The description of the Red Ear Party, or Harvest Home Party, appears in Emily Rose Burt's Entertaining Made Easy (New York, 1919). It was not a full-scale fancy dress ball, but an autumn/harvest-themed ball put on by, according to the book, a group of high school seniors as the opening event of their final year. Along with normal dancing of the era, it featured a series of novelty dances which were effectively low-key cotillions. Did the event really take place or was it imagined by Ms. Burt just for the book? Hard to say. But I'm impressed with the imagination and industry either displayed by the actual students or expected by Ms. Burt to be achievable by high school kids. I wish my teenage school dances had been like this!
The red ear of the title was not a body part but an ear of corn. The significance is said to go back to a colonial tradition in which whoever found the red ear at a corn husking party would get to kiss the girl of his choice. (You can see an example of one red ear among a lot of normal ones here.) In this case, finding the (faked) red ear was used to select a "queen" for the party.
Following this theme, the invitations read:
“Oh, this time o' the year
You'll recall the red ear
(It will never go out o' date);
So the members of "twenty"
Have planned fun a-plenty
At a regular Harvest Home fête—
The decorations were autumn-themed (leaves, ears of corn, red and orange balloons and lanterns, etc.), the dance cards were shaped like red ears of corn, and the light supper "consisted merely of peach ice cream with sugared popcorn on top, served on grape leaves, nut macaroons, tiny pumpkin tarts and fruit punch.”
The real area of interest for me, of course, was the dancing, and how a series of mini-cotillions ("novelty dances") could be adapted to a particular event and worked into a normal dance program of the late 1910s, even by a group of teenagers with modest resources.
For the program in general, while we don't know what these students thought of as their normal dances, one can hazard a guess that they would likely have included waltz, foxtrot, and one-step. There was a supper dance midway through the party, with the novelty dances interspersed before and after it. And what were the novelties? Here's the list:
- The Corn Stalk
- The Scarecrow Skitter
- Farmerettes Fancy
- Popcorn Waltz
- Orchard One-step
- Pumpkin Pie Walk
- Red Ear Dance
- Harvest Home Revue
Taking them one at a time, here are quick summaries:
The Corn Stalk was a sort of comic grand march, with people "stalking stiffly around" ("stalking", ha, get it?) before it dissolved into a one-step.
In the Scarecrow Skitter, a scarecrow was placed in the middle of the room with some crow feathers attached and as the dancers passed by, the boys were supposed to grab the feathers as favors for their partners. The scarecrow ended up rather the worse for wear.
The Farmerettes Fancy was a ladies' choice dance, with favors of small farm tools for the girls to give to the boys.
The Popcorn Waltz involved the boys draping the girls with popcorn chains, which were as much food as favor. The music included popping noises and white confetti was thrown down from the balcony.
The Orchard One-Step was a small mixer figure: the girls stood behind a screen, holding their hands above it. The boys "picked peaches" by touching a hand to select a partner for a one-step.
The Pumpkin Pie Walk was a cakewalk with a pie as prize.
The Red Ear Dance involved everyone, blindfolded, selecting an ear of corn, with the girl who found the red ear (an ordinary ear with red paper wrapping it) crowned queen and receiving a bouquet of roses. The following dance was red-lit by special lights.
The Harvest Home Revue, which took place just before the supper dance, was the most "costumed" of the lot: dancers were given paper hats designed like fruits or vegetables "so that the whole room seemed to be filled with the "harvest." An additional brief chapter of the book includes descriptions of all the hats. You can read the full descriptions in the book at Project Gutenberg, so I won't include them all here, but a representative few include:
Tomato: Turkey red crepe paper or cotton skull cap with pointed green paper calyx and green upstanding stem of wire covered over with paper or cloth.
Corn: Green paper or cloth toboggan cap falling gracefully to one side With a long green or gold-colored silk tassel.
Watermelon: A crescent-shaped hat to be worn broadside suggesting a slice of watermelon from green paper border (fitting on hair) to pink center dotted with tiny bits of black court plaster to suggest seeds.
Overall, this is a great example of how to pull a complete themed party together and incorporate simple cotillion figures and other silliness without a lot of fuss and expense. It would be a perfectly reasonable party for a modern group of adults reenacting the 1910s to put on, and the general ideas of the novelty dances could also be adapted to other times of the year or holidays.