Twenty-Four Country Dances for the Year 2020
For most of the 18th century and a few decades into the 19th, English country dances were published in books of 12 or 24 pages. These books had titles such as “Astor’s Twenty four Country Dances for the Year 1803 with proper Tunes and Directions to each dance as they are performed at Court, Bath and all Public Assemblies.” These collections were promising the buyer that the tunes contained within were the latest and greatest hits in the fashionable world. In the late 18th century dances were not “called” as they are today–instead the honored topmost lady would announce the tune of her choice and then she and her partner would start dancing with the couples below them–a lot of pressure! But the books of dances helped relieve the pressure.
These books are usually about 6 inches high and 12 inches wide, with a paper cover on the front (sometimes on the back as well), a frontispiece, and 24 interior pages, one dance per page. On occasion, a “24” book will consist of 12 pages, with 2 dances per page. Books of only 12 dances were also published. Below is a facsimile of two pages from Thompson’s 24 Country Dances for the Year 1803 (Ralph Vaughan Williams Library, EFDSS).
Most small books were not stitched in the fold as one might for a bound book (that is, opened to the 12-13 center pages and sewn along the crease of the folded sheets to create the cluster of pages known as a “signature”) but rather were just stabbed through from the top sheet with a single stitch of linen thread, so the cover didn’t have to be more than a single sheet. Sometimes the cover has a back sheet that wrapped the whole. The left-hand margin is generous because, when the purchaser had enough booklets lying on the pianoforte, she could send them off to be bound permanently together in the cover of her choice.
The reason for the size of the books and the numbers 12 or 24 rather than 7 or 18 or 25 or anything else was all about the publishing process: printers used very large pieces of paper, printing multiple pages on both sides of a sheet. These sheets were then cut and folded. It is easy and fun to make such a book yourself.