Dance cards, known as programmes du bal in French or Tanz-karten in German, are small booklets used mainly by women at formal dances to record their dance partners. Popularized in Vienna in the nineteenth century, dance cards continued to be used throughout the early twentieth century.
Names could be filled in just after a dance to keep as a memento, or early in the evening to ensure one had a partner planned for each dance, thus eliminating the risk of being labeled a wallflower. This tactic also allowed a woman to decline a dance politely by being able to say her card was already full. Most cards had decorative covers, and some had long strings or cords so they could be attached to dresses or worn on wrists. Some, like these pictured, had small pencils attached to them.
These two art nouveau dance cards printed in Germany for Des Arts Studios appear to have been used for a question-and-answer game requiring prospective dancers to answer a riddle before being granted a dance. Read together, the answers form a list of items with a common attribute; in this case all the correct answers are names of popular magazines. It's also possible these dance cards were used as attractive and easy-to-carry notepads for a parlor game that did not involve dancing at all. Both cards have answers written in one person's hand, and dancing an entire evening with only one partner would have been frowned upon.
The dance cards are included in the Wing Ephemera File, which is currently being processed through the project "Printing Specimens (1605-present) at the Newberry Library," funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) as part of its Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives program. The initiative is generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
This essay was written by Lindsey O'Brien and Amanda Schriver, project cataloging assistants at the Newberry.