The town I grew up in didn’t have a roller rink. Sure, there was a five-lane bowling alley and a one-screen movie theater, but roller rinks were too big for the bite-sized britches of Arlington, Washington. There are many consequences of a town with no roller rink – namely that it becomes by default a town with no disco ball, and that is no place to live, my friends. Marysville, Washington, the next town over, was no place to live either, but it had something we Arlingtonians did not: a roller rink. With skates, and shakes, and a disco ball.
Songs by Bee Gees, Chic, and Donna Summer did not score my first orbit around the glitter ball. I was miles and decades removed from the wonder years of Studio 54 and Paradise Garage, but the tidal pull of the mirrored globe translates across time and space. With its galaxy of glittering infinity, the disco ball’s only message is: keep moving.
Today marks yet another internet-spawned holiday you didn’t know about: National Disco Ball Day. But before you deck the dancehalls with balls of disco, or flock to Pinterest for mirror ball cake recipes, let’s consider the disco ball in all its pop culture glory. Oddly never out of fashion, disco balls have been spinning for around 100 years, though under varying monikers. Mirror ball, glitter ball, and “myriad reflector” were runner-ups to the genre-specific name that stuck.
An early and particularly odd usage of the sparkly decoration can be found on the Wisconsin Historical Society’s website. A 1912 image of a “Sun Parlor for Tuberculosis Patients” (which was located in the Milwaukee Hospital for Insane, might I add) appears pleasantly mundane – until you glance up at the photo’s topmost edge, and see a mirrored sphere shining down on the vacant room. The image is jarring with its backwards anachronism, giving off a A Kid in King Arthur’s Court feeling of displacement; I scratch my head upon seeing this objet de disco thrust into a pre-disco atmosphere.
The disco ball traces back even further than that however, as Vice’s thump outlet details in their in-depth history of the ball. The disco ball’s first reported appearance cropped up in an 1897 issue of the Electrical Worker, which referred to a “mirrored ball” hanging over the attendees of a N.B.E.W. electrician’s union party in Charlestown, Massachusetts.
Despite the disco ball’s varied history, it goes without saying that the glitter globe is not known for its psychiatric hospital tenure, or electrician’s party debut. Rather, it was the flame that “burn baby” burned its way through “Disco Inferno.” While its roots dig much deeper, the dance floor ornament’s cultural capital skyrocketed in the disco days, and at that time, Louisville, Kentucky manufacturer Omega National Products had already been the unofficial home of the disco ball for 20 years, making 90% of the world’s spheres at their peak. This boom in bling balls was surely due to disco fever, as every New York discotheque worth its salt had one. Paradise Garage, Crisco Disco, The Loft, and many other disco havens were bathed in specks of light cast by their own mirror balls, dutifully twirling above the heads of boogying regulars.