It is lamented in the January 1916 issue of The Lotus Magazine that, “[i]t may be a matter of thirty-five long years ago—possibly longer—that the custom of New Year’s calls was abandoned in New York.”
As part of the social season around Christmastide the hosting (and visiting) of open houses on the first of the year “came down from the time when New York was a Dutch colony.”
According to The Lotus:
From old Dutch times to about 1880 New Year’s Day in New York was devoted to the universal interchange of visits. Every door was thrown wide open. It was a breach of etiquette to omit any acquaintance in these annual calls, when old friendships were renewed and family differences were amicably settled. A hearty welcome was extended even to strangers of presentable appearance.
Everywhere “the traditions of tremendous Dutch eating and drinking were faithfully observed.” Certain houses were noted for their specialities: “At one it was eggnog; at another, rum punch; at this one, pickled oysters; at that, boned turkey, or marvellous chocolate, or perfect Mocha coffee, or, for the connoisseur a drop of old Madeira, as soft as rainwater and as delicate in flavor as the texture of the glass from which it was sipped.” Everyone served New Year’s cakes, “in the form of an Egyptian cartouch.” Matthew Wills writes in JSTOR Daily that, “No explanation of that particular design is given, so we may surmise that Egyptomania, born of Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1798-1801 and subsequently fostered by the Victorians, was still going strong.”
At the height of the tradition, when New York society was still a small world of friends, the open houses were merry, informal gatherings. For the young they must have been looked forward to with much excitement. Wills writes, “By the mid-1800s, these calls were also a chance for single young men to meet single young women. It was a good way to scout out the possibilities on both sides of the marriage market.”
But by the 1880s the city had become too populous and anonymous for such a civilized tradition. The writers of The Lotus conclude that, “The gradual breaking down of all the lines of conventionality into a wild and unseemly riot of visits led to the finish of the custom.” More’s the pity.