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.

Fenimore Cooper in New York

For many years I lived on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan. During that time I wrote a biography of James Fenimore Cooper. My office at the back of the apartment overlooked a charmless space behind the neighboring bars, restaurants, and apartment buildings. But as I was researching and writing the book I discovered that the room afforded me a view of Cooper’s own house. 149 Bleecker Street is one of two surviving city residences. Cooper, his wife Susan, and their children, moved into the house in 1833, after a seven year sojourn in Europe.

I describe their arrival in the following excerpt:

The Coopers disembarked on Manhattan Island along with four Swiss servants and a French tiger cat named Coquelicot, after the French word for poppy, the flower that had made such an impression on the family when first seen at Netley Abbey. From the docks they went directly to the City Hotel on Broadway between Thames and Cedar streets. A letter was waiting for them at reception from Susan’s sister Caroline. She informed them that lodgings had been rented for the Coopers in Greenwich Village. It was Samuel Morse who had made the arrangements. He selected for them a townhouse at number 4 Carroll Place, what is now 149 Bleecker Street. In 1833 the section of Bleecker between Thompson Street and LaGuardia Place (then Laurens Street) was named Carroll Place, after Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Susan’s sisters had taken it upon themselves to furnish and prepare the house. In a letter to Ann Pomeroy, her sister-in-law, Susan wrote that the DeLancey women “had every thing as comfortable for us, as it was possible, a good and bright fire, and tea ready—and were themselves on the steps waiting to welcome us—It was a happy moment, when I heard their dear voices, and pressed them to my bosom, after so long a separation”. Within an hour of their arrival the Coopers were joined at Carroll Place by James’s niece (Ann’s daughter) Georgeann, her husband Theodore Keese, and their son George Pomeroy Keese, as well another niece, Isaac’s daughter, Mary.

The Coopers also received a warm welcome from their oldest and dearest friends. Upon learning that they had returned, William Dunlap made haste to the house at Carroll Place. In his enthusiasm he arrived before the Coopers. As James Beard writes, Samuel Morse, who had preceded them across the Atlantic, “immediately resumed his intimacy with the Coopers”—as did James’s lifelong friend, William Jay, and Jay’s brother Peter, along with their families.

Viewed from the old office (below), the house in question is third from the foreground, with a black garret window. The taller building in the middle is part of the original terraced row with its neighbors, but was later extended by two storeys.

149 Bleecker Street has been occupied by Terra Blues for the past thirty years.

Lovecraft at the Met

John Coulthart has reprinted a suitably weird anecdote about Lovecraft told by Frank Belknap Long. It was originally published in a 1982 issue of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine. An interviewer asked Long about a visit he and H. P. Lovecraft made to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York some six decades earlier.

Frank Belknap Long: You mean the time we visited the Egyptian tomb? Well, the Metropolitan apparently still has it. This was way back in the 1920s. The tomb was on the main floor in the Hall of Egyptian Antiquities, and we both went inside to the inner burial chamber. Howard was fascinated by the somberness of the whole thing. He put his hand against the corrugated stone wall, just casually, and the next day he developed a pronounced but not too serious inflammation. There was no great pain involved, and the swelling went down in two or three days. But it seems as if some malign, supernatural influence still lingered in the burial chamber—The Curse of the Pharaohs—as if they resented the fact that Howard had entered this tomb and touched the wall. Perhaps they had singled him out because of his stories and feared he was getting too close to the Ancient Mysteries.

The chamber in question is the Tomb of Perneb, which is of course still on display at the Met. It had opened to the public in 1916, roughly a decade before Lovecraft and Long visited. Met archaeologist Caroline Ransom Williams wrote of the unveiling:

People were formed in line two abreast all the way back to the Fifth avenue entrance to get into the chambers. Glass positions electrically lighted illustrate the former position and the taking down of the tomb. There are two cases of the objects found in the course of the excavations including the greater part of Perneb’s skull. A model of the entire tomb makes clear the position of the burial chamber.

Lovecraft had just finished writing “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” around this time. It was the last story he wrote in Providence before moving to New York in 1924, where he lived for two years. The story was ghost-written for Harry Houdini and published under Houdini’s byline in the May 1924 edition of Weird Tales.

The Saint-Gaudens Diana

When Stanford White designed the second Madison Square Garden at 26th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, he commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create a statue of the Roman goddess Diana, which would surmount the tower.

The venue opened in 1890 and Diana was installed the following year. Saint-Gaudens made several versions and casts of the sculpture. At eighteen feet and eighteen hundred pounds the original was deemed too large and was replaced. It went on to adorn the Women’s Pavilion at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where it was ultimately destroyed by the fire that ravaged the fairgrounds eight month after the exhibition concluded.

