“On With The Dance ...” - Historic Balls in Manitoba

by Lillian GibbonsDavid McDowell

Manitoba Pageant, Summer 1976, Volume 21, Number 4

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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“BRILLIANT!” “The Opening Manitoba Ball a Most Successful Event” “The Handsome New Hotel Thronged With Citizens Last Night” “Many Visitors Present From the South and West” “Who Were There and How Some of the Ladies Were Attired.”

Thus proclaimed the headlines of the 1 January 1892 social page of the Manitoba Daily Free Press. Accompanied by a quarter page drawing of the dancers, entitled ’A peep at the Ball Room,’ the description waxed eloquent over those in attendance, the music, the room and what some of the ladies wore. A sample is quoted here:

... the joys of the dance needed no flow of wine last night and this morning as the well polished floors of the ball room of the Manitoba Hotel, hitherto unhonoured by any but the heavy boots of artificers and workmen and the light tread of Manager Cunning and his men, were beaten by myriad tripping toes in the light and dainty dance. Old men and maidens, matrons and youths, figured in the “square” but stately dances, young lads and lasses drank their fill from the overbrimming joy that Terpsichore offered in the waltzes, polkas and gallops. None but the pen of the poet can describe the joys of the dance, and for him that hath a foot of “11” or more, it were an impossible task, for he would ever be treading on the ladies’ dainty toes, for the latitude of their mercy could not cover such awkward longitude. But when the sour old bachelor had his corns trodden on, the soft, sweet smile of blushing beauty chased the twinge away.”

The Dresses ... Miss N. Fairchild - Costume of cream crepe cloth, beautifully trimmed with gold and cream gimp; diamond ornaments. Mrs. Alex Macdonald - Heavy light green satin skirt with white chiffon trimmings; train long and trimmed with the same material; diamonds and flowers. Miss K. O’Donahue - Heavy cream Morveilleux silk; princess style; crystallized flowers.

Similar flowing phrases could be found in the newspapers following the opening of the Fort Garry Hotel on Broadway, 10 December 1913. Both Winnipeg papers used the term “Brilliant,” and printed long lists of the ladies of the Nanton, Rogers, Waugh, Dennistoun, Allan, Brydges and other society families of the decade. Lady MacMillan wore white brocade, and the sponsor of the dance, Mrs. Douglas Cameron, president of the Victorian Order of Nurses, was gowned in violet charmeuse. The buffet tables had a gift for each lady - a silver spoon with the hotel’s crest. The Grand Trunk Pacific railway hotel had placed their order for the silverware from Sheffield, England with the local firm of Porte and Markle. The crystal chandeliers beamed down on the “perfect” dance floor and the assembled guests, among them Sir Daniel MacMillan, lieutenant governor of Manitoba. The dances began with the Lancers, and the ’dainty souvenir programs’ listed twenty dances. Peacock blue drapes graced the windows, and the hotel orchestra provided the music from the musicians’ gallery. The Free Press told that the Winnipeg citizens could be as proud of the new Broadway Hotel as the Greeks were of the Parthenon. It called attention to the “Minarets of golden tinted copper standing in relief against the western sky,” then added incongruously that the hotel was similar to the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa “of the Mediaeval French period.”

One can get some feeling for the era when the newspaper ads tell of hotel rooms at $2 for a single room with a ’detached’ bath, $3 for a room with a private bath, and $4 and $6 for a double. Afternoon tea was a feature from 4 to 6 p.m. Christmas season turkeys were listed at 25 cents a pound, wild ducks at 70 cents a pair and claret was $3.75 a dozen quart bottles. There were statements on how the cost of living was high, and there was a threatened postal strike.

The era was recreated in part by the Manitoba Historical Society’s first annual Dalnavert Ball. On 24 October 1975 the ball room again resounded to music of the pre 1930 times, the elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen sampled punch, conversed with the special guests such as Sir Hugh John Macdonald’s grandson, Hugh Gainsford, and Lieutenant-Governor and Mrs. John McKeag, and waltzed and polkaed to the music of Pete Couture’s band. Cutaway jackets, satin gowns with low decoletage, white gloves, and military uniforms made the proper atmosphere for such a step back in time. The same chandeliers and now crimson drapes made a fitting surrounding for the graceful dancing of the Royal Scottish Country Dancers. Their swinging kilts, the piping, and the invitation to join in a waltz cotillion heightened everyone’s enjoyment. The hotel management outdid themselves in the cold plate served at the conclusion of the evening. The ’historic’ ball was deemed a success by all, and the Manitoba Historical Society is now planning a second such event. What better way to start a winter season than by dancing to music that recalls the high society events of the late Victorian era when Dalnavert was one of Winnipeg’s society mansions?

Page revised: 29 November 2014