"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver."
Proverbs 25:11
Q:  What about historic etiquette appropriate to the time period of an event? To what degree should we attempt to emulate it?

A:  The culture(s) and thus the thinking, manners and expectations of persons in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were very different than our own. We live in a world which seems increasingly bent toward cultural and philosophical egalitarianism, with a very blurred sense of morality where all ideas are considered equal and individualism is emphasized and expressed even to the point of the detriment of society and any responsibility toward others is often dimly perceived if at all.
Our ancestors lived in a very different type of environment. It really is difficult to appreciate this without attempting immersion into the thinking and experiences of the times through first-person accounts such as diaries, autobiographies and letters. Music, period books, speeches and documents are also helpful. Visits to historic homes, battlefields, churches and cultural sites can add a visual element to which one might imaginatively apply the sense gained from other sources.
My opinion is that most modern movies, television, books, etc. which attempt to portray other eras do so through the generally obvious filter of present day thinking. "Historical" dramatizations in the media are often remarkably "dumbed down" and/or tend to create "good" characters which are politically and culturally “correct” (by modern liberal standards) or "bad" characters which are abominably “incorrect.” Whether the motive be marketing, ignorance or outright propaganda, the result is inauthentic. It simply isn't history.
But authenticity, at times, may be a real eye opener, demythologizing incorrect perceptions and assumptions and/or jarring modern sensibilities. As an example, it may not be surprising that an accurate portrayal of the thinking of a typical mid-nineteenth century woman would likely be foreign and probably even offensive to modern day liberal views. But conservatives might have some surprises too, applauding the classic feminine virtues such as grace, charm, good manners and devotion to family but not comprehending that ideals of femininity were perhaps also behind a few strange (to us) points of etiquette and the often low-cut (by our standards) bodices seen in 18th and 19th century paintings.
The great questions and conflicts of other times also require looking beyond simple modern labels which may be dumbed down and/or politically motivated.  The idea that The American Revolution was fought simply over taxes or that most persons on either side of The Civil War were fighting for or against slavery would be two such examples easily dispersed by just a little effort at study which would cause one to discover so much more in terms of complexity and causes. Modern iconoclasm too has taken a toll and has slung mud falsely on many a noble character. Attempting to honestly study and understand people within the context of their times can bring much to light - rather than stepping in with modern self-righteousness or post-modern arrogance and looking for someone to pass judgment upon or simply label and dismiss.
There is much for us to learn. So whatever our 21st century philosophical leanings may be we ought to be willing to discover the people of the past for who they really were.
More to the point of our Balls, it is necessary to remember that dances were social experiences. The idea was to circulate and enjoy the company of others. This is difficult for some to understand because many have grown up with very different ideas of dancing and gender interaction. Most of us remember high school dances where we looked around for the best looking girls (or guys) and often refused unacceptable persons. Much was dependent upon appearance and a perception of status. (To this day you may view a dance as an enjoyable activity or as something to avoid depending on who you were and how you fit in as an adolescent!) While the same sort of motivations may have been present to a degree even then; custom, culture, religion, manners, traditions, expectations and social mores all formed a person to think and act in a different direction. Among the assembled throng of a Ball would have been old and young as well as homely and beautiful, but from the perspective of social responsibility all that was irrelevant. A gentleman had a responsibility to dance with a variety of ladies and a lady generally had the responsibility to dance with a gentleman if asked. These were not primarily couple events but social events and in the context of the group dances of the time you will sooner or later swing, turn or join hands with everyone – not just your actual partner.
In Europe, the royalty and nobility still held a higher status which carried over to special recognition (precedence) and treatment (deference) at all social events. In democratic-minded America it was generally considered that during the course of a Ball all present were on an equal social footing. The host (and/or hostess) would receive respect due to position and service and a visiting dignitary might be briefly acknowledged and honored, but by and large all would be considered as equals - at least for the evening. Thus a general’s wife would not refuse to dance with a lieutenant based on his lower military rank nor would a United States Senator need refrain from asking a dance of a bonnet maker.
(One of the many things that were different then was the fact that the dance master and musicians were considered hired help and were not usually recognized or applauded. However, at our events we consider it good manners to acknowledge a job well done.)
We desire to reenact to some degree the experience of an historic Ball but we realize that our culture today is different, that a number of newcomers will usually be present, that even knowledgeable history and dance buffs are still learning and that our interest is in creating an atmosphere that includes rather than excludes so that all can enjoy, experience and learn together. Therefore I desire these Balls to be such that complete novices feel welcome, accepted and not overburdened while at the same time veterans are thoroughly enjoying themselves as well. With that in mind, those who desire to carry out period etiquette to the fullest are welcome to do so. However, for the majority allow me to put forward the following list of suggestions that I think all could easily abide by.
(The etiquette of the times is typed normally with my suggestions following in italics.)
1. Gentlemen (including married men) were expected to always have an eye open for unattached ladies so that an inquiry could be made as to whether the lady would like to dance. Thus no lady who desired to join in would have been abandoned to be a wallflower.  
Gentlemen, we expect that all will cheerfully do their duty in this regard.

