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A Young Berlin Noblewoman Recalls a House Ball, Skating, and Bicycling (c. 1890)

German aristocrats did not eke out a meager living, as did most workers, nor did they have to worry about maintaining a thrifty lifestyle, as was often the case for members of the bourgeoisie. The activities of this Berlin noblewoman demonstrate that among this class conspicuous consumption was less a duty than an end in itself. Besides socializing with fellow members of the elite at stage-managed balls, aristocratic youths used their free time to practice sports – and set new trends.

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In those days, a house ball occurred as follows: the leader, a gentleman close to the family, was invited for dinner at some point before the event. The list of dancers was discussed with him at length; and if there was still a need for gentlemen – no shortage of candidates here – he told ardent dancers to call on the following Sunday. The dance sequence and the cotillion were drawn up. The next day, a number of things had to be ordered: the folded dance programs, with pencils attached to the side, which listed the dances on one half and the names on the other, and accessories for the cotillion, ribbons, flowers, etc. [ . . . ] Usually, the guests arrived at the ball punctually: at about 8 or 8:30. We young girls found it especially important to have chosen partners for all the dances at least by the first waltz, perhaps already in the preceding week. If a gentleman wished for one more, he was put off until a “squeezed-in dance.” Thus, I often had more than half a dozen names scribbled on the back of my card, even though only two extra dances could be fit in between the regular ones. But this made a good impression.

The first waltz sounded exactly half an hour after the scheduled time, and the leader opened the dance with the host family’s daughter. The first waltz, the dance immediately following the festive dinner, and the cotillion were – in ascending order – the three “most important dances.” If a dancer asked you for one or even more of these dances, this was significant; if you agreed, this constituted encouragement.

During this decade, each family in our circle that gave a ball tried to secure Mr. Neumann as the pianist. [ . . . ] If I am not mistaken, he received six marks an evening and, of course, was provided with a tasty supper and a bottle of wine.

There were two variations on dinner: either a warm festive banquet was served to guests sitting at long tables by elegant servants, who were borrowed from acquaintances or hired temporarily (waitresses would have seemed petit bourgeois in those days); the dancing gentlemen felt that this arrangement was the more restful and comfortable. More common and fashionable was to have the male dancers serve the ladies sitting with them at small tables from a cold buffet; this was our preferred way. In some good families there was only red and white wine, but most of the time champagne was offered, in our family as well. After supper, the small contingent of fathers attending the ball disappeared, but the mothers remained till the very end. Mothers who danced were only found in the liveliest families; in others, the younger mothers were invited for one stationary dance at most. In our circles, however, mothers were necessary. It was only when one mother was ill that a friend’s mother took a young girl under her wing. Although my sisters and I certainly had an independent bent, we were not at all suited to frequent outings with a “vice mother.” One’s mother was simply part of the affair; she had to wait patiently till the very end. Virtually all of the mothers were unspeakably bored – they had had their chats with the others and tried to stay awake, stoically maintaining their composure. We felt a bit sorry for them, but we did not give them too much credit for this sacrifice – twenty years down the road we would be just as ready to fulfill the same motherly duties.

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