History of Twelfth Night Masque
A clandestine institution of Chicago social life for more than one hundred years, Twelfth Night Masque is a private, invitation-only party born of the desire to dispense with tedious social conventions and just have a hell of a good time. Revelers donning intriguing and intricate costumes, hiding their identities and therefore freeing themselves of social ramification should they over-indulge, gather at a location held secret until the Committee of Twelve reveals the party’s location and announces that year's theme. Those who receive an invitation from the Committee of Twelve are given access to that year’s revelment and allowed to invite like-minded guests of their choosing.
In the winter of 1905, renowned Chicago bachelor and socialite Billy Gamble hosted an event that would later become one of Chicago's most anticipated annual events of the holiday season. The inaugural event, then referred to as the "Widow and Widowers Ball", was a response to the myriad of (what Mr. Gamble felt were) stuffy and lackluster galas of the day. Breaking from social convention, he compiled a guest list encompassed people of all ages from various social circles and wealth classes, weeding out those who he felt were snooty or just plain boring. Each guest received their invitation on the evening of the event by either messenger or phone call. Guests were instructed in advance to inform Mr. Gamble and his "Twelve Knights" where they would be dinning on the evening of the event. Mr. Gamble and his committee would then send a message from their headquarters (The Chicago Raquet Club) to each guest with the address of the secret location.
Through the subsequent years, Mr. Gamble's legacy has been honored by the secret Committee of Twelve, led by the Grand Vizier. Though the members of the Committee of Twelve evolve over time, their collective mission has remained constant for over a century. That tradition, heralded in its day as “one of the most humorous experiments ever tried on conventional society”, is known today as the Twelfth Night Masque – a jubilant celebration of life and a rare opportunity to hone the art of Having a Hell of a Good Time.
Originally known as the Widow and Widowers Ball, the masque was later called the Butchers, Bakers, and Candlestick Makers Ball. In the 1920’s it adopted its current moniker of Twelfth Night Masque. In 1932, there was a period of darkness for the Twelfth Night Masque - it seemed that the Great Depression had claimed another casualty as the annual gala ceased to exist. 15 years later, committee members of another famed Chicago subscription dance, the "Bachelor and Benedicts Ball," were removed from its guest list for being too old. In protest of the suggestion that the desire to have a good time diminished with age, they resurrected Billy Gamble's "Twelfth Night Masque” for those "too old for Bachelors and Benedicts, but too young to stay home." The Twelfth Night Masque was reborn, and the Committee of Twelve was established.To this day, the secret members of the Committee of Twelve serve as faithful stewards of the Twelfth Night Masque; charged with the responsibility of ensuring that each year’s revelry lives up to the standards set by past Twelfth Night Masques.
The Masque has gained a reputation for hosting prominent Chicago families and business leaders. The McCormicks, Palmers, Rockefellers, Pullmans, and Roots are counted among the many famous civic and society figures of Chicago's past to have regularly attended the ball. The tradition of wearing masks and costumes keep identities private, and each year the Committee of Twelve selects a theme to which the guests’ costumes must relate.
Outlandish costumes and irreverent behavior is a standard of the Twelfth Night Masque; however, publicity never has been. Honored guests of the masquerade have respected the privacy of their fellow guests by restraining from revealing the nature of the event so that all guests, past and present, may relish the opportunity to indulge their inhibitions and enjoy an evening of anonymity.
Our Motto: Let good taste prevail to no avail.
Our Rule: No equestrians or mounted pedestrians.
Pictured above as the "Head Baker" at the Butchers, Bakers, and Candlestick Makers Ball of 1920, Billy Gamble first decided to host the event in 1905 (known at that time as the "Widow and Widowers Ball"). Sadly, Mr. Gamble's attendance at the 1920 Masquerade would be one of his last as he died suddenly on August 23, 1921.
William "Billy" Gamble was a relative of Mayor Carter Harrison, under whom he served as the secretary of the Chicago fire department. However, he was better known as one Chicago's most entertaining bachelors. Mr. Gamble was revered by the wealthy socialites of the day, as well as the "everyday man." He was known as a clever and irreverent practical joker whose humor and good nature brought together people of many ages from all different sets. He also established the "Humdrum Club" and was a member of the Chicago University, and Saddle and Cycle clubs.
One of the time-honored traditions at the Twelfth Night Masque is the formation of small groups of guests that have selectively coordinated their costumes to create their own unique sub-theme at the party.
During the early years of the party, small groups from a particular social circle would collective arrange dinner plans prior to the ball, often throwing elaborate pre-parties at venues such as the Casino Club, Blackstone Hotel and University Club. This made it easier for the committee members to send notification of where the ball would be hosted that evening. As the guests were already planning to arrive together, it became customary to coordinate their costumes as well.
Perhaps the oldest of the traditions still observed at the Twelfth Night Masque, the ritual of the Grand March was derived from one of the first institutions of the event- the Twelfth Night Cake. Slices of a massive cake that had been baked with a pea and bean inside were distributed to all the guests of the party. Those that received the pea or the bean in their slice were crowned king and queen of the festivities (It’s unclear as to whether the gender of the crowned monarchs mattered). Over time, the ritual of the cake transformed into a more democratic method of choosing the winners: A processional march during which everyone’s costumes was able to be seen by both judges and fellow guests.