2. Ladies in those times did not typically ask gentlemen to dance nor did anyone dance with a person whom they did not know or had not been properly introduced to.                              
We waive these customs knowing that not all gentlemen are acquainted with their responsibilities enumerated in #1 and also in the interest of all being able to join in the dancing as often as they may desire.

3. When a gentleman asked a lady to dance she was generally expected to agree unless one of two situations applied. Either (A) she had already been engaged for that particular dance by another gentleman or (B) she was sitting that particular dance out. To refuse one gentleman and then accept another for the very same dance was the height of bad manners and was considered an insult not only to the first gentleman who asked but to the host of the Ball as well, the implication being that the man was unworthy and that therefore the host was unworthy for having allowed the man to participate.
We ask that ladies maintain this custom unless the man in question has (God forbid) behaved in a crude or offensive manner. (If such were ever the case, your host would like to know of it immediately.) We also make exception if you are a married lady who isn’t comfortable with a partner other than your husband. (See #4 below.) But if you are willing to dance with some others then good manners would suggest that you should be willing to dance with all others.

4. Believe it or not, in the 18th and 19th centuries it was considered very rude for couples to dance together more than two or three times in an evening! Why? Because dances were social events not couple oriented events and there was an obligation to mix and participate.  
We waive this rule because our culture is so different today and it would make some married couples (particularly newcomers) to feel very awkward. However, we encourage all who are willing to dance, mingle and interact, remembering the social obligations of ladies and gentlemen.
5. In 18th and 19th century ballrooms, men danced with women and women danced with men. The one exception was that it was sometimes permissible for ladies to dance with other ladies, particularly if there were a numerical shortage of gentlemen.
(Group dancing was so much a part of the fabric of American culture and social life that during the Civil War bored soldiers in camp would hold Balls outside, even in freezing weather and even with no ladies present. Of course this was not a ballroom situation but it does help to illustrate that dancing in that period was such a universal recreation and a social rather than a sensual event.)
We hold to the historic ballroom practice while allowing (if need be) for the one historic exception.

