- medals

To better understand the history and use of cotillon medals in the social life of the time, let us first take a brief look at the dance customs between 1850 and 1914.

Ball Donations

Presenting small gifts to the participants of a dance event had been a tradition since around the middle of the 19th century. The most important were the dance-ball gifts or, more precisely, the 'ladies' gifts' which were distributed to the female guests. With these gifts, the organisers wanted to do a bit of self-promotion as well as advertising for the balls. Usually, the name and the name of the ball was written on the gifts by the organisers. In addition, it was hoped that the often-unusual form and nature of the gifts would leave a lasting impression on the guests. These gifts often came as miniatures. For example, in the form of books, fans, travelling cases, lifebuoys, small bags, easels with portraits, swords, military caps, helmets and much more. Upon entering the ballroom, the ladies received the ball donations free of charge. They were usually provided with a hook or other means of attachment so that they could be attached to their dresses.

On the left a ball donation from a student fraternity and on the right two copies presumably distributed at military or official balls. 

Dance Regulations

The ball gifts were a supplement to the so-called dance regulations, which were given to all guests by the organiser before the event began. These listed the dance programme for the respective ball, often consisting of a Waltz, Ländler, March, Polka, Quadrille, Gallop and Cotillon. The ladies entered the names of the dancers who had 'reserved' a dance with them on the dance card.

Example of a ball card with the names of the respective dance partners.


The highlight of a ball in the second half of the 19th century was the Cotillon with its Cotillon-Tours. The Cotillon could take quite a long time to finish. The reason being that as many couples as possible who wanted could take part. The awarding of cotillon medals in this context probably appeared in the mid-19th century (I know of an advertisement from 1847 offering cotillon medals) and was often part of the staging of a cotillon tour.

The Cotillon medals were basically joke medals. Those who needed them for events could buy them in cheap, medium, better, fine, or highly refined versions by the dozen or in bulk (144 copies). The medals could be bought in shops or be order directly from the manufacturers.

A small selection of different cotillon medals

Variants of the medals

The simple versions of the medals were only made of embossed cardboard. They could be silver, gold, or coloured. The better versions were also based on cardboard, but depending on the price range, they were decorated with a wide variety of materials such as chenille, gelatine, glass beads, cardboard, crepe, metal, cardboard, fabric, wax beads, glued-on wafers, or other materials. Fine medals made of crepe, just like the crepe-brilliant medals, were mostly reserved for the ladies.[i] Most of the medals were pure fantasy or joke medals, but there were also detailed replicas of real military and state medals. Manufacturers offered necklaces, bows or ribbons to attach the medals.

Examples of the cotillon medals offered by the Chrestensen company in 1880/81.

Medals with inscriptions such as 'For dashing dancing' or 'To the best dancer' were popular at dance balls.

Depending on the occasion of the festivity, the motif of the medals could reflect the motto of the event or that of the associated cotillon tour. An example of this is the Stallmeister Tour. It was organised by the Erfurt company Chrestensen in 1888 with the corresponding medals.

Examples of Cotillon medals for the Stable Master Tour or other equestrian topics

The jockey caps were also available in normal size. Among other things, they were very popular at the fancy dress festivals of the time.

The popularity of Cotillon medals can be measured by looking at the stock of the Viennese company Eduard Witte, one of the largest Austrian resellers of Cotillon items. They advertised that they always had a million of medals in stock.[ii]

Medals within the framework of the Cotillon Tours

Medals, as mentioned before, were used during cotillon tours. The function of the medals was to bring dance couples together by chance. How this worked can be seen, for example, in the following instruction for an Order-Tour:

"The dance director distributes medals and ribbons to the couples, asks the gentlemen to put them on and to line up close to each other in a row; now the ladies look for the medal with the ribbon in their hand that has the same relief; when a lady has found the right gentleman, she commands to step right, takes him under and lines up with him. When all the couples are united, they begin the dance."[iii]

In the end, the great variety of different Cotillon-medals set no limits for the organisers. It was up to everyone to decide which medals to use and how.

A popular dancer could get many cotillon medals from his dancing partners.
Illustration from the year 1896

Presentation of the Cotillon Medals

Dance events with many participants brought with them the problem of presenting the abundance medals and ribbons in an attractive way for the guests. The manufacturers of the Cotillon-medals had a solution to this problem. Decorative stands (for example in the shape of an elephant) could be bought or borrowed from them. Numerous medals could be placed on such decorations.

An elephant with Howdah as a Cotillon-stand by the Dresden firm Neumann & Co. From the year 1888.

The presentation of the sometimes colourful and splendid Botillon-medals was an important part of the ball. Many a dancer kept them after the end of the ball, perhaps because they were associated with a special social event or a romantic memory. So, it is not surprising that some of the Cotillon-medals still preserved today have handwritten annotations, such as the date of the ball and names of dance partners.

