1888 – Dances
As he was walking home late one night in September, 1888, a reporter for the Hamilton Spectator was told by a policeman that “there’s a ball down James street tonight, and some of Hamilton’s fairest daughters are full as goats.”
“It’s about the first “tough” dance of the season,” the policeman went on to say, “and you shouldn’t miss it. She’s a dandy. The fellows are all fighting drunk and half the girls have their nosesful.”
A few days later, on September 20, 1888, the reporter filed a story under the following headline, “Dancing as She Did : A Review of the Public Balls Reporters Attend” in which he analyzed the various levels of society in Hamilton as reflected in the types of dances they attend.
In the winter, there were balls almost every night in Hamilton, often three or four at a time. Newspaper reporters, on their way home from an evening shift at the paper often made a point of dropping into one or two of the public dances to see what was happening. Reporters were always welcome, whereas the police were not.
The tougher the “ball,” the more exclusive it was. The revels of the “Podunck Pelicans” were particularly hard to attend :
“Their exclusiveness is of such a practical kind that when ‘de dude’ awakened to the fact that his presence was not desirable, he would be on the icy sidewalk below with a whirring sound in his ears and a dim impression that he paused for the infinitesimal fraction of a second on everyone of the 197 steps on his way down.”
The police, of course, could enter any dance at any time, but when they did, festivities came to a halt. With the reporters, this was not the case. Reporters were confidants with the police and knew who was wanted by them. The reporters were trustworthy because it was well known that they would never inform on anyone :
“No matter how tough a ball or how drunk the company may be, they never fail to treat the reporters with a certain rude courtesy, because they both like and fear them.”
In analyzing the various levels of society in Hamilton, the reporter noted that “the lower the social scale of the ball, the higher it is usually situated, the toughest being generally held in some hall up two or three flights of stairs.”
The dances usually began slowly with a seemingly endless procession of men climbing up and down the stairs, between the ball and the nearest saloon.
By 2 a.m., the revelry would be in full swing. A typical “tough” ball was described by the reporter as follows :
“The low-ceilinged hall, hung with bleary kerosene lights, is stifling; the floor slippery with tobacco juice; the gang of men and girls flushed with dancing and new wine. The fiddles twang and buzz, there is a hub-bub of conversation and a whirl of dancing feet, the din being punctuated here and there by the unmusical yell of the ‘caller-off’ directing the dancers … here and there, on the floor, lies a reveler untimely overtaken by the insidious booze … the dance goes on until the musicians get too drunk to play or a free fight calls for the interference of the police.”
The next class of ball up the social strata is the one where “dull respectability” was the rule. This level, the reporter felt was “unrelieved either by the wild animal and malt spirits of the previous class or the little airs and graces of conversation and costume that distinguish the class above it.”
The dancing and the music were both uninspired at this level and the reporter felt that most of the people at these balls were only trying to pretend that they were enjoying themselves, when they really were not. The reporter particularly noted the “wan and hard-worked faces of the girls and he sadly felt “a touch of pathos as you think what must be the sterile and sunless character of the lives of those to whom this is festivity.”
The next higher level included the balls which were organized by the “pastime clubs.” These dances were by invitation only, and the company was primarily composed of clerks and shop girls. The men would usually wear dress suits and the ladies were usually prettily dressed in bright and tasteful dresses. These balls were “conducted on the lines of good society” and were usually very enjoyable.
Once or twice during the winter, the “junior bachelors” of the city would rent the upstairs ballroom of the Arcade Building for their dances. These gatherings, the reporter said, were “wholly delightful,” because they were “freer from constraint than the public balls in the opera house.” Chaperones, for the ladies, appear at this level, but not so prominently as at the highest level of ball, the Garrick Club ball held at the Grand Opera House.
The Garrick Club ball was the society event of the season when “all that flags, flowers, and bunting, beauty, grace and expensive dresses, excellent music and artistic catering can do to make folks enjoy themselves is concentrated on a single occasion.