Norfolk Towne Assembly
Federal Era Ballroom Etiquette – It isn’t all that clear cut.
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Our friends at the Regency Society of Virginia are having their annual Trafalgar Victory Ball this coming Saturday October 23, 2021, and so we thought that it would be appropriate to post something that would fit in with their theme, while still maintaining our focus on Early America. Two of our past posts examined the Importance of Social Dance in 18th and Early 19th Century America and English Country Dance and its History in America. Today, we are going to take a look at the “Rules of Etiquette” for the ballroom and how, at least in the early years of the United States, they may not have been as “universal” as some people today seem to believe. So, without any further ado, let’s begin.
Our purpose in today’s post is to look at ballroom etiquette in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, commonly known as the Regency or Federal Period. Before we begin any discussion of late-18th/early-19th Century ballroom etiquette we must remember that one cannot view rules, written in the early 19th Century, by today’s standards of political correctness. Just as several of the terms and references used in English Country Dance might be considered “sexist” by today’s standards, so many of the rules of etiquette from the past reflect attitudes towards women and gender roles that prevailed at that time. With those caveats in place, we can begin our discussion of ballroom etiquette.
Even though we are limiting our focus to etiquette involving balls, the subject is still quite broad. As a result, we will break this down into several areas: General rules, arrival at the Ball, conduct in the Ballroom, conduct in the Supper Room, and leaving the Ball. Throughout the early part of this discussion, we will use the term Regency as shorthand to label the period from about 1790 to 1830 in both England and America.
The importance of etiquette in eighteenth and nineteenth century ballrooms cannot be understated; 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 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 static social hierarchy became outdated and upward mobility came within reach, the middle classes emulated the wealthy, attempting to become more like them, while the wealthy put forth their best effort to maintain distance from these social interlopers. The way in which these social distinctions were made was by etiquette.
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 would be less constrained. Whether a ball was held in an urban or rural area might also have implications for the rules of etiquette that were involved. At a country dance, a gentleman might be free to ask any lady to dance, while at a city ball, a proper introduction was necessary before an invitation to dance could take place.
General Rules and Considerations
During the Regency, etiquette meant more than just “please and thank you.” It referred to one’s manner as well as politeness. It related to:
How they conducted themselves.
Their air or presence.
Sincerity of address in dealing with others.
The notion of character and self-presentation was at the heart of social interactions.
Men of the period were taught how to be a “gentleman” from an early age. A gentleman was expected:
To speak and act with confidence.
To use correct English and to avoid vulgarity in speech.
To be exceptionally well dressed.
To walk with confidence and proper posture.
To dance well.
To have a well-rounded education that included science, math, the arts, literature, etc.
To show proper manners.
To show consideration for those less fortunate tan themselves.
In fact, many period etiquette books said something to the effect that,
“A gentleman must not expect to shine in society, even the most frivolous, without a considerable stock of knowledge. He must be acquainted with facts rather than principles. He needs no very sublime sciences; but a knowledge of biography and literary history, of the fine arts, as painting, engraving, music, etc., will be of great service to him.”
Women of this era were expected to be:
Dependent on the men in their lives.
A woman’s appearance was her crowning glory; therefore, women were expected to take care with their dress and hair.
Well-bred women were thought to have a “natural” sense of delicacy. Taste and poise, it was believed, should come naturally to a lady. It was an accusation against their breeding to be obviously worried about looking correct.
Therefore, to preserve her chances of making a good marriage – which for most was the making or breaking of their future life - the utmost care to all aspects of etiquette was essential. Although these patterns of etiquette might appear awkward and restrictive, especially for women, they safeguarded against misunderstanding and embarrassment.
Rules for Arriving/Entering the Ball
When a gentleman accompanied a lady to a ball he would:
At once continue with her to the door of the ladies' dressing-room, there leaving her; and then repair to the gentlemen's dressing-room.
In the meantime, the lady, after adjusting her toilet, would retire to the ladies' sitting-room or wait at the door of the dressing-room, according as the apartments may be arranged.