Cotillon Medals on the Christmas Tree

The positive memories later tempted one or the other to give the mostly decorative 'medals' a place on the Christmas tree. Two letters to the editor from 1886, which appeared in the magazine Fürs Haus, provide information on how Cotillon medals could be used to decorate the Christmas tree. The November 1886 issue said:

"I draw garlands around the tree from branch to branch with a long paper chain, starting from the top of the tree. On the under[e]rings of each bow I hang a cotillion-medal shining on both sides, and between the chain-garlands I distribute silver nuts, coloured fruits, confectionery, icicles twisted from glass, gilded small apples (large ones are too heavy and disfigure the tree by pulling down the branches excessively), and fine nets made of dull-coloured tissue paper, in which I place gilded hollow walnuts."[iv]

In the December issue there was the following suggestion for decoration:

"For 30 pfennigs I buy the fine silvery-white threads known by the name of tinsel. From the short tinsel threads, I twist strings with my fingers (of 2-3 threads each) about 20 cm long and tie them to [...] small or even larger cotillion medals [...]"[v]

Many made their own Christmas tree ornament with their medals.

Cotillon medals were produced in great variety by numerous companies until the First World War. One of them was the company A. Kunze & Co. from Buchholz in Saxony, founded in 1872. In addition to Cotillon medals and carnival articles, they also produced flat and high embossed cardboard coffin decorations. Many of the highly embossed angel heads, which are wrongfully referred to as Dresden ornaments, originate from their production.

Cotillon-medals from the pattern book of the Kunze company.

Cotillon-medals were not only used for balls or as Christmas tree decorations. The Imanuel Richter company from Sebnitz in Saxony (founded in 1837) used Cotillon orders as decorations for the Attrappen and bonbonnieres they produced. Sometimes they were also worn at carnivals.

Even during the First World War, soldiers hung them on the Christmas trees.

25.12.1917 Cotillon Orden aus Papier
Christmas tree in the field 24 December 1917

Cotillon Medals after 1918

With the beginning of the First World War, however, this changed dramatically. While dance events were still held during the first euphoria of the war, they quickly became fewer and fewer as time went on, until it was no longer considered seemly to hold balls. But this did not prevent some merchants with full warehouses from still placing advertisements for Cotillon-medals in magazines during the war.

After 1918, German society had changed. The monarchy and the nobility had been abolished. Germany had to survive an attempted revolution, was economically devastated, and had to deal with great famines. Dances were out of the question. In the following years, the economy slowly recovered, and balls were again celebrated. Albeit a little different, for tastes had changed over time. Cotillon-medals, which were formerly used during various Cotillon-tours, were now considered antiquated.

After the First world War, the few remaining Cotillon-medal manufacturers found a new market in dance schools. But the number of potential buyers was much smaller than at the dance events of the previous decades. This was reflected in the range of products offered by the last remaining Cotillon-medal manufacturers.

A 1926 sales catalogue offered only these orders.
Abschlussball der Tanzschule W. Sander in Seesen im Jahr 1929

Sales catalogues from the time of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, show us that 'Cotillion medals' were still occasionally offered until the beginning of the 1940s. But they were a decidedly niche item among the festive articles.  

Cotillon medals offered in 1939

In the period of the economic miracle after the Second World War, cotillon medals were sold again. However, they were now simply called 'Medals'.

Offer from the Suthor paper factory in 1956.

[i] Advertisement of the Viennese company Eduard Witte in: Mährisches Tagblatt, 8. Jg. (1887), No. 30 (8 February).

[ii] Advertisement by Eduard Witte in: Bukowinaer Nachrichten, II. Jg. (1889), No. 138 (24 February), p. 6.

[iii] J. C. Schmidt: Preisbuch über Cotillon-Ball- und Scherzartikel, Saaldekorationen, Sommerfestartikel usw., Saison 1911/12, Erfurt 1911 (Reprint, Hildesheim, Zürich, New York 1999), p. 43.

[iv] (Letter to the Editor): Ketten; in: Fürs Haus. Praktisches Wochenblatt für alle Hausfrauen, Nr. 217 (27. November 1886), V. Jg. (1886/87), p. 66.

[v] (Letter to the Editor): Lametta; in: Fürs Haus. Praktisches Wochenblatt für alle Hausfrauen, Nr. 218 (4. Dezember 1886), V. Jg. (1886/87), p. 74.

[vi] They were also used in neutral form at balls organised by dance schools. Arno Gröber, Dresden: Fabrik von Cotillon-Artikeln und Papier-Laternen, Jubiläums-Preisliste No. 62 (1913/14), p. 72.