Who speaks for a Calico Ball?

What is a Calico Ball you ask? I did too when I came across this in a May 1883 local newspaper.

“Rock Island Briefs.” Daily Davenport (Davenport, Iowa), May 21, 1883, 4.

Turns out, a Calico Ball (alternately referred to as a Calico Dance or Party) stems from an 1855 New York City event in which women were encouraged to wear a dress made of simple calico which would be donated for the benefit of the poor after the party. When the New York Times ran the story, the idea caught on quickly and copycat dances quickly moved westward.

The first notice I could find locally was in January 1857.

The Daily Iowa State Democrat (Davenport, Iowa), Jan. 8, 1857, 3.

So now we have frocks and flannel! According to the January 10th issue, “The calico ball came off in good style last Thursday night, and we sincerely hope that the efforts of our young friends have placed the poor in more favorable circumstances.”

It seems Calico Balls evolved over time. By 1869 in Burlington, Iowa attendees were invited to the affair with “invitations printed on calico, the ladies wore calico dresses, the gentlemen wore calico neckties, the supper tables were covered with calico and everything corresponded with the occasion…”

(Davenport Democrat Thursday, April 8, 1869 p1)

Here is a broadside I found on the internet advertising a Calico Dress Ball.

The Acquisitions Table: Calico Dress Ball!

In March 1874 a Calico Party was given in Eldridge Hall with the directive “Ladies and gentlemen must appear in calico.”  There was a call in December 1875 by a newspaper editor making a plea for a Christmas or New Year’s Eve calico dance for the poor.

The Davenport Democrat (Davenport, Iowa), Dec. 4, 1875, 1.

The call appears to have gone unheard.

A Los Angeles Herald item on May 6, 1881, shared the following notable rules:

1.  Every lady must appear in calico, having a necktie or rosette made from the same material.

2. This remnant must be enclosed in an envelope [presented at the door upon entering].

3.  Each gentleman accompanied by a lady will receive a check.

4.  Gentlemen holding checks will be entitled to draw for an envelope.

5.  Each gentleman will choose the partner whose dress corresponds with the remnant in his envelope.

It seems the common ingredient to all the events was dancing, refreshments and late nights/early mornings. It seems to have become less frequently about fundraising and more about the fun. Any reason would do, even Washington’s birthday! Here is a dance card cover found on the internet followed by a 1906 Davenport event at the Turner Hall!

Liberty Hall Calico Ball on February 22.
“A Calico Party at Turner Hall.” The Davenport Democrat and Leader (Davenport, Iowa), Feb. 18, 1906, 12.

The last local notice I found was from May of 1910 when the Mutual Protective League members were invited to a calico dancing party at Prosperity Hall after a short business meeting. Ladies were requested to wear a calico dress and bring a calico tie of the same goods. Them men were to wear the ties and at the time of the grand march, those wearing the matching calico were to be partners.

So, there you have it! Perhaps this theme will prompt someone in Davenport to once more celebrate all things calico and have a ball raising funds, celebrating an event, or maybe just enjoying some dancing and refreshments while we wait for cold days and pandemics to pass.

(Posted by Karen)

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