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January 1, 1883 – Happy New Year!
After a busy day getting everything in order for New Year’s Eve, then the noisy and rambunctious night, plus the bewildering tradition at midnight of the fruitcake throwing and rude boys stealing kisses, I slept well into the morning. I did not like much about last night except maybe for the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” and the fireworks over the bay. I am hoping for a relaxing day, with the only bump in the road being when Aunt Rebecca gathers us around to have a photograph taken with her, the family, and Pookie.
I am just dotting the “i” in Pookie when Celia the maid knocks frantically on the bedroom door. “Miss Andi, Miss Melinda!” she calls. Beside me, Melinda jerks awake with a start. “Where’s the fire?” she mumbles with a yawn.
I giggle. “No fire. Just Celia. Come in!” I call, sitting up and closing my journal.
“The Missus Carters are wondering why you two are still abed.”
Melinda and I exchange wary glances. Then Melinda struggles to sit up. “Why shouldn’t we be? It was a very late New Year’s Eve.” At nineteen, Melinda has her “I’m in charge” voice down perfectly.
Celia takes a step back. “Oh, forgive me, Miss Melinda, but the open house begins at noon. That is only two and a half hours from now. You were expected for breakfast hours ago.”
“What open house?” Melinda and I ask at the same time. Neither of us are smiling or giggling.
Celia reaches into her apron pocket and pulls out a newspaper clipping. “I am so sorry. This is all my fault. I was so busy this morning that I forgot to awaken you earlier. You two must hurry. The other ladies will be arriving soon.”
Melinda reaches out and snatches the clipping out of Celia’s hand. Her cheeks redden as her eyes scan the newspaper announcement. “Heavens above!” she breathes quietly, using one of Aunt Rebecca’s expressions. “Listen to this, Andi.” Then she reads the clipping. “New Year’s Calls. Misses Melinda and Andrea Carter, Elizabeth Swanson, and Lorinda and Annabelle Fields will receive with Mrs. James Carter and Miss Rebecca Carter at the home of the latter, No. 135 Fillmore Street, from noon until 6 p.m. today, January 1.” She lets the paper slip from her fingers and onto the coverlet. “Why didn’t Mother or Aunt Rebecca warn us?”
Just then, Betsy runs into our room. Her cheeks are flushed with excitement. “Get up, sleepyheads. You can’t receive gentlemen callers in your nightgowns.”
Melinda throws back the covers and leaps from bed, clearly determined to meet the challenge of being ready. I, however, pick up the clipping and gawk at it. I’m only fourteen (and a half). Betsy is not yet nine years old. Whose idea was this to receive gentlemen callers?
Instead of leaping onto the bed, Betsy sits down on the edge like a young lady. It’s easy to see why. She’s slicked up as pretty as a picture in a white dress with a blue sash. Her short, straight brown hair has been curled with irons, and a huge blue bow pulls back the stray strands. The maid has been thorough and Betsy looks adorable. But definitely not old enough to receive (boy) callers.
She sees my look and blurts, “Auntie took out an ad in the San Francisco Examiner,” she explains. “She didn’t tell Grandmother or Mama or any of us until early this morning, after Uncle Justin read it in the morning paper. Then the beans got spilt.” She giggles. “You should have seen Grandmother’s face. ‘What have you done, Rebecca?’ she asked, nearly dropping her teacup. Uncle Justin just chuckled and shook his head, like it was quite amusing. I think it’s grand!”
“Wha–wha–?” I can’t get the words out. “What’s it all about?” I finally manage. I look for Celia to explain, but the maid has slipped out of the room. It’s up to Betsy to tell me what’s going on.
“It’s the most exciting thing . . . near as exciting as New Year’s Eve,” Betsy gushes. “Young ladies of marriageable age, and families too, which is what Auntie has planned for us, since of course except for Melinda, you and I and my friends are not marriageable age yet, can announce that we will be at home during certain hours to receive calls on New Year’s Day.” She slides from the bed and grabs my arm. “Hurry, Andi. Get ready. Buggies full of young men–and any boys past the age of ten–will soon be arriving. I hope that handsome boy from next door, Brody, will visit.”