After the gentleman had divested himself of hat, etc., and after arranging his toilet, he would continue to the ladies' sitting-room, or wait at the entrance to the ladies' dressing-room for the lady whom he accompanied, and with her enter the ballroom.
The gentlemen must remember that the ladies' dressing-room is a sacred precinct, into which no gentleman should ever presume to look; to enter it would be an outrage not to be overlooked or forgiven.
If a gentleman attended a Ball alone, he should go from the dressing-room to the ball room, find his host and hostess, and speak first to them.
The purpose of an introduction was to prove that it was proper for two people to know one another. In a time and place when one’s status and position in society were of the utmost importance, an introduction cemented one’s place in the social sphere. In polite society, one had to be formally introduced before speaking to another person.
Etiquette manuals implored that the person introducing two parties remember that he was serving as an advocate for both parties– that is, through his acquaintanceship with both parties, the person making the introduction was vouching for the fact that both parties were upstanding individuals who were on equal social footing and thus could be acquaintances without besmirching the reputations of any of them.
To offer an introduction to someone who was not a desirable acquaintance was a faux pas on the part of the person doing the introducing. At balls and assemblies, if a gentleman saw a lady he wished to dance with, he had options.
A young gentleman could go to a lady friend and request to be introduced to a young lady.
At a Public Ball or Assembly Ball, he could apply to the Directors/Master of Ceremonies, whose job it was to know the names and social standings of all in attendance.
The Directors/Master of Ceremonies undertake to present young men to ladies. It was better taste to ask the Director/Master of Ceremonies to introduce you simply to a partner, than to point out a specific lady. At that point he would be likely to ask you if you had a preference, and if not, you could be certain he would take you to an established wallflower as public balls were scarcely enjoyable unless you have your own party.
At a private ball or private event, one would apply to the host or hostess, who would obviously know everyone in attendance, and be able to make the proper introductions.
A lady's permission would always be asked before a gentleman was presented.
As a rule, gentlemen were introduced to ladies, and younger people were introduced to older people.
When gentlemen were introduced to one another, they would remove their hats (if outside) and bow.
When ladies met, they would curtsey to one another.
When a lady met a gentleman, she would curtsey, and he would bow. They rarely shook hands.
Gentlemen and ladies only shook hands if they were on very intimate terms with one another – that is, if they were family or had an obvious and noted affection for one another.
Gentlemen only shook hands if they were good friends who were well acquainted and of similar social standing.
Married couples were introduced together – Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lord and Lady Wadebridge, etc.
Conduct in the Ballroom
General Rules of Conduct
All disagreements, altercations, loud talking, &c., were considered doubly ill-mannered in a ball room as this disturbed the peace of the whole company.
A smile was essential. A dance was supposed to amuse, and nothing was more out of place in it than a gloomy scowl, unless it was an ill-tempered frown. The gaiety of a dance was more essential than the accuracy of one’s figures, and if you felt none yourself, you might, at least, look pleased by that of those around you.
Dancing was primarily the affair of younger people. Parents, chaperons and sometimes married people would watch on the sidelines and often joined in occasionally. There was often a card room adjoining the ball room for those who did not intend to dance.
At Public Balls and Assembly Balls there were generally either three or four Directors on duty, or a professional Master of Ceremonies. These gentlemen having made all the arrangements, and ordered the dances, had the power to change them if desirable.
Country dances were always danced in sets of two, so an invitation to dance the next set meant you were being asked to dance the next two dances.
Once a dance began, no couple was to change partners or leave the set for any reason, except for illness.
Dancing two sets of dances with the same person in one evening signaled a serious interest in the woman and was liable to be talked about. Dancing three or more pairs was scandalous except with engaged couples.
One should always join longways country dances at the bottom of the set.
One should not race to the top of the room to form a new set.
The musicians would, at the beginning of each dance, play a few bars of “introductory” music. During this time dancers would “honor their partner” by bowing or curtseying to their partner as suitable.
