When the ladies of the Methodist Episcopal Church of Bottineau proposed to convene a basket social on the Friday evening of December 28, 1887, in the new schoolhouse, the editor of the Bottineau Pioneer thought it best to explain what was going to happen. The basket social (later known as a box social, or box supper) was a new social custom in Dakota Territory.
So he wrote,
"A word of explanation may not be out of place. To begin with, each lady is supposed to take with her a basket containing enough of the good things of life for two. The basket may be trimmed and decorated or left plain according to individual tastes. The baskets will then be put up at auction and sold to the highest bidder who will find in or on the basket a slip of paper containing the name of the lady who brought it. When all are sold, supper begins, each lady eating with the gentleman who bought her basket. Tea will also be dispensed. The programme includes singing, addresses and recitations, besides other entertainments, best appreciated when taken part in. All are given a hearty invitation."
The hearty invitation may have been published for all, but this little gathering was, in fact, a rather genteel affair. “Tea will also be dispensed,” for pete’s sake! And if organized by a committee of Episcopal women, you know nothing indecorous will intrude on the proceedings.
Not all early basket socials were quite so reserved, but in general, the box socials of Dakota Territory and North Dakota were somewhat different than those in other parts of the country. In the first place, historically, this is one of the most churched regions of North America. We had, and have, more than our share of churches. So whereas elsewhere, box socials gravitated toward schools as the venue of choice and became secularized, here the religious associations of such events remained strong well into the twentieth century.
In the second place, the ethnic immigrant heritage of North Dakota is stronger than that of any other prairie state. So whereas the Episcopal ladies of Bottineau were rock-ribbed Anglo-Saxons and proud of it, box socials soon caught on, were appropriated as social institutions, by immigrant parishes who took them in their own direction.
So, consider the invitation that went out to folks in Cooperstown for New Year’s Eve, 1886. The Griggs Courier advertised the event: “Ladies will please bring baskets for two. Tickets for gentlemen, thirty-five cents.” Would there be a grand time for all? You be the judge: the event was scheduled into the Baptist Hall and sponsored by the Knights of the Good Templar, one of the country’s most assertive advocates for prohibition of alcohol.
On the other hand, what was going on with the German Catholics over at Mt. Carmel? The Courier in 1908 heralded an upcoming box social in the Maccabees Hall of Mt. Carmel with the headline, “Germans Will Play ‘Under the Anhauser Busch’ in the Good Old Summer Time.” Prof. Boyer, the school teacher, had organized a dance band with “all the best musical talent in Mt. Carmel.” The editor proclaimed, “things ought to be lively enough to make those old German out at Mt. Carmel feel as though they were back in the Old Fatherland on a visit.”
As a sop to Anglo-American sensibilities, the Mt. Carmel boys added a box social to the agenda for what sounds like a good old-fashioned beer garden. The Mt. Carmel gathering turned into a regular affair, which ceased operations only for Lent each year. Oh, and then there was that thing called Prohibition that spoiled all the fun.
"Do, do come and have a stein or two
Under the Anheuser Busch"