Saturday, January 4, 2014

"A Very Rainbow of Girls:" New Year's Day in Victorian New York City

The etiquette of New-Year's calls is very simple.  The hospitalities of the day devolve entirely upon the ladies who remain at home to receive any gentleman friends that call to pay the compliments of the season.
--Harper's Bazar, January 1, 1870

Sure.  It all seems simple.  The girls stay at home to put out a reception; the men get in their carriages or go on foot to pay their respects to all their friends about town.

The tradition of the New Year's Day receptions and calls was linked with New York's Dutch history and infused with hazy images of the 17th and 18th centuries, but the liveliest descriptions I have found revolve around the third quarter of the 19th century--the height of the Victorian era.  By this time, the practice had reached a sort popular frenzy, and the traditions and expectations carried a lot of weight for the elite and aspiring elites about town. 

While people in the rest of the country were watching their clocks tick down to midnight on New Year's Eve (at left, Harper's Bazar 1870), well-to-do New Yorkers were preparing for the annual frenzy of New Year's Day.  Sure there were still some balls to attend (though "the season" had not officially opened yet) and punch to drink, but much of the focus of the season lay on the following morning. 

The receptions that day were described in the richest of textures and hues: "On New Year's Day there was a very rainbow of girls in the Bell drawing room.  Such filmy, dainty-hued dresses, such bright cheeks and eyes, such a bewildering tangle of glossy hair never before shimmered around a prosperous, beaming old father," went "At Home, January First," an 1883 story.  "Full dress is now generally adopted by ladies when observing New-Year's calls," advised an 1872 article on dress, along with extensive descriptions of silk, velvet, brocade, and lace gowns that were appropriate to all age groups, from the elderly to the the very young for the day's festivities.

 "Waiting for Calls on New Year's Day"

The well-dressed ladies, calmly receiving visitors in the drawing room concealed the energetic preparations of the morning though.  For girls and women the excitement of being dressed at your best and ready to receive guests starting as early as nine o'clock in the morning could result in quite a hullabaloo.

"It must be admitted that there had been, all over the house, a great flutter for three mortal hours previous to our appearance in the drawing room.  The coming and going of hair dressers; the running to and fro of maids...
There seemed no end to the perplexities which arose to torment us on this eventful morning."
--Harper's Bazar, January 8, 1870

And woe to the girl who did not make her reservations with the hair dresser early enough.  The same story went on to describe these unfortunate girls:

"Molly Magpie and Pinky Pearl, who live just over the way, were obliged to have their tresses arranged the evening before, as the hair-dressers were all engaged, and the poor things had to sit up all night, in statu quo, sleeping like rabbits, with one eye open, lest some curl or braid be disarranged."

Then there was the food to lay out.  A grand spread of boned turkey, pickled oysters, sandwiches, quail, salads, and a few confections were served alongside coffee, tea, punch, and wine for the visitors.  With many houses to visit, men were not expected to sit down to any sort of meal, but pick a little as they went along.  However, advice literature stated that "The lady of the house is not required, happily, to eat and drink with all her guests on New-Year's Day.  If she were, her condition at evening would be quite pitiable."

And then, as the fateful hour approached, the women gathered in the parlor to await their first callers (as seen in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper 1870 at left).  As many as 150 or 200 gentlemen might might be expected to pass through your house on their way to fulfilling a list of 50 or more destinations.  A servant was posted to open the door as a parade of men poured through it, leaving their card in a silver salver where it could be reviewed the next day. The visits were so short, men were not even expected to remove their overcoats, according to the advice columns of the day.  Several Harper's articles were sure to state that although "abuses" did occur--with unknown men calling willy-nilly on any house that might have more to offer in the way of ladies, food, wine--for the most part, they stuck with households where they were known and invited. 

