- Editor’s Note: This article is a “bonus edition” to a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Aurora Historical Society‘s Mary Clark Ormond, Mike Fichtel and John Jaros. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.
The muffled clip clop of the horses’ hooves interweaves with the scrape and rattle of the carriage wheels to announce the arrival of visitors at the big brick house on the corner. In the second floor sitting room of the house a young woman steps to the window to peer down through the lace curtains. It is 10:30 in the morning of New Year’s Day, 1876.
Steam arises from the horses’ nostrils as they toss their heads, and the young men’s breath can be seen as they laugh at some witticism, jumping nimbly from the carriage and adjust their top hats. They brush their woolen coats with gloved hands.
“They are good cooks in this house,” one of them says to the others as they step through the gate and go up the walk. “I hope she has laid out some refreshments. By thunder, I’m ready for some warm apple pie and a good cup of coffee.”
“I’ll just take the coffee,” someone responds. “You lads may have had no champagne last night, but I did and believe me this is much too early to be paying calls on the ladies.”
“Buck up, Henry,” another says. “We’re just getting started. The list in The Beacon is long this year.” He pulls a newspaper clipping from his coat pocket, glances at it and shoves it back.
What is going on here?
The Victorian custom of New Year’s calling, the paying of social visits on Jan. 1, is under way. It is described in Thomas E. Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms (1884) and deals with the dos and don’ts of the custom as it relates to unmarried individuals.
New Year’s Calling For The Unmarrieds
New Year’s calling was clearly a brilliant addition to the social customs of young Americans.
Unmarried women in the late Victorian era could publish their names and addresses in the local paper, announcing that they would be at home to receive calls on New Year’s Day. This enabled the young men of the town to efficiently schedule a day of visiting and, most importantly, be sure of a welcome at every house where they stopped.
Any woman who had a suitable home could receive visitors there, but it was also appropriate for several ladies to join together at the house of a friend, a practice which eased the effort of entertainment should numerous visitors congregate at the same time.
Likewise, a man could pay visits singly, or in groups of two, three, four or more. All the men needed to be generously furnished with calling cards, which they would present to each of the ladies at every house.
These cards were kept by the ladies who could be expected to “revive the incidents of the day by subsequent examination of the cards,” according to Hill’s manual.
Professor Hill had numerous other observations, including that it was customary for “the ladies who announce that they will receive to make their parlors attractive on that day, and present themselves in full dress. They should have a bright, cheerful fire if the weather be cold, and a table, conveniently located in the room, with refreshments … with tea and coffee. No intoxicating drinks should be allowed.”
The genius of this custom for the unmarrieds in town was that by having such a general practice of visiting on New Year’s Day, and especially by announcing availability in the newspaper, no woman appeared to be importuning any particular man to visit her, and all men felt equally invited into homes across the city. New acquaintances might be made, and old acquaintances advanced.
Calls did not exceed 10 or 15 minutes, during which the gentlemen removed their overcoats and hats, unless the visit was to be extremely brief. Gloves could be retained in the hand if so desired. Refreshments were to be partaken of, and care was to be taken not to overstay or otherwise provide tiresome elements to the day.
New Year’s Calling For All
However, beyond this specific wisdom from Professor Hill, such social calls were common practice and not limited to marriageable young adults.
On Jan. 1, 1876, while lamenting “the muddy condition of the streets during the past week” the Aurora Herald carried a lengthy list of married and unmarried women, some with daughters, as well as the news that the pastor of the New England Congregational Church, the Rev. D.D. Hill, would keep open house and invited “the members of his church and congregation and all his friends to call.”
Families and clubs also announced if they would be receiving guests on New Year’s Day, and even girls still shy of marriageable age could inform of their intention to be home, as evidenced by the announcement in the Aurora Daily News of Dec. 31, 1888, giving notice that a quartet of pre-teenagers, Jennie Guinang, age 12, and Mollie Moon, Lulu Judd and Mamie Hord, all about 9 years old, stating they would be at home at the Hord house at 137 Downer Place from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The high spirits of the holidays apparently inspired some young dandies in 1877, probably members of the Idle Hour Club, who made a fun and festive show of New Year’s calling by proceeding about the town in a custom-built *carriage* on a sled, with an African American escort perched behind, possibly the amiable Auroran Jim Meadows, whom they “would dress up fine” according to the reminiscences of another citizen.
It isn’t hard to imagine that, in a close-knit, homogeneous community, a day set aside for social calling was a pleasant aspect of the holidays and well worth the effort of a writer like Professor Hill to set down the etiquette of it in a book.
Now that we have looked back a century and a half at New Year’s Day in Aurora, the Aurora Historical Society wishes one and all a new year’s holiday of treasured traditions well-regulated by proper decorum.
Best wishes for 2020!
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