Digging Under the House 2: May I Have This Dance

Personal archaeology is fun but I’m getting the feeling that it’s going to take as long as real archaeology to go through all the finds. When I pull an item out of the dirt and get that little thrill, it’s a great feeling but it’s fleeting. Getting the items cleaned up and in a preservable state is a longer lasting good feeling. It takes time and patience, well worth it in the end though.

Essex closeup

My technique with cleaning my paper finds starts with letting it sit in my work room to acclimate for a few weeks. This is especially important for paper items because they could be slightly damp, as mine where, and working on them in this weakened state could cause more damage. After acclimating, I then brushed the surface dirt off and wiped the cards down carefully with a dry cotton cloth. I repeated the process if it looked like I could get more dirt off. A light touch is a virtue when working with paper.

Dance cards 3

It was amazing how well the dirt came off the items revealing notes written in the lightest pencil. I was most excited to find cards advertising social club dances and balls held in San Francisco from 1911-1914. I’m a fan of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and even though these are from the tail end of the latter, they still echo the genteel time that was rapidly disappearing.

San Francisco was quickly becoming the modern city we know today and there was opportunity to be had. From the plethora of club cards found only in my building alone, I’m sure there were enterprising people that had a lot of fun and made some profit from socializing. Some of the clubs named on the cards hint at optimism in the city that was rising after the 1906 earthquake. The Jolly Life Club is my favorite. The Philomathians sound like a blast.

Dance card 2

These people may have met in the basement. 1911 Photo from the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Some of the cards are actual numbered tickets and many were torn in half. This bolsters my guess that after-parties were held in the basement of my building. I suspect guests had to produce their dance/ball ticket to get into the after-party. In addition to this clue, I’ve also found tallies of guests, a torn playing card coat-check system and shopping lists for party supplies. Much too much beer for just the occupants. I love the idea that young people may have met the love of their life in the dark, cold basement of the building.

Dance card 3

Looking at photos from the period, the mood doesn’t seem to match the content of the announcements. The picture below is from 1910, but they look so Victorian. The cards almost seem like they were in the Roaring ’20s. Were there still chaperones at the time of these parties? Or was the basement used for wild after-parties that no respectable person would ever be seen at? So many questions in need of answers.

Photo from the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Thanks for reading and commenting.


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