Nevertheless, romantic overtones were blended into these short visits. Even though mothers, aunts, and little sisters of five or six years could be found in the parlor to receive guests, it was the marriageable young ladies that stole the show.  And while some callers were extended family, family friends, or crusty old men, many were eligible bachelors with handsome faces or handsome friends.  "At last the marriageable men are coming!" exclaimed one of the "rainbow" of teenage daughters in "At Home, January First."  The girl's mother circled the room, scoping out what she considered the best candidates for her daughters.

Men who stayed longer than their requisite five or ten minutes might be considered to be making a special gesture.  One 1876 poem "New Years Calls or a Pleasant Prospect for Bessie" told the story of young Will who was first over the doorstep at nine o'clock, returned again at eleven to chat much longer during a lull, and then again at one o'clock.  Finally Young Will returned for tea later that evening, and by the next New Year's, the couple were engaged.  Another story recounted "Madge fell in love with the artist...and I gave preference to the poet."

Calls could go well into the evening, and the day was known for being an exhausting one for women--some of whom had been up since four or five o'clock in the morning with their hair dressers, and others who had slept the night before perched on chair.  As the ebb and swell of guests proceeded over the course of the day, there crept in an element of grueling marathon entertaining.  By seven and eight o'clock at night, they were wearily casting themselves into chairs, suddenly glad that New Year's Day was a once-a -year affair.   Harper's articles were a little less charitable towards the men, who had visited some 50 houses (or 150, if their boasts are to be believed) and sampled wine and punch along the way.  Tipsiness could turn to drunkeness for sporting young lads on the make (see the cartoon at left).

All of this eventually lead to the practice's decline in the 1880s.  Some articles decried the practice of turning fine young ladies into nothing but "barmaids" for the day, pouring drinks for one man after another.  Others suggested that it was risky for girls to competitively invite as many men as they could think of over to their homes without really knowing them all that well ("At Home, January First" culminates in the realization that one of their invited guests--whom nobody knew all that well to begin with--was in fact a fugitive murderer who was later shot by police officer in their garden.)  Some even declared that the city itself was the problem, having grown geographically so large that it was impossible to travel to that many homes in one day.  Somewhere around 1883 and 1884 Harper's began to declare that the most fashionable set were abandoning New Year's Day entirely, and even the middle class were just putting out an obligatory basket on their door where gentlemen could drop their cards without having to come in.  By the 1890s, the practice appears to have been largely abandoned by anyone that Bazar cared to report about.

Although I've kept my eye out, I've never managed to spot a Livingston reference to this practice, which I have to say that I find disappointing since it seems like an awful lot of fun.  Part of it could simply be the time frame.  During the middle of the 19th century, Clermont Livingston was the patriarch of our branch of the Livingston family.  He does not appear to have been much of a party animal, as he remarked once about being sick of Christmas parties, long before ever making it to the New Year's home stretch.  After the death of his wife in 1851, he eschewed the city in the winter, preferring instead to stay north in the Hudson Valley.  His daughter Mary (1845 at right with her brother John Henry) would likely have been to young to superintend the event on her own without a mother anyway until at least the mid 1860s, and anyway she had found a husband of her own by that time and gotten settled at Clermont far away from the hustle and bustle of New York City.

Her brother John Henry (b. 1848), on the other hand, may well have participated in the fun when he was old enough during the late 1860s and up until his 1871 marriage.  Sadly, I have found no references to New Year's Day calling from him either, but I can just imagine his 6' 5" figure making quite the impression as he entered the drawing rooms of ladies all over the town.

Sadly, 2014 doesn't seem to offer any better chances of seeing this tradition revived.  Although cars might seem to make travel a little easier, towns are even less "walk-able" than they were 1884--and the suburbs seem ill-equipped to deal with bands of roving men going from house to house.  Ah well, I will just have to live vicariously through the historic recollections of nineteenth century fashion magazines.

** All of the Harper's Bazar images and references in this article were sourced from the excellent Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, History on the Cornell website.


  1. I love this! It seems like a great set-up for so many different types of stories.