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Gentlemen Callers | Pleasures of the Ballroom

Clarence Wulfjen  - 1890 (Manville Kendrick Collection)

"Should I have married at 18 when I had time to court?" 

Donald McLean, Correspondence to Ethel Waxham Love, 1909

If they were willing to take the time and make the effort, American society during the late Victorian period provided young men and women with many opportunities to meet. One method was the system of calling. A proper call, or visit, lasted no more than ten or fifteen minutes. If the young lady called upon was absent or unavailable, the gentleman caller left a personal calling card. The lady responded with a return call or card if she desired to continue the social relationship. If she didn't, the polite gentleman went looking elsewhere.

Gentlemen Callers

According to etiquette, men were expected to "retain gloves upon the hand during the call" in honor of the fifteen-minute time limit. Also, a well-bred man would never put his hat down on a chair, but would hold it in his hands at all times. This was an indication of control and responsibility. After all, if a man could not tend to his own hat for fifteen minutes, how would he ever manage a wife for an entire lifetime?

Once a lady chose to receive a young man (and she could receive more than one at a time), he could present her with a gift of flowers, candy or a book. Anything more expensive or of a more personal nature was deemed inappropriate and could be rejected along with the suitor. A proper young woman could not offer a man a gift until he had given one to her. She could, however, send birthday or holiday greetings in the form of written correspondence, commercial greeting card or postal card. A photographic portrait, sometimes taken by a traveling photographer who set up shop at a local hotel or county fair, was also a popular memento for one sweetheart to give another.

Physical contact was considered the height of Victorian intimacy, therefore closely monitored by society. A young lady, for example, was never to take a gentleman's arm unless he offered; and, unless they were engaged, it was improper for a gentleman to offer a lady his arm during daylight hours. Many courting couples, however, found ways to get around this: roller skating and ice skating gave young couples the chance to hold hands in public. Piano duets were also popular because the couple could not only share the piano bench, but could occasionally touch hands while reaching for the keys.

Pleasures of the Ballroom

One of the most popular forms of contact among courting couples in all economic classes was dancing. This was in spite of complaints by those who thought that such amusements would distract young women from meeting their family responsibilities. Critics who worried about the "fleeting and unsubstantial pleasures of the ballroom" did not find a sympathetic audience with young men and women who wanted the physical closeness and private conversation which dancing so easily allowed. But, in the early years of this century, dancing was as controlled by etiquette as every other activity, and certain traditions had to be followed.

When she arrived at a dance, for example, each young woman received a dance card on which young men signed up for the various dances. Some of these might include the two-step, the one-step or the waltz. The successful social strategist filled her dance card at the start of the evening with the names of men she liked. An unanticipated opening on her program was considered embarrassing, especially for a popular young lady. Sometimes even the most fastidious girl danced with fellows she didn't favor, just to avoid being thought a "wallflower."

Cutting refusing to dance with someone once his name was on the program was not considered proper unless the man had behaved badly or had paid too much attention to another woman during the evening. To avoid being the object of such gossip, a proper young lady never danced more than two dances with any one man unless they were seriously courting.

Long after many Victorian customs disappeared, the use of dance cards remained. While this system was not perfect, it at least allowed young ladies to have private time with the men they favored and to politely limit the unwanted attentions of men for whom they did not care.