Pittsburgh’s Shocking Early Steps


Pittsburgh-Bicentennial-FeatureWe’ve been looking at things you don’t know about 1816. That was the year Pittsburgh got big enough to become a city, relying less on the state to run things.

So far, we’ve learned:

  • There was no summer that year.
  • The City of Bridges had no bridges yet.

Now, we find something really unexpected:

Public Love-Making

Yes, public love-making. The scandalous fad swept across the world from Vienna, Paris, London, and quickly reached even frontier towns like Pittsburgh .

They gave it a name. They called it the Waltz.

The what?

The Waltz.

We could laugh at such silly prudishness. How could the people of 1816 think the Waltz was provocative?

Fact is, we are probably more prudish than they were.

The Waltz we know now was not the same thing then.

It was slow, intimate and sensuous. The dancers gazed continuously into each others eyes, oblivious to others around them. Their hands went where they felt natural.


How to Do It

The recognized master of all dance was an Englishman, Thomas Wilson. He wrote the book, literally, on the proper way to Waltz. Critics felt the proper way was . . . well, improper.

Wilson said it should begin with a very brief side-by-side promenade across the ballroom floor.

Then, the couple took each other in one of several holds. Often, they faced opposite directions, hip to hip. One arm stretched around the aboveheadpartner’s waist, and the other arched overhead holding the partner’s hand. In that posture, they rotated very slowly, their gaze fixed on one another. That was the part that probably made Mother fan herself, Father thump his cane and ministers look to the ceiling.

The dance proceeded. It became more energetic, the music tempo increased and the dancers worked a little hop into the step. The posture would  change — in one option the man held the lady’s hands behind her back.

The routine climaxed even more energetically. In the hopping steps, the mutual gaze might slip a little, but they would return to it as they resumed the pirouette.

The man could give her his full attention because he did not have to maneuver in traffic. The only floorcraft required was keeping one’s place in the circle. The movement, in line of direction, would be slow, stately and constant.

That makes for great romantic cinematography. Modern directors and choreographers resurrected that original Waltz. See examples  by clicking on the photo below.


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That was all far more intimate than the country dances, minuets and cotillons of previous generations.

You can see that by clicking on the photo below. It is perhaps unfair to view it after seeing the breathtaking romance offered  above. So, do not laugh, or judge it too harshly. Oh, what the Hell. Go ahead, laugh.

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Dancing to Distinction

Who did these dances?

That’s the interesting Pittsburgh part.

Traditionally, the social upper crust distinguished themselves from lesser-bred humans by building houses big enough to dance in, dictating the “proper” dance and making sure their children learned it so they could display themselves as good marriage material.

The Nevilles, Scaifes and other well-heeled families did that in Pittsburgh, holding at bey the new moneyed class of merchants, factory owners, attorneys, doctors, etc.

That middle class aspired to make it into the upper crust and also wanted to separate themselves further from common laborers. Dance and other cultural displays could do that.

It was the middle class Mr. Boudet  addressed when he advertised his dances and dance lessons  in Pittsburgh Gazettes of 1816.


Mr. Boudet’s first Practising Ball will be on Saturday Evening the 26th instant, at his School Room.

N.B. No gentlemen can be admitted without being introduced by a lady with whom Mr. B. is acquainted; nor can any gentleman be permitted to dance in boots. Admission tickets for gentlemen to be had at any time of Mr. B.

Price One Dollar, pupils half price.


Mr. Boudet, respectfully informs the Ladies and Gentlemen of Pittsburgh and its vicinity, that he will give a Ball this evening, (Friday the 24th inst.) at the court-house, at half past seven o’clock, and will be conducted as they are in our populous cities viz—the ladies to be invited, and gentlemen to pay one dollar on their admission—understood, that such gentlemen as are strangers to the professor, must come introduced by some person with whom he is acquainted, without which they cannot be admitted.

N.B. No gentlemen allowed to dance in boots. Tickets to be had at the door—price one dollar.


What it Cost

One dollar was the equivalent of just under $17 today. Of course, if you expected to get onto the dance floor and gaze into the eyes of your beloved, you would have to invest in a pair of dress shoes and dance lessons. Instruction cost upwards of $85 in today’s money, depending on how much you tried Mr. Boudet’s patience.

Part of the reason the Waltz became so popular so quickly is that countless French dance instructors had spread over the Earth. They

promenaded out of France during problems associated with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

The Waltz originated in one of the German provinces and then was refined into somewhat different forms in Vienna and Paris.

It’s lusty origins may well have been influenced by the stress of war and revolution. There was, for instance, a modest baby boomlet in the United States 9 months after the Twin Towers fell.

Charles Darwin would have seen it as a human instinct to perpetuate the species.

It’s hard to tell, but it does not seem Pittsburgh’s population was affected much by its 1816 introduction to public love-making. In 1810, the Census  counted 4,768 Pittsburghers. It counted 7,248 in 1820.

That’s an increase, but the population had been doubling every 10 years before that. Maybe the 1820 Census takers were too busy gazing into each other’s eyes and were not as diligent in their headcounts.

Dancing to Extinction

World stress levels must have diminished over the next decade or two, because dance historians say the intimate Waltz disappeared from ballroom floors.

It evolved into the fast-moving, twirling Victorian, task-oriented Viennese Waltz . Then, in the 20th Century, it became a sedate, graceful box-step.

The Waltzing man turned his focus away from his partner’s  eyes. He was too concerned about managing traffic and his next move (on the dance floor). She could look at him briefly with thrilled eyes, but coyly look away. What other gentlemen might there be? Who’s watching me?

The Waltz became more demanding and more about playing games.

What to Wear? What to Wear?

How would you dress if you were transported back in time to 1816? Let’s assume you’ve materialized in a mansion and your not the gardner or a maid. Click on the photo below to see what your help might press for you before you visited someone with an even bigger mansion.

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