“Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and I had lovely presents,” wrote 10-year-old Catherine Havens in her diary, which chronicles a year in the life of a privileged city schoolgirl, on January 2, 1850.
The diary is a wonderful artifact, describing her home on Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street, her favorite candy stores on Eighth Street, and the afternoons she spends rolling hoops and playing in Washington Square.
And it also gives contemporary readers a glimpse into what New Year’s Day was like for the city’s elite 165 years ago.
At the time, the colonial Dutch tradition of receiving male callers all day was in still full swing among upper class families, with smartly dressed gentlemen making short (often inebriated) visits to the ladies of a household.
“We had 139 callers, and I have an ivory tablet and write all their names down on it,” wrote Catherine.
“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.”
Calling had romantic overtones. “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.”
Catherine ends her New Year’s Day entry with a thought about the future.
“Next January we shall be half through the nineteenth century. I hope I shall live to see the next century, but I don’t want to be alive when the year 2000 comes, for my Bible teacher says the world is coming to an end then, and perhaps sooner.”
She lived until 1939, almost making it to her 100th birthday.