By: Gwen Miner, Supervisor of Domestic Arts
In the nineteenth century, New Year’s celebrations were not dissimilar from the ways we celebrate today. Social visits to neighbors, drinking and eating, liturgical observations, resolutions and wishes were the customs. Some individuals sent cards to family and friends. Newspapers and periodicals generally included poetry that set the tone for the anticipation of the new and fond farewell to the old. In general, two modes existed to celebrate the New Year, one which was quiet, private and reflective; and the other which was sociable and gay.The following is Susan Fenimore Cooper’s observation of a New Year’s Day in Cooperstown in the late 1840’s from her book Rural Hours:
The usual visiting going on in the village; all gallant spirits are in motion, from very young gentlemen of five or six, to their Grandpapas, wishing “Happy New Year” to the ladies. In this part of the world we have a double share of holiday presents, generous people giving at New Year’s as well as Christmas. The village children run from house to house wishing “Happy New Year” and expecting a cookie, or a copper for the compliment. This afternoon we saw them running in and out of the shops also; among them were a few grown women on the same errand. These holiday applicants at the shops often receive some trifle, a handful of raisins or nuts; a ribbon, or a remnant of cheap calico, for a sunbonnet. Some of them are in the habit of giving a delicate hint as to the object they wish for, especially the older girls and women: “Happy New Year—and we’ll take it out in tea” –“or sugar”—“or ribbon”, as the case may be.
The social calls often entailed gift exchanges. In 1839, H. & E. Phinney, printers in Cooperstown placed an advertisement in The Freeman’s Journal that read: “Christmas and New Year Gifts—A large supply of appropriate books, in neat and elegant fancy bindings, suitable for this purpose, with a variety of Juvenile Books of the best character.”
The custom of paying New Year’s calls on one’s neighbors and friends was introduced by the Dutch in New York and spread to other parts of the country. In New York City people kept open house on that day and friends called to “give compliments of the season”. Some individuals even left calling cards wishing a “Happy New Year”.The American New Year’s cake originated in the New York. New Year’s cake was white and often contained caraway cakes and was made plain or cut in rounds or squares like the recipe in Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery of 1796. It could also be ornamented with cake “prints”. The smallest molds were used in the home for koekje (“little cakes”), from which or present-day term cookie is derived. The custom of making these cakes came to New York in the 17th century with the Dutch and was gradually passed on to their English neighbors.
On the business end, it was not only celebrated with the exchange of New Year’s greetings, but also the settling of one’s accounts with trading partners. Store keepers frequently ran ads at the end of December requesting that customers settle their accounts.
Happy New Year!
All images are from the New York State Historical Association Research Library, Special Collections