Dance Social history

Vintage Dancing Girls

[This article was first published in The Call Boy,Summer 2024]

I collect old photographs and real photographic post cards. Most people following this hobby will at some point decide to specialise in a specific subject. In my case I began to notice how often photographs of girls in dance costumes began to crop up. It didn’t seem to matter what age they were or, in a few cases, what sex they were. There are many different categories of dancing girls to be seen from girls’ dance groups in school to exotic dancers to be seen in nightclubs and on the stage; from amateur solo dancers to large troupes of professionals. From the point of view of the Call Boy the photos of most interest are of the professional and semi-professional dancers that appeared in music hall, theatre and variety shows and it is these that I concentrate on here.

The most obvious place to start is with the Tiller Girls. I used to think that the Tiller Girls were just those dancers who appeared on Sunday Night at the London Palladium but was surprised to learn that the first Tiller Girls were trained by John Tiller in 1889 and that there have many different troupes trained using his methods ever since, some bearing the name Tiller Girls or Tiller Troupe but many going under different names. There is an excellent book tracing the history of the Tillers – Tiller’s Girls by Doremy Vernon which, though out of print, can easily be obtained on one the web auction sites.

Another famous group of dancing girls were to be found at the Windmill Theatre. Although they might be better known for their naked tableaux, the Windmill Girls performed dance routines in shows and they were in constant rehearsal for the new shows which changed regularly. You can find some fragments of routines by the Windmill Girls on YouTube, as you can for the Tiller Girls. There’s even a 1949 film shot in the Windmill Theatre called “Murder at the Windmill” which has recently been broadcast by Talking Pictures TV. There is also the Judi Dench/Bob Hoskins film “Mrs Henderson Presents” though I understand some liberties were taken with the storyline. The Windmill also published annual editions of a magazine, Revudeville, where you can find photographs of the dancers and their individual names. After publishing one photo of Windmill Dancers I was contacted by the son of one of the dancers!

Nearly every Music Hall and Variety bill had its share of female dancers, many if not most unnamed as they appeared in chorus lines. There were many variations on the type of dancers and, of course, they often presented skits and other entertainments as well as dancing. Juveniles seem to have been very popular and were often presented as if they were all members of the same family though this was not always true. “Model Maids” and “Dairymaids” were other popular ways to package dancers. My own collection of photographs and postcards suggest that troupes of dancing girls must have run into the thousands. Some, like the various Tiller troupes, lasted for many years whilst others probably had much shorter shelf lives. What happened to all the “juveniles” for instance? Herein lies the problem of collecting these materials in that it’s difficult or impossible to find reliable details and dates for when these troupes were active. Sometimes there’s a date on the reverse of a postcard and often there’s the name of the studio where a photograph was taken but handwritten dates are unreliable and most of the studios have long since disappeared. Even if a troupe was photographed at a named studio there’s no guarantee that the town where the studio was situated was the home town of the dancers. Trying to trace information about these dancers online is usually fruitless and shows up the inadequacies of the internet for any serious research into the history of these entertainers. Books such as “Grace, Beauty and Banjos” by Michael Kilgariff and “Roy Hudd’s Cavalcade of Variety Acts” contain lists of performers but seldom have any information on any but the most famous dance troupes

My own favourite “dancing girl” is Jessie Matthews, often known as the “dancing divinity.” At least in her case there is a plethora of information to be had on line and in print but best of all we still have her wonderful films from the 1930s. It’s tragic that she never got to work with Fred Astaire as apparently other work commitments prevented a planned project together.

The entire collection of my vintage dancing girls photographs and post cards can be found at I am still collecting and still researching and would be interested to hear from anyone who can add to my knowledge of vintage dancing girls.

Dance photography

Jessie Mathews, the Dancing Divinity

Jessie Mathews was a very popular dancer/singer/actress of the 1930s in the UK. Dirk Bogarde said she was a much better dancer than Ginger Rogers and I think he was right though her style was different. A collaboration between Jessie and Fred Astaire was planned but Jessie’s UK work schedule would not allow it to proceed. One of her choreographers was Buddy Bradley who was an influence on Busby Berkeley.

Jessie was a dancer on stage long before she became a film star and had been a professional dancer since the age of 12. She was often referred to as The Dancing Divinity.

Just like stars before and after her time she was featured on many postcards which have become very collectable.

She was a very versatile dancer able to cover all styles from modern ballet to tap, jazz and expressive.

Jessie was also regularly featured in film magazines of the 1930s.

Original photographs of Jessie often sell for in excess of £100 though I was lucky to obtain this 8/10 original for much less. On ebay some sellers present photos of her as if they were original prints though they are clearly reproductions. This is a common problem to avoid for any collector of such material.

Like today the studios were keen to place stills of their stars in magazines at every opportunity. Such clippings are also collectable.

Luckily many of Jessie’s films are available on DVD and they are sometimes shown on Talking Pictures TV though I don’t recollect seeing them elsewhere. If you like Fred and Ginger I’m sure you’ll enjoy her films.

Long after her film and stage careers were over Jessie found fame as Mary Dale in Mrs Dale’s Diaries on the radio after replacing the original Mrs Dale played by Ellis Powell. She was featured on This Is Your Life in 1961. She died in 1981.

Edwardian photography Social history

Gladys Cooper the first postcard superstar

According to Sheridan Morley, one of Gladys’ grandchildren, in his biography of her over 400 different postcards of her were produced between 1905 and 1920. Each postcard would have had many thousands of reprints. You can get an idea of her popularity and longevity as a celebrity by looking on ebay. When I checked today there were 1700 listings for postcards of Gladys and I would expect to see similar numbers on any day of the week.

You can find postcards of Gladys in black and white, colour, hand tinted. partially tinted, on greetings cards and so on. Often her distinctive signature is shown on the cards.

This pair of postcards are indicative of the many variations of postcards that were produced. She’s wearing exactly the same clothes in both but the colouring and orientation have been changed.

Gladys was often photographed with her children. Here she is with daughter Joan. Note Joan’s signature on the right hand photo though I doubt her handwriting was so similar to her mother’s.

Postcards were only a sideline for Gladys. She was an actress appearing in many stage plays from the 1920s and later had a career as a film actress. You can see her in Hitchcock’s Rebecca for instance.

If you want to see more Gladys Cooper postcards you’ll find them with a simple online search. My own modest collection can be seen here.