Not only did Ballroom Guides contain full descriptions of dance theory and practice, but they also provided chapters on etiquette in the ballroom. These four images from Durang's Terpsichere of 1848 offer illustrations and details on the execution of a bow and a curtsey.

The importance of etiquette in eighteenth and nineteenth century ballrooms cannot be understated; each and every element of a dance was guided by the strict rules of deportment.  From asking a lady to dance, to bowing to one’s partner, to thanking a hostess at the end of a night, every action was carefully calculated and executed. 

The way in which one carried oneself communicated his or her position in society to others; by eighteenth and nineteenth century standards, the more genteel and noble one purported oneself to be, the more desirable one was.  As the achievement of status was a major goal during this period, it is easy to see how etiquette, as the language of elite society, came to be sought after and valued.


As static social hierarchy became a thing of the past and upward mobility came within reach, the middle classes emulated the upper classes in order to become more like them, while the upper classes put forth their best effort to maintain distance from these social interlopers. The way in which social distinctions were made was through the use of etiquette. The subject of countless books and manuals printed during this period, etiquette was a necessary goal of anyone who wanted to be known in society.

While wealth was important, etiquette was crucial for one's acceptance into high society. A nineteenth century Boston dance manual, typical for its day, equates etiquette to a wall that one builds up around oneself for protection from unrefined, offensive low class persons.


While most Ballroom Guides contained their own dances and unique positions, it was universal that they all contained the rules of etiquette. The American Dancing Master and Ball Room Prompter is no exception, containing over five hundred dances, extensive etiquette rules as well as a guide to writing proper ball invitations.
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These details from Les Fashionables illustrate the care with which a gentleman executes his bow to a lady. Leaning forward ever so slightly, each gentleman keeps his head in line with his body and his gaze focused on the lady, so that the honor of his bow is bestowed directly upon her. On the other hand, a man that bows too deeply and keeps his eyes on the floor misses his target entirely, as he assumes an unsophisticated appearance in paying reverence to the floor instead of the lady.
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One's etiquette in the ballroom transferred into other aspects of life; being ignorant of or defying the rules of etiquette put one at risk of losing opportunities for business transactions, profitable marriage contracts, and social advancement. Being familiar with etiquette and all its forms ensured harmony in the ballroom, likewise, being ignorant of proper dancing decorum generated chaos and discord.

The act of asking a lady to dance had to be carefully orchestrated. A gentleman should stand at a comfortable distance from the lady, bow slightly toward her and request the honor of her presence as a dancing partner. He should never be hasty or overly sure of himself, and should never ask the same lady to accompany him for more than four dances; as such a degree of informality is improper in a ballroom. Furthermore he should always be well acquainted with a dance before participating, since any mistakes he makes during a dance put his partner in an awkward position. A lady, in turn, should not refuse a gentleman's offer unless she has already accepted another's proposal.

The rules of etiquette were particular to the setting in which social events occurred. Whereas a grand ball was often a place for people to make new acquaintances, and was governed by many rules, a private party held for a small group of intimate friends was considerably less constrained.

Aside from the necessary information regarding time and place, the managers of the ball were always listed on an invitation, showing that a ball was indeed an important social activity that required thorough planning and organization. Proper etiquette dictated that for a private party, the host should send invitations a week to ten days prior to the event, and that the recipient of the invitation should respond within two days. Regarding public balls, it was the responsibility of a committee to appoint positions such as treasurer, secretary, and floor managers. They would then send out dance cards and circulars, signed by the secretary, up to two weeks before the date of the ball.

Above are some examples of early nineteenth-century invitations found in the AAS collections, each addressed to the recipient. Note the quote on the Pleasure Ball invitation, "While we live, let us LIVE."



This Boston Valentines Party dance card is particularly ornate. Its exterior is made to look like a nineteenth-century valentine with manual opening doors; internal pages contain the committee, band, list of dances, a blank page to be filled in for engagements, and a glued in quotation.

Whether a ball was held in an urban or rural area also had implications for the particular rules of etiquette that were involved. At a country dance, a gentleman was free to ask any lady to dance, whereas at a city ball a proper introduction was necessary before an invitation to dance could take place.

Dance cards were elaborate souvenirs that served to remind a lady of a particular night's ball or dinner party. Like dance invitations, cards always listed the floor managers as well as the members of a reception committee and any other committees that might have been formed in preparation of the event, depending on how large the event was.

Dance cards listed the specific dances to be performed and provided lines for ladies to fill in the names of their dance partners. In many instances dance cards and programs were designed in such a way as to make them valuable in their own right, as a souvenir of the evening.


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