6. Dances were held of every size imaginable from small family gatherings to immense events with a thousand guests or more. They also ranged from the informal "hoe down" to the royal "court" ball. Dress and manners would have varied with time, place and the nature of the occasion. An aristocrat would have dressed very well at a ball held by one of his peers but probably not as extravagantly as he would for court occasions. A modest farmer's wife might have danced in her work clothes at home but would have worn her "Sunday best" to the town dance. Decent people of all classes would have dressed and behaved with the respect due to others as per their social circumstances.
As we have an interest in a range of historical impressions we do not generally request that those in period attire dress as per a certain social category. But out of respect and a desire not to interrupt the atmosphere of the event we require that those who attend these balls in modern attire dress at least at a semiformal level. No historic man would have considered attending such an event without jacket and neckwear and neither shall we. Likewise, no lady would have attended without a gown. But some things do change along the way. For instance, 17th & 18th century men often wore hats while dancing but by the 19th century this would have been unacceptable.
7. As we have just mentioned, social customs regarding men with hats changed over time. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was permissible for men to wear hats while dancing and some dances even called for certain flourishes of the chapeau. However by the 19th century men did not wear hats while dancing and did not generally wear them indoors at all.
Comprehending that our gentlemen have often spent considerable funds in acquiring distinctive period headwear and that such headwear is part and parcel of many an historic look, ensemble or persona - we do allow gentlemen to wear hats regardless of the time period represented.
8. The world of the 18th and 19th centuries was not nearly as "leveled", "democratized" or "egalitarian" as it is today in the 21st century. There were definite social classes which were easily recognized by marks of attire, speech and behavior. Many groups rarely or never engaged on a social level. Generally speaking, social classes would have mixed far more in the latter 19th century than in the early 18th and far more in America than in Europe.
Again, as we have an interest in a range of historical impressions we generally welcome people to engage in interpretations of a social level they are comfortable presenting. There are creative means of being inclusive. For instance at a Ball for Regency era English aristocrats there might be Americans or French present for diplomatic or business reasons. At the Royal Governor's Colonial Ball the gentleman in question naturally desires to become acquainted with the nature of the provincials he has just arrived to govern. At a Civil War Ball the patriotic fervor of the moment has a mellowing effect on the already softening distinctions of class in America.
9. What about "modesty"? One of the questions that often comes up when we hold workshops or seminars on historic fashion is in regards to the low cut bodices of former eras. To the historically uninitiated this is sometimes a shocking fact as there is occasionally a wrong assumption that the farther back one goes in time the less skin one will see. The very word "modesty" would have generally brought an entirely different range of thoughts to mind for an 18th century person than for a person today - but I digress - and that would be a large enough topic of conversation all on its own. Let us return to the practical side of the question. The fact is, how much skin - and what skin - could be put in public view by a lady of good upbringing and morals has been a rather changing phenomenon that has had its highs and lows (quite literally) throughout the last several centuries. Attitudes have shifted in a wave-like pattern. This has been true even in the microcosm of pop culture of the 20th century. The 1920s were far more revealing than the 1940s or '50s. The late '60s and '70s showed a great deal of skin and then the '80s and early '90s considerably less. Skin returned again in the late '90s.
Regarding historic fashions, modern ladies uncomfortable with low necklines may easily adapt patterns upwards to taste or make use of accessories offering extra coverage such as a fichu. But beware of harshness in judgment regarding your ancestors. As shocked as you may be by their low necklines, they would be FAR more shocked to see modern ladies going about in pants and (gasp) shorts - or even skirts that show the lower leg! A tasteful 18th century lady with a low (by our standards) neckline saw herself as making a very natural statement of femininity, declaring her gender - but she would never have dreamed of exposing her legs to public view!
10. To criticize another for their clothing or dancing ability was out of the question for an historic lady or gentleman. Any such behaviour would be the very height of inauthenticity!
Everyone, regardless of dancing ability is welcome. Likewise those who attempt an historic look are encouraged and their efforts will be applauded. Those who wear modern evening attire are also welcome and respected but modern casual wear is not appropriate. Need I mention how many have attended a We Make History Ball once or twice in a prom gown or bridesmaid's dress, found the sincere welcome and the level of grace and respect to be incredibly appealing, and then gone on to have a fine wardrobe of beautiful historic attire?

11. Basic, all around good manners and respect for people and property were expected.
Sir, madame and other appropriate titles should be used as well as please and thank you. Bows and curtseys are good form when being introduced or before or after a dance. Gentlemen should never abandon ladies once a dance ends but should thank the lady and ask whether she would care to be escorted to a seat, would like a glass of punch, etc.
Compliments and encouragement are signs of grace and respect toward those in the process of acquiring historic style clothing and toward those learning to dance.
Treat those who are making the effort to be "in character" according to their portrayal.
Conversations between gentlemen on volatile subjects such as Jefferson’s embargo against Britain or the Presidential race of 1860 may be animated and passionate but never crude or base.
We attract a very gracious, higher class group of ladies and gentlemen to our events. All are expected to behave with the manners, decorum, tastefulness, grace, respect and gratitude appropriate to gentility. This high level of respect and gentility is expected not only in person or on the ballroom floor but also while socializing after the ball and in communications such as email or other media.
If there were ever a circumstance when harassment, threats, coarse comments or other obnoxious behavior were displayed, such a person would be told to leave and would no longer be welcome. The same would apply to anyone exhibiting the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.
Smoking is not permitted during these events as the policies of We Make History as well as those of our venues forbid it. Due to the nature of the beautiful wooden dance floors we sometimes utilize (as well as our of concern for our guests' feet), spurs cannot be worn nor should historic footwear have exposed nails or other parts which could cause damage. Photography is welcome if discretion is exercised and permission is granted by the subjects. However we do not permit videotaping or recording (other than an occasional "house" videographer) as it is impolite to do so without permission of the host and musicians and some persons are not comfortable being filmed while learning to dance; not to mention that it only takes a few video cameras to create a distraction and begin detracting from the ambience we work so hard to create.

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