Philadelphia’s 18th Century Dance “Assemblies”


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Philadelphia dance assembly, 1750s.

      In the latter half of the 18th century, Philadelphia was the largest city in the Colonies, – in fact just before the Revolution, it was the second city in the British Empire, being exceeded in population only by London, and being larger than Bristol, Edinburgh or Dublin. It was here that the First and the Second Continental Congresses met, that the Constitutional Convention sat, that Washington lived during the greater part of his presidency, and that the Supreme Court of the United States was organized.

      Philadelphia can be proud of her part in the development of the Nation, and of those institutions which have served as a model to other parts of the country. The pattern of “firsts”, so typical of Philadelphia, begins with The American Philosophical Society, founded in 1727 by Franklin, which is the oldest learned society in the new world. Following that came the Colony in Schuylkill in 1732 (now the State in Schuylkill) which is the oldest Club in the English speaking world, and then the Dancing Assemblies, dating from 1748, which are the subject of this memoir. The oldest hospital, the oldest fire insurance company, the first chartered bank and many others could be cited as representing a few of the “firsts” that Philadelphia can claim.

      Speaking of that tenacity of tradition that has led to the perpetuation of so many Philadelphia Institutions, Cornelius Weygandt writes: “If it be an accusation to be always looking at the past, we must plead guilty to that accusation. We like to feel that we are very like our Colonial ancestors. We shrug our shoulders and let it pass when we are called ‘stick-in-the-muds’. We have houses that are two hundred years old, – with two hundred year old trees on the lawns of our suburban homes. We hang on to our forebears’ treasures, – to Savery high-boys and to Randolph chairs, to Peale paintings and to Strickland prints, to Syng silver and to Tucker china.”

      Among the many Philadelphia Institutions with an historic past which have been preserved are the Philadelphia Assemblies. Dating from the winter of 1748-49, they outstrip in date of origin any other series of balls still given in this country, the next oldest being those of the Saint Cecilia Society of Charleston, South Carolina which began in 1762.

      The word “Assembly” as used in the eighteenth century meant that the people who attended gathered together in a social way upon a plane of equality.

      In the later years of the Colonies, and the early days of the Republic, “Dancing Assemblies” were not peculiar to Philadelphia, – similar gatherings being held in many of the important centers near the Atlantic seaboard. New York and Washington both had such Assemblies but they have long ceased to exist. The Savannah Cotillions date from 1817, The Boston Assemblies from 1845, The New Orleans “Comus” Balls from 1857 and the German Cotillions of the same city from a still later date.

      In 1748 Philadelphia was confined to a small area near the Delaware River and most of the leading citizens lived in streets running north and south between Market and Pine, and generally close to the river. As time passed, the trend was westward until South Third and South Fourth Streets became the center of the fashionable section, still later to be supplanted by Chestnut, Walnut and Spruce Streets. The locations at which the Assemblies have been held have followed the same geographical trend, beginning in 1748 at Hamilton’s Store or Warehouse on the wharf on Water Street, south of Dock, and moving ever westward to the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.

      During the winter season of 1748-49, nine Assemblies were given in Philadelphia under the management of four “Directors”, as the managing board was then called: John Swift, John Inglis, John Wallace and Lynford Lardner. Three manuscript relics of those events have come down to us: – the rules to govern the dances, the list of original subscribers and the treasurer’s account book. Each subscription was forty shillings and the list of subscribers, only fifty-nine all told, was as follows:

