A boy remembers New Year’s calling in the 1860s

The tradition—a carryover from colonial New Amsterdam—died out with gaslights and elevated trains.

But going “calling” on New Year’s Day was still in full swing in the 1860s, as sculptor James E. Kelly remembers in his memoir of later 19th century New York, Tell Me of Lincoln.

“There was great preparation on all sides for calling and receiving on New Year’s Day,” recalled Kelly. “Parties were made up and lists prepared. Those who had money hired a coach or sleigh, while others less fortunate footed it.”

Kelly lived with his middle-class parents in the West 50s off Eighth Avenue. He and his pals hoofed it on January 1 to the homes of neighbor girls, who waited to receive callers in a very gender-specific and competitive ritual.

“Girls prepared all sorts of refreshments and vied with each other with the number of callers. . . . “Small boys ran from store to store bursting in with yells: ‘Wish you a happy New Year, what are you going to give us?’ The streets were filled with cutters and sleighs with jingle bells—it was joy inspiring.”

“After church, two or three of my friends would gather at my house, and well primed with cake, coffee, or lemonade, we would start out for the day visiting our neighbors and gradually extending our circle.”

“The glow and tingle of the walk was heightened by the gust of warm spice-laden air that greeted us, and as our pretty little girl schoolmates received us at the doors in all their holiday finery.”

“We lined up on the sofa, and they overwhelmed us with  the embarrassment of riches: oranges, cake, apples, lemonade, coffee, doughnuts, raisins, and spice New Year’s cake, etc.”

Kelly and his chums were adolescents, so mingling with girls meant lots of awkwardness—with the girls giggling and tugging at their short dresses and the boys spilling drinks. We “would whack or punch each other on the knees, till we finally mustered up the courage to bid a happy New Year and start for the next house.”

For slightly older men and women, calling served as a socially acceptable way for the sexes to meet and greet and potentially find a match.

“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.”

“Among those who received special attention were some young veteran soldiers, whose empty sleeves gave the girls an excuse to hover around and serve them.”

“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.

“One sang by request the then popular song, “Ever of Thee,” while a taller and fairer on accompanied her lightly on the harp.”

Kelly also recalls the demise of calling. “As years went on, some exclusive [families] used to hang out baskets on the door knob to receive cards from the pilgrims of friendship.”

“This sort of frigid acknowledgment soon killed the enthusiasm, and after a few seasons, the joys of New Years calling were no more.”

Now for a little girl’s version of the holiday, here’s an excerpt from an 1850 diary. Want to revive the tradition? Join guests at the Merchant House Museum on January 1.

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13 Responses to “A boy remembers New Year’s calling in the 1860s”

  1. petey Says:

    very informative!
    and happy new year!

  2. Zoé Says:

    Wow – what a lovely post Ephemeral. I would love to ‘call’ on the Merchant House tomorrow – but I am going to stay in where it’s warm! (I’m across the Sound from NYC – not feeling like braving it). I hope the historians/docents there have fun & Happy New Year to those reading!

    People described here counting their callers reminds me of *some* people at present obsessed w/ their ‘likes’ from other bloggers or on comments or FB. Lol – you know who you are…

    It’s a shame that this sort of ritual visiting – across the world really – has died/or is dying out. My German immigrant mum & grandmother (who lived w/ us) had people (other German immigrants – lol – the only people willing to sit still & talk for hours & hours) over on Sunday afternoons for coffee & cake. This was in the 70s.

    It seems a bit like the marathon round of visitation I had to participate in when I travelled to Palermo Sicily to meet my in laws in the 80s. Lol – *with* serious jet lag. Some of the foods were the same as described here also. There was alcohol served at each stop – so it was not easy. Especially since it is rude to refuse food & drink in those circumstances there.

    Our lives are becoming devoid of shared real world social ritual.

    What did it mean that the soldiers had ’empty sleeves’?

