Category Archives: Holidays

Small Talk, New Year’s Day, 1861

new-years-greetingWhen I did the research for An Old Merchant’s House: Life at Home in New York City 1835-65, I relied heavily on New Yorkers’ diaries because a diary tells you what real people really did. You can count on a diary.

John Ward, Lieutenant, 12th Regiment,N.Y. State Troops, Washington, D.C., May 1861.

John Ward, Lieutenant, 12th Regiment,N.Y. State Troops, Washington, D.C., May 1861.

Imagine how delighted I was, then, to discover the diary of John Ward, in which he  recounts his New Year’s Day calling in 1861. Here is an excerpt from my book:

“The most elaborate calling ritual of all took place on New Year’s Day when the doors between the parlors were thrown open for the traditional New Year’s Day reception. According to an old Dutch custom, on that day the ladies stayed home to receive guests and preside over a lavish buffet table, while the gentlemen sallied forth to make calls. . . .

“The ladies were bejeweled and beautifully dressed in low-neck silk gowns got up by their dressmakers especially for the occasion. The tables were laden with all manner of delicacies: turkey, chickens, fruits, pickled and stewed oysters, crullers, doughnuts and little New York cakes with mottoes written on them in icing. Alcohol flowed almost as freely as Croton water. . . .

“When John Ward was twenty-two years old, he made the rounds with his nineteen-year old brother, Press. They decided to make only a few calls (the total turned out to be thirty-three), so they were able to stay for more conversational exchange than was perhaps typical.

“John was impressed by the finery of the women—Julia Carville wore a French headdress of gold ornaments and velvet; Mrs. Fisher wore blue to match the blue silk on the parlor walls, and Julia Cutting, a red silk with a long train.

Winslow Homer, Waiting for Callers on New Year's Day

Winslow Homer, Waiting for Callers on New Year’s Day

“He talked to Bessie Fisher about the sculpture “Babes in he Woods” by Thomas Crawford and to Lizzie Schuschardt about crossing the ocean and admiring the rosy sunsets over Mount Rigi in Switzerland. Mrs General Jones told him how she detested shopping and always just went to one large shop and bought everything she could think of and scarcely shopped in Paris at all.


New Year's Day, New York City, 1868. Harper's Weekly, January 4, 1868

New Year’s Day, New York City, 1868. Harper’s Weekly, January 4, 1868

“He ate tongue and biscuits at the Aspinwalls and peered into the stereopticon at the Cuttings . . . Lucy Baxter accused Press of deliberately cutting her and swore the next time she saw him she intended to march right up to him and put out her parasol or throw her muff to attract his attention.

“The stereopticon was a viewing device commonly found in nineteenth-century parlors. Using a special camera with two lenses that produced two negatives, photographs were taken of the same scene but from slightly different viewpoints corresponding to the distance between the eyes. These images were then mounted side by side and the whole inserted into the device. When looked at through the viewer, a single three-dimensional image sprang into life. To a nineteenth-century audience for whom photography itself was a relatively new phenomenon, the effect was magical.”


Antique stereopticon

Antique stereopticon

For more from An Old Merchant’s House go here where you’ll find an excerpt on hair care and cosmetics.





Filed under Conservation, Historic House Museums, Holidays, New York City

Countdown to Christmas —A New York Visit, 155 Years Ago Today

wards-christmas-visitDecember 17, 1861                                                                         HWK

John Ward wrote in his diary:

Visit to friends in Scarborough, the Meades. We dined at 5:00 and stayed in the evening. Barry amused the children very much with a slight ventriloquism making the youngest’s doll speak, and making Santa Claus speak from the chimney—a man from the furnace.



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Countdown to Christmas—You Don’t Need a Computer to Write a Really Good Christmas Story


christmas-carol“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens,1843


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Why We Say Merry Christmas

Christmas treeSome object to this traditional greeting, preferring “Happy Holidays.” Christianity, they point out, is not the only religion embraced by Americans. Automatically greeting our friends and neighbors with a Christian greeting, they believe, is somehow . . .well thoughtless and rude.

The fact is that over the years, Christmas has become for many a secular holiday. It didn’t used to be so, but since the mid-19th century the secular trappings have become more and more important.

Nevertheless, it is still Christmas we are celebrating at this time of year whether we believe that the birth of Jesus Christ was God’s gift to man or not. December 25, the day Christians celebrate the birth, is the date of the federal holiday when we are all free to come together and celebrate as we wish.

Santa Claus, the Christmas tree with its colored lights, the candles, the gift-giving, the egg nog and turkey, the gathering of the sometimes far-flung family, the impulse to generosity to those less fortunate than ourselves—for some this is what Christmas is. For Christians, of course, it has sacred significance that far transcends these traditional trappings. And followers of another faith may choose to ignore Christmas altogether.

As Christians, this is all okay with us. We would not deprive our non-believing friends of the secular joys of Christmas. And we will wish our Jewish friends and relatives “Happy Hannukah.” But the rest of you are going to hear “Merry Christmas” from us. We will not ask before we speak if you love the baby Jesus. And we don’t intend to adopt what to us seems to be a phrase that diminishes all serious religions. “Happy Holidays” is almost as bad as “Happy eh, whatever.” And insistence of its use seems to us to speak of a kind of preening sensitivity. People today are just too easily offended.     MLK, HWK


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