The Grand Purim Balls of the Late 1800s

March 17, 2022 | Jenna Weissman Joselit
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The social calendar for many Jewish Americans in the late 19th century included a variety of significant communal events: Hanukkah pageants, gala dinners, charity fairs, and so forth. As Jenna Weissman Joselit notes, “the high point of the social season” was the “grand annual public soiree” held in honor of Purim. Versions of this lavish party took place in cities across the country; New York City’s Purim ball routinely drew as many as 2,500 celebrants and was covered by major papers including the New York Times. Joselit suggests that, among other things, these parties served to counter the notion that Jews were perpetually “melancholy, glum, and solemn.”

The spectacular setting in which the annual Purim ball was held—a “blaze of light and color”—contributed to the merriment. In the 1860s, the committee on arrangements transformed New York’s staid Academy of Music into a “Palace of Persepolis,” replete with “Oriental flourishes” of carpets, “rainbow-colored” drapery, tassels, cords, and crimson banners, vermillion-colored palm leaves, and gilded columns. Though it harked back to antiquity, the mise-en-scène wasn’t without the latest bells and whistles, either. “Brilliant” jets of gaslight framed the words “Merry Purim,” which, illuminated, hung in midair, suspended from the ceiling.

Equally extravagant, fanciful costumes upped the ante. While some of the female guests came dressed as Queen Esther, far more took their cue from, and channeled, Madame Pompadour. Harlequins, dominoes in all sorts of color combinations, clowns, and Columbines were a sight to behold, as was the “democratic” mix of lords and ladies, Irishmen and “darkies,” men dressed as women and women garbed in “outré men’s attire”—a symbol, related a reporter named Damocles, of the “‘coming woman,’ whose advent will one day astonish mankind.”

A spirited sense of occasion also prevailed in the formal procession that inaugurated the proceedings come 10 p.m. In 1865, for instance, a cavalcade of cooks was led by the caterer who, dressed in an apron bearing the words “kosher” in Hebrew letters on its front, and wielding a huge fork, kicked things off. The following year, the Goddess of Liberty did the honors, marking the “victory of the Progressive Spirit over Prejudice.” Queen Esther was also on hand. Resplendent in a chariot and looking “extremely well for her age,” she joined hands and hearts with her consort, Prince Purim, as the crowd, over a thousand strong, looked on approvingly.

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