to be danced out before morning!
And so they would be danced out, never to be seen again. But while they lasted, they enhanced the ballroom decorations for the evening, amused and/or charmed those who would soon dance across the surface of those ballroom floors, even as those same dancers consigned the lovely images to oblivion while they enjoyed themselves.
While researching the details of the grand Carlton House Fête which the Prince Regent hosted in June 1811, I finally stumbled upon the truth of the use of chalk in ballrooms. On the handful of previous occasions on which I had encountered a reference to the practice, it was stated that the doors of the ballroom were chalked. It was not until, during the course of this last round of research, that I finally discovered that those references could all be traced back to one incorrect source. In actual fact, it was the floors of the ballroom which were chalked. As I pursued that very thin line of inquiry, I was eventually able to piece together enough details about this delightfully ephemeral art form to realize that it was a frequent practice for notable Regency balls. And now, the chalk on the floor …
The practice of chalking the floor of a ballroom appears to have originated near the turn of the nineteenth century, among the beau monde, and was employed on very special occasions for important balls and other notable events which included dancing. One of the primary reasons for chalking the floor was for the safety of the dancers. The soles of most dress shoes at that time, for both men and women, were of plain, smooth leather. Such soles could easily slip on a smooth waxed ballroom floor in the course of a dance. It had become the habit of many dancers to rub the soles of their shoes with chalk before they began dancing for the evening, to give their slick-soled dancing slippers a better grip. At some point, some clever host or hostess hit upon the idea of chalking the entire floor, to ensure the safety of all their dancing guests. But they did not just scatter chalk across the floor. They hired artists to draw beautiful patterns over the floor in chalk which would be danced out over the course of the evening. But regardless of their fleeting nature, the chalk designs on the floor would provide a visual treat to the guests before the ball began as well as eliminating slippage as the dancers whirled about the ballroom.
There is no definitive information on the origin of the practice of chalking ballroom floors. But perhaps the first host to have chalk patterns drawn on their ballroom floor was a naval man, as it was common practice by the beginning of the nineteenth century to lay out ship designs in what was known as a "mould loft." These lofts were large open areas with equally large floors which were described as being as big and as smooth as the floors of a ballroom. Ship plans, which had already been drawn to scale on large sheets of paper, were next drawn full-size in chalk on the floor of the mould loft. These chalked patterns were then used to make wooden templates for the parts which would be needed in the construction of the ship. Once that ship was constructed, the chalk templates would be rubbed out and wiped away, ready for the next set of plans to be laid down. The sight of these chalk drawings on the mould loft floor might very well have sparked the idea of drawing designs in chalk on a ballroom floor.
It was considered de rigueur to brightly light a ballroom for a ball, preferably with a chandelier and several girandoles. The use of chalk designs on the ballroom floor was therefore very advantageous for those who had ballrooms with floors which were a bit the worse for wear. The decorative chalk patterns would cover and disguise an old, worn or stained floor, which might spoil the effect of an elegantly decorated ballroom. Typically, the chalk designs depicted on the floor were drawn to harmonize and coordinate with the other decorations in the ballroom. They might be concentrated in the center of an unblemished floor, or they could be large enough to cover most of a floor which had many flaws. Even under the brilliant light of dozens of candles, the chalk drawings would effectively hide any defects in the surface of the floor as well as enhancing the ambiance created by the other decorations.
Floral designs were very popular for chalk designs, often larger images of the same varieties of flowers which had been used to decorate the ballroom. Arabesques were also fashionable, and in fact, it was a series of complex arabesque patterns which were chalked on the ballroom floor at Carlton House on the night of the grand fête. Mythological and fanciful motifs might also be seen, such as nymphs, mermaids, centaurs, satyrs, sea gods and/or classical heros. Heavenly bodies, such as the sun, the moon, stars, planets, comets and shooting stars were also popular motifs. For those who had the right to bear them, their coat of arms might be chalked on the ballroom floor. At one ball during the Regency, the guest of a gentleman who had had his coat of arms chalked on the ballroom floor that evening is reported to have quipped that his host was dancing on his arms as well as his legs. Floral patterns were most common for engagement or wedding balls, though if either the bride or the groom had a coat of arms, that might be chalked on the floor, often in the center, surrounded by flowers. If the bride and groom both came from families with coats of arms, the coat of arms of the bride might be quartered with those of her new husband in the design which was chalked on the floor for their celebratory ball. The dance floor was frequently chalked for masquerades, oftentimes with figures in keeping with the theme of the masquerade. There are suggestions that the more risqué masquerades had equally risqué drawings chalked on their floors for the titillation of the dancers.
When a ball was given to celebrate a special event, the designs chalked on the ballroom floor might be in keeping with the theme of the ball. At the annual hunt ball of 1813 in Warwick, the figures chalked on the floor included a man in the full hunting dress of a member of that hunt, mounted on a horse who was in the midst of a leap over a barred fence and a full-length figure of Guy of Warwick in a complete suit of armor. In November of 1818, the British Ministry in London held a ball for the American delegation. One of the delegates, Harrison Gray Otis, wrote to his wife about the ball. He estimated there were at least 250 people in attendance and there were two rooms set aside for dancing. In keeping the political nature of the ball, the floor of each room had a unique chalked design. In one room, a great white circle was chalked in the center of the room, in which was placed the armorial shield of Great Britain, encircled by the motto of the Order of the Garter, the Prince Regent’s crest and other symbols. In the second room, the floor also had a large white chalked circle, but this one contained the arms of the United States and was encircled by a set of symbols uniquely American. On 25 November 1823, The Royal Suspension Chain Pier in Brighton was officially opened. That evening, Captain Samuel Brown, the man who had designed the pier, and his wife, Mary, gave a ball at their home on the Marine Parade in celebration. The guests were delighted to find, when the ballroom doors were thrown open, that a magnificently realistic drawing of the Chain Pier had been executed in chalk on the ballroom floor. It was the work of a local artist and landscape painter, Edward Fox, whose baby boy, born only months before, also named Edward, would become a photographer who would take several notable photographs of the Chain Pier before it was destroyed by a great storm in 1896.
The chalking of ballroom floors on special occasions was also occasionally practiced in America. Records show that General Lafayette attended a ball given in his honor in Kentucky, at the home of a Mr. Weisiger, who had a very large ballroom. For this grand ball, the floor was chalked with a design which included a combination of the French and the American flags. In Washington, D. C., on 8 January 1824, John Quincy Adams and his wife gave a ball in honor of General Andrew Jackson, who was Adams’ rival in the upcoming presidential election. Adams’s wife, Louisa, had attended a ball given by the British minister the previous year in which the ballroom floor had been chalked in beautiful designs. She hired the same artist, a man from Baltimore, to chalk the dance floor for her ball. She drew the designs herself and the artist then transferred them to the floor in chalk. It took him a full day to complete the work. When the guests arrived, they were treated to a sight which was talked of in Washington for the next fifty years. The pillars in the room were trimmed with laurel and wintergreen, interspersed with roses and small lamps in variegated colors. The great crystal chandelier overhead illuminated a floor chalked in red, white and blue, with a great spread eagle in the center of the floor clutching a trophy of battle standards and at the entrance to the room, in a great half-circle was written: "Welcome to the Hero of New Orleans!" An elegant and fragile extravagance, the magnificent artwork was wiped out by the dancing slippers of the guests by the end of the evening. But it had the desired effect, of demonstrating that John Quincy Adams and his wife, like all Americans at that time, were fully conscious of the accomplishments of General Jackson. Adams, incidentally, won the election, though Jackson did win the next one.
In her article, The Rules of the Assembly: Dancing at Bath and Other Spas in the Eighteenth Century, for JASNA, Allison Thompson states that the practice of chalking ballroom floors was a something which was done at only the highest levels of society, and was in fashion between the years of 1808 to 1821. Though many dancers in the eighteenth century did chalk the soles of their shoes prior to dancing, or hosts spread chalk on their ballroom floors before the festivities, I have found no evidence to suggest that artistic chalk drawings were seen on ballroom floors in England until the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, there is evidence that, in both England and America, ballroom floors were chalked with fanciful designs on special occasions until nearly the end of the nineteenth century. For example, in 1833, King William IV and his Queen, Adelaide, wishing to provide a special treat for their young niece, Victoria, gave a juvenile ball at St. James’s palace for her on her fourteenth birthday, and invited a number of young people her age. The ballroom floor was chalked with a series of fantastical devices intended to amuse and delight the young dancers. Coming-out balls for many young ladies, right through the end of the century, included a chalked design on the ballroom floor. There is also evidence that the chalking of ballroom floors was not restricted to the upper classes. There are letters and diary entries which indicate that many large landowners hosted an annual ball for their tenants at their country estates and often had simple designs chalked on the ballroom floor, much to the delight of those in attendance. Some community assembly rooms chalked their dance floors from time to time for important evenings of dancing, though this seems to have been less common than chalking of floors at private events.
The patterns chalked on ballroom floors were typically designed and executed by professional artists based on the requirements of the host or hostess. However, there were some ladies, like Louisa Adams, who preferred to draw the designs which were to decorate their ballroom floors themselves. Should an unmarried daughter of the house draw the designs, one can be in no doubt that her proud mama would be sure to make that fact known to any potential suitors who might attend the ball that evening. There are also records of ladies and gentlemen working together to prepare a ballroom floor for a special event. For example, on Monday, 27 January 1812, in Limerick, Ireland, was held a grand masked ball, given by Lord and Lady Glentworth, to which all of Limerick society was invited, including the English officers stationed in the nearby garrison. A young lady who was the guest of the Glentworths, having great artistic skill, offered to draw the designs for the ballroom floor. Since no local artist could be found to execute her designs in chalk, one of the young officers, also of an artistic bent, offered to undertake the work. For three days the young officer labored over the floor, at the direction of the young lady, creating a splendidly designed floor which greatly pleased the host and hostess and their guests, as well as attracting the notice of the local newspaper. The coat of arms of Lord Glentworth was drawn in the center of the floor, surmounted by the Prince of Wales’s feathers and at the bottom, a device which included a harp supporting a Shamrock intertwined with the Rose and the Thistle, the symbols of Ireland, England and Scotland.
Much simpler chalk patterns were often to be found on dance floors across England, placed there by dancing masters when teaching their students. The patterns of the steps were chalked onto the floor to make it easier to learn the sequence of movement. Typically, the ladies’ movements would be chalked in white, while the gentlemen’s movements would be chalked in black, though any two colors might be used. A separate set of dance patterns would have to be chalked on the floor for each couple engaged in the lesson, and for each different dance they were learning during that session. In 1822, Thomas Wilson, Dancing Master of the King’s Theatre, published An Analysis of Country Dancing, Wherein All the Figures Used in that Polite Amusement are Rendered Familiar by Engraved Lines: Containing also, Directions for Composing Almost any Number of Figures to One Tune, with Some Entire New Reels; Together with the Complete Etiquette on the Ball-Room, in which can be found a wonderful selection of these dance instruction patterns, as well as written details on how to correctly execute the movements.
During the Regency and into the middle of the nineteenth century, both white and colored chalks were often used to draw the designs on ballroom floors. All-white designs were sometimes seen, and could be done to great effect, though typically, they were rather less expensive than those designs executed in color. But by mid-century, some authors of household management books were advising their readers that ballroom floor chalk designs should be executed only in white chalk. These arbiters of domestic economy decreed that colored chalk spoiled ladies’s gowns and dancing slippers. For example, in Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-Book; A Manual of Domestic Economy Containing Approved Directions for Washing, Dress-Making, Millinery … , of 1850, on page 436, Eliza Leslie advises:
Ball-Room Floors. — In preparing a floor for dancing, avoid using any sort of coloured chalk. It rubs off on the white satin shoes of the ladies, and spoils them immediately — ruining also the hems of their white dresses. The chalk for ball-room floors should always be white.
This does make sense, as by this time skirt hems were longer than had been those in the Regency, and they would certainly have gathered chalk dust as a lady danced around the room in the arms of her partner. The floors of debutante balls were regularly chalked at this time, and since debs were expected to wear white, colored chalks on the ballroom floor would most certainly have shown on the hems of their dresses, while white chalk would have been barely discernible.
There were a number of reasons to have chalk designs drawn on a ballroom floor. For the safety of the dancers, to hide any flaws in the floor, to enhance the decorations for the evening, and perhaps most importantly, to raise that particular ball to something more than an average social event, or vie with the designs chalked on the ballroom floor of another hostess that season. Hostesses often let it be known that there would be a chalk design in their ballroom for a special ball, as that had the effect of ensuring the prompt arrival of most of the guests. Since the designs would begin to blur after the first dance, and be quite illegible after two or three more, those wishing to see the transitory art would have to be present in the ballroom before the dancing began. But there were also hostesses who wished to keep their ephemeral designs a secret until the doors of the ballroom were thrown open to their guests and the patterns on the floor were revealed under the bright light of the glowing chandelier above. There were a number of critics of the practice of chalking dance floors, as they disapproved of both the expense of the art and the loss of time in the making of it. It could take anywhere from a day to a week to execute the chalk designs on a ballroom floor, depending on the complexity of the designs and the size of the floor. If a professional artist was employed, the cost could be quite high, even though the work of art would be destroyed soon after the ball began. Costs would be lower if the chalk work was done by amateurs, but it could take longer, thus, in the eyes of the critics, distracting the amateur artists from more important work. But it does seem that the critics were in the minority. Most people did enjoy the fleeting moments of pleasure, and possibly surprise, they were afforded by an elegant design chalked on a ballroom floor before they took to the floor with their partners and danced out the chalked art.
Like William Hazlitt, quoted above, the poet, Thomas Moore, used the concept of chalked figures on a dance floor to suggest the fleetness of time, and thus of life itself. Below is a stanza from Letter VIII of his Intercepted Letters, or the Two-Penny Post-Bag, first published in March of 1813, in which he draws the poetic parallel:
Thou know’st the time, thou man of lore!
It takes to chalk a ball-room floor —
Thou know’st the time, too, well-a-day!
It takes to dance that chalk away.
The Ball-room opens — far and nigh
Comets and suns beneath us lie;
O’er snow-white moons and stars we walk,
And the floor seems one sky of chalk!
But soon shall fade that bright deceit,
When many a maid, with busy feet
That sparkle in the lustre’s ray,
O’er the white path shall bound and play
Like Nymphs along the Milky Way : —
With every step a star hath fled,
And suns grow dim beneath their tread!
So passeth life — (thus Sc–tt would write,
And spinsters read him with delight,) —
Hours are not feet, yet hours trip on,
Time is not chalk, yet time’s soon gone.
Sadly, all those lovely designs chalked on all those many ballroom floors have been danced to dust and are long gone, just as is the Regency. But they can be recaptured in the pages of a novel with a Regency setting, should a venturesome author choose to have a chalked design on the floor of the ballroom in a scene in her novel. But will the design be professionally executed, or will it be the work of an artistic young lady? Will that young lady use her design to send a coded message to the hero, unbeknownst to the dancers who will soon blur her message? Might a snobbish society hostess get her comeuppance when her egregiously spoiled lap dog dashes across the ballroom floor moments before the ball is to start, spoiling the design? There are many ways in which a chalked design on a ballroom floor might figure in a Regency novel. I look forward to discovering the creative ways in which Regency authors might employ them, and I hope you do, too.