New Year Calling

Have you ever spent New Year’s Day calling family or friends, especially ones you haven’t seen in a while?  

This is the grand tradition when on New Year’s Day gentlemen would spend all day traveling to the homes of as many family members and friends as possible.  It was a happy, festive day and the goal was to visit one’s entire circle of family and friends.  Nicknamed the “day of social atonement” the visits renewed friendships, deepened bonds, and amended lapses of staying in touch with the family.  

Upon arrival, Victorian protocol required the gentleman to present his calling card and wait to be announced.  Visitors could expect lavish buffets and the generous flow of spirits.  Polite conversation with the hosts was the main event.  Talk centered on paying respects, well-wishes for the new year, and perhaps artful flirting that may or may not have held possibilities.  Often conversation did not last more than a few minutes as the gentleman caller was expected to hurry on to his next appointment.  

Men were expected to travel, usually by walking, but sometimes on horseback or carriage, to their destinations.  Men dressed in their finest coats, gloves, and top-hats.  Women waited at home for their gentlemen callers.  Women prepared the night before readying their finest dresses, jewelry, and best hairstyles.  In fact, the whole house was redone often weeks in advance for this day.   

The custom immigrated with the Dutch arrival to America and flourished in New York City’s Victorian era of the early nineteenth-century.  By the late 1890s the custom was fading as the city grew larger and the day of festive-gathering with friends turned into the midnight party on New Year’s Eve. A revival of sorts is underway today with the National Call a Friend Day which you may find on Facebook.  


Winslow Homer, Waiting for Calls on New-Year’s Day, 1869, Wood engraving for Harper’s Bazar, photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.  

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is one of our giants of American realism.  Homer was an astute observer of real life, able to capture a subject’s essence without slipping into sentimentality.  In this illustration, which Homer did for his commercial job at Harper’s Bazar, we see Homer’s talent to record the moment.  Compare the busy energies of all the women scurrying to see who is coming next.  Homer singled out the lady now slumped in the chair and crestfallen.  The note she holds has gone limp.  Even her dress even seems a little less ornate compared to the others. Clearly, her suitor cannot visit today.  It is characterizations like this that Homer brought to even his commercial work that makes his art such a fascinating study even today.  

Thomas Nast, New Year’s Day, from Harper’s Weekly, January 2, 1864, photo courtesy of Merchant’s House Museum, NYC.   

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is a German-born American artist who made a lasting impact on our national psyche.  From about 1859 to 1886, Nast was a cartoonist for the magazine Harper’s Weekly.  Nast was a political cartoonist who created the icon of the elephant for the Republican party, popularized the donkey for Democrats, and created our very familiar version of Santa Claus.