Introduction: Why Lowell was important, why it was a tourist destination, and what a look at dancing can tell us.
A Word on Context: Some comments about the history of sex and shame.
Chapter 1: At the Bend in the River—Dancing before Lowell. There has been dancing along the Merrimack River as far back as anyone knows, first by Native Americans and later by European settlers. Diary entries and early histories provide information about pre-Lowell social activities.
Chapter 2: The Early Days—Lowell's Beginnings. During an extended tour of the British Isles with his family, Francis Cabot Lowell spent long hours learning English mill technology—technology that he would bring back to the States. But the Lowell family also found time for dancing. And when it came to Mr. Lowell's later treatment of his workers, was he influenced by Welsh industrialist Robert Owen, who felt dancing promoted good behavior? Or was Lowell of a different mindset?
Chapter 3: Mixt Dance—Kissing, Courtship and Damnation. Those Victorians were just as human and lustful as the rest of us; they simply tried harder to repress it, or at least, to hide it. Dancing was only one of many ways whereby a mill girl might find herself "in trouble."
Chapter 4: Country Dance—Contras and Quadrilles, Past and Present. Nineteenth century set dances—many specifically done in Lowell—are described, including the steps, the styles, the origins and the changes. Plus, how this dance tradition survives today.
Chapter 5: 'Round the Room—Galop and Polka and Waltz, Oh My! Called "round" dances because they travelled a-round the room, various couple dances rose and fell in popularity. Much like today, no one wanted to be doing their parents' dances! These one-on-one numbers were considered more intimate than contras and squares and hence, more scandalous.
Chapter 6: The Middle Years—Dancing 'Round Every Corner. As Lowell grew, conditions for the mill workers deteriorated. Most of the original, local, mill girls left and were replaced by recent immigrants whose desperation forced them to accept the longer hours and reduced pay. With a larger population came a larger dance scene, and virtually every organization sponsored a ball at one time or another.
Chapter 7: Inside the Ballroom—Its Decorum, Dimensions, and Delights. Ever tried to picture a scene from long ago? This chapter spells out the hall sizes, the lighting, the floors, the ventilation, the decoration, the attire, the orchestra, the galleries and the gossip that would have been found in Lowell's dance halls.
Chapter 8: A Short Tour—The Victorian Dance Halls of Downtown Lowell. Starting at the Visitor's Center and going down Market Street, up Prescott, across Merrimack, and along Dutton back to the starting point is only a quarter mile walk, but along the way are over two dozen sites relevant to Lowell's first hundred years of dancing.
Chapter 9: Out of the City—The Trolley Parks. The rich have long fled cities for the seashore during the warmer months, but by the end of the nineteenth century even working class residents could afford to escape the heat by taking the trolley to a number of outlying parks. At many of these parks, an open-air dance hall was one of the main attractions. Focusing on Lowell's nearest, Lakeview Park, this chapter also covers other readily accessible dance resorts and tells what became of them.
Chapter 10: The 1900s Arrive—Ragtime Dances Come to Town. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Lowell had begun its long, downward slide as more and more mills left the city. But the dance went on. Dancing was, by then, evolving from the earlier patterned dances to the more modern, lead-follow ones such as tango and foxtrot. Some in Lowell were outraged by these cozy, exotic, couple dances, even going so far as to appoint a "Dance Inspector" to keep "exaggerated" dancing in check.
Chapter 11: Germans, Grizzlies, and More—Dance Novelties and Fads. Over the years, dancing often consisted of more than just a series of steps around the floor. Elaborate games grew up around the dancing to make an evening more entertaining. Sometimes the dances themselves were more silly than sultry. And, of course, there were the Vaudeville acts filled with flashy dancing that played in Lowell's numerous theaters.
Chapter 12: The Last Waltz—Flappers to Folk Festivals. Social dancing peaked around World War II—both in Lowell and across the United States—before gradually succumbing to a barrage of competition for people's leisure time. New taxes also hit dance venues hard. Today, pockets of dancing remain, but the thriving dance scene of Lowell's early years is long gone. As for the city itself, Lowell suffered for decades before eventually reclaiming its status as a prime tourist destination, one currently filled with galleries, museums and festivals.
Images from top to bottom: 1) Detail from Husking the Corn in New England, 1858 magazine illustration. 2) Detail from A Plan of Sundry Farms…in the Town of Chelmsford, 1871 reproduction of 1821 map; image provided by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at BPL. 3) Detail from Mr. Owen's Institution, New Lanark, 1825; image provided by New York Public Library. 4) After the Dance, from c. 1900 postcard. 5) Detail from Sir Roger De Coverly, 1907 print. 6) Detail from frontispiece of Wilson's Correct Method of Waltzing, 1816; frontispiece image provided by John Drury Rare Books. 7) Detail from Fireman Fund Ball, 1890 dance card. 8) Photo of Lowell Cadet Orchestra, 1907, from YMCI Five Year Book. 9) The Fairburn, from c. 1900 postcard. 10) Lakeview Park Pavilion Boardwalk, from 1908 postcard. 11) Detail from Mentel's Maxixe, 1914 sheet music cover. 12) Vampyr Dance, from c. 1914 postcard. 13) Courtyard at Lowell Folk Festival, 2013 photo by author. Multiple images enhanced and/or color-corrected by author.