The New Year in New York

A drawing by F. O. C. Darley published in Harper's Weekly on January 1, 1859 (image and text: HarpWeek via The New York Times) The caption for this untitled cartoon reads: 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.

Although I’ve lived in New York City my entire life, I have never been to Times Square on New Year’s eve.  The idea of standing out in the cold with close to a million others to ring in the new year sounds dreadfully exhausting to me, but perhaps not quite as exhausting as the old New Year’s tradition of “calling” or “visiting.”

In 1907, Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, dropped the first illuminated ball from the flagpole on the recently constructed New York Times Building that was located in the newly renamed Times Square and started a tradition that would last over a century.  Predating this tradition, according to The New York Times Learning Network’s On This Day, nineteenth century New Yorkers practiced another ritual that seems to have been long forgotten:

New Year’s Day was traditionally considered the best time of the year for renewing, reviving, or reaffirming friendships. During the nineteenth century, it was the custom of urban gentlemen to pay formal visits to the households of friends and relatives on that holiday. Gentlemen were expected to dress appropriately in morning costume, consisting of a dark coat, vest and tie, dark or light pants, and somber-colored gloves. Receiving the gentlemen callers were the ladies of the house, dressed in their sartorial finery or, occasionally, in the costume of famous female figures in history or myth.

This ritual could presumably take all day, even if one began at the crack of dawn, and would be quite exhausting, not to mention time consuming.  In the preface to the entries from 1844 in The Diary of Philip Hone, editor Allan Nevins writes:

New Year’s Day was bright, clear, and bracing, and everyone turned out in good spirits.  “New York seemed to enjoy a general carnival,” writes Hone.  “Broadway, from one end to the other, was alive with private carriages, omnibuses, cabs, and curricles, and lines of pedestrians fringed the carriageways.  There must have been more visiting than on any other former New Year’s Day.  I was out more than five hours, and my girls tell me they received one hundred and sixty-nine visits.”  The diarist was pleased that the old New York custom was so well kept up.  Foreigners were delighted with it.  “There is so much of life and spirit and heartiness in it, that it is to be hoped no freak of fashion will ever interpose to prevent its observance.”  (682)

It was presumably not a freak of fashion, but the pace of life in New York that interposed.  As the city, and its inhabitants, grew, so did the speed and magnitude at which things happened.  I would imagine that 169 visitors in five hours would be anyone’s limit.  There were also probably other factors, such as Mother Nature herself, that stood in the way.  George Templeton Strong writes in his diary in 1869:

January 2, Saturday.  The New Year opened with cold rain that froze and covered all out of doors with a slippery veneering of ice.  On top of this, a layer of sleet or minute hail, or spheroid snow particles, was depositing itself copiously all day long. … I had prepared an elaborate “list,” but before we got very far, it became evident that my designs could not be fully executed.  One’s feet were soaked and chilled in merely going from the carriage to the first half-dozen doors.  I won’t walk in overshoes into a lady’s drawing room (though I saw some swells who thought it right to do so), and taking off one’s overshoes in entries is a piece of work; and then I nearly broke my neck in ascending and descending door steps on more than one occasion. (239)

Overshoes aside, getting around in foul weather must have been quite a chore.  How much easier and faster, yet infinitely less charming, these trips would have been if Strong had been able to take the subway.

The idea of making a human, albeit formal, connection to friends and relatives is appealing to me, especially in this age of disconnection and technological mediation.  I am in my living room “speaking” to you, mediated by many layers of technology that allow me to reach countless more “friends” than a nineteenth-century gentleman could in even a week of paying visits, yet so much is also lost.

I would like to think that I do, in my own way, continue this tradition of getting in touch with those near and dear to me at the start of every new year.  I send out New Year’s greetings via email.  I Skype with my other in Japan.  And I spend the day with my family at home, and though I do not wear a costume, I do wear my pajamas.  Thus, on this New Year’s Day in 2012, I pay a “visit” to you to wish you a happy and healthy new year from everyone at New York Bound Books.  If you were not able to “call” on us today, we hope you will soon.


On This Day, The Learning Network, The New York Times Online

Hone, Philip. Nevins, Allan and Milton Halsey Thomas, eds. The Diary of Philip Hone 1828-1851. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1927. Various reprints.

Strong, George Templeton. Nevins, Allan and Thomas, Milton Halsey, eds. The Diary of George Templeton Strong. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1952. 4 vol. Various reprints.





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  1. Sean’s avatar

    My parents emigrated with me from Scotland where this practice of visiting friends was known as “first-footing” and where New Year’s surpassed Christmas in celebration (Scotland’s strict Presbyterians frowned on partying on a religious day like Christmas. Any wonder why “Auld Lang Syne” is the official song for New Year’s?)

    People would visit their friends on Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) or New Year’s Day. It was expected you bring a gift. If the first person to cross over the threshold did not have a gift, this was purported to bring a year of bad luck to the household.

    My mother was superstitious enough that, to ensure a year of good fortune, she would “first foot” our own house in Brooklyn, lest, God forbid, the first person to visit us, either on New Year’s or even just a workman a week later, would not know the custom and arrive empty-handed, thus dooming our household for the next 365 days.

    So, at five past midnight, she would take some candy or cookies with her, go outside, knock on the door, and wish me and my father a happy new year, thus ensuring us good fortune. So here was this ancient custom still practiced in Flatlands, Brooklyn in the 1960s.


  2. Yukie Ohta’s avatar

    What an interesting story. You were lucky to have such a vigilant and conscientious mother!



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