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.”
“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.”