“‘Le jour de l’an,’ as the French call the first day of January, is indeed the principal day of the year to those who still keep up the custom of calling and receiving calls. But in New York it is a custom which is in danger of falling into desuetude, owing to the size of the city and the growth of its population. There are, however, other towns and ‘much country’ … outside of New York, and there are still hospitable boards at which the happy and the light-hearted, the gay and the thoughtful, may meet and exchange wishes for a happy New-Year.” ~ “Manners and Social Usages,” by Mrs. John Sherwood, 1887.
I love going through the Library’s collections of historical documents – whether its books, letters, newspaper articles, pamphlets or dance instruction manuals, I always find a little slice of history that makes me laugh a little, scratch my head or be appreciative for the things we can learn from the past.
While the quadrille or polonaise may no longer be the fashion, etiquette never really goes out of style. Some themes are universal and the advice rings true.
In Sherwood’s book, there is a whole chapter on gentlemen making calls on New Year’s Day.
“To those who receive calls we would say that it is well, if possible, to have every arrangement made two or three days before New Year’s, as the visiting begins early – sometimes at eleven o’clock – if the caller means to make a goodly day,” the book notes.
As someone who can’t stand it when people pop by last minute and unannounced, I can get behind this polite request.
The manual also encourages hostesses to provide refreshment for her callers.
“A lady who expects to have many calls, and who wishes to offer refreshments, should have hot tea and coffee and a bowl of punch on a convenient table … The best table is one which is furnished with boned turkey, jellied tongues, and pâtés, sandwiches, and similar dishes, with cake and fruit as decorative additions.”
I’m from the South, and it’s par for the course to always attempt to feed visitors, whether they are family, close acquaintances or complete strangers.
The chapter continues with some social mannerisms that might not have their place in today’s society. Calling cards anyone? We would just text or Facebook.
“Manners and Social Usages” is part of an online collection of more than 200 social dance manuals, anti-dance manuals, histories, etiquette treatises and other related content dating from 1490-1920.
The Library’s collections include numerous books on etiquette. A quick catalog search on “etiquette” revealed more than 430 books, most with an electronic resource available through the Internet Archive or HathiTrust.
“The multiplicity of other entertainments, the unseen yet all-powerful influence of fashion, these things mould the world insensibly. Yet in a thousand homes, thousands of cordial hands will be extended on the great First of January, and to all of them we wish a Happy New Year,” concludes the chapter in Mrs. Sherwood’s book. Sage words that resound today.