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Shadow Socials


“At the shadow social Saturday evening a young fellow was bidding at his lady friend’s shadow,” so says the press report from Bottineau in December 1912. “Three guys chipped in and bid over him, giving the ‘shadow’ to another friend.”

This was just the sort of mischievous drama everyone hoped for at a shadow social. Probably the auctioneer for the evening, O. H. Samuelson, was in on the caper, or at least he encouraged it. The competitive bidding contributed to the strong proceeds from the social, $18.80, which pleased its host, Miss Alma Nelson of the North Star school. And the boys had a good laugh before supper and an evening filled out with games and music.


A specific variation on the more general institution of the basket social, or box social, the shadow social was a common fixture on the social calendars of prairie churches and schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As with all box socials, ladies were expected to pack a supper for two, and gentlemen were expected to bid for the boxes and for the privilege of dining with the preparers.


The special wrinkle of the box social was that during the auction, the ladies were sequestered in a side room, perhaps a cloakroom. A sheet was hung over the doorway, and each lady in turn took position behind it, concealed — except that a lamp or lantern behind her projected her silhouette onto the sheet for viewing by the bidders. Imagine the possibilities, the hilarities, and the opportunities for intrigue.


Earlier the same year, 1912, the Williston Graphic explained how the process would work with the shadow social to be given by the YPS, the Young People’s Society, on February 14 in the United Lutheran basement: “The ladies are asked to bring a shoe box filled with lunch for two and the shadow of the ladies will be sold to the highest bidder. The shadow may in each case serve as a beautiful valentine to the lucky bidder.”


Now, forgive me for how my mind works, but it should be obvious that the female form, projected in silhouette, was fundamental to the appeal of the shadow social. Which is why it surprises me that most of the early shadow socials in Dakota Territory took place in churches!


The first one for which I have record took place in March 1886 at a Baptist church in Jamestown, with the press reporting, “Several ladies who sat behind the screen were subjects of animated bidding ... One lady sold for $10, and another for $5,” in what was pronounced “one of the most successful church entertainments given this winter.”


I read of a similar affair in Cooperstown in 1897, “Under P. A. Melgard’s able auctioneering the shadows sold out at a good figure” — are we to believe that the term “figure” was deployed by the editor here with no sense of humor?


Indeed, all the nineteenth-century shadow socials I have identified were church affairs. In the twentieth century they more commonly took place in other public buildings, particularly schools, with the schoolteacher hosting.


Reports of such affairs continue common into the early 1920s. In 1922 the literary society of one Emmons County school spiced up its monthly meeting by inserting a shadow social before the cultural program — ”Come and buy your best girl’s shadow,” the invitation read. Late the same year another school in the same county organized a Thanksgiving shadow social — ”Ladies bring lunch for two, and sell your shadows.”


The custom dwindled during the 1920s, however, and once again, forgive me for speculating as to why. Is it only a coincidence that during the 1920s, when ladies’ fashion emphasized slender bodies defined by straight lines, that interest in shadows of the female form faded? You can tell me if I have this figured wrong.


-Tom Isern

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