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Jane Addams’s Crusade Against Victorian “Dancing Girls”

Jane Addams, a leading Victorian-era reformer, believed dance halls were “one of the great pitfalls of the city.”

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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 Tragedyturned 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.