December 31, 2011

The New Year in New York City, 19th Century Style: Calling on New Year's Day

Before the 1890s, when New Year's Eve celebrations became the chief means to welcome the new year, New Yorkers spend most of their time, energy, and money on the traditional custom of visiting private homes on New Year's Day.* These extravagant all-day affairs involved the well-established men of New York City, or those with social aspirations, walking about the fashionable neighborhoods to pay courtly visits to fashionable well-heeled New York women. The women - wives, mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins, and their staffs - spent days preparing for the visits, fixing themselves up and laying out vast spreads of food and spirits upon tables and sidebars. It wasn't unusual for a group of men to visit sixty or seventy places from morning to night. You can imagine their condition by the end of the day. I'd hate to host the last reception.


The pressure was on. If you didn't show up at a house on New Year's Day, it meant that you must not think much of the friendship. Imagine having to visit all your Facebook friends in person during the course of one day.

The early Dutch settlers celebrated New Year's Eve with their European traditions, but even so, the reception of "callers" on New Year's Day took on great significance.


The punch sounds good -



- above, from Sunshine and shadow in New York , 1868





- above, from The life of Samuel Lover, R. H. A.: artistic, literary, and musical, with selections from his unpublished papers and correspondence, Volume 2. H. S. King & Co., 1874





- above, from three years in north america by james stuart, esq. 1833

In the years after the Civil War, many people grew tired of the New Year's Day traditions. A woman wrote to The Nation to complain of being "fatigued to death."

"A lady friend of The Nation, who writes this journal her felicitations for the New Year, and makes us a number of compliments on our manifest superiority to contemporaries (we suppress the compliments), complains of a feeling of disgust and dissatisfaction with the manner in which, obediently to a cruel law of custom, her first day of 1866 was passed. Her letter is dated the 2d, and breathes, from the rarifled atmosphere of Madison Avenue, sentiments of the most just and laudable despair for the degradation of the beautiful old Manhattan usage of New Year's visits into an absurd riot of calls, with all the wild excess of the carnival and none of its picturesqueness. She writes, in fact, fatigued to death with the social drudgery of the previous day, but resolved in spite of her fatigue not to let the folly pass her vehement protest. She is so weary of it, she confesses, that would be willing to have New Year's Day hereafter come only once a century. " 
- above, The Nation, Volume 2, 1866.





The men also got tired of walking so much. Lesson: don't wear new shoes on a day like this. Ever.



- above, "The demise of New Year's Day celebrations." Lippincott's monthly magazine, Volume 55 J. B. Lippincott Co., 1894.

Obviously, it became much easier on everyone to just show up in Times Square on New Year's Eve.

• Source: Displaying women: spectacles of leisure in Edith Wharton's New York by Maureen E. Montgomery, Psychology Press, 1998

2 comments:

Pascale said...

happy New Year Terry, all the best for 2012 !

Tinky said...

Well, I'm not a man, and I'm not in New York, but I'd like to pay a New Year's call to you in spirit! Have a great 2012.......