Sugar Plum Ball

Springfield society celebrates itself

Illinois Times

September 21, 1979

The splashing about of big frogs in small ponds is as much fun for the spectator as it must for the frogs. I certainly enjoyed watching from afar the hoopla—never the thing itself—surrounding the Springfield Art Association's Beaux Arts Ball.  

For those of us who made their social debuts in the back seats of borrowed Oldsmobiles, the Beaux Arts Ball is a little like an execution; it is a ritual that is at once fascinating and appalling, whose survival we can explain only by realizing that it appeals to deeper instincts than law or mercy.

 

For those who don't know it, the ball is held every year by the Springfield Art Association. Scheduled this year for November 24, it is the association's main fundraiser. It also marks the beginning of the Springfield social season—or what is left of it—and is the traditional affair at which the cream of local girlhood make their social debuts under the no doubt slightly damp eye of the Beaux Arts Queen.

 

The Art Association was founded in 1909, ostensibly to further the arts among the town's wayward young. In fact, the association exists to provide a mechanism by which social status may be calibrated and ratified. Bruce Campbell, a Springfield PR man who is also active in association affairs, wrote a scrapbook history of Sangamon County for the Bicentennial called Sangamon Saga. Campbell is the Boswell of Springfield's upper middle class. His book aims for comprehensiveness in only two areas: Springfield mayors (who are listed in a table with their dates of tenure) and Beaux Arts Ball queens.

 

There have been forty-five of the latter since the first one was crowned in 1930. (World War II interrupted the festivities for three years, which should give lie to the claim that stateside Americans did not suffer during the war.) Each is listed by Campbell, along with the names and genealogies of her parents ("Miss Hatch was the daughter of a pioneer Springfield family"); the theme of the ball ("Stars in Revue," "Hues of Artists' Blues"); the name of the dignitary—occasionally organizers were able to snag an idle governor, but in most years a mayor had to do—who presented her with her scepter; and the name of the orchestra that supplied the music (Mendell Riley, Wayne Kerr, and, marking the shift in generations that eventually penetrated even the recherche confines of the ball, the Rain Dear Army in 1967).

 

According to the association, the ball is intended as a tribute to those members who actively support its activities. More accurately. it's a chance for the members to celebrate being themselves. The queen and the ball committee are chosen from among those who (quoting our Boswell here) "consistently support the Springfield Art Association for a number of years through interest, volunteer service" ("It's not just for the high-class people," this year's queen explained to the press last May, "I see my mom do a lot of volunteer work") “and financial assistance”—which has led to the common assumption that the queenship can be bought.

 

There is a picture in Campbell's book taken at the 1949 ball, "Fairy Tale." It shows a polite Gov. Adlai Stevenson standing in tails on risers covered with what looks like tin foil while Queen Jeanne Lanphier stands next to him holding roses. On one side of the queen stands her court, each member wearing an incongruous medieval hat that looks like a dunce cap; opposite them are an equal number of much younger girls in costumes, a couple of them plainly bored, the rest gazing with apparent rapture at the queen and dreaming, perhaps, of the day when they too will have a chance to stand on tin foil risers and try to smile while rose thorns are digging into their bare forearms.

 

The amazing thing about this scene is that none of this adulation is really aimed at the queen herself. The honor actually is earned by the parents, not their daughter. But because bestowing such an honor on them would be unseemly, it is given to their daughter acting as stand-in. Unlike a beauty contestant, she is not there as reward for her beauty or her talent nor, as is the case with homecoming or prom queens, is she there because she is popular. The honor belongs to Mommy and Daddy.

 

What must it feel like, I wonder, being applauded for nothing except being somebody 's daughter? Or, in what I now regard as the more tantalizing question, why does everybody else applaud?

 

There have been women of talent stand on those risers in the last forty-eight years; a 1970s queen, if my information is correct, is now an attorney, and a 1950s queen is an accomplished Springfield developer. Did the rest survive to achieve things of value? Or did they at some point stop swimming long enough to sink without a trace into the whirlpool of club meetings, lunches at the club, and more volunteering?

 

The Copley papers have chronicled this rite since the first. Each year's coverage opens in the spring with an interview with that year's queen, a piece that's been written for so long now that it's acquired certain conventions of its own. The annual queen's interview traces its roots back to the days when it was thought one of journalism's functions was to keep the brutish lower classes informed of the doings of the local upper crust, in the hope that the latter would serve as examples to the former. It was perfected by Pauline Telford, who edited the women's pages before papers decided to put old whine in new bottles and call the women's pages “People” or "Take Two.”

 

This year's interview was, in the opinion of those of us who follow them, a classic. In it we learned to our relief that women have not changed as much as we have been led to believe by an hysterical press, that our new queen likes old-fashioned things, likes doors to be opened for her, isn't ready to split the bills, and wants only to set a table, not policy. The ball, she explained, is "something out of the ordinary. It's something you can't do every weekend. The same old stuff gets boring." Since the same old stuff for this queen and most of her predecessors includes skiing in the West ("I have as much fun going to the lodge and dressing up") we must assume that the ball is a wondrous, entrancing evening indeed. I begin to see why this year's edition has been called "Sugar Plum Ball."

 

Our queen also candidly admitted that she should be a different girl if she hadn't been raised on the west side of Springfield. I went to school at Springfield High School when it still was a west-side bastion, and I remember the kinds of girls who filled the Beaux Arts Courts as a race apart. They were—or so it seems now—always immaculately dressed, rarely did better than average in class, and always came back from Christmas vacations with suntans that they wore like badges. Their haughtiness was palpable; when they deigned to smile at the rest of us in the halls they looked like queens tossing coins to the rabble.

 

We used to think they were dumb, or had had their brains squeezed dry from reading Seventeen magazine. I think now it may have been that they were hollow inside, as if they'd spent their whole lives giving away parts of themselves to meet the expectations of others and no one had given them anything back. They were pampered, sure, but exploited too. I used to wonder if that explained their attachment to the protocols of their class, because they had nothing else to sustain them. I also used to think that that explained their almost giddy enthusiasm for high school and college; those were the only places they could lead their own lives for a bit instead of reliving Mommy's and Daddy's. In her interview with the SJ-R, our new queen noted that college had made a big difference in her life because "nobody knew me, nobody knew who my dad was and I was just me."

 

It'll be along trip home for her come November. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago

 

The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois

 

Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives

 

Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum

 

The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

Chicagology

I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 

Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.

Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 

Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated