Ruth Evans
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The story of Lowell has been told a thousand times—how a group of men chose a site on the Merrimack where the falls could provide them with ample waterpower to build a great city of textile mills. How they used the cutting edge technology of their time, some of it stolen from England. How their actions jump-started the Industrial Revolution in America. How they employed farm girls from around New England and by so doing unintentionally triggered advances in social causes. The story has been told from a host of angles: from architecture to engineering to women's rights to the labor movement. But never from dance, a social and artistic activity that overlaps many of the other categories.

It was never Ruth and Charles' intention to tell it from that angle either. They simply wanted a bit of background so they had a clue who was doing what where before they put together a little choreography or two for possible use around Lowell. The project got away from them (kinda like this website). What follows is an early sampling of what they found. They eventually put together a book. Carefully researched, heavily illustrated, and full of interesting tidbits, Twirling Jennies: A HIstory of Social Dance (and other mischief) in the City of Spindles 1820—1920 is now available online and in select stores.

  Bird's eye view of Lowell
           

Lowell Dance: the seamier side

The Dances they were Doing

The "Mill Dance" quilt

 
 

Long before Lowell was carved out of the surrounding towns, an evening of sleighing and dancing seemed to be a regular event.
"The most vivid word pictures of the time that have come down to us are undoubtedly those contained in the journal of Squire John Varnum, 1704-1785.
15 Jan [1778]. About 2 of ye Clock the company viz: Hezekiah Coburn and wife, Parker Varnum and wife, Roger Ray and Hannah Brown, Henry Coburn and Samuel Rechardson, Samuel Coburn and Rhoda, Jonas Varnum and Polly Parker, John Parkhurst, Isaac Parker, Abijah Hall and Bradstreet Coburn set off in three double shays to go to Billerica, went as far as Capt. Miniers. Took a drink of Flip and toddy and returned throught the town. Git here about Sun setting. The Company set off for Joseph Varnum's to sup there with fife and fiddle and returned home at about 2 a.m.
March 4, 1779:
Parker had a great entertainment. Mr. Brown & his wife Rhoda. Elijah Fletcher & wife, Michael Hildreth & wife, Philip Parker & wife, Bradley Varnum & wife, Capt. Peter Coburn & wife, Doctor Little & wife, Nathan Parker & wife, Jonas Varnum & Polly Parker, Isaac Parker & Abijah Hill and myself & wife, all dined & supped here. Jonas & Polly went to a Dance the same evening at Abijah Fox's. Henry Coburn, Thomas Varnum, Bradstreet Coburn & a large number of young people went to the sd Fox's to the Dance there that evening.
10 Dec. 1779. Thos. Varnum had a Dance at his house in the Evg. As same fell by lot there."
—History of Lowell and its People by Frederick W. Coburn 1920, pp 69-71

Old Stone House
sleighing scene
     

An early dance site was the building shown at the lower left. A tad ironically, today it's a convent.
"Gay Times at the Old Stone House – Much social gayety centered at the Old Stone House on Pawtucket street, which was built in 1824 by Phineas Whiting, Sr., the material being slaty stone taken from the river bed. It was bought from Mr. Whiting by General Shepard Leach of North Chelmsford, and conducted as a hostelry by S. A. Coburn. Colonel Jefferson Bancroft, who succeeded in the management of the house, was a brother-in-law to Samuel A. Coburn. The last landlord before the house was acquired by Dr. J. C. Ayer for a private residence was George Larrabee, who had been a bartender in the Coburn regime.
Here in the town period of Lowell history were held the famous seasonal balls, known as the "lighting up" and "blow out" balls, occurring respectively on September 21 and March 21. These were the most distinctly democratic social festivities of the year, at which employers and corporation officers danced with factory operatives. Much more select was a series of twelve socials given at the house each winter. In 1836 took place a celebrated ball at which a price of six dollars was asked and secured."

—History of Lowell and its People by Frederick W. Coburn 1920, pp 203-204

   
 
   
  dance school ad It didn't take long before businesses started catering to the dancers among Lowell's residents. The 1837 newspaper ad to the left offers dance lessons in the "Mechanick's Hall" building shown at right (past and present). Shoe stores were advertising "Men's dancing pumps, kid and leather," and "Women's kid dancing slips[slippers]."   Mechanic's Hall
    Appleton block  

Every event, good or bad, could be used as an excuse for music and dancing. When the first Appleton Bank block opened in 1848 (the one shown at left replaced it in the 1870s), a dance was held to celebrate:
GRAND OPENING BALL.
Messrs. Fusree & Gee would most respectfully announce to the citizens of Lowell, that they will give a GRAND OPENING BALL, at their new and splendid Hall in the Appleton Bank Block, corner of Central and Hurd streets, on THANKSGIVING EVENING, Thursday, Nov. 30th, 1848.
Music by Pushes & Bend's Cotillon Band. For further particulars, see bills.
That same year Lowell Manufacturing held a huge party to fete their new building (see The "Mill Dance" quilt). Dance events also often appeared as fundraisers for workers hurt in the mills:
Mr Chesley's Benefit will take place Wednesday evening next, in Huntington hall. —Music will be furnished by Marble's Band. —Tickets—one dollar—will be on sale in a day or two.
The fellow laborers of Mr Francis Shaw, (who was so badly hurt at the Foundry a few days since,) have announced a Levee for his benefit—to be held to-morrow (Thursday) evening in Huntington Hall.
Daily Journal & Courier, Lowell, Wednesday, October 19th, 1857

      newpaper announcement   Huntington Hall
  Amelia Bloomer

Dancing was not everyone's cup of tea. History has recorded a number of wry comments on the subject, as well as plenty of disgusted condemnations of the "unchaste Touches and Gesticulations used by Dancers" (more about that elsewhere among these pages),

"On July 22nd, 1851, was held the famous 'Bloomer Ball,' the first practical attempt to introduce the costume originated by Mrs. Amelia Bloomer of Seneca, New York. The ball was a success, but the costume was not a success." —Cowley's History of Lowell pp 142

 

My boarding place proves as good as I could wish. There is only two things I dislike, one is the children think themselves pretty important in the family and no wonder the way they are bringing them up.  They must have their own way about everything and if they do not there is a noise I tell you they have three children one boy and two girls.  The oldest not above the age of twelve years and they are going to the dancing school.  Their mother thinks that a great accomplishment.  I think she would rather dance anytime than eat. —Lowell, Massachusetts, November 24, 1853. Excerpt from 4 page letter by Charles Lucius Anderson (1842-1865) who worked at the Lowell Machine Shop.

Enough for now. Life in the twenty-first century demands the author's attention.

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