We've heard people say things like "Can you fit me into your dance card?" or "His dance card is full," but few know what a dance card really is.The basic idea of the dance card is that an individual would write down who they agreed to dance with for each dance. Normally, exact songs would not be mentioned, but either the dance order (first dance, last dance) or the general type (foxtrot, waltz) is how the dances would be identified.For example, the 1926 dance card shown here has foxtrot listed several times, but this genre includes the Black Bottom, the Varsity Drag and the Charleston. (Find out more about these types of dances here.) Here is another example of this type of dance card.
Most dance cards would come with a pencil on a string so you could write who you promised to dance to as they approached you. The string also made it perfect to wear on your wrist, pinned to your dress or around your belt. These were items that were normally saved and scrap-booked from dances since they were great records and small. I especially love the idea of writing notes on your partners, as seen by the dance card above with the lady's notes on her companions' characteristics (love the "pippsqueak" comment).
This is the simplified explanation of the dance card for how it worked during the 20-40s, but earlier dance cards and etiquette, especially from the 19th century, are complicated. They involve rank and group dances that I don't know a thing about. There is plenty of info on all of this though, so look about if you are interested in how dance cards originated. For now, how about some ephemera eye candy?
Links to more dance cards...
Dance Cards from the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center
Gray Reserves and Haddonfield dance cards from Philly's Independent Seaport Museums Archives
A collection of dance cards from Middlebury College's blog on social dance, The Giddy Whirl