Mrs. Pegu, and drawing-room, are all laid out in state to receive New Year’s calls. Thirty-two young gentlemen make a brief appearance at the door, and recite the following shibboleth: “How d’ye do, Mrs. Pegu. Happy New Year. Can’t stay a minute. Made seventy-six calls this morning; got thirty more to make. Adoo! Adoo!” The young gentlemen vanish, to be succeeded by others.
Prior to the late 19th century, New Year’s Day in New York was a traditional day of “calling.”
Men (of a certain class) were expected to dress themselves in their finery and pay calls to the homes of the ladies within their circle and wish them the very best for the new year. Only men were to do the calling. Women (and newly married men) were to stay at home, dressed to the nines, and offering a spread of cakes, cordials, oysters and other delectables. (Calling was, of course, a routine practice. See some rules regarding it here.)
|c. 1850, dress for receiving New Year’s day callers|
America’s first president was charmed by this New York tradition, which he first experienced in 1790.
“The highly favored situation of New York will, in the process of years, attract numerous emigrants,” Washington observed, “who will gradually change its ancient customs and manners; but let whatever changes take place, never forget the cordial, cheerful observances of New Year’s day.”
|A Rendering of New Year’s Day in New Amsterdam|
|Ready and Waiting: A New York City Parlor, 1854|
|Ladies in Finery Dressed for New Year’s Day Callers|
The man at the door should have a silver tray or card-basket in which to receive the cards of visitors. If a gentleman is not known to the lady of the house, he sends in his card; otherwise he leaves it with the waiter, who deposits it in some receptacle where it should be kept until the lady has leisure to examine the cards of all her guests. If a gentleman is calling on a young lady, and is not known to the hostess, he sends in his card to the former, who presents him to the hostess and to all the ladies present. If the room is full, an introduction to the hostess only is necessary. If the room is comparatively empty, it is much kinder to present a gentleman to each lady, as it tends to make conversation general. As a guest is about to depart, he should be invited to take some refreshment, and be conducted towards the dining-room for that purpose. This hospitality should never be urged, as man is a creature who dines, and is seldom willing to allow a luncheon to spoil a dinner. In a country neighborhood, however, or after a long walk, a visitor is almost always glad to break his fast and enjoy a pickled oyster, a sandwich, or a cup of bouillon.
The gentlemen caller had to be handled gingerly lest he violate protocol and do something gauche such as stay too long or talk too much. Women were instructed that they should not ask men to take off their coats or hats, and they should only be offered something to eat or drink only when they were about ready to depart.
As for topics of conversation, the weather was viewed as among the most amiable.
|Parlor Games: Please Behave Like Gentlemen! 1855, LOC.|
Whatever words were exchanged, by all means, a “gentleman should not be urged to stay when he calls. He has generally but five minutes in which to express a desire that old and pleasant memories shall be continued, that new and cordial friendships shall be formed, and after that compliment, which every well-bred man pays a lady, “How remarkably well you are looking to-day!” he wishes to be off.”
The Reverend Isaac Fidler, a visitor to New York in 1832, found the custom to be particularly charming and quite American. He described his experience of New Year’s Day calling:
|An 1891 Menu from Hoffman Cafe (NYPL)|
"New Year's Day in New York"
Here is one man’s account which originally appeared in The Hesperian, 1838:
Have you ever passed a New Year’s day in New York? If you have not, perhaps you would like to accompany me in my calls. We must start early, and take our list; containing the names of those we intend visiting, arranged in the most convenient routine of their residences. Many of them, business and other causes have prevented our meeting since last New Year.The first we call upon, is Miss Newton. She is a pretty affected girl, living in great splendor. The table in the back parlor is loaded with the luxuries of the season— oysters, turkey, wine, cordials, coffee, and confectionary, tempt every variety of taste. For this day the young lady has thrown off her airs, and each guest quits the house resolved to call again.The next place is old Mrs. Van Pelt’s. The daughters are all married and settled, her husband is dead, yet here sits the old vrow* ready to welcome her friends as warmly as in younger and happier years. Her table presents a striking contrast to the preceding one. Here, too, is cake and wine; but in the center stands a large silver urn, containing hot rum, which an old Knickerbocker thinks indispensable in dispensing the hospitalities of New Year’s Day. On a side-table reposes in great state, a large New Year’s cake. Now, if any of my readers are not aware what New Year cookies are, I pity them from my heart. In truth, poor ignorant reader! so much do 1 commiserate you, that I would fain enlighten you upon the subject of New Year cookies, if it were not a very busy day, and I have scarcely time to eat one, much less tell you how they are made.The next visit is to the bride, Mrs. Charlton. Her house is crowded with visitors, all anxious to wish her a happy New Year.The next is on the Misses Maxwell’s, who have been on rather cool terms with our family. The gentlemen call, and then they will have no excuse for continuing these distant feelings of friendship. Then follow some dozens more of friends and acquaintances. Night overtakes us still performing duty. Not one gloomy face have we seen this day.At home, we find a happy group of neighbors assembled, to finish the sports of the day in frolic and social chat. Jokes are cracked by the old folks, and love and mischief brewed by the young. All part, declaring, as I hope my readers will, that the first day of January in New-York is the happiest day of the year.”
*Vrow: Dutch, a woman, usually married.