In 1911, as a unique way to celebrate the
birthday of George Washington, Mabel Lee, alumnus and
physical education professor at Coe, staged the college's first
Colonial Ball. The evening of February 22 was set aside as the night
for an all-girls banquet and dance. Half the coeds dressed as George
Washington, while the rest costumed themselves as Martha, with full
satin dresses adorned with lace and hoop skirts. In her book,
Memories of a Bloomer Girl, Ms. Lee recalls that even though it was
accepted only as "folk games," the event "became a great bone of
contention, enthusiastically supported by the great majority of women
students and faculty who, year after year, begged for its continuation."
In 1917 the Ball organizers introduced two
major innovations. Because of increased emphasis on elaborate
costumes, they decided to have everyone dress in period costumes for
both the dinner and ball. It was also in 1917 that the dinners
inaugurated a "toast program" as part of the celebration, toasts that
for many years were arranged by Ethel Outland, professor of
English. Perhaps in this same year the decision was made to elect
one senior woman to represent George Washington.
The 10th annual Colonial Ball was
covered thoroughly in the Cosmos. About 200 women gathered in
the dining hall of Voorhees Hall and feasted on a large and sensational
meal. At the conclusion of the banquet, the toast mistress, Ethel
Outland, introduced a series of toasts given by coeds on the
characteristics of women of the past, including Pilgrim, Civil War, and
suffragette examples. Then, Thelma Beatty, the senior girl elected by
all the ladies to represent George Washington, was presented, and "he"
had the honor of selecting Mary Hale, dressed as Martha, as "his"
escort. It was at this time that the YWCA, co-sponsors of the event
with the Women's Athletic Association, presented their newly elected
The celebration then moved to the
Gymnasium (later known as the Women's Gymansium, the Little Theatre,
and finally, the T.U.B.), which was decorated in red, white and blue.
Several members of the physical education department performed a
ballet. Then, all the couples were invited to dance to the sounds of
the Coe Orchestra, playing minuets, waltzes, and other 18th
century dance pieces. The night ended with the Grand March, led by
George and Martha Washington.
Despite its emphasis on a respect for the
past, the Colonial Ball underwent several significant transformations
in the 1920s. For the first time ballroom dancing was mixed with
the more stately dances of the early Republic. And then there was
the arrival of bobbed hair-which forced many participants to resort to
powdered wigs. At various times in the 1920s and 30s, the
evening's program would include performances of colonial music, solo
dancing, and dramatizations for narrative dances composed by the
students. For many years the dancing was under the director of
Ethel Ryan, who was appointed head of the department of physical
education for women in 1918.
While some may find it odd that men were not
included in this celebration, the young ladies apparently preferred an
all-female dance, as evident in this Cosmos article describing
preparations for the 1921 Colonial Ball: "Once a year the men of the
College find that they are not indispensable. The fair damsels plunge
into an orgy of costume and date making about which, if questioned,
they reply sweetly that the mere man is not in on this."
Colonial Ball was held in 1961, 50 years after the first observance of
Washington's birth. As reported in the February 23, 1961, Cosmos,
"This year's ball was an exceptional one because of the reception
honoring the dance soloists and elected George and Martha Washingtons
since 1911 when the dance began...the ball ended royally with a
reception for the honored guests. A beautiful three-tiered cake
with colonial dancers and a gold number fifty on top was enjoyed." This
final ball was a lovely tribute, not only to the birthday of one of our
country's founders, but also to the many women at Coe who made this
celebration possible for half a century.