Penciling in Your Dance Partners

1927 Senior Ball dance card

Dance Card from Millikin's SENIOR BALL May 20, 1927

From Millikin's earliest days, dances became an important part of student life. During the first three decades at J.M.U., getting “carded” at a dance carried an entirely different meaning from what would likely enter the mind of today's students. Popular on college campuses in the early 20th century, the Dance Card was a decorative and functional keepsake that every woman who attended a dance was able to use during the dance and take home as a souvenir. This exhibit features the Dance Cards from Millikin's past.

Dance card

Interior of dance card

Dance Card for unknown dance. Interior of card.

What is a dance card?

A dance card or ballspende, is a card, often decorative, that is used by an attending woman to record with whom she will dance at formal dances and balls. Though originating in the 18th century, they became quite popular in the ballrooms of Vienna and elsewhere in Europe in the 19th century and remained popular at college dances in the U.S. into the 1920s, lingering on into the 1930s in some cases (including here at Millikin University).

The cards were designed to be worn on the wrist (hence the long strings often attached to them) or attached to the gown and would allow the woman to “pencil in” the names of gentlemen seeking a dance.

Though the cards themselves have long since disappeared from college dances, the term is still sometimes used metaphorically, as in “is their room on your dance card?” meaning “do you have some time for me?” Or in sports to refer to teams on the upcoming schedule as in “who is on the team's dance card this season?” Even the term “pencil me in” is still in use today. (Note the tiny pencil attached to the card pictured above and the names "penciled" in on the inside of the card)

What is in the cards?

While some hold that Tarot cards can reveal the future, the “dance card” can be even more revealing—about the past! Perhaps a bit more challenging than your typical primary source, the tiny dance card is loaded with historical information. It certainly provides a glimpse into the culture and society of its time, but can also reveal specifics of time, date, location, attendees, traditions (such as the same song appearing as the same dance # year after year for a specific fraternity's dances), popular menu choices of the time, and so on.

1926 Delta Sigma Phi dance card

Delta Sigma Phi March 1926 dance

Title page of dance card

You will notice that the title page provides you with the date, time, and location of the dance and that it was for the Alpha Lambda chapter of Delta Sigma Phi fraternity (the Millikin chapter opened in 1920 and remains active on campus today).

Dance card menu

The next page on this dance card provides the menu for the dinner portion of the formal dance and reveals some of the "typical" formal dining fare of the 1920s.

Dance card dancesDance card dances

The next two pages feature the numbered lines for each of the dances. Notice that two of the scheduled songs for those dances are pre-listed. The 6th song of that evening was to be "Dear Old Girl of Delta Sigma Phi" and the 7th was to be the "Carnival Dance.”

Some dance cards would list songs for each numbered selection, others would list the names of male fraternity members rather than song numbers, so the woman would pencil in the song rather than the male partner's name.

A quick glance at other Delta Sigma Phi cards reveals that the 6th & 7th songs being the choices listed here was a tradition for the fraternity, as they are found on dance cards from throughout the 1920s.

Dance card chaperone page

The final page lists the chaperones, (which included then University President Mark Penney and his wife) the band that provided the music and the members of the dance committee.

1932 TKE dance card

Above: This Tau Kappa Epsilon dance card from a TKE dance in April of 1932 provides an example where the names of members of TKE were listed as opposed to the songs.

Oldest card in the collection

The oldest card in the Archives' collection is one from a May 1907 dance of men's social fraternity known as I.T.G.O.S.T. (Millikin University's very first, and least known about, fraternity)

1907 ITGOST dance cardITGOST symbol

Above: The symbol on the front cover of the card incorporates all the letters of I.T.G.O.S.T. It is not known at present what those letters stood for, although one possibility is In The Good Old Summer Time (a popular song from the time period of the fraternity's founding in 1903).

ITGOST dance card cover

As the front cover indicates, the card belonged to a "Babe" but it is not known what her actual name was.

ITGOST dance card dances

The dances and songs are listed and the names of members of I.T.G.O.S.T. with which she shared those dances are signed in as well.

ITGOST members

The final page lists the members of the I.T.G.O.S.T. and their patron, Prof. William Clarence Stevenson.

Other Dance Cards in the Collection

Delta Sigma Phi dance cardDelta Sigma Phi dance card

Delta Sigma Phi (Apr 1927)             Delta Sigma Phi (Apr 1928)

Delta Sigma Phi dance cardTau Kappa Epsilon dance card

Delta Sigma Phi (May 1929)                                                 Tau Kappa Epsilon (Apr 1932)

Tau Kappa Epsilon dance card1922 dance card

Tau Kappa Epsilon (Sept 1928)                                                 Unknown dance (Dec 1922)

Dance card1926 Delta Delta Delta dance card

Unknown Dance (Unknown Date)                   Delta Delta Delta (Apr 1926)

Sigma Alpha Iota dance card              1928 Senior Ball dance card

Sigma Alpha Iota (Autumn Dance, unknown date)  Millikin University Senior Ball (May 1928)

1925 Theta Gamma dance card1925 Sigma Alpha Epsilon dance card

Theta Gamma (May 1925)                              Sigma Alpha Epsilon (May 1925)

1929 Junior Prom dance card1927 Sigma Alpha Epsilon dance card

Junior Prom (Apri 1929)                                        Sigma Alpha Epsilon (May 1927)

Sigma Alpha Iota dance cardSigma Alpha Iota dance card

Sigma Alpha Iota (unknown date) - unique leather pouch with removable cards

Sigma Alpha Iota dance cardSigma Alpha Iota dance card

Sigma Alpha Iota (unknown date)           Sigma Alpha Iota (Unknown date)

1924 Aston Hall Prom dance card1921 Pi Mu Theta dance card

Aston Hall Prom (Feb 1924)                                                 Pi Mu Theta (May 1921)

Dance cardDance card

unknown dance (unknown date)                    unknown dance (unknown date)