1895: John Stoutner wins a waltz award

Sepia Saturday 390: Seventh in a series on piecing together the origins of my maternal grandmother Elizabeth (Stoutner) Laurence’s fashion sense.

When I was a teenager, my maternal grandmother Elizabeth (Stoutner) Laurence taught me to dance the Charleston. I figured she learned it from her peers during the 1920s — when she sported a short “flapper” haircut and rebelliously eloped with my grandfather.

Passionate Waltz by artist Ferdinand Von Reznicek (circa 1900). In 1895, my maternal grandmother’s Uncle John Stoutner won a waltz contest at a company picnic — and later ran a dance school in their Gloversville, Fulton Co., N.Y. home town. Image: Susan Lenox/Flickr

Yet it’s possible Liz was coached years earlier by her talented, quick-stepping Uncle John H. Stoutner.

For not only was her Uncle John a milliner who operated a ladies fashion store in Gloversville, Fulton Co., N.Y.

In his late twenties, he was also an award-winning ballroom dancer!

A coveted prize

My first hint of Uncle John’s acumen on the dance floor was the Aug. 19, 1895 newspaper article below from the Gloverville Daily Leader about the Booth & Company annual picnic.

Excerpt from The Big Booth Picnic (Daily Leader, Aug. 19, 1895).  (Click to enlarge). Uncle John Stoutner won the first gentleman’s prize in the waltzing contest. Source: Old Fulton New York Postcards

The lively story describes a sudden thunderstorm that sent everyone running for cover. Then — once the clouds parted — there was a dance contest in a pavilion so crowded the judges could barely make their way around.

Despite the crush that “considerably incommoded” the dancers, Uncle John managed to make an impression because he was awarded the “first gentleman’s prize” for waltz — a set of pearl opera glasses.

The “first lady’s prize,” a gold chain, went to Miss Nellie Dodge — but the article doesn’t say whether she was Uncle John’s dance partner.

A seasoned dance enthusiast

The waltzing competition was one of the highlights of the annual Booth & Co. picnic –along with tug-of-war contests and other sporting events that were detailed in the full article.

Alas, no photo of Uncle John. But he must have been waltzing for some time if he was good enough to come in first among all the men who swept their partners around the dance floor.

I wondered whether his German heritage influenced his choice of dance style. An article by competitive ballroom dancer Patsy Holden in American Ethnography Semimonthly had this to say about the waltz:

Beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing into the early twentieth century, the Waltz enjoyed almost exclusive popularity in the ballrooms of both Europe and America. The Waltz, which is from the German word “walzen” and means “to revolve,” describes a graceful and romantic couple’s dance in ¾ time.

Regardless of how my grandmother’s Uncle John became a dance enthusiast, he clearly continued to cultivate his talent after winning the waltz prize. Because four years later a Daily Leader article, dated Sept. 27, 1899, announced that Professor John Stoutner had opened a dance school!

More on this new revelation in the next post. Meanwhile, please visit the posts of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

© 2017 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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21 thoughts on “1895: John Stoutner wins a waltz award”

  1. If he opened a school, he must have been good at other dances too. I am enjoying reading about a different segment of society. My ancestors lived simple country lives, and if they danced it was not in competition.

  2. A great story! The waltz fad was a combination of the infectious music and the craze of dancing with a partner. Earlier dancing was mostly in a group setting like quadrilles, contra, and square dances. I suspect Uncle John and Miss Nellie had different partners judged less talented than themselves. I wonder if the dancers dressed in white tie and tails and long gowns. The Great War of 1914-18 pushed Germanic music (German and Austrian) off its domination of British and American culture. Musicians dropped German names and programmed more patriotic music to avoid any connection to the enemy. The waltz craze gets replaced by the rise of ragtime, jazz, and new dance styles with fewer rules.

    1. Thanks, Mike. Great explanation of how and when the waltz craze peaked. This also explains why Uncle John waltzed at the turn of the century, but my next-generation grandmother did the Charleston during the Roaring Twenties.

  3. My Mom and Dad took ballroom dance lessons and taught all of us kids to dance, too. The heck of it was not many boys my age knew how to do all the dances – the waltz, the two-step, the rhumba, samba, tango, etc. Some sort of knew how to do the mambo because it was newly popular in ‘my day’. But I did have one boyfriend who wanted to learn how to dance so he could really dance with me and came to our house so my Dad could show him the steps. What fun that was! Short lived, though. He was a good dancer, but lacked in other areas. Oh well.

  4. I think the Waltz is less a dance as Poetry-with-legs……and anybody who can perform it well deserves reward. Especially in the middle of a thunderstorm!

  5. It always amazes me how something as simple as a photograph or a newspaper cutting can transport you back in time to a different age. Talk of kings, queens, presidents, or battles pale into insignificance as far as real history is concerned compared to a dip into real family history.

    1. I totally agree! Perhaps it’s the challenge of finding all of the details the makes family history discoveries particularly rewarding.

  6. How wonderful to be so good that he won competitions! I’ve always wanted to learn the Charleston. I fear it is now too late for my knees!

  7. A man after my own heart! I am an avid watcher of BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing” and I would love to have been taught how to dance the Charleston – what a super Gran. A lovely post!

  8. I like that dance picture of the couple. One of my favorite movies is “Strictly Ballroom”, an Australian film about ballroom dancing. I was never much of a dancer, but maybe in my next life I will dance and dance.

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