Sunday, May 12, 2013

Calico Balls for Fun and Funds

Perhaps a cotton print dress

I did a post a recently on a Civil War Calico Ball, which was a fundraiser. Calico Balls had a long tradition as entertainment too.  Many of the period references have to do with young people wearing inexpensive clothing and pairing up for the evening. A recurring theme describes a girl making a calico dress and a matching calico tie, which her escort might wear or which she might bestow upon a favorite at the dance.

Brooklynite Louise Masterson recalled her pre-Civil-War debutante ball, a calico ball where her escort had a strip of "my calico sewed down the side of his pants to match my dress...It was all too romantic."

In Lynn, Massachusetts in 1859 a Calico Ball was held where "All the ladies appeared in calico dresses, which at that time were the cheapest style of dress. A hundred couples were present. The prize of a gold bracelet was awarded to the lady who in the judgment of a committee was arrayed in the most neat and becoming manner,personal charms also being taken into account — and Miss Nellie Clapp was the fair winner of the prize. It was a very pleasant gathering; and the prevalence of silks and satins could not have added to its attractiveness."

Calico Balls were held from Nevada to Manchester, England to Calcutta, India.

A Joke:
Why did you call your calico ball an author's gathering?"
"Because we all appeared in print."— Phila. Bulletin

Here's a Calico Surprise dance program from 1867 printed on fabric
"To Mr. & Mrs. Bean"
A surprise party?
Notice the dances celebrate fabric mills like Merrimack and Sprague.

Related events included Calico Promenades. In 1863 the Brooklyn Eagle reported on a Calico Promenade Concert scheduled for February, but due to the cold it was poorly attended. Calico skirts could be chilly.

A few months ago Fourth Corner Antique Quilts offered a log cabin quilt about 1880-1900 with a small souvenir of a Calico Promenade stitched in.

The quiltmaker preserved a ticket or advertisement for the social event that was printed on a dotted calico.

Calico Balls continued as fundraisers, either for the poor or for ladies' organizations. In Houston, Texas, in 1879: "The Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society...gave a calico ball for the purpose of swelling their treasury."

Calico Balls also took on another meaning. In many places they were what we might call costume parties, masquerade balls.

A children's Calico Ball with nobody wearing calico.

The Jovial Club's Calico Ball. I like the man 
dressed as a newspaper---but no one else appears in print.

Here's a scold:
"In the Camberwell New Road on Friday night last a most disgraceful gathering took place called a ‘Calico Ball’, which was an assemblage of people in costumes somewhat resembling those disgraceful masquerades that used to take place occasionally at the theatres some forty years ago, but those were conducted with some decency but these Balls which have not that apparent quality as some of the females were attired in tights, with a very questionable amount of other clothing."

There seem to have been some recurring roles at these masquerade calico balls. One could find instructions for a costume for Father Christmas or a Shepherdess.

In a pamphlet on costume making for masquerades Butterick patterns had this to say about Calico Balls:

"As the requirements of calico balls are very generally understood, they will need scarce more than passing mention...."

But fortunately they went on:

"Regarding materials for calico-ball costumes---there are, besides calico, many dainty fabrics, cotton crepes and the like, which may be made up most artistically; however there is most fun when all the costumes are made of the old fashioned calico....Among the costumes most generally chosen for calico balls are peasant and shepherdess dresses, and those for fish girls, flower girls and charity girls; poudre and watteau costumes and those for Cinderella, ...The men at such balls wear simply made character costume or dress suit made of 'calico'; or sometimes ordinary dress suits faced with bright cambric, or flowered fabrics...Strong color contrasts are desirable features in costumes of calico or other cotton fabrics."

Although this photo from the Brooklyn Fair is labeled New England Kitchen
the silly costumes might have been devised for the Calico Ball.
The man at  right might be poudre (powdered) or Watteau.
The exaggerated Lincoln hat is a prize winner.

Read the Butterick pattern book at the Library of Congress by clicking here:


  1. Thanks so much for the interesting post. I know many quilters that are so appreciative of your generosity in sharing your knowledge.

  2. I too want to say thanks for sharing. It is great of you to take the time and effort and to present it so well.

  3. I have to say, I love an audience. You guys are great. It really helps to clarify my thinking about quilt history and women's history to frame it as a blog post. So thanks to you for listening.

  4. I always love reading your blog. You are such a wealth of knowledge. I feel like by reading it, I am just a smidgen smarter &/or connected with a time so different than our own.
    Thank you,

  5. I really enjoyed reading the post and was thinking how fun it would be to do one at a quilt show.


  6. I agree! Thanks for a good read each morning!

  7. Wonderful post. I am enamored of the Calico Ball. What a fun idea to ponder today.

  8. What a fun and informative post. Thanks so much for assembling all this information.

  9. I wish I could go to a calico ball this spring! Thanks for informing us.

  10. I am going to recommend this as my quilt groups theme for 2014 and for our quilt show as well!
    I love the information you share thanks so much!

  11. I didn't know that The Library of Congress had a web site full of all kinds of interesting information and links. As a retired English teacher who taught my seniors how to write research papers I am in constant awe of your meticulous documentation.