Monday, 10 August 2009

May I have the pleasure of the next dance?

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, partly as a response to the introduction of numerous competing formats such as panel, promenade and boudoir prints, and later the cheap and cheerful postcard, the carte de visite underwent some changes. These included many experimental variations in card thickness, texture and colour, together with the use of embossing, scalloped and zig-zag edges, and the return of square corners. The reluctance of manufacturers, photographers and their customers to shift away from the standard size of the carte de visite and cabinet card was understandable. Many households now owned one or more photograph albums, and all of these were designed with cdv and cabinet sized apertures.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Frank Nichols, Constitutional Club, Leicester, December 27th 1901
Print (50 x 74 mm) mounted on thick card, 64 x 102 mm
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

At first glance this mounted photograph of Frank Nichols looks like one such variation on the standard carte de visite photograph format. There are several unusual features suggesting that it is something slightly different. These include the simple art nouveau-style frame which enloses the cameo head-and-shoulders portrait, the handwritten name or signature (presumably that of the subject) photographically reproduced below the portrait, the printing at the base of the card mount "Constitutional Club, Leicester, December 27th, 1901" and, last but not least, the neat hole punched in the lower left corner of the mount.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne
Dance Card with Programme of Music and initials of dance partners
Image © and collection of Brett Payne

It is the reverse, however, which reveals the true nature and purpose of this item of ephemera. Printed on the back of the card is a "Programme" of sixteen dances, together with pencilled initials next to ten of them. It is a dance card, printed for a function at the Constitutional Club in Leicester on 27 December 1901. The hole in the corner was designed so that a small pencil could be attached with a length of cord or string.

Image © and courtesy of the Independence Seaport Museum Archives
Dance card from Regiment Infantry P.M. Gray Reserves, Stockton House, Cape Island, New Jersey
Dated 19 July 1869
Image © and courtesy of the Independence Seaport Museum

Apparently dance cards originated in the 18th Century, but only became commonly used in Vienna in the 19th Century. By the mid-1800s they were appearing everywhere, as shown by this example from New Jersey.

Image © and courtesy of The Friends of `Iolani Palace Collection
Dance card from the Royal `Iolani Palace, Hawaii
Dated 30 September 1889
Image © and courtesy of The Friends of `Iolani Palace

Examples from the 1880s are commonly found and many images may be found using a Google Image search, such as the 1889 card shown above from Hawaii.

Image © and courtesy of Bob Skiba & Mixed Pickles Vintage Dance Co.
Dance card for Sheet Metal Workers' Union Hop, Location Unknown
Dated 20 November 1905
Image © and courtesy of Bob Skiba & Mixed Pickles Vintage Dance Co.

The designs on the cards naturally reflected both the organisation by which the dance was being organised (or the people for whom it was held) and the style of the era, and thus showed some considerable variety. Towards the end of the Victorian period designs became more and more elaborate due to the popularity of the lithographic process, as shown by these examples from 1905 (above) and 1909 (below).

Dance card for First Annual Ball, Mosman District Cricket Club
Dated 16 July 1909
Image © and courtesy of the Mosman Library

Image © and courtesy of Bob Skiba & Mixed Pickles Vintage Dance Co.
Dance card for Cornell University's Navy Day Ball
Dated 1928
Image © and courtesy of Bob Skiba & Mixed Pickles Vintage Dance Co.

By the 1920s, the designs were often heavily influenced by the art deco style.

Image © and courtesy of Remains to be SeenImage © and courtesy of Remains to be Seen
Dance card for Ladies' Waltz (11 o'clock) Prof. Ben F. Gresh's Dancing Academy
Carte de visite portrait by Gordon of Indianapolis, Indiana
Undated, but probably taken c.1880-1885
Image © and courtesy of Remains to be Seen

Dance cards with photographs don't appear to be particularly common. Although my online search has not been exhaustive I was only able to find one other example, on sale for $75 on the web site Remains to be Seen. It is another carte de visite style card with a photograph of a musician holding a violin on the front, and on the reverse can be seen the dance programme for a Ladies' Waltz at Prof. Ben F. Gresh's Select Dancing Academy. The photo artist's name is noted as Gordon. The 1880 US Federal Census shows musician Benjamin Gresh living at East Ohio, Indianapolis and photographer Robert Gordon at East Washington, also in Indianapolis. By 1900, Gresh is described as a dancing teacher. Presumably Benjamin Gresh is the violinist pictured on the front of the dance card.

