VIRGINIA CITY -- Part mystery, part tradition, a mask is a poem expressing the essence of a feeling, a spirit, or a character.
That was the message at the Fourth Ward School on Saturday, where a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered to hear a special presentation about Victorian-era masks.
"A mask is the art of illusion, something that appears to be what it is not," said expert Susan Denson. "People from the Victorian era loved bright colors, laces and flowers. They also loved balls, mystery and intrigue."
Masks made their way onto the Comstock through Irish immigrants, who donned masks for All Hallow's Eve on Oct. 31, according to Denson.
She said the day signals the last harvest period, a time when those who have died could return to this world.
"The conquering Catholics called the practice pagan and discouraged it, but the Celts continued their tradition," she said. "When the Irish immigrated to Virginia City, they brought the custom with them and mask making experienced a revival."
Masks were seen regularly at the finer parties. The Comstock era had reached its zenith in April 1879, when Capt. Matthew Canavan, superintendent of the New York Mine, threw a ball in a room-sized cavern 1,040 feet below the surface. A hole was dug for the band and 60 of the most influential attended.
"They wore huge ball gowns and some wore masks," Denson said. "The guests could view miners working 200 feet above the ballroom floor and all came to the surface at midnight, for a feast."
A tradition dating back thousands of years, masks have taken on different meanings in different cultures. Ancient Greeks used them in the theater. The Mayans considered them sacred, decorating them with metal and semi-precious stones.
"I think this is wonderful," said Virginia City resident Mary Jane Rule."It's been fascinating."
Fourth Ward School volunteer coordinator Norene Silverek gave a demonstration on how to make the masks and workshops will be available through Denson.
"We're committed to making the history of the Comstock come alive for people through a number of activities, including workshops," said Fourth Ward Executive Director Barbara Mackay. "We want to demonstrate how these pioneers were different and how they were like us, by familiarizing people with historic morays and activities."
A special Victorian dance demonstration is scheduled for Sept. 28, but the time is not set. Victorian masks will be raffled off at the dance and tickets are available at the museum. Tickets cost $1 each, or six for $5. For information, call the Fourth Ward School at 847-0975.
For information concerning Victorian mask workshops, call Denson at 972-7565.