New Year’s Calling

Several Christmases ago I wrote about the bygone tradition of New Year’s Day “calling” in New York, when rounds of visits were paid to friends and acquaintances and every house was open to guests. It was the social highlight of the holiday season from the time of the Dutch settlers until the custom faded in the 1870s and 1880s.

This year I want to revisit the topic with some contemporary descriptions of the event. The first comes from Mrs T.J. Crowen, who offered instructions for hostesses in her 1847 book, The American System of Cookery. She wrote:

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.

Mrs Crowen’s book was obviously a primary source for the Lotus article I quoted in the aforementioned post, which lists many of the same dishes.

A number of first-hand accounts give us a sense of the experience of the day. In her diary for January 2, 1850, later published as Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York, ten-year old Catherine Havens wrote:

Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and I had lovely presents. We had 139 callers, and I have an ivory tablet and write all their names down on it. We have to be dressed and ready by 10 o’clock to receive. Some of the gentleman come together and don’t stay more than a minute; but some go into the back room and take some oysters and coffee and cake, and stay and talk…The gentlemen dropping in all day and until long after I have gone to bed; and the horses look tired, and the livery men make a lot of money.

Mr. Woolsey Porter and his brother, Mr. Dwight Porter always come in the evening and sit and talk a long time. They are very fond of one of my sisters.

As the latter comment suggests, match-making and romance were part of the appeal for the younger generations.

The artist James Edward Kelly was a young teenager in the late 1860s. He reminisced on the tradition of calls at that time in an unpublished memoir, later released in the collection, Tell Me of Lincoln. He wrote:

There was great preparation on all sides for calling and receiving on New Year’s Day. Parties were made up and lists prepared. Those who had money hired a coach or sleigh, while others less fortunate footed it…New Year’s morning, with shutters closed, and blinds drawn down, gas lighted, the young ladies prepared to receive their guests. All seemed to reflect the glow and color of the pendant prisms on the chandeliers and candelabra…The girls in full dress with flowers in their hair, clustered around a long table. Its glistening silver coffee urn, liquors, etc., with the usual turkey and other substantial things, which they served to the groups of merry friends who had driven up in their cutters…Most of the guests seemed anxious to make a record for the number of calls they made—as the girls were anxious as to the number of calls they received by counting their visiting cards—but others evidently came to stay judging from the way they clustered around the beautiful young girls.

The end of New Year’s Day calling in Gotham can be dated definitively to the 1880s, with The New York Times recording the last vestiges of observance in 1888. An article entitled “A Very Quiet New Year’s; Very Few of the Usual ‘Calls’ Made Yesterday,” appeared on January 3rd. The Times reported:

But by far the most noteworthy circumstance in yesterday’s history was the almost complete death of the ancient custom of call-making.

Some of the ‘old boys,’ however, could be seen yesterday in their spotless kid gloves and shiny ties making the rounds as solemnly as they did 30, 40, or 50 years ago…In none of the brownstone districts yesterday were the familiar sights of other New Year’s Days to be encountered…Not even the acknowledgment of a basket for cards was shown either on Fifth or Madison avenue of the cross streets.

Few carriages were observed bearing the gentlemen about on a pilgrimage of good wishes, and as a matter of fact the ladies themselves did not even deem it necessary to inform their friends that they should not receive. It was taken for granted that they would not.

Pictured above: “New Year’s Calls—The Knickerbockers of 1650 and 1873” by Sol Eytinge. Published in Harper’s Weekly (January 4, 1873).

See also: New Year’s Day in Old New York.


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