Holly Ball: Hartford’s Debutantes are Presented

“The Holly Ball was originated in 1950 by a small group of congenial friends for the purpose of honoring their daughters at a formal and private dance, with no commercial or civic obligations.”

That sentence intrigued me as I stumbled upon the records of the Holly Ball (Ms 73446). I continued to read and soon learned of a Hartford tradition, how it reflected the societal norms of the 1950s and 1960s, and how it fell victim to changing times.

Every December, between 1950 and 1969, a select group of young women from the Hartford area were presented to society by their parents. The Holly Ball was held (until the final two years) at the prestigious Hartford Club. The girls all wore white dresses and, apropos of the season, carried bouquets of holly. Each girl wore a different dress, but all wore the same style white gloves. The evening included dinner, a receiving line, the Grand March, and the Father’s Waltz. A supper was held following the dance.

The records in the collection date to 1954. They include a history of the event, descriptions of the various committees, and reports of the committee chairmen (yes, though all the ball was run by women, the term chairmen was used consistently). There was a committee for each aspect of the ball, ranging from dresses and decorations to invitations and ushers. Records for later years include lists of Holly Ball girls. When the girls were first recommended for a year’s ball, the list was confidential. On the days surrounding the ball, however, the names and photographs of all the girls would be printed in The Hartford Courant, The Hartford Times, and the West Hartford News.

In addition to the girls being honored, those receiving invitations would be the Holly Ball girls from the previous two years, Oxford  School and Chaffee  School classmates of the current girls, ushers, parents, grandparents, and house guests.  The current girls were also allowed to invite a certain number of friends to attend. The number of friends varied each year, but the sponsors tried to maintain a ratio of about two boys to every girl.

Maintaining the ball traditions meant that the records varied little from year to year. Over time, though, the chairmen shifted from signing their husbands’ names to signing their own names. In 1963, holding the ball on a Friday night was cause for one chairman to write to Hartford’s Bishop. She requested special dispensation for any Catholics who might be attending, as the main course would be meat and not fish. It was granted.

Renovations of the Hartford Club’s ballroom moved the event to the Statler Hilton in 1968 and 1969. In 1970 the original plan was to hold it there once again. A list of 42 girls was compiled, with five on the waiting list. By the middle of June only 16 girls had accepted. Chairmen were withdrawing. Later in the month they were down to 14 girls and switched the location back to the Hartford Club, a smaller venue. At the beginning of July another two girls withdrew. It would not be financially feasible to hold the ball with fewer than 14 girls. After much consideration, the 1970 Holly Ball was cancelled. “My personal feeling,” the 1970 chairman wrote, “is that these troubled times are not here to stay, and that the Holly Ball can certainly be successful when our young people are more settled.”

The changes in society were reflected in the schools many of the girls attended. Oxford merged with the Kingswood School in 1969. The next year Chaffee was reunited with Loomis.

Though the ball itself fell victim to society’s changes, the sponsors maintained their desire for confidentiality and their hope that the tradition would live on. To maintain the memory of the ball, the records were donated to the Connecticut Historical Society in 1970. For confidentiality reasons, the records were closed to the public for 30 years.

Today few women sign their husband’s name. I imagine it would be difficult to find a pair of white gloves. Catholics may eat meat on Fridays. And whether or not our young people are more settled, coming of age ceremonies such as the Holly Ball have faded from the landscape. Thanks, though, to the tradition-minded women who organized  the ball, we have not entirely lost the Holly Ball.  It’s records will remain open for future generations to study.

Did you ever attend the Holly Ball? Did you attend a similar event in Connecticut? Do you have memories of formal events in Connecticut during the 1950s and 1960s? We would love to hear your story!

Please come visit, too!


1 thought on “Holly Ball: Hartford’s Debutantes are Presented

  1. So interesting and actually nostalgic for me to read this! I didn’t grow up in CT, but I was a similar “coming out” candidate in 1968. When I refused, it created a wave of tension and anger within my family that lasted for a few years. I never regretted my decision and I hope that all young girls have the opportunity to question the gender and social/cultural roles society and their families have assigned them. But on a less personal note, it is wonderful that the chairMEN had history in mind and donated the papers to The Connecticut Historical Society instead of the dumpster. We are all the richer for comparing our lives to ones lived not even a lifetime ago.

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