While ladies could get away with afternoon dress at a ball, gentlemen were expected to enter the ballroom in knee breeches and proper dancing pumps. Boots and trousers were unbelievably bad form. Not even the Duke of Wellington - Superhero of the Western World - was permitted to enter a formal ball in trousers (he tried once at Almack’s and was barred from entering). While this was certainly the rule at the exclusive Assembly Rooms of London and Bath, it may or may not have been the case in America.
Gloves were expected to be worn in the ballroom and could only be removed at the supper table (or buffet). Gloves were worn, of course, not merely as a fashion accessory but as protection for the lady’s gown. Muslin was washable, while silk was not as easy to clean!
Flirtation came under the head of morals more than of manners; still ball room flirtation, being more open, was considered less dangerous than any other.
Rules Specific to Women
If a Regency lady refused a dance with one man, she could not then accept another man as a partner for that dance. To do so would be unpardonably rude.
Refusing one partner without excuse, such as the dance already being promised to another, was a serious social faux pas unless she did not intend to dance for the rest of the evening.
A Regency lady could not use the Victorian lady’s excuse that she was "fatigued" and planning to sit out the next dance. However, if a lady were indisposed and did not want to dance, she could remain with her partner for that pair and talk with him.
It was considered bad form to promise too many dances in advance (dance cards were not even invented until the Victorian period). Nice Regency girls might save the first two dances for a “special partner” but saving any more than that was considered "fast."
Rules Specific to Men
A gentleman had to remember that a ball was meant to be a lady's party, and, in their presence, he was to be gentle and delicate to a fault, never pushing his way, apologizing if he treads on a dress, still more so if he tore it, begging pardon for any accidental annoyance he might occasion and addressing everyone with a smile.
Other Rules included:
Men have the power of choice in the Regency ball; thus, the man would ask the woman to dance. As in marriage, the woman could not ask and only had the power of refusal.
A gentleman must never wait until the music began before inviting a lady to dance.
Phrases, such as, "Will you honor me with your hand for this dance?", "Shall I have the honor of dancing this set with you?", "Shall I have the pleasure?" or "Will you give me the pleasure of dancing with you?" were the proper way to ask a lady to dance.
Once a lady accepted the invitation, the gentleman was to offer her his hand, and lead her to the dance floor.
In the pauses that naturally occur in the dance, one was to try to make the duty of standing still less tiresome by pleasant conversation.
Give your partner your whole attention when dancing with her. Allowing one’s eyes to wander round the room, or to making remarks betraying your interest in others, was not flattering, and highlighted one’s lack of taste.
When the dance was over, the gentleman was to offer his hand to his partner and enquire whether she preferred to go at once to her seat or wished to be escorted to another destination.
If she chose to return to her seat, he was to conduct her there, thank her for the pleasure she has conferred upon him, and then stand near her a few moments, chatting, bow and excuse himself.
Before the gentleman left her, he should enquire whether he can be of any service, and, if the supper-room was open, invite her to go in there with him.
If one lady refused your invitation to dance, one should not ask another who was seated near her to dance the same set. One should not go at once to another lady but chat a few moments with the one whom you first invited, and then join a group of gentlemen friends for a few moments, before seeking another partner.
One had to be most careful not to forget an engagement. It was an unpardonable breach of politeness to ask a lady to dance with you, and neglect to remind her of her promise when the time to redeem it came.
Gentlemen were expected to dance with a variety of ladies during the evening and to dance with anyone their host/hostess or Master of Ceremonies asked them to dance with. If you were not dancing, the Hostess or Master of Ceremonies might recruit you to ask some lady who was likewise not taking part. Regardless of how little you might relish this, you must cheerfully oblige. In fact, no man ought to be disgusted at being able to do anything for a lady; it should be his highest privilege.
Conduct in the Supper Room
At most Public or Assembly Balls, there would be a “supper” served at some point late in the evening. At the Public and Assembly balls, this amounted to a light snack, or “tea” around ten o’clock for which the subscribers were each required to pay a small charge at the door. This was in addition to the cost of their ticket/subscription. This supper was set up in a side room with no tables supplied and only a few chairs, presumably for the elderly or infirm. The tea often consisted of an assortment of thinly sliced, day-old (stale) bread, dry cakes, lemonade, coffee, and tea. To discourage drunkenness among gentlemen, they did not serve alcohol.
