Looking to kick the New Year off right? Why not skip the bacchanalian revelry of New Year’s Eve and re-create the centuries-old custom of calling on friends on New Year’s Day? Popular in the 1800s, calling evolved from a Dutch tradition of observing New Year’s celebrations into a more refined practice of men, sometimes armed with small gifts of candy and flowers, visiting women who received visitors during certain hours. They gained admission into reception rooms with calling cards, and once inside they stayed only 10 to 15 minutes in order to make the rounds. These open houses featured refreshments, light fare, and more importantly, eligible young women.
On New Year’s Day 1857, Samuel Edward Warren, a 25-year-old single professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, recorded a full day of calling in his journal. At 11:15 a.m. he ventured out. He deviated from the formula somewhat by calling upon both women and men, including the mayor, with a dinner break intermission. At one house, he was entertained with the story of a southern student who “when he saw snow for the first time, set a ball of it by his stove to ‘dry’ it to send it home as a curiosity.” Although Warren did not meet his future wife on this day, he was introduced to several new people and invited to future social gatherings, which prompted him to judge the day “very pleasant.”
By the late 1800s, an increasing population resulted in a frenetic new pace to calling, with competitions among men to visit the most number of houses and women to collect the most calling cards, and unsurprisingly, a rise in intoxication. Etiquette manuals began addressing these problems around 1880, albeit with conflicting advice. One manual suggested women send personal invitations to gentlemen, while another considered this in poor taste ignoring the open house concept. Announcing open houses in local newspapers was, however, acceptable. Nonetheless the tide was turning: Godey’s Magazine lamented in 1897, “the good old custom of keeping open house on New Year’s Day, has, like a great many old-time customs fallen into desuetude” and that in large cities calls “are considered extremely bad form.” France was noted as still observing New Year’s calls as people there had not abused the practice.
Despite its waning by World War I, the du Pont family in the greater Wilmington area honored their French heritage by continuing the custom. The Winterthur Archives contains receiving lists of various years between 1935 and 1969 (Henry Francis du Pont died in 1969 at age 88). A compulsive list maker, H. F. du Pont recorded names and locations of relatives in the extensive du Pont network who received visitors between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on New Year’s Day. With sometimes as many as 14 houses on the circuit, the du Pont women occasionally joined forces to reduce the number of visits the men had to make. In early January 1959, H. F. du Pont revisited an earlier suggestion of holding one large cocktail party at Longwood instead, but two cousins protested the change, citing the inconvenient late afternoon time for out-of-town visiting relatives and the size of the party hindering the ability to make real connections. One cousin stated he found “a surprising generation becoming more interested in family history and traditions.”
Tradition prevailed, as it does today, with the family still visiting on New Year’s Day.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, Librarian of Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera