Dance cards are very small booklets used by women at formal dances in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most were decorative and had long strings so women could wear them on their wrists or attach them to their gowns.
Dance cards were used to record women's dance partners. Inside the card were pages listing the names of the dances, with a blank line after each. A man would ask a woman for a particular dance, and his name would be penciled in on that line. Some dance cards had tiny pencils attached to the string, but men usually carried pencils with them. According to etiquette, if a man introduced himself and asked properly for a dance, the woman really could not refuse.
Dance cards are wonderful pieces of social history. They were popular first in Vienna and then in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century up until the early twentieth century, no later than the 1930s. The cards are often designed delightfully and sometimes made of unusual materials, such as metal, leather or wood.
But they also provide useful historical information, such as the date, location, and sponsors of the dance, as well as the popular dances and songs of the time. If the dances in the card were filled, then one can even find out who attended-or at least which men attended!
Dance cards lost their popularity before the middle of the twentieth century due to less rigid gender and etiquette practices. But the social significance of the dance card still lingers today. Now and then, one may hear phrases such as, "My dance card is full," "Pencil me in," or "Save the last dance for me."