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I took “empty sleeves” to mean that they were amputees. Many men came back from the Civil War with physical and emotional injuries that made them unable to work or function well. Part of the reason the Bowery became a skid row has to do with all the veterans who congregated there. Today we call it PTSD, but then I don’t think there was a name for it then.

      • Zoé Says:

        That makes perfect sense Ephemeral. I had mistakenly thought it might have something to do w/ money – such as empty pockets. (A metaphor for something). I don’t know why I forgot about amputations. Especially given the very literal phrasing.

        I read or saw in a documentary (?) that they didn’t have *time* to do proper surgeries – hence the flurry of amputations one after another. And that some of them were due to infections of small wounds. I’m not sure if I’ve remembered those reasons given accurately.

        I had never heard the connection w/ the men on the Bowery.

  3. Ali Says:

    My Manhattan-born, WW-vet dad favored this custom, much to my mother’s dismay. He’d pack our family of six into our Pontiac, as if we were just taking in Christmas decorations in Northern Westchester. Before you knew it, we were out in Astoria or Long Island showing up at the doors of Dad’s old neighborhood friends: Larry Szabo, the Gilcrests, Frank & Eleanor Kraus, Jane & Warren [owned a bar in Astoria]. My mother was always embarrassed in those pre-cell phone days, but everyone made us feel welcome. Remember too, drinking ginger ale with maraschino cherries. it felt like a celebration.

    • Zoé Says:

      Lol – my parents had a Pontiac *Catalina* station wagon in the 60s. (Four of us small kids & also from just North of the City – CT near Westchester). Silver w/ red interior & tiny fins on the back. No seatbelts; only a magnetic St.Christopher medal to keep us safe… *metal* dashboard!

      We used to get dragged on long road trips in that car. Not at the New Year though. Or in winter. Thankfully! Perhaps Larry Szabo will write in – now that you called him out…

  4. j.henry Says:

    Both my parents, who grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the 1920’s, grew up with this custom. In fact, my father went with a friend to my great aunt’s home New Years day and asked my mother out for their 1st date that day. My great aunt was known for her cold bean dish served only on New Years Day.

    • Zoé Says:

      Is there a story/custom behind “cold beans” on New Years Day?

      My former landlord grew up there (Park Slope) in the Twenties. (Before his father passed & they took a tumble in finances). The Hughes family. I think near the Park (?). His mum was from England.

  5. Ali Says:

    Bean dishes and fresh ham were common NY Day fare.

  6. David Rosenblatt Says:

    Actually, this tradition is going strong on the other side of the world. The practice of “calling” is a very apt description of what Vietnamese people do on their new year, or Tet. Everyone visits family & friends, often calling unannounced; and, in turn, everyone has food and drink prepared for their visitors. And as far as children running around spouting, “Happy New Year, what are you going to give us?”, that tradition is also alive and well, as children here have learned to expect envelopes holding “ly xi”, or lucky money, from older friends and relatives.

  7. pliny Says:

    I believe the cold beans come from the idea that if you eat a lot of beans or lentils on New Years day it means that the new year will have lots of good days ahead.Something like each bean you eat will bring you luck.

  8. Zoé Says:

    Re. various foods people have mentioned here. German tradition is to give a Marzipan pig for Good Luck for the coming year.

    It comes w/ a little gold coin in its little pale pink sugary almond paste mouth. (Usually only a small circulating coin wrapped in gold foil now). They come in various sizes. Real Marzipan is very expensive… vs Perzipan (Pärzipan?) which is mostly sugar; hence the size options.

    If anyone reading lived in Yorkville before Elk Candy closed (which was in the early/mid 00s) – you may remember the lovely Marzipan pigs & fruit etc. from that shop. They were there for decades. At least since the 60s & possibly earlier. It was a tiny narrow sliver of a shop which was always packed due to their amazing Marzipan & sweets made in the back kitchen.

    You could order in German or English. In the 80s when they began to hire young local high school students I always wondered if they had to learn German before braving the counter. It’s a difficult language to learn – hence I felt a bit sorry for them! xx

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