18th C – The Quakers and Dance
January 28, 2012
* * *
KEEPING THE HOLY EXPERIMENT HOLY
Right from the beginning, the fate of dance in Philadelphia was in jeopardy. The city’s formidable Quaker population saw theatre, music and dance as frivolous, dissipated and immoral. As early as 1695, they submitted a petition to the governor and the Pennsylvania Assembly, ” . . . that fidling, dancing, gameing and what Elce may tend to debauch the inhabitanc and to blemish Christianity and dishonour the holy name of God, may bee curbed and restrained both at fairs and all other times.” The petition was in vain, and at their Yearly Meetings in 1696, 1705 and again in 1716, the Friends had to admonish their members against dancing, gaming and music. The need to constantly repeat these warnings tells us how strong the temptations of music and dance were in the early colony. Twenty years later, this address printed in the August, 1736 American Weekly Mercury still summed up the Quaker attitude:
“There are a sort of Idle Artists that strole about the World, called Fencers and Dancers, who make it their Business to accomplish the Hands and Heels, rather than the Heads of our Youth; who under pretence of Teaching them what they call Good Breeding, too often teach them that of Sinning: At best they teach them but certain fashionable Airs or Gestures (which I count unnecessary, wanton, and effeminate) and this at the Expence of much Money, and the precious Time of our Youth: the only Time of Life, best suited, for learning ingenious, commendable and profitable Things.”
FALL FROM GRACE
William Penn’s original Charter had provided for the formation of a committee of manners, education, and arts, “that all wicked and scandalous living may be prevented.” At first, Quaker doctrine and discipline prevailed, but as the 18th century progressed, the Society of Friends gradually became less and less of a dominant force in Philadelphia and they found it difficult to hold others to their strict standards of piety and virtue. By 1706, the Quakers were complaining that a dancing and fencing school was being tolerated in the city and in 1710 we read in a private letter of a dancing master intriguingly referred to as “the facetious Mr. Staples.”
The first really magnificent documented ball in the city was given by Deputy Governor Patrick Gordon for the newly crowned King George II’s birthday, during a three day festival in the fall of 1727. The next year George Brownell and his wife opened a boarding school on Second Street, where they taught reading, writing, cyphering, dancing and needlework to young Philadelphia ladies and gentlemen. This was the same peripatetic George Brownell who, years before, in Boston, had taught writing and arithmetic to a very young Benjamin Franklin.
* * *
THE PHILADELPHIA DANCING ASSEMBLY
By the 1740s, Penn’s idealized Utopia had become a fairly secularized city. Quakers, although a dwindling minority, stubbornly tried to retain political power. Tensions led to the “Bloody Election Riots” of 1742, where they saw their dominance violently, but unsuccessfully, challenged.
Quaker influence in other areas of daily life in Philadelphia would not be so enduring. In 1748, the city’s elite came together to form its most exclusive social group, The Philadelphia Dancing Assembly. Over that winter of 1748-9 they held 9 balls, complete with lavish late night suppers with tea, madeira and chocolate. Dance was now more than just “frivolous” or even “dissipated,” it was a mark of social status and privilege. The subscribers included the governor, the mayor and most of the provincial council. It included wealthy merchants, bankers and professionals. There were Hamiltons, Bonds, Shippens and McCalls; there were Anglicans, two Jews, a few Presbyterians and even two ministers. There was not, however, even in 1748, a single Quaker.
* * *
* * *