Ruth Evans
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Spinning and Sinning:
The seamier side of dancing in Lowell.
waltzers


People versed in the bible, from Increase Mather to Jimmy Carter, have said that one need not have sex to commit adultery, one need only lust after another in one's heart. This would mean that virtually every dance hall, no matter how prim and proper, contains a great many adulterers.

From the Seventh commandment. It is an Eternal Truth to be observed in expounding the Commandment, that whenever any Sin is forbidden, not only the highest acts of that sin, but all the degrees thereof, and all occasions leading thereto are prohibited…
The unchaste Touches and Gesticulations used by Dancers, have a palpable tendency to that which is evil.
Excerpt from An Arrow against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing Drawn Out of the Quiver of the Scriptures, Increase Mather, 1685

Dancing in Lowell was just as controversial as it was everywhere else in the nineteenth century and almost everyone had something to say about it:

I used to oft wish that I could go to the Episcopal Sunday-school, because their little girls were not afraid of the devil, were allowed to dance, and had so much nicer books in their Sunday-school library.
—Harriet H. Robinson, mill girl and author of Loom and Spindle

Note 29. The town of Lowell is one of those where Puritan standards have been pushed the farthest. The presence of the young girls who work in the factories is the principal motive. In 1836, one man was placed under arrest in Lowell, for the sole reason that he was a common fiddler. He was treated as if he had outraged the public morality. The magistrates of Lowell fear that the pleasures of dancing will give occasion for disorder among the workers. —Michel Chevalier 1834

Alas, Ruth is just too busy with other things to post as much as she'd like, but here are a few more quotes to think about:

…there used to be in Lowell an association of young men called "The Old Line" who had an understanding with a great many of the factory girls and who used to introduce young men of their acquaintance, visitors to the place, to the girls for immure purposes. Balls were held at various places attended mostly by these young men and girls, with some others who did not know the object of the association, and after the dancing was over the girls were taken to infamous places of resort in Lowell and the vicinity and were not returned to their homes until daylight.
—The Industrial Worker pp 81, quoted from the Boston Daily Times, July 17th, 1839

Another medial practitioner in Lowell stated that, in one week, he had more than seventy persons apply to him for reveries for venereal diseases, most of whom were girls. Occupants of brothels in New York and Boston who had become diseased were also said to have entered the mills. The late deputy sheriff of Lowell had stated that he had found three houses to which these professional prostitutes were in the habit of bringing factory girls.
—The Industrial Worker pp 82, quoted from Boston Daily Times, July 18th, 1839

"Moral"

Oh, Fathers! Oh Mothers!
Why quake at mere names,
While you take to your bosoms
These "hug and kiss games!"

You hate the word "Dance" –
Say "dancing's a sin:"
What dancing hath such "scence,"
As Cop'nhagan* "ropes in?"

You the violin scorn—
Yet what "vial of wrath,"
E'er poured out such woe"
As one "kissing play" hath?

If to chassez is "wrong" –
Then what of that chase
Wherein – will-he, nill-he—
A kiss ends the race!

If to glide through "the Lancers,"
Or walk through quadrilles;
If that's under ban, sirs,
Then stop your "Grab Mills"


Why must Polka or Waltz
Hurry me to Old Ramiel*
While your "Needle's Eye"
Swallows such a huge camel!*

Of course, those old "Balls"
Where you danced till day-light;
While the Bar-Room ran liquor,
Could never be right.

But in your own home, --
Or 'mid friends you invite, --
If such dancing's wrong,
Then there's no play that's right.

True Faith will not quarrel,
With Schottisch and Reels;
But looks more to the heart,
And less to the heels.

—edited version of poem from Berkshire County Eagle, March 27, 1862, reprinted from Housatonic, January, 1861 and attributed to J. F.


*Copenhagen was a popular form of tobacco; the odd spelling of "scence" is a play on scents/sense.

*Ramiel was an angel cast out for taking a human wife.
*"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24)

As for kissing games, these are some of the "penalties" the losers paid after an evening of friendly parlor competitions of one sort or another.
Run the Gauntlet. - In this, the gentlemen stand in two rows, facing each other, while the lady who is to pay the forfeit, is to pass between them. Each gentleman who can, is to get a kiss, but he must not stir from his place, and must stop her with hand only, while she can resort to any means to escape, except leaving the row.
Kiss Nun-fashion. (A lady and gentleman kiss through the back of a chair.)
Kiss each other back to back. This is done over the shoulder.
To become a sofa, a gentleman must get down on his hands and knees, while a lady and gentleman leisurely sit down on his back and kiss.
—from Hood's Sarsaparilla Book of Parlor Games, published by C. I. Hood & Co, Lowell, MA 1885

And when it came to "Grab Mills"...
Actually as far as trouble goes, the trouble was with the supervisors. Let's say this girl comes and gets a job. Well, hey, he likes her, you know? I'll get you a raise. It won't be much, but I'll get you a raise. But he's not saying when. A week goes by. Oh, I'll get you your raise. Oh, don't ask me, don't worry about it, I'll get you a raise. But you know what would be nice? To go out together. Oh cripes, she's going to get a raise, hey. The boss is asking her. That's an honor. So, they would go out. First thing you know, she can't work any more, if you know what I mean. But she never got that raise because she got into trouble, Oh yes. That happened many times in my father's time, in my time, and I'm sure it's still happening now. And naturally we knew that, see? A girl would come in neat and nice looking, and oh cripes, you're not going to stay here long. because the supervisors, the Romeos, they think they can do anything they want to do or have anything they want.
recollection of Henry Paradis, b. 1918, Lowell millworker 1937-1954. From The Last Generation by Mary H. Blewett

 

 

 
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