Initially it would seem counter-intuitive that, at balls that catered primarily to the wealthy, gentry, and the peerage, there would be such dismal fare. However, when one considers that, in larger cities, these balls could easily have 800 - 1200 participants you begin to understand that the cost and coordination of serving so many made anything better prohibitive.
The public or assembly balls held in the smaller towns and country inns were very much the same story as those at the larger venues. The biggest difference would seem to be that at some of these it appears that alcohol was available since there may have been less concern with keeping the highest level of propriety at these events.
Rules regarding the Supper Room included:
No gentleman should go into a supper-room alone, or help himself, so long as one lady remained unserved
If a gentleman were dancing with a lady when the supper-room opened, he must ask her if she would like to go to supper, and if she said 'yes,' he must take her there.
While the lady was supping, the gentleman must stand by and talk to her, attending to every need. Once she was finished, he would then lead her to the Ballroom again, and if he was not wanted there anymore, he could steal back to the supper room for a little quiet refreshment on his own account.
As long as there were many ladies still supping, a gentleman had no right to begin. Nothing marked a man as having little class so much as gorging at supper. Balls were meant for dancing and that had to be the gentleman’s primary mission.
At the end of the night/After the ball
There were a few “rules” for departure from the Ball and for the following day. These included:
Leave quietly. It was not even necessary to say “Good Night” to the host or hostess when leaving a Private Ball, since when people are seen to be leaving it often broke up the party. A quiet opportunity should be previously sought to intimate your intention to leave as that is more respectful. No announcement was necessary for Public or Assembly Balls.
If a gentleman was introduced to a lady at a ball, he was not entitled to claim her acquaintance afterwards. He must not therefore bow to her if he met her in the street unless she acknowledged him first.
No gentleman was to offer his services to conduct a lady home, without being acquainted with her, or requested to do so by the Host/Hostess/ or one of the Directors.
Ceremonial visits were made the day after a ball. For these it sufficed to simply leave a card. These were made between two and four o’clock of the afternoon. We will talk more about these in our next post here on the blog.
American Balls Compared to English Balls
When we attempt to duplicate or model upon balls of the Regency/Federal Era, we often look to the rules of ballroom etiquette that we just discussed. There is a problem with that approach, however. These “rules” of etiquette for the ballroom were written by English dance masters and published in their books and essays. These dance masters catered mostly to the wealthy class of the British Isles and the balls they held. However, there were many more “country” balls held in the smaller towns in taverns, civic buildings, and even barns across the Kingdom. How many of these “country balls” tried to follow these rules? It is somewhat doubtful that most of them did as their “clientele was quite different than that at Almack’s of London or the Upper Rooms at Bath.
The same was undoubtedly true in America. We need to remember that, during this period in America, in many regions of this country there was definite anti-British sentiment and substantial portions of the population were more attuned to French culture than to British. Additionally, the desire to emulate the high society of England, which was so common in the colonial period, had been replaced with a desire to create our own customs and standards and would remain that way until sometime in the Victorian era.
This is not to say that some desire to copy English upper-class society didn’t remain here, but they were limited. For example, there was the “chalking” of ballroom floors. The practice of chalking the floor of a ballroom appears to have originated near the turn of the nineteenth century, among the beau monde (upper class) in England and was employed on special occasions for important balls and other notable events which included dancing. This “chalking of the floor served several “practical” purposes.
First, it helped to prevent slippage. The soles of most dress shoes at that time, for both men and women, were of plain, smooth leather. Such soles could easily slip on a smooth waxed ballroom floor during a dance. It was the habit of many dancers to rub the soles of their shoes with chalk before they began dancing for the evening, to give their slick-soled dancing slippers a better grip. Secondly, the use of chalk on the ballroom floor was helpful for those who had ballrooms with floors which were a bit the worse for wear. The chalk would cover and disguise an old, worn, or stained floor, which might spoil the effect of an elegantly decorated ballroom.