      Alex. Hamilton
      John Kearsley, Jun.
      David Franks
      Thos. Lawrence, Jr.
      William Plumstead
      John Inglis
      John Wallace
      Andrew Elliot
      Thomas White
      Ninian Wischeart
      Phineas Bond
      Abram Taylor
      Charles Willing
      John Lawrence
      James Trotter
      Joseph Shippen
      Thomas Graem
      Samson Levy
      Samuel McCall, Jun.
      John Cottenham
      James Burd
      George McCall
      John Moland
      William Peters
      Edward Jones
      William Cussens
      Joseph Sims
      James Polyceen
      Samuel McCall, Sen.
      William Allen
      James Hamilton
      William Franklin
      Ro. Machinen
      Redm. Conyngham
      Henry Harrison
      John Heuston
      Thomas Lawrence, Sen.
      Archibald McCall
      Daniel Bayles
      David McIlvaine
      Joseph Turner
      Lynford Lardner
      John Wilcocks
      Thos. Hopkinson
      Richard Hill, Jr.
      Charles Stedman
      Richard Peters
      Benjamin Frill
      John Kidd
      Adam Thompson
      John Francis
      William Bingham
      Alexander Stedman
      Patrick Baird
      William McIlvaine
      Buckridge Sims
      John Swift
      William Humphreys
      John Sober

      The Rules Observed at the Philadelphia Assembly of 1748-49

      1. The Assembly is to be held every Thursday Night from the first January 1748/9 to the first Day of May in every Year, and begin precisely at six in the Evening, and not by any Means to exceed twelve, the same Night.

      2. The Subscribers, consisting of Gentlemen to chuse by a Majority four of their Number to act as Directors under whose Management the whole Assembly is to be during the Season.

      3. The Directors are to furnish the Ladies with Tickets for the Season, which must admit only the Lady whose Name is first wrote on the Ticket by one of the Directors.

      4. On application made to the Directors by any Subscriber, for the Admission of any Stranger, A Ticket is to be given out for every such Stranger, particularly the Subscriber who shall apply for such Ticket, paying immediately on the Delivery of it for a strange Gentleman Seven Shillings and Six Pence, for a Lady, nothing.

      5. None are to be admitted without Tickets which are to be received at the Door, by one of the Directors every Assembly Night, and returned again, except the Strangers’ Tickets, before the Company are dismissed.

      6. The Directors are to order every thing necessary for the Entertainment of the Company, as well as those who incline to dance, as those who are disposed to play cards; for the Accommodation of the Latter, Rooms are to be provided and furnished with Fire, Candles, Tables, Chairs, Cards, Etc.”

      Next follow directions for the management of the dances at the balls.

      To Regulate the Dances

      1. (Each set) to consist of ten Couples. Such Ladies as come first to form the first set, after which order Sets are to be composed, that is, in the order wherein they come to the Assembly.

      2. Every Set of Ladies to draw for their Places, only the first Ticket of each Set is to be reserved by the Directors to present to a Stranger if any, or any other Lady who is thereby entitled to lead up that set for the night.

      3. The Director who has the composing of the Sets whilst the Minuets are dancing, to couple those disposed for Country Dances and provide Partners for such Gentlemen Strangers who come in unprovided.

      4. If there should be any odd Couples above a Set but not exceeding four Couples, they are to be distributed by the Directors among the compleat Sets, if above four Couples they are to be composed into a Set by taking some out of the other Sets.

      The expense accounts of the first year show the modest and simple character of the entertainments, but the notation for one such evening of five gallons of rum, one hogshead of wine and two hundred limes would indicate that the early Managers believed in a certain liberality in providing refreshments.

      Joseph Jackson, writing of the Assemblies in the “Encyclopedia of Philadelphia,” comments: “Although simplicity always has reigned over the Assembly balls, which never have been remarkable for their decorations or entertainment, they have from the beginning been marked by their exclusive character. At the beginning only those who were regarded as being in its ‘set’ were permitted to subscribe, and, while in later years a little more breadth of view was tolerated, the original design has never been seriously departed from. In the 18th and early 19th Centuries the Assembly was a mark for the satirists, but it remains one of the strongest links the city has with the remote past, and everything connected with its origin and early years has become interesting historically”.

      Contrasting the many modern methods of transportation, Watson gives an idea of how some of the ladies in the mid-eighteenth century journeyed to the Assembly on a winter’s night: “One of the really honorables of the Colonial days,” he wrote, “has told me of his mother (the wife of the Chief justice) going to a great ball in Water Street, in her youthful days, to Hamilton’s stores on the wharf, on Water Street next to the Drawbridge, she going to the same in full dress on horseback”. This appears all the more remarkable when one looks at a picture of the costumes worn in those days.

      Since in the early days only the men subscribed, although their wives and grown children also attended, it seems likely that the first few Assemblies were attended by some two hundred people. It is believed that the population of Philadelphia in 1748 was about 15,000; hence, slightly over 1 per cent of the city were subscribers. Today, while the subscribers’ list is the largest in its history, the balls are far smaller in proportion, as is but natural, than they were two hundred years ago.

      In a letter dated at New Castle May 3d, 1749, and addressed to Thomas Penn, Richard Peters, writing apropos of one of the Assembly dances the first season they were given, said: “By the Governor’s encouragement there had been a very handsome Assembly once a fortnight at Andrew Hamilton’s House & Stores which are tenanted by Mr. Inglis, – make a Set of good Rooms for such a purpose: It consists of Eighty Ladies & as many Gentlemen, – one half appearing every Assembly night. Mr. Inglis had the Conduct of the whole & managed exceeding well”.

      In the early days the Managers of the Assemblies were elected each year by the votes of all the subscribers. Also, as previously noted, provision was made for those members who wished to play cards instead of dancing, – the invitations themselves being printed on the back of playing cards.

      For the second Assembly season, 1749-50, there were sixty-five subscribers. Thus at its very inception, the list of subscribers was enlarged through the addition of new names. The subscription was increased from forty shillings to three pounds, and the list notes the following new names:

      The Governor
      Benjamin Price
      James Young
      Peter Bard
      George Smith
      Alexander Barclay
      Thomas Cross
      Thomas Bond
      Thomas Willing, Jr.
      John Ross
      Hugh Dancy
      Daniel Roberdau
      Joseph Marks
      Christopher Carnan
      John Hisselius
      Robert Warren
      Lawrence Dinwoody
      William McIlvaine
      John Nelson

      A curious anecdote connected with the Assemblies held during the winter of 1755, is related in this “extract of a letter from Trent Town, New Jersey,” dated April 18th, 1755: “The ancient King of the Mohawks, (the same who was in England in Queen Anne’s Time) came down with some of his Warriors this Winter to Philadelphia, and assured them of his friendship, though he owned many of the young Mohawks were gone over to the Enemy; they were entertained at the Stadthouse, and made their Appearance also among the Ladies on the Assembly Night, where they danced the Scalping Dance with all its Horrors, and almost terrified the Company out of their Wits. I must tell you they brought with them a beautiful young Lady, who in public made the Indian Compliment, a Tender of her Person to the Governor; as gallant a Man as he is, he was quite confounded at the Time. I know not if he accepted her”.

      The records would indicate that the Assemblies were given continuously through the seventeen fifties and sixties, although the lists of Directors have not been preserved for each year of this period.

      In a letter of Edward Burd, dated December 15th, 1768, he says: “The Dutchess of Gordon is to appear to Night at the Assembly & is to be richly deckt with diamonds & other jewels & dressed most splendidly in Silver Silk. Neither She or Coll. Morris chuse to dance whenever they can avoid it, and therefore, the Company will be deprived of the Honour of dancing with a Dutchess. She has nothing to boast of with Regard to her Face or Person. Yet she is well esteemed as She is pretty sociable and don’t seem to require that Preeminence over other Ladies, which some Ladies are so ambitious of”.

      During the War for Independence some attempts were made to keep up the Assembly Dances. Watson says that he saw written upon a “parchment” a list of seventy names, subscribers to the Assemblies for the winter of 1779-80.

      From the Chevalier de Chastellux, who had seen active service during the Seven Years’ War, we have, during his time of service in America under Rochambeau, some glimpses of Philadelphia Society.

      Speaking of the subscription Assembly, he says: “The Assembly, or subscription ball, of which I must give an account, comes in here most appropriately. At Philadelphia, as at London, Bath, Spa, etc., there are spaces where the young people dance, and others where those to whom that sort of amusement does not suit, play different games of cards; but at Philadelphia only games or commerce are allowed. A manager, or master of ceremonies presides at these methodical amusements: He presents to the dancers folded billets which each contain a number; thus it is fate which decides the partner which one is to have for the whole evening. All the dances are arranged before hand, and the dancers are called each in turn. These dances, like the toasts which we drink at table, have some relation to politics: one is called the success of the campaign, another, the defeat of Burgoyne, and a third, Clinton’s retreat. The Managers are generally chosen from among the most distinguished officers of the army; at present this important place is held by Colonel Wilkinson, who is also Clothier general of the army. Colonel Mitchell, a small stout man, fifty years of age, a great judge of horses, and who lately was contractor for carriages both for the American and the French armies, was formerly the Manager; but when I saw him he had descended from the magistracy and danced like any private citizen. It is said that he exercised his office with much severity, and it is related that a young lady who was taking part in a quadrille, having forgotten her turn, because she talked with a friend, he came up and said to her aloud: ‘come Miss, take care what you are about, do you think you are here for your pleasure’?

      “The Assembly to which I was taken upon leaving Mr. Wilson’s was the second of the winter. I was apprized that it would be neither numerous nor brilliant, for at Philadelphia as at Paris, the best society seldom go to balls before Christmas. Nevertheless, upon entering the room, I found twenty, or twenty-five women dancing. It was whispered to me that having heard a great deal of the Vicomte de Noailles and the Comte de Damas, they were come with the hope of seeing and dancing with them; but the ladies were entirely disappointed, for those gentlemen had left that morning.”

      Chastellux mentions among those present “Miss Footman, as being a little contraband, – that is to say, suspected of not being a very good Whig; for the Tories have been publicly excluded from this Assembly.” Proof of the violent feeling on this subject is provided by the following notice published in The Pennsylvania Packet under date of December 12th, 1780, and under the title “A Hint”, “It is expected that no man who has not taken a decisive part in favour of American independence will, IN FUTURE, intrude on the Dancing Assembly of the city: such characters are either too detestable or too insignificant for Whig Society. The company of those who were so insensible of the rights of mankind and of personal honour, as to join the enemies of their country in the most gloomy moment of the Revolution, cannot be admitted. The subscription paper, thro’ accident, has been handed to some characters of this description.”

      The City Tavern on Second Street above Walnut Street where the Assemblies were held during the seventeen eighties was not approved by many of the subscribers owing to lack of space for dancing. It had been built and opened shortly before the Revolution, and superseded the old London Coffee House, as a principal place of resort and was the scene of many dinners, receptions and dances.

      Beginning in 1786 and for many years afterwards various attempts were made to build an Assembly Room, for which subscriptions were raised, but there is no record that such a building was ever actually undertaken.

      Throughout the seventeen eighties and nineties the Assemblies were well attended and were given with regularity, and this must have been a most colorful period as Philadelphia was then the Capital of the country and the President, the Members of his Cabinet and many Foreign Ministers often attended the balls.

      About 1790 a rival organization the “New City Dancing Assembly” was organized and flourished for several years in competition with the “Old City Dancing Assembly” but it appears to have ceased to exist before 1800.

      William Sullivan in “Public Men of the Revolution” gives an interesting account of this period and of George Washington’s association with the Assemblies. He states that he first appeared at an Assembly in 1792, at a ball given in honour of his birthday. He further quotes a letter from James Iredell to Mrs. Iredell dated February 26th, 1793, as follows: “On Monday, last (February 23rd) the anniversary of the President’s birth was celebrated. In the evening he attended a Ball and supper given in honour of the day, by the City Dancing Assembly. The rooms were crowded by a brilliant assemblage of the Fair of the metropolis. Near 150 ladies and nearly twice the number of citizens were present. A greater display of beauty and elegance no country, we believe, could ever boast of; Most of the Foreign Ministers attended with their ladies. After supper the President gave the following toast: ‘The Dancing Assembly of Philadelphia-May the members thereof, and the Fair who honour it with their presence, long continue in the enjoyment of an amusement so innocent and agreeable’. The crowds of gentlemen that waited on him in the day were innumerable, and in the Assembly at night it was scarcely possible to move. The room was much too crowded to be comfortable.”

