Taxi-Dance Hall: an annotated bibliography

Paul Goalby Cressey The Taxi-Dance Hall: a sociological study of commercialized Recreation & City Life University of Chicago Press, (1932, Paperback Edition 2008).

History: The Taxi-Dance Hall was popular during the 1920s and 1930s in America. It was so-called because Halls were organised on the basis that male customers were sold dance tickets for 10 cents, of which half went to the proprietor of the Hall and half to the female dancer. Each dance was kept of short duration, to between a minute and 90 seconds. Taxi-dancing originated in San Francisco on the Barbary Coast in the wake of the 1849 Gold Rush, in which women were hired to encourage men to spend their money on drink to profit the establishment:

“Prior to the emergence of taxi dance halls in San Francisco, that city popularized a different form of dance hall called the Barbary Coast dance hall, or also called the Forty-Nine[’49] dance hallForty-Niner is a term for the gold prospectors who came to California during the California Gold Rush circa 1849. At the Barbary Coast dance halls, female employees danced with male patrons and earned their living on commissions paid for the drinks that they could encourage their male dance partners to buy. These dance halls were representative of the Old West—noisy, rough, boisterous, and occasionally violent.” 

But in the years before nationwide Prohibition became law in 1920 there was growing political support for alcohol restrictions. Already in 1913 closed dance halls were opening to circumvent the law: “…San Francisco enacted new laws that would forbid dancing in any cafe or saloon where alcohol was served. The closure of the Barbary Coast dance halls quickly fostered a new kind of pay-to-dance scheme called the closed dance hall. The name was derived from the fact that female patrons were not allowed—the only women permitted in these halls were the dancing female employees.”

The study itself, like Street Corner Society, is a product of the Chicago School. But it is far more organised, with sections on the male clients, the female taxi-dancers and the Dance Hall institutions and their owners and managers. Cressey conducted open-ended interviews and presented his data in his dissertation.

Taxi-dance Halls were never able to shake off the charge that they were encouraging morally dubious ways of making it possible for adult men and women to meet and socialize. The market element also encouraged mixing between different ethnic groups. Charging for each dance by selling tickets to men to dance with women effectively ended with the abolition of Prohibition in 1933. But the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and the poverty of the 1930s effectively stretched out the life of tax-dance halls until the Second World War.

Robert Prus in Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research: Intersubjectivity and the Study of Human Lived Experience State University of New York Press (1996, p.123) discusses Cressey’s book. He emphasises how the use of “undercover investigators” added much to the study’s value.

The book is well-researched and presented, and is the best book-length study of taxi-dance halls, but it lacks the focus on interpersonal interaction that is the hallmark of William Foote Whyte Street Corner Society.

Links to related work:

Google images: Taxi-dance Hall

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