I remember Brody from when I was a little older than Betsy. Brody is younger than I am but we had good times chasing his cat, Cleo, and climbing the apple trees in Auntie’s back yard years ago. Betsy is clearly not interested in climbing trees today. Or chasing a cat. She is still chattering. “Plus, my friends Lori and Anna will be gathering here with us, so it will be almost like another party!” She spins around, causing her white chiffon skirt to splay out in a wide swath.
“Hold on, Betsy.” I catch her by the arm. “Tell me about this custom so I don’t look like a fool.” (Like I felt last night, but I don’t add that part.)
“Young men from all over the city read the newspaper ads,” Betsy says in a rush. “They sometimes come calling one at a time, but most come in bunches. You can see their buggies from far off. They’re dressed like they’re going to the ball. They like to come and eat and drink refreshments and talk to the ladies of the house.” She giggles. “Even me this year!” She leans closer, and her voice drops to a whisper. “The young men love calling on the rich, fancy folks up on Pacific Heights and Nob Hill. Aunt Rebecca has had the staff cooking to show off such a table that they will all go away happy and remembering us.”
I bite my lip. Thank the good Lord I live in the valley, far away from these crazy city social customs. The fact that Mother did not warn Melinda and me about this convinces me that Auntie is up to her old tricks–plunging me into the correct social expectations whether I want to or not. I sigh and shove the covers away. “I suppose there is nothing to be done but accept it gracefully.” I grin. “I wouldn’t mind seeing Brody again, either. Did he come around last night? I don’t remember seeing a red-haired boy in all that crush.”
Betsy shakes her head. “Uh-uh. He was out making the rounds with Levi and the other fellows.” Then she brightens. “But I bet he’ll come today. He’s thirteen, old enough to go calling on young ladies. All each gentleman needs to bring with him is a good supply of calling cards. He leaves his card with each of the ladies he visits. I bet you and Melinda get the most cards, especially Melinda. Why, she’s almost an old mai–“
I clap my hand over Betsy’s mouth. “Hush. Melinda will be back any minute now. You’re behaving like a silly goose over a bunch of boys. What’s gotten into you?”
“Living in the city, I expect,” Betsy replies. “And going to that fancy young ladies’ school Aunt Rebecca pays for. Miss Whitaker’s Academy. The girls are all silly geese there, except for Anna and Lori.” Her eyes turn round. “Oh, my! I’ve got to run. Mama set me to a few tasks before my friends arrive. I meant to pop in and ask you if you liked my new dress.”
“It’s very pretty,” I assure Betsy. Then I drag myself out of bed and follow my sister Melinda’s example.
January 1, 1883, much, much later
I have survived my first (and hopefully last) New Year’s Day Calls. I never thought I would admit this, but the day was actually quite amusing. The best part? The young men (and boys) never stay more than about fifteen minutes. Why not? They have dozens and dozens of visits to make, and San Francisco is not small.
Aunt Rebecca’s parlor and foyer spill over with gentlemen guests of all ages. Old Dr. Wilcox and his dear wife drop by too. When they appear, I realize this will be more of a friends’ visiting time rather than an introduction to a courting time. I glance around the parlor. My sister Kate is receiving her share of calling cards from eligible bachelors, even some widowers.
And *gasp* Mother has collected a few too. When I think about Mother entertaining the idea of ever marrying again, I get all whirly inside. “How awful,” I whisper to Justin in the horror of the moment, but he chides me. “Let her enjoy the attention, honey. Besides, it’s Mother’s business with whom she visits, not yours or mine.” I keep quiet after that, but I can’t help giving some of those older “dandies” a sidelong glance. Will any of them be invited to the Circle C later in the new year?
Most of the young men flock Melinda, and why not? She’s young but not a child (like Betsy), she’s so blond and pretty, and she knows what to say and do to make anyone feel at ease.
Betsy and her school chums receive callers too. Their greatest joy focuses on which girl have collected the most calling cares. No one is the winner in that contest. So far, all three girls have exactly the same number–six. From the six boys over the age of ten and under the age of fifteen that come calling during the afternoon.