I'd be keen to hear from readers who have or know of other examples of photographic dance cards.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

Using census records and GRO birth, marriage and death indexes I was able to determine that the subject of the photograph Frank Nichols was born in late 1880 or early 1881 in Leicester, the eldest of five children of a master plasterer George Nichols (1854-) and his wife Ann Jane Borderick (1856-). They lived at The Cedars, 11 Prebend Street, Leicester, and it seems likely that the date of the dance - a Friday - was Frank's twenty-first birthday.

Frank Nichols married Violet M. Wesley at Leicester in 1913 and they had four children: Tom (1913), Frank J. (1920), Avis L. (1921) and Doris A. (1923). Later trade directories suggest that they lived at 15 Halsbury Street in Leicester and that Frank was a mechanic. Many of their descendants continued to live in Leicester; surnames include Suffolk, Dove, Mewis, Randle, Webster, Dodson and Patterton.

Image © and courtesy of Amy Jane Barnes
A view down Pocklington's Walk, Leicester
Image © Amy Jane Barnes and courtesy of Djinn76's Flickr photostream

Trade directories shows that the Constitutional Club House in Leicester was located on the south-west corner of Pocklington's Walk and Millstone Lane in central Leicester. It had three storeys and was built in the 1890s of brick with stone dressings in the modern Renaissance style.

Image © and courtesy of Amy Jane Barnes
Cast iron railings on Pocklington's Walk, Leicester
LCCC = Leicester Constitutional Club Chambers/Company?
Image © Amy Jane Barnes and courtesy of Djinn76's Flickr photostream

From this recent photograph it appears that the building is still in existence.


Pols, Robert (2002) Family Photographs 1860-1945. Richmond, Surrey: Public Record Office Publications. 166p. ISBN 1903365201.

Mixed Pickles Vintage Dance Cards by the Mixed Pickles Vintage Dance Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

United States Federal Census Records 1790-1930 Indexed images from

General Register Office Index to Births, Marriages & Deaths from FreeBMD

International Genealogical Index (IGI) from the LDS Church & FamilySearch

UK Census 1841-1901 Indexed images from

19th Century British Library Newspapers collection, from Gale Cengage Learning

The Times Digital Archive, 1785-1985, from Gale Cengage Learning

Trade Directories from the University of Leicester's Historical Directories
Kelly's Directory of Leicestershire & Rutland, 1895
Wright's Directory of Leicestershire & Rutland, 1899
Bennett' Business Directory for Leicestershire, 1901-02
Wright's Directory of Leicester, 1903
Kelly's Directory, Leicestershire & Rutland, 1925
Kelly's Directory, Leicestershire & Rutland, 1928


  1. Fascinating to read about people's reluctance to accept differently sized cards because they wouldn't fit in their albums.
    Wonder what they would make about the changes in music formats since I was born - from 78 to 33 rpm, large tape recorders to 8-track to small, and then cds - which I thought would be the last format till they developed down-loadable music!
    Your articles always provide a pause for reflection!
    Evelyn in Montreal
    Evelyn in Montreal

  2. Thank you, Evelyn. A couple of years ago, I bought an old fashioned wind up HMV gramophone player which still plays those havy old 78s perfectly, although my supply of needles will eventually run out. I'm still trying to figure out how to work that into a Photo-Sleuth article!

    Regards, Brett

  3. Congratulations! Our selection committee compiled an exclusive list of the Top 100 genealogy Blogs, and yours was included! Check it out at

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  4. You are brilliant! A genius! I love everything you research and write.

    You are the most informative, educational, and entertaining blog I read.

    I am not worthy.


    P.S. Do you do all this and go to school?

  5. Thank you, fM - as always, you are very kind. As you will see by the relative paucity of recent posts, university studies are taking precedence at the moment.

    Regards, Brett


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