Conservation · Historic House Museums · Holidays · Merchant's House · New York City · New York Theater

Small Talk, New Year’s Day, 1861

new-years-greetingWhen I did the research for An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65, I relied heavily on New Yorkers’ diaries because a diary tells you what real people really did. You can count on a diary.

John Ward, Lieutenant, 12th Regiment,N.Y. State Troops, Washington, D.C., May 1861.
John Ward, Lieutenant, 12th Regiment,N.Y. State Troops, Washington, D.C., May 1861.

Imagine how delighted I was, then, to discover the diary of John Ward, in which he  recounts his New Year’s Day calling in 1861. Here is an excerpt from my book:

“The most elaborate calling ritual of all took place on New Year’s Day when the doors between the parlors were thrown open for the traditional New Year’s Day reception. According to an old Dutch custom, on that day the ladies stayed home to receive guests and preside over a lavish buffet table, while the gentlemen sallied forth to make calls. . . .

“The ladies were bejeweled and beautifully dressed in low-neck silk gowns got up by their dressmakers especially for the occasion. The tables were laden with all manner of delicacies: turkey, chickens, fruits, pickled and stewed oysters, crullers, doughnuts and little New York cakes with mottoes written on them in icing. Alcohol flowed almost as freely as Croton water. . . .

“When John Ward was twenty-two years old, he made the rounds with his nineteen-year old brother, Press. They decided to make only a few calls (the total turned out to be thirty-three), so they were able to stay for more conversational exchange than was perhaps typical.

“John was impressed by the finery of the women—Julia Carville wore a French headdress of gold ornaments and velvet; Mrs. Fisher wore blue to match the blue silk on the parlor walls, and Julia Cutting, a red silk with a long train.

Winslow Homer, Waiting for Callers on New Year's Day
Winslow Homer, Waiting for Callers on New Year’s Day

“He talked to Bessie Fisher about the sculpture “Babes in he Woods” by Thomas Crawford and to Lizzie Schuschardt about crossing the ocean and admiring the rosy sunsets over Mount Rigi in Switzerland. Mrs General Jones told him how she detested shopping and always just went to one large shop and bought everything she could think of and scarcely shopped in Paris at all.

 

New Year's Day, New York City, 1868. Harper's Weekly, January 4, 1868
New Year’s Day, New York City, 1868. Harper’s Weekly, January 4, 1868

“He ate tongue and biscuits at the Aspinwalls and peered into the stereopticon at the Cuttings . . . Lucy Baxter accused Press of deliberately cutting her and swore the next time she saw him she intended to march right up to him and put out her parasol or throw her muff to attract his attention.

“The stereopticon was a viewing device commonly found in nineteenth-century parlors. Using a special camera with two lenses that produced two negatives, photographs were taken of the same scene but from slightly different viewpoints corresponding to the distance between the eyes. These images were then mounted side by side and the whole inserted into the device. When looked at through the viewer, a single three-dimensional image sprang into life. To a nineteenth-century audience for whom photography itself was a relatively new phenomenon, the effect was magical.”

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Antique stereopticon
Antique stereopticon

For more from An Old Merchant’s House go here where you’ll find an excerpt on hair care and cosmetics.

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Small Talk, New Year’s Day, 1861

  1. These posts are always so much fun to read. Life was much more civilized before electronics, when entertainment depended on meeting, greeting and gossiping with friends and neighbors.

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    1. You’re so right. Now it seems there’s very little appreciation of small talk; yet it’s through these incidental, inconsequential exchanges that we strengthen friendship. Talking with thumbs just isn’t the same!

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  2. It is so fun to fantasize about what it was like back then.
    “Alcohol flowed as freely as Croton water.” Must have been damn good water back then.

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  3. Well it does sound lovely–as long as you have an army of Irish girls in the kitchen working up all that food and ironing (without electricity) all those yards of full skirts. It sounds to me like the men were having the better time. They could move on if the company was boring. I used to have a friend who had a New Year’s Day open house. There was a TV in every room showing a different foot ball game and a complicated chart where you could place a bet on all of them. The food was wonderful, and if you were lucky you could find a corner with other non fans with whom you could have a real conversation. Alas, she moved to Dallas.

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