They did not, however, just scatter chalk dust across the floor. They hired artists to draw beautiful patterns over the floor in chalk which would be danced out over the course of the evening. Floral designs were popular for chalk designs, often larger images of the same varieties of flowers which had been used to decorate the ballroom. Arabesques were also fashionable, for example, it was a series of complex arabesque patterns which were chalked on the ballroom floor at Carlton House on the night of the grand fête. Mythological and fanciful motifs might also be seen, such as nymphs, mermaids, centaurs, satyrs, sea gods and/or classical heroes. Heavenly bodies, such as the sun, the moon, stars, planets, comets and shooting stars were also popular motifs. For those who had the right to bear them, their coat of arms might be chalked on the ballroom floor. Chalking of the ballroom floors was, however, something which was done at only the highest levels of society and was in fashion between the years of 1808 to 1821.
While this ballroom practice did not seem to catch on in the United States, I have found references to two times it did occur, both within the Federal Era. The first was at a ball put on by John Quincy Adams and his wife, Louisa Catherine. This Grand Ball was held on 8 January 1824, the ninth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, an important victory for the United States at the end of the War of 1812, to honor the hero of the battle, Andrew Jackson.
The Jackson Ball that Louisa planned was a magnificent affair that took over two weeks to prepare. Five hundred invitations were issued to congressmen, cabinet members, and the social elite of Washington. Newspapers estimated that as many as 1,000 people attended the ball thus requiring the Adams to install pillars to support the upper floors of his F Street, Washington, D.C., home. Wreaths, garland, and roses covered the walls, while delicate chalked eagles and flowers graced the floors
The second instance of a chalked ballroom floor here in America I found was during Lafayette’s May 1825 visit to Frankfort KY. A ball was held in the ballroom of the Weisiger house which was purported to be one of the largest in the “western country.” Upon the floor, between the columns lining each side of the room, was chalked the French and American flags entwined round a shield surmounted by a laurel wreath and surrounded by the motto: “La Fayette, Our Country’s Guest.”
In the same way that “chalking” the ballroom floor did not catch on here, we also find evidence that balls in America, particularly once you got away from the old, wealthy cities of the East Coast, were not slaves to these English rules of Ballroom Etiquette, at least until the Victorian Era when once again Americans were obsessed with emulating all things English. The clearest evidence of this comes from a book written by a Mrs. Trollope of a tour through the United States in the years 1827-30 and published in 1832 titled “Domestic Manners of the Americans.” In this, she describes a Public Ball, George Washington’s Birthday Ball, she attended while staying in Cincinnati, OH. I am including some extensive excerpts from this book since it so wonderfully paints a picture of what this Public Ball was like.
"I was really astonished at the coup d'oeil on entering, for I saw a large room filled with extremely well-dressed company, among whom were many very beautiful girls. The gentlemen also were exceedingly smart, but I had not yet been long enough in Western America not to feel startled at recognizing in almost every full-dressed beau that passed me, the master or shopman that I had been used to see behind the counter, or lolling at the door of every shop in the city. The fairest and finest belles smiled, and smirked on them with as much zeal and satisfaction as I ever saw bestowed on an eldest son, and I therefore could feel no doubt of their being considered as of the highest rank. Yet it must not be supposed that there is no distinction of classes: at this same ball I was looking among the many very beautiful girls I saw there for one, more beautiful still, with whose lovely face I had been particularly struck with at the school examination I have mentioned. I could not find her, and asked a gentleman why the beautiful Miss C. was not there.
“You do not yet understand our aristocracy," he replied; "the family of Miss C. are mechanics."
But the young lady has been educated at the same school as these whom I see here, and I know her brother has a shop in the town, quite as large, and apparently as prosperous, as those belonging to any of these young men. What is the difference?
"He is a mechanic; he assists in making the articles he sells; the others call themselves merchants."
