Mrs. Pegu, and drawing-room, are all laid out in state to receive New Year's calls. Thirty-two young gentlemen make a brief appearance at the door, and recite the following
shibboleth: "How d'ye do, Mrs. Pegu. Happy New Year. Can't stay a minute. Made seventy-six calls this morning; got thirty more to make. Adoo! Adoo!" The young gentlemen
vanish, to be succeeded by others.
This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by F. O.C. Darley is a humorous look at the New Year’s practice of calling or visiting. New Year’s Day was traditionally considered the best time of the year for renewing, reviving, or reaffirming friendships. During the nineteenth century, it was the custom of urban gentlemen to pay formal visits to the households of friends and relatives on that holiday. Gentlemen were expected to dress appropriately in morning costume, consisting of a dark coat, vest and tie, dark or light pants, and somber-colored gloves. Receiving the gentlemen callers were the ladies of the house, dressed in their sartorial finery or, occasionally, in the costume of famous female figures in history or myth.
There were three exceptions to the divided gender roles of New Year’s etiquette in which men ventured out to visit other households while women stayed at home to welcome guests. On the first New Year’s after marriage, a new husband received callers with his wife. Also, clergymen did not make New Year’s calls, but instead received visitors on the holiday. Finally, it was a New Year’s tradition for the president of the United States to receive and greet ordinary citizens, who lined up eagerly at the White House for the privilege.
The list of calls which gentlemen were expected to make on New Year’s Day was usually quite extensive, necessitating short visits of 10 to 15 minutes. A gentleman presented his card to a servant, who ushered him into the family’s parlor, where he was formally introduced; he bowed, was invited to be seated, and did so; the hostess offered him a drink and possibly other refreshments; they toasted the New Year and chatted; then, the gentleman excused himself and left for the next household. In a humorous exaggeration, which must have seemed all too real to many callers and hostesses alike, Harper’s Weekly noted that time was set aside on New Year’s Day for men to visit their 500 dearest friends.
Besides the sheer magnitude of the custom, another problem was that by the end of the day most participants were not only exhausted, but considerably inebriated. There was a trend in the 1870s, reflecting the growing temperance movement, to replace the obligatory glass of wine or spirits with a non-alcoholic beverage, such as coffee, hot chocolate, or soda water. Many of the cartoons of the period feature the drunkenness of the callers. This cartoon, however, pokes fun at the brief and crowded nature of the visits, due to so many men making numerous calls at one time. Today, some Americans practice a modern version of the tradition by telephoning (or perhaps e-mailing) friends and relations on New Year’s Day.
Robert C. Kennedy