'A delightful winter residence': the civilising role of the ballroom in early Washington D.C.

Arriving in Washington City in October 1803, senatorial wife and future First
Lady Louisa Adams was shocked to find a scene of ‘utter desolation’ – no roads,
no bridges and scarcely any buildings. The new capital city of America in no way
resembled the bustling capital cities of Europe, and was scorned by Americans
and foreign visitors alike.

Yet in time, Washington City became ‘a delightful winter residence’. Its
transformation from a wilderness to a civilised city was aided by the constant
‘Balls, Dinners, Parties and Dejeunées Dansants’ during the winter Congressional
season. Such events were held at great trouble and expense for all involved,
sometimes even at risk of personal safety, but they were essential to the
sociability of the city’s elite.

Examining letters, diaries and newspaper accounts of early Washington
D.C., this paper explores how the ballroom allowed early Washingtonians to
create a new elite American identity, allowing society to project an image of
civility and political legitimacy for both domestic and foreign observers.
Additionally, this paper considers how Washingtonians used the ballroom to
dissociate their society from old-world Europe even as they sought to emulate
their European counterparts in their dances.

Samantha Sing Key
Author affiliation
Independent Scholar