Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Year's Day Calls in New York, 1847 & 1870

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Isabella reporting:

While this description of a New Year's Day from 1847 is nearly contemporary with the one (1854) in Loretta's post yesterday, the celebration couldn't be more different.

In the genteel society of early 19th c. New York, New Year's Day was observed with a ritual of polite calls. Gentlemen put on their best clothes, and one by one visited each of the ladies of their acquaintance. While this must have made for a busy day for the gentlemen – at least the popular ones – the ladies, too, had to offer a considerable repast to their callers. Etiquette advisors of the day stressed that this should be informal and light, but clearly much more was expected than today's beer and a bucket of wings served with a bowl game on the flat-screen, as this excerpt from a New York cookbook shows:

"In New York City, where it is the custom for ladies to remain at home to receive the calls of their gentlemen friends, there is not time nor occasion for dinner; should it be desirable, it would be similar to that for Christmas, or instead – a cold roasted turkey (bone it if you can), cold boiled ham or tongue, a large glass salad-bowl of pickled oysters, or an oyster pie with dressed celery or a chicken salad, with jelly puffs and tarts and small mince pies, blancmange, de russe and jellies and ice cream and fancy cakes, with syrup water and orgeat or lemonade for temperance, or wines and punch. The manner of celebrating New Year's day by calls, is a peculiarity of our own, and having so few which are 'native here,' many of our wisest and best, have wished that this might in no wise be slighted. Many a feud-divided family have been united, and misunderstanding friends have been brought together, under the all-pervading hospitality and genial influence which distinguishes the day."
                                      ––The American System of Cookery, Mrs. T.J. Crowen, 1847

As charming as this tradition sounds, its days were already numbered. In Edith Wharton's short story New Year's Day, set in New York in the 1870s, the New Year's calls have become a nearly-forgotten curiosity:

"Even then fashion moved quickly in New York, and my infantile memory barely reached back to the time when Grandmamma, in lace lappets and creaking moire, used to receive on New Year's Day, supported by her handsome married daughters. As for old Sillerton Jackson, who, once a social custom had dropped into disuse, always affected never to have observed it, he stoutly maintained that the New Year's Day ceremonial had never been taken seriously except among families of Dutch descent, and that that was why Mrs. Henry van der Luyden had clung to it, in a reluctant half-apologetic way, long after her friends had closed their doors on the first of January, and the date had been chosen for those out-of-town parties which are so often used as a pretext for absence when the unfashionable are celebrating their rites."
                                    ––New Year's Day, by Edith Wharton, 1924

Above: Detail, Fashions for 1845, by S.A. & A.F.Ward. Collection of Library Company of Philadelphia


Anonymous said...

If one reads Louisa May Alcott's "Rose in Bloom" one will find a description of the same custom in Boston in the 1870s/1880s. In fact, it is one of the most important plot points in the novel. Alas for poor Charlie!

Lil said...

I kind of like the custom of Ner Year's Day calls. It would be easier to manage if one lived in a smallish city where most of one's friends and relations were within walking distance, or at least short ride distance.

QNPoohBear said...

I read a diary account of a man living near Albany, New York in the first half of the 19th century. The ladies made New Year's Calls on New Year's Day and then the gentlemen called on the ladies the next day. (I hope I have that right, I'd have to find my notes). It's an interesting custom and given the way people celebrate New Year's Eve now, I doubt they would want callers on New Year's Day!

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