Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Day Etiquette in Gilded Age New York

New Year's Celebrations in New York, 1871 — "No calls after 9pm will be permissible, according to the new etiquette of the day. From all that can be learned, therefore, it appears that in “high circles” the celebration is to be about the dullest and dreariest formality that could be conceived." 


The Celebration this Year 
In New-York

Part 1— The Customs of the Day

The celebration will not prove less general this year as far New-York is concerned, but there will be noted considerable change in the customs of the day. From all that can be gathered from Brown and other wise men of the inner social circle, it appears that there will be a dull tone respectability pervading the observances. It will not be the rollicking carnival of the olden time, when everybody, however genteel, felt warranted in coming down from his stilts and engaging with impunity in a wild revelry that would be tolerated on no other day. 

A remarkable falling off in enthusiasm has marked New-Year’s Day celebrations for the past five years. But before that, even, croaking prophets had begun to presage the decline of the festival; though; notwithstanding, “calling” continued general, among high and low, and the streets afforded the usual midnight scenes and sounds of bacchanalian uproar. There was a change in custom, however, for all the outward signs remained as strong as ever.

What Brown Says

Many of our first families, according to Brown, are going further still. Forestalling the fashion of the future, they entirely abandon the customs of their fathers. They close their doors against all comers, of whatever quality, affording not even the poor cheer of a social glass. The reception of cards, not of persons, will be encouraged by these ultra-exclusive fashionables. 

For such as do call in high circles, Brown says that full evening dress will be necessary: claw-hammer coat, black necktie and the display of shirt bosom equal to one-third the square inches of the caller’s surface. No calls after 9pm will be permissible, according to the new etiquette of the day. From all that can be learned, therefore, it appears that in “high circles” the celebration is to be about the dullest and dreariest formality that could be conceived. But it must not be supposed that the first “society” is in the majority. Although it sets the fashion for all, that fashion has a year or so to run before its general adoption.

The Card-Droppers

The cards of the callers are being gotten up by the Broadway engravers in various unique styles, comic effects predomination in the designs, though a few attempts at poetical graces in delicacy of workmanship and suggestiveness of allegory are to be remarked. The orders for such cards have been filled by the million. There never was such a demand as that which prevailed last week among the trade in bristol board. This is accounted for by those best acquainted with the rules of social etiquette, by cards, instead of calling and gorging and guzzling in proof of good feeling for the at whose expense you gorge and guzzle. A very sensible reform, truly – at least so think the engravers.
A Victorian calling card salver —The New York Times in 1871 has published a new reform of social etiquette to send an invitation on a card instead of calling (per “Brown” in the above article). One would wonder how the unique styles would be used, according to the station in society. But then again the importance of receiving one would show the request of your presence.
Part 2 — Society Alarmed

The wealthy classes – those among them, at least who delight in the lacteal pedigree, crème de la crème – had begun to draw pertly within their shells. Merchants and manufacturers no longer set immense tables, and threw open their doors for the admission of their workmen, and often a general rabble composed of fire boys and corner loafers. Their wives and daughters began to doubt the propriety of making their usual concessions to the rude customs of the days culture was at work lopping of the gnarled branches of the social tree. Mrs. Grundy commanded exclusiveness in New Year’s receptions fashion indorsed Mrs. Grundy. So high society closed its doors to the world in general and limited its hospitalities to a select set.


Change of Customs


This was the first step of a reform that is gradually undermining customs of the New Year, working its changes almost imperceptibly, yet so surely that in five years more the custom of calling and gorging may have fallen back into misty tradition of the manners of an olden time. Today’s celebration will be pretty general – there can be no doubt of that; but there are significant changes of custom to be noted.


There will be fewer tables set than ever before, among the society leaders; there will be less display of culinary temptations in the parlors of the parvenus. It is the style of thing, this time, to fill your house with young women in superb toilets, and offer your guest a simple glass of wine; and in no case must this guest be a partial stranger, nor must strangers be introduced on this carnival time, no matter what their social standing. 

High society has taken the alarm, and fearing she has been too free in the past, does not mean to let her feelings carry her away again; hence the tighter drawing of the lines on this day, which once was marked by an utter abandonment of the rules of social exclusiveness. — From New York Times January 1, 1871


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