The dance card, the programme du bal or Carnet de bal, is a little booklet, usually with a decorative cover, which lists dance titles, and provides a place for a lady to write in the name of the gentleman who promises to partner her for each specific dance.
Opinions vary as to when dance cards came into popular in England. One source suggested it may have been made in Birmingham, England as early as 1803, but no other sources I found listed that early date. Even if that date were correct, dance cards clearly were not common. This is in part due to the lack of need.
In the previous era, formal balls began with minuets, danced one couple at a time, in a rigidly prescribed order defined by the social rank of the dancers. The highest ranking couple led off the first dance. The man would withdraw, and the lady would dance with the next highest ranking gentleman. She would withdraw and then he danced the next minuet with the next highest ranking lady, and so on until everyone had a turn. Traditionally, they gave over the second half of the evening to country dances, done in a lengthwise formation. Even so, rank again became important in deciding who led off the set. That person also chose which dance they all would do. Remembering partners clearly was not an issue–remembering everyone’s rank was the trick.
At the time of the Vienna Conference, country dancing and formal minuets were becoming less popular. Precedence and etiquette which dictated to whom one could dance had begun to fade, and the long country dances were replaced by shorter pair dances like the waltz, polka, cotillion, and quadrille. Because of the new, less formal dancing and shorter dances, people could do more of them each evening. By the Regency, dances were done in sets, meaning pairs, and they were long, so most balls only had five or six different dances. It would have been fairly easy to remember only a few partners, even if the gentlemen asked the lady in advance.
As the dances shortened, and more partners became possible, it probably became harder for young ladies to remember to which young gentleman she’d promised a dance. Some sources mention ladies writing names on the underside of their fans to help them remember promised dances but I don’t know how often or when that occurred. At one point, ladies reportedly used decorative notebooks to keep track of the name of each gentleman who’d asked for her to “stand up” with him. Many ladies already carried in their reticules small notebooks that opened like fans to jot down shopping lists and so forth. Naturally, they used them to record their evening’s dance partners. Many preserved them as a souvenir of the evening.
According to my research, Austrians used dance cards long before they caught on in the rest of Europe. As people returned home from the Congress of Vienna, which was basically a big party disguised as a series of series of negotiations that officially ended the Napoleonic Wars. Dance cards gained popularity at balls and assemblies sometime during the 1830s, during Queen Victoria’s reign.
Each dance card was is different. Many of the ones I’ve seen in private collections had elaborate covers made from precious metals and jewels like silver, ivory or mother of pearl, bone ivory, tortoise shell. Some were metal, others were made of shells or carved bone. It’s possible that some were plainer, but weren’t saved. It’s also possible, considering the Victorian’s penchant for anything ornate, sometimes to the point of ostentatious, that they were all ornate. The ones that have survived to today vary in both size and style.
A few are inscribed with the words “Bal” which is French for ball. The ones with images I could use look like fans, others I saw are booklets with ornate covers.
Later in the century, dance cards became pre-printed booklets of paper which listed each dance the musicians would play. Dance cards became progressively more decorative and elaborate as the century progressed. Ribbon or cord attached tiny pencils to the card or program by which ladies let the cards dangle from their wrist.
Fellow Regency author, Marissa Doyle, has a wonderful collection of dance cards in her private collection. You can view her post on Dance Cards, and admire her pictures, here on her blog, Nineteen Ten.
As far as I can tell, dance cards began to lose popularity sometime in the 1920s. Now, dance cards are a treasure from a by-gone era.