      Assemblies were given on Washington’s birthday in 1793, 1794 and 1795. Concerning of the celebration of 1794 the notice read as follows:

      City Dancing Assembly

      The subscribers to the City Dancing Assembly are informed that there will be a ball at Oeller’s Hotel on Saturday evening, the 22nd inst., being the birth night of the President of the United States. No tickets will be sold for that night. Subscribers who wish tickets for strangers will please apply to one of the Managers previous to the night of the ball.”

      Wansey, in his Excursion to the United States, 1794 thus speaks of the “Philadelphia Assembly, 1794”: “The Assembly Room at Oeller’s Hotel must not pass undescribed; it is a most elegant room, sixty feet square, with a handsome music gallery at one end. It is papered after the French taste, with the Pantheon figures in compartments, imitating festoons, pillars and groups of antique drawings, in the same style as lately introduced in the most elegant houses in London. To help my readers to form some idea of the state of polished society there, I must subjoin the Rules for regulating their Assemblies, which I copied from the frame hung up in the room: ‘Rules of the Philadelphia Assembly, at Oeller’s Hotel’.

      1. The Managers have the entire direction.

      2. The ladies rank in sets, and draw for places as they enter the Room. The Managers have power to place strangers and brides at the head of the Dances.

      3. The ladies who lead, call the Dances alternately.

      4. No lady to dance out of her set without leave of a Manager.

      5. No lady to quit her place in the Dance, or alter the figure.

      6. No person to interrupt the view of the Dancers.

      7. The Rooms to be opened at six o’clock every Thursday evening during the season; the Dances to commence at seven and end at twelve precisely.

      8. Each set having danced a Country Dance, a Cotillion may be called, if at the desire of eight ladies.

      9. No stranger admissible without a ticket, signed by one of the Managers previously obtained.

      10. No gentleman admissible in boots, coloured stockings or undress.

      11. No citizen to be admissible unless he is a Subscriber.

      12. The Managers only are to give orders to the Music.

      13. If any dispute should unfortunately arise, the Managers are to adjust and finally settle the same; and any gentleman refusing to comply becomes inadmissible to the further Assemblies of that season.

      An interesting sidelight on Philadelphia Society at this time occurs in Moreau de St. Mery’s “American journey”: (1793-1798): “All American girls and women are fond of dancing, which is one of their greatest pleasures. The women like it almost as much as the men. They indulge in this pleasure, either in the morning from eight to eleven or in the evening from the end of the day far into the night. I believe I have already said elsewhere that dancing for the inhabitants of the United States is less a matter of self-display than it is of true enjoyment. At the same dance you will see a grandfather, his son and his grandson, but more often still the grandmother, her daughter and her granddaughter. If a Frenchman comments upon this with surprise, he is told that each one dances for his own amusement, and not because it’s the thing to do.”

      “There is a great deal of snobbery in Philadelphia, where classes are sharply divided. This is particularly noticeable at balls. There are some balls where no one is admitted unless his professional standing is up to a certain mark. At one of the balls held on February 23rd, 1795, to celebrate the birthday of Washington, I begged Mr. Vaughan, my dear neighbor, and my colleague in the Philosophical Society, to buy me one of the tickets of admission. But he replied that since I was a ‘storekeeper’ I could not aspire to this honor. And what did I say to him? ‘Don’t you know that I have never been more your equal than now, when I am nothing?’ He ends his statement with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy: ‘I got no tickets, and did not see the ball’.”

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