Long before there were online dating sites, such as eHarmony, Match or OKCupid, there was a curious offline custom in America known as New Year’s Calling.
In the 19th century, young single women in New York City; Washington, D.C., and other cities and towns across the country would hold open houses on Jan. 1 and invite eligible bachelors — friends and strangers — to stop by for a brief visit and some light refreshments.
Often the women posted ads — which included their names, addresses and visiting hours — in the local newspaper. This was community wide speed dating.
Curatorial consultant Steph McGrath, who studied New Year’s Calling when she was at the DuPage County Historical Museum in Illinois, says she is not sure which sections of society participated in the convention, “though you’d think maybe the upper classes would set the style, rather than need a printed guidebook.”
True. But for whoever needed guidance, there was Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms, a compendium of knowledge and etiquette.
As the 1888 edition observed, the ritual of New Year’s Calling “enables gentlemen to know positively who will be prepared to receive them on that occasion.”
By convention, male visitors were invited into the house. If the woman wanted the man to stay for a while, she could ask him to remove his hat and coat.
Otherwise, she was to offer refreshments and conversation while he remained dressed for the cold. “The call should not exceed 10 or 15 minutes,” the manual insisted, “unless the callers are few and it should be agreeable to prolong the stay.”
A lady was encouraged by societal rules to accept male visitors in the privacy of her home. But shy types could also gather — and welcome men — in a group. The women were encouraged to “present themselves in full dress” and make sure to have a crackling fire in the fireplace.
Suggested refreshments included breads, cakes, fruits — along with tea and coffee.
“No intoxicating drinks should be allowed,” the manual stated.
Gentlemen — singly or in manageable groups — were encouraged to pay a visit at some time between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. on the first day of the year.
Each man was expected to present each woman he met with a calling card.
In the days following New Year’s, it was customary for women to go see other women and to advise each other all the juicy information they had gleaned from the parade of gentlemen callers. Somethings never change.