The dancing was not quite like, yet not very unlike, what we see at an assize or race-ball in a country town. They call their dances cotillions instead of quadrilles, and the figures are called from the orchestra in English, which has a very ludicrous effect on European ears.
The arrangements for the supper were very singular, but eminently characteristic of the country. The gentlemen had a splendid entertainment spread for them in another large room of the hotel, while the poor ladies had each a plate put into their hands, as they pensively promenaded the ball-room during their (the men's) absence; and shortly afterward servants appeared, bearing trays of sweet meats, cakes, and creams. The fair creatures then sat down on a row of chairs placed round the walls, and each making a table of her knees, began eating her sweet, but sad and sulky repast. The effect was extremely comic; their gala dresses and the decorated room forming a contrast most unaccountable with their uncomfortable and forlorn condition.
This arrangement was owing neither to economy nor want of a room large enough to accommodate the whole party, but purely because the gentlemen liked it better. This was the answer given me, when my curiosity tempted me to ask why the ladies and gentlemen did not sup together; and this was the answer repeated to me afterward by a variety of people to whom I put the same question.
I am led to mention this feature of American manners very frequently, not only because it constantly recurs, but because I consider it as being in a great degree the cause of that universal deficiency in good manners and graceful demeanor, both in men and women, which is so remarkable. . . .
In America, with the exception of dancing, which is almost wholly confined to the unmarried of both sexes, all the enjoyments of the men are found in the absence of the women. They dine, they play cards, they have. musical meetings, they have suppers, all in large parties, but all without women. Were it not that such is the custom, it is impossible but that they would have ingenuity enough to find some expedient for sparing the wives and daughters of the opulent the sordid offices of household drudgery which they almost all perform in their families. Even in the slave states, though they may not clearstarch and iron, mix puddings and cakes one half of the day, and watch them baking the other half, still the very highest occupy themselves in their household concerns in a manner that precludes the possibility of their becoming elegant and enlightened companions. In Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New-York, I met with some exceptions to this; but speaking of the country generally, it is unquestionably true."
On the other hand, the author speaks of the balls in New Orleans, put on by the scions of Creole society, as being a “little Almack’s.”
The point of all of this is not to say that the “Rules of Ballroom Etiquette” we discussed at the beginning of this article were not observed in ballrooms in this country, but rather, to point out that one cannot say that they were “always” observed in ballrooms in America. Just as I suspect that, at many balls in England, outside of London and Bath, the rules may have been changed or ignored, they were also altered or ignored in many ballrooms in America once you got away from places like New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.
We hope you found today’s article on ballroom etiquette to be interesting and informative. Hopefully you learned something you did not previously know about balls and their etiquette in late-18th and early-19th century America. Please join us again in two-weeks as we look at the “etiquette of visiting” also known as "ceremonial or morning calls.”
While you are here, on our website, please take a moment to join the conversation and let us know what you think about the subject by putting your comments in the box at the bottom of this page. We would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.
Finally, if you live in Virginia or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.
Chivers, G.M.S. The Dancer's' Guide. London: T. Denham, 1821.
Hume, Edgar Erskine. "Lafayette in Kentucky." Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society October 1935: 279-306.
Kane, Kathryn. The Now Vanished Ephemeral Art: Chalking the Regency Ballroom Floor. 22 July 2011. 03 September 2021. https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2011/07/22/the-now-vanished-ephemeral-art-chalking-the-regency-ballroom-floor.
Mathews. Party Politics: The Adamses' Jackson Ball. 08 May 2019. Massachusetts Historical Society. 03 September 2021. http://www.masshist.org/beehiveblog/2014/01/party-politics-the-adamses-jackson-ball.
Thompson, Allison. The Rules of the Assembly: Dancing at Bath and Other Spas in the Eighteenth Century. Winter 2010. 03 September 2021. https://jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol31no1/thompson.html.
Trollope, Mrs. Domestic Manners of the Americans. New York: Whittaker, Treacher, & Co., 1832.
Wilson, Thomas. A Companion to the Ballroom. London: Button, Whittaker & Co, 1816.