For many of us, some of the fondest memories of grandma and grandpa are of visits to their house where the radio was set to a program that blared out polka, obereks and rhinelanders.
Theories on the origin of the polka have been well explored before. Briefly, the music and dance are of Bohemian (Czech) origin. It was called the polka either after the Czech word for "half" in reference to the dance's characteristic half-step, or in sympathy for the Poles' 1830 uprising. The very word "polka" means Polish woman in the Polish language. One theory says that it may have been a Polish folk dance borrowed by the Bohemians. Another says it has Gypsy roots. Some say it can even be traced to a single person, a Bohemian girl named Anicka Chadimova.
At any rate, form its early 1830s beginnings it spread across Europe vis theater performances and became a true craze. Its appeal was that it was so unlike any dance or music that existed at the time in western Europe, freewheeling and lighthearted. By the early 1840s it had captivated London. In 1844 it arrived in America, first performed in New York.
First Lady Julia Tyler was a New York socialite who had recently married the President. She and Mr. Tyler loved to dance, and she introduced the polka to the White House. One can just imagine skinny old hooknosed John Tyler twirling around the East Room floor with his wife during a cotillion ball, to the delight of various senators, diplomats, cabinet secretaries and their wives.
Classical composers picked up on the polka. Many accomplished composers such as Bedrich Smetana, Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss and his sons Johann, Edward and Josef, wrote many polkas for the symphony orchestra.
By the 1850s the polka craze had begun to subside. Yet to this day it remains a popular, if minor, music form in many countries. There are German polkas and Mexican polkas. Argentine, Scottish, Italian and Finnish polkas. Trivia question: The polka is the national dance of what country? Paraguay! There, it is often sung in the native language of Guarini, and it differs considerably from the polka with which we are all familiar. And the American polka has its own uniqueness, having been influenced by American popular music and infused by Polish migrants with Polish folk music. Ironically, the polka never was very popular in Poland and is not heard much there today.
In the U.S. the polka maintained its popularity among Central European immigrants and their descendants, and German American and Mexican American bands perform their own style of the music. During the big band era the Andrews Sisters had big hits with the songs "Pennsylvania Polka" and "Beer Barrel Polka." The later was very popular with allied soldiers during World War II.
The polka was such a hit in the 1840s that the word polka was attached to the names of many products sold. There was no connection to the dance at all, and nothing very different about them, but entrepreneurs saw a good way to make a buck from its popularity by adding the word "polka" to an array of goods. There were polka hats, polka fans, polka cakes, polka hairstyles and polka curtain ties. A new fabric print was introduced that featured symmetrical placement of dots throughout the material. This was dubbed polka dot style and it is the only one of these "polka" products to have maintained its name to the present day, undoubtedly due to the fact that it was a new, unique product. The name polka dot stuck.