It was, wrote Jane Addams, “a canker that the community must eradicate to save its future generations.” She wasn’t talking about the machines that mangled Chicago’s child laborers, or the teeming tenements where the city’s endless poor lived, worked, and suffered. Addams, perhaps the Progressive Era’s greatest reformer, was talking about dance halls—a menace that another author called “the world’s greatest tragedy.”
Addams could—and did—focus on other tragedies during her lifetime. There was the garbage that piled up in the 19th Ward’s alleys and on streets, uncollected and ignored by city officials. There was illiteracy and starvation and exploitation and crime. Addams tackled them all. But her attempts to eradicate the American dance hall were among her most concerted and perplexing.
To Addams, dance halls meant tragedy. But to young women in Chicago or New York, these “cankers” meant something much more. And that was precisely the problem.
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Just a generation before Addams’s crusade, an unaccompanied woman was persona non grata on city streets. Men controlled the growing nation’s commerce and culture and, in most states, women’s earnings. And cities were almost exclusively their domain.
“America’s downtowns were primarily spaces that women were expected to move through, not linger in or enjoy,” explains the historian Emily Remus. Etiquette kept women off of sidewalks; the law kept them out of urban spaces like restaurants without a male escort. There’s a reason the word “streetwalker” is synonymous with “whore”—in the America of Addams’s childhood, it was safe to assume that a woman who loitered too long on a public thoroughfare was a prostitute.
That changed near the end of the nineteenth century. And it alarmed women like Addams. Rich reformers like Addams were already fighting hard for the right to vote. But they were disconcerted when less privileged women actually exercised their few new liberties. Addams’s younger, poorer sisters did not ask for more freedom—they simply took it.
“Many working-class daughters socialized on streetcorners, rendezvoused in cafés, and courted on trolley cars,” writes the historian Kathy Peiss in her essay “Charity Girls and City Pleasures.” Nearly a century after those trolley rides and café dates, Peiss and other cultural and social historians began to reconstruct and deconstruct what life was really like for young women who were rarely documented or studied.
These working-class women crowded the streets of America’s overflowing cities. And they were visible in ways that made women like Addams very uncomfortable.
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By the time Addams established Hull-House, her groundbreaking settlement on Chicago’s West Side, in 1889, women were entering the workforce in unprecedented numbers. A gigantic group of young, unmarried women made the even larger force of 19th-century capitalism possible. In sweatshops and factories, they produced the shirtwaists, hats, and skirts that women wore on the streets. With their modest wages, they lived threadbare single lives or helped support their poor, immigrant parents. And when they headed home after long, unregulated hours of toil, they wanted to have fun. They found it not just on the city streets they claimed as their own, but in the dance halls that catered to their tastes.
At work, men were the bosses. In dance halls, women were. Suddenly sought after, free to choose their dance partner or drink, a “charity girl” could go from ignored to in demand simply by walking into a Turnverein or saloon. Dressed in flashy finery, she would flirt, drink, and dance. She threw aside the formality of her richer peers and mixed freely with men—too freely, if you asked Addams.
Addams saw dance halls as a place designed to “extract…their petty wages by pandering to their love of pleasure.” But for a young woman—a woman who had, perhaps, finally escaped the watchful eye or her overprotective parents or who craved a few hours of joy between 12-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week shifts—they were places to explore self-expression, self-determination, and sexuality.
They were also places to receive “treats”—a euphemism for the quid pro quo economy of dance hall dating. As Peiss explains, the “treating” system allowed impoverished women to supplement their lean budgets by flexing their feminine charms. When women went out on the town, they didn’t pay for food, drink, or tickets to dance halls. Men “treated” them. In return, writes Peiss, young women “offered sexual favors of varying degrees, ranging from flirtatious companionship to sexual intercourse.”
A skeptical view of treating—one shared by Addams and her fellow reformers—saw the practice as nothing more than prostitution. But treating was more than a cynical exchange. It was a way for a girl to prove her allure in front of her friends, to feel wanted in a world that considered immigrant workers the lowest of the low. It was also practical: For many, treating was the only way they could afford any amusement at all. Women’s wages were so low that there was little or nothing left for fun. Treating provided a bit of much-needed pleasure to lives that were cramped and trampled on in so many other ways.
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Inside a dance hall, a charity girl might make out with a man she had just met. She might link her arms with friends and sing along to the latest popular tune. And she might dance in a way that would make a wealthier woman reach for her fan.
By the turn of the century, explains the historian Elisabeth I. Perry, dance styles had evolved from boisterous waltzes and polkas to “animal dances” like the Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, and Kangaroo Dip. These “tough dances” were fast-paced and unabashedly sexual, with dips, hugs, and patterns that drew partners into close physical contact.
They were also borrowed, the product of African-American musical and dance forms that made their way north and were adopted by vaudevillians and minstrel performers. For years, white performers had used blackface and minstrelsy as masks, assuming “blackness” as a cover while they questioned authority and pushed social boundaries. And while tough dancers didn’t necessarily pretend to be black, they benefitted from music and dance forms that gave them permission to let loose and thumb their noses at the status quo.
The Great Migration wasn’t yet in full swing. But already African-Americans were making their way north, away from increasingly severe Jim Crow laws and toward new economic opportunities in cities like Chicago and New York. At the same time, immigrants flooded America’s shores and cities. By 1910, over 21 percent of Illinois’s population and 30 percent of New York’s was foreign-born.
