Introductions were very important to class conscious nineteenth century people. They generally did not mix socially with other people much above or below their social class and never with anyone with whom they had not been formally introduced. A formal social introduction was made when one of your friends introduced you to a new person, with your permission (“May I introduce?”; “May I present?”). Once formally introduced, you could recognize and greet each other in public, you could visit the other person’s home, you could request assistance from the other person, and, most importantly for our purposes, a gentleman could ask a lady to dance. At a Ball, there was also an introduction merely for the purpose of dancing, which carried none of the social obligations of a formal introduction. There were three basic types of Balls during the mid nineteenth century. The type of Ball dictated the procedure for asking a lady to dance.
Private Balls were invitation only affairs, perhaps limited to family and close friends, social, fraternal or political organization members, or business, trade or craft members. At such an event, all were considered to be equal and fit company. Any man could ask any woman to dance, even if not formally introduced (although as a practical matter, most people were formally introduced at such events). If not otherwise engaged or fatigued, the woman should accept. To decline an invitation because the lady found the man “unacceptable” for some reason would be an insult to the host or hostess because it would imply that a man who was not a gentleman had been invited to the Ball. Etiquette books advised a lady to dance with an “unacceptable” gentleman so as not to embarrass the host or hostess, or the “gentleman” by drawing attention to him for being rejected.
Public Balls were open to anyone with the price of a ticket. Such Balls were common for raising money for various worthy causes and during the Civil War were widely used to support the war effort, both North and South. At such a Ball, if a gentleman had been formally introduced to a lady (either at the Ball or previously) he could ask her to dance. If a gentleman did not know a lady, he had two options to obtain a dance. If he knew someone who knew the lady, he could ask that person to discretely inquire if the lady would be amenable to a dance. He could then be introduced either formally or for a dance. If he was a complete “stranger” (the term used in etiquette books), he would apply to a Floor Manager for a partner. Floor Managers assisted the Dance Master in conducting the Ball and in particular arranging sets with the proper number of dancers. The Floor Manager would quickly “size-up” the man based on his demeanor, clothing and language, and locate a suitable partner of the appropriate class. The man would then be introduced to the lady for the purpose of dancing only. Again, a lady was expected to accept such an invitation to dance unless she already had a partner or was fatigued.
Master-Servant Balls were an old European tradition, where the lord of the manor held a Ball for his servants and tenants (and perhaps local townspeople). Some American employers continued the tradition of such dances for their agricultural and industrial workers. Such Balls, therefore, brought together a variety of social classes. Works of fiction (see Dickens and Austen), however, give the impression that such Balls were the great melting pot of society, where the lord danced with the scullery maid. In all likelihood, even though everyone was in the same room, there was probably little intermingling of the social classes. At such events, a variation of the Private Ball rule applies. Any man could ask any woman, but modified so that only “superiors” could ask “inferiors” to dance but not vice versa. Thus, the lord of the manor could ask the scullery maid to dance but the stable boy may not ask the lady of the house out onto the dance floor. The same rule would apply at a Military Ball involving a combination of officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted men, and their ladies. A “superior” may ask an “inferior’s” lady to dance but not vice versa, unless invited to do so by the superior. (Note: In egalitarian America, all females were ladies. Traditionally in the British Army, however, officers had ladies, noncoms had wives and enlisted men had “women.”)
Invitations to dance were governed by strict rules, although there appear to be local variations. A universal rule is ladies did not invite gentlemen to dance. If they wished to dance with someone in particular, they told a friend, usually a male. The friend then discretely suggested to the gentleman that he ask the lady to dance. A gentleman desiring to dance with a married lady usually asked her husband first before asking the lady. Upon approaching a lady to ask for a dance, a gentleman bows and the lady acknowledges his greeting with a curtsey if standing or a nod if seated. A married lady need not rise from a seat to greet a gentleman, unless the man is considerably “superior” in social rank (such as a high ranking politician, military officer, or clergyman, a guest of honor or other important personage). Married ladies may offer their hand but generally the more public the event the less hand shaking. Unmarried young ladies do rise to greet all gentlemen but they do not offer their hand. At some stage in life, older unmarried ladies begin to obey the married lady rules (at this point she would be recognized as a “spinster”).
In asking for a dance, the gentleman always requests “the honor of a dance.” Etiquette books often point out the former tradition of asking for “the pleasure of a dance” was becoming less common. It can probably be assumed that in less sophisticated circles the older invitation was still in use. The gentleman should escort the lady onto the dance floor and return her to her seat (or wherever she desires) after the dance and thank her for the honor.
Hand kissing is not mentioned in Civil War period etiquette books and, therefore, was probably not done. An assumption can be made that if it was done the rules would have been specified in such books (as they are in later period books).