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.

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.

Nantucket Scrimshaw

If you watched my experiment with a whale oil lamp, you know that I have an interest in nineteenth century whaling. There are two fine museums dedicated to that bygone industry, located in the Massachusetts coastal towns that feature in Melville’s novel, Moby Dick: New Bedford and Nantucket. Having sailed out to Nantucket recently, I visited the museum on the island.

Pictured below are examples of scrimshaw from the collection—in this case whale teeth—laboriously engraved by sailors, as well as the once ubiquitous whalebone corset.

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.

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.

Lovecraftian Heraldry

In 1927 the weird fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft devised for himself a coat of arms. It was done in the spirit of fun, influenced by his friend Wilfred Blanch Talman, “who has transmitted enough of his enthusiasm” for heraldry to motivate the undertaking. To my knowledge Lovecraft never assumed the arms in any practical sense but he approached the design with a high degree of genealogical seriousness. Anyone who has read his letters knows that he was a repository for family history so this is not surprising.

The personal arms represent a quartering of those granted to various paternal and maternal ancestors, what Lovecraft calls his “four main streams of blood.” In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, he explains the quarters:

The upper two, left to right, are Lovecraft & Phillips, which I have always known. The lower left is Allgood—family of my father’s mother—of which I had the verbal description, but I never saw drawn out till Talman interpreted the language with his facile pen. The lower right is Place—family of my mother’s mother—which I had never seen in my life until yesterday afternoon when when we looked it up at the library…the crest and motto are Lovecraft.

The letter is in the collection of Brown University Library.

Around Plymouth

A few more pictures from this summer’s wanderings in Plymouth, Massachusetts, during the quadricentennial of the Mayflower landing:

Above is the view out to Cape Cod Bay from Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the first English settlement circa 1620. It was built in the 1950s by Henry Hornblower II, an archaeologist, Harvard man, and investor with the family firm of Hornblower & Weeks.

Below is a reconstruction of the Jenney Grist Mill in downtown Plymouth. It stands on the site of the original mill that served the early colonists.

Across from the grist mill and up a long walk is Burial Hill, the site of the first English fort, and cemetery. A number of Mayflower passengers are buried here including Governor William Bradford and our family patriarch Richard Warren.

Visible from Burial Hill is the steeple of the First Parish Church, recently taken under the custodianship of the General Society of Mayflower Descendants.

See also: The Mayflower Quadricentennial and Plymouth Rock, 1920.

Plymouth Rock, 1920

A hundred years ago this year for the tricentennial of the Mayflower landing, a neoclassical portico by the architectural firm, McKim, Mead & White, was erected over Plymouth Rock.

The lead architect on the project was partner William M. Kendall. It was Kendall who had chosen the inscription, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds,” for the New York City General Post Office building designed by the firm in 1912. The line, taken from a description by Herodotus of the Persian postal couriers, has become the unofficial motto of the US Postal Service.

Kendall was the son of classicist Joshua Kendall, and a Mayflower descendant.

See also: The Mayflower Quadricentennial and Around Plymouth.

The Mayflower Quadricentennial

As 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, we traveled to Cape Cod Bay this summer for a quiet commemoration. My children descend on their mother’s side from the Mayflower passenger Richard Warren, so it was an occasion to pay regards to their sixteen-times great grandfather. Not to mention a welcome respite: sea mist and cool gray skies throughout.

The original Mayflower returned to London with her captain and was probably demolished in Rotherhithe around 1624. But in the 1950s a replica museum ship was moored at Long Wharf near Plymouth Rock where it remains a popular tourist attraction. Mayflower II is seaworthy, having sailed from England where she was built, following her predecessor and namesake. But in the lead-up to the quadricentennial the ship underwent extensive restoration at Mystic seaport in Connecticut. A crew member told me that approximately seventy per cent of the wood is new.

This past week was the homecoming for Mayflower II which returned to Plymouth on Monday.

See also: Plymouth Rock, 1920 and Around Plymouth.