A second version was installed at Madison Square Garden in November of 1893. A much lighter thirteen feet of hollow gilt copper, it functioned as a weathervane, turning on an orb plinth in the wind. This version became an iconic feature of the New York City skyline, lit at night by electric lights.

When Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925 the statue was moved to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it remains today.

Diana of the Tower still has a presence in New York, in the form of a 1928 cast. It stands in pride of place in the courtyard of the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in front of a fine Neoclassical facade, both pictured below.

An Ancient Megalith in New York

A dolmen is a type of Neolithic tomb architecture found in Western Europe. So what would one be doing in a small town in the Hudson Valley? Balanced Rock in North Salem, New York is a unique example of (what appears to be) a European megalith in North America, long predating recorded transatlantic contact.

I filmed a short video about the structure and the question of its origin which you can watch below, or at YouTube.

A New Essay in ‘Plum Lines’

In 1914 the English novelist P.G. Wodehouse was married at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Manhattan. This parish is New York’s historic actors church, known fondly in theatrical circles as “The Little Church Around the Corner.” For the rest of his long career Wodehouse commemorated the event by sending his characters there to be married. He even set the finale of a Broadway musical at the church, necessitating its recreation on stage.

My essay about the parish appears in the Spring issue of Plum Lines: The Quarterly Journal of the Wodehouse Society. If you are a member of the Society, you have your copy. If not, join here.

Rip Van Winkle at the D.A.C.

When I was growing up my father was a member of the Downtown Athletic Club on West Street in lower Manhattan. The D.A.C. was best known for awarding the Heisman Trophy to college football players beginning in the 1930s. The clubhouse was a purpose-built Art Deco tower with sports facilities, baths, dining, and guest rooms. Located near the Battery its membership mostly worked on Wall Street.

The club is gone now. It was in financial decline by the late 1990s when I graduated high school and it never reopened after 9/11. The landmarked building has been converted into condos and the membership were scattered to our midtown clubs.

For a time the D.A.C. boasted the longest bar in New York. Above it hung a mural based on Washington Irving’s story “Rip Van Winkle.” An article in the June 1931 club bulletin describes the artwork:

The first panel at the extreme left shows Rip Van Winkle going up into the Catskills with his newly found friend. In the center panel we see Henrich Hudson’s men bowling, drinking and having a general good time. Rip is partaking generously from the jug. The third panel shows Old Rip’s return to town where after twenty years no one seems to know him.

Aldo Lazzarini, the artist, spent about six weeks on the paintings and J. Schuyler Casey often visited the studio to watch the work as it progressed.

The only picture I could find of the mural is the low-quality scan reproduced above. It shows a detail from the center panel. I wonder what happened to the mural. I would like to think it found a good home.

The Met Armory

Bashford Dean, who founded the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote:

Helmets and body armor are usually considered as objects beautiful, rather than useful. They are exhibited in museums, in halls hung with tapestries, beside faience, ivories and enamels of olden times… [but] one may point to the evidence of ancient and formidable injuries which numerous specimens of armor exhibit today; and one may even affirm that there was scarcely a famous soldier in those days who did not owe his life, directly or indirectly to his armor.

The quote comes from Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare, published in 1920. Dean was foremost a marine biologist but a lifelong weapons collector and researcher.

The Yale Club Bookplate

Howard Pyle was born on this day in 1853. He was the first of the golden age American illustrators, followed by his pupil N.C. Wyeth. Through Pyle a faint Pre-Raphaelite influence came to characterize the genre.

It interested me to discover a work by Pyle that I had seen many times before noticing his initials: the ex-libris of The Yale Club of New York City. Pyle’s design was commissioned in 1905. The plate was engraved by Edwin Davis French, whom Pyle described as “the best engraver in the world.” The ex-libris is affixed to every book in the clubhouse library.

Van Rensselaer Manor

From the year 1630 until well into the nineteenth century the Van Rensselaer family were lords of the manor of Rensselaerwyck, a vast fiefdom in upstate New York, around Albany. Killian Van Rensselaer had acquired the land from the Dutch West India Company ten years after the Mayflower landed and it remained in the family through successive Dutch, English, and American governments. I described the later years of the manor at length in my biography of James Fenimore Cooper, a friend of the family.

The manor house was dismantled in the 1890s and rebuilt as the Sigma Phi fraternity house, called Van Rensselaer Hall, at Williams College in Massachusetts. Unfortunately it was torn down by the college in the 1970s. The only surviving fragments of the house were interiors donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The wallpaper of the great hall has been used to reconstruct the room in the American Wing. On a recent visit to the museum I took the opportunity to photograph the furnishings in detail.