance cards were housed in hand-painted cases reserved only for the wealthiest of individuals like the one above which also features ivory pages.
The concept of lining up all one’s dance partners early in the evening might seem a bit staid and un-spontaneous to us today. However, dance cards relieved some of the pressure of finding a dance partner and meant that people who really wanted to dance could do so without constantly stopping to find a new partner.
Many of these dance cards survive today since women kept them as souvenirs of events or of meeting special people. The fact that many ball organizers would have special ones printed up to match the theme of the event has also made them novelties for keeping.
Sometimes the card had a pencil attached, but in case it did not many young women were advised to carry little pencils in cases to their dances.
As time went on the cards became less romantic, but some -like the football-shaped one below- still added a touch of whimsy to the design.
By the 1950s dance cards were falling from fashion, but we still use the phrase that one’s “dance card is full” to mean we just don’t have any more room in the schedule.