Bigoted arguments against both African-Americans and foreigners were similar (and, truth be told, they’ve never really changed). Both groups would overcrowd American cities. They posed threats to “American” jobs and the morality of “American” (read: white) women. In response to those fears, nativists pushed for literacy tests and quotas. And they used a growing body of data and information collected by Progressive reformers as evidence for why it was important to keep foreigners—with their slums and their filthy children and their dance halls—out.
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Jane Addams was ahead of the curve in her attitudes and public stances on both immigration and race. But dance halls were another story. “The saloon dance hall is one of the great pitfalls of the city,” she told audiences at her lectures, “and we try to oppose it in particular.” She didn’t just speak about these pitfalls; she wrote about their dangers in The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, her great opus on the drives of young people.
For Addams, dance halls perverted the natural appetites of the young and misdirected passions that would be better served in wholesome amusements at carefully chaperoned settlement houses. And as America’s most revered reformer, her writing helped propel a movement to stamp out dance halls and tough dancing altogether.
For reformers, dance halls had it all: liquor, sex, social behavior that might be prostitution. Perry tells how groups like the Committee on Amusements and Vacation Resources of Working Girls worked to first characterize the goings-on at such halls, then advocate for regulation and public-private partnerships to offer more decent alternatives.
Ironically, the supposed evils of dance hall amusements became amusements themselves. The historian Leslie Fishbein explains that early movies used dance halls as the background for stories about fallen women who lose their innocence after being drugged and forced into prostitution. And books like From Dance Hall to White Slavery: The World’s Greatest Tragedy turned lurid, supposedly true tales of dance hall debauchery into entertainment that masqueraded as a call for social reform.
The 1912 book offered “[t]hrilling stories of actual experiences of actual experiences of girls who were lured from innocence into lives of degradation by men and women engaged in a regularly organized WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC.” Inside were sensationalistic stories of innocent country girls gone astray and flushed, seductive shop girls looking for their next catch.
The association of “white slavery”—the favorite bugaboo of the age—with dance halls underlines the ways in which freely mixing working-class men and women stoked wealthier Americans’ fears of immigration, race, and sex. Prostitution rings did exist at the time, and both prostitutes and procurers could be found at dance halls. But the term elicited fears of innocent white women preyed on by immigrant pimps who forced them into lives of vice.
Wealthy white Americans, powerless in the face of open borders and changing social mores, saw dance halls as a convenient stand-in for the changes that threatened them. Slowly, they worked to blot out the sins within. Licensing campaigns and liquor laws changed dance halls’ offerings. Reformers never called for the eradication of the halls themselves, but they brought government regulation inside. They even opened dance halls of their own: chaste ballrooms that banned tough dancing and alcohol.
Of course, they never succeeded. Public worry about charity girls morphed into concerns about flappers, then bobby-soxers, then hippies, and now Millennials. Dance hall reform morphed into attempts to regulate everything from pinball to rap lyrics, video games to raves. The Progressive Era is long gone, but public spaces where race, sex, and youth intersect—be they physical or Internet-based—still provoke outcries from worried, wealthy whites.
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Charity girls blurred the boundaries between pleasure, premarital sex, and prostitution. They did it of their own volition. And by all accounts, they enjoyed themselves tremendously.
“By actual count, one hundred girls and boys were intoxicated,” wrote one investigator of a 1912 ball. “Many of the drunken girls were sitting in corners of the hall on the laps of their equally intoxicated partners, who were hugging and kissing them.” Was that ball a harbinger of society’s downfall or a really excellent night out?
To peer into the world of the single, poor city girl’s social life is an exercise in reading between the lines. Sadly, these women left behind few accounts of their own. Who, indeed, documents every wild night of their youth?
There were other reasons these women’s stories were forgotten. Many could not read or write; others had no time to tell their stories. And except for those who would have taken away their only pleasures, nobody thought their lives were worth documenting.
Instead, most of the information we have about treating, dance halls, and charity girls comes from reformers who wanted to do away with their amusements altogether. Settlement workers like Addams commissioned studies of their social lives. Vice commissions gathered evidence of their supposed iniquity. But none of them asked the women—or themselves—what those dates and dances meant.
Outside observers delved into the hows and whys of whats of the raucous social menace. Unfortunately, they never bothered to ask the participants what it felt like to press close to a thrilling date or let go of the merciless worries of too little money and too much work for just one night. And so we are left with their tales of excess and moral downfall where we might have stories of uplift, enjoyment, and emancipation.
After all, one person’s crime against decency might be another person’s best night ever. What reformers saw as “the most indecent advances” may have been welcome expressions of interest. When they saw the Turkey Trot, a dance denounced by the Vatican, and the scandalously close Grizzly Bear, reformers saw the equivalent of twerking and pole dancing—much-derided and misunderstood expressions of physicality that stoked their fears.
Reformers like Addams saw “toughness” where there was joy, moral downfall where there was rare pleasure. For a young woman, a dance could be a chance to get close to a beau. A treat could be a chance to experience the physical intimacy that was the opposite of a grinding life behind a sewing machine or in a railroad apartment. And a night on the town could be a chance to treat herself in a world that reduced her to a “charity girl.”
We may never know what these practices meant to women who history has largely overlooked. But, ironically, the person who came closest to the real meaning of treating and tough dances might be Addams herself. “As these overworked girls stream along the street, the rest of us see only the self-conscious walk, the giggling speech, the preposterous clothing,” she wrote. “And yet through the huge hat, with its wilderness of bedraggled feathers, the girl announces to the world that she is here. She demands attention to the fact of her existence, she states that she is ready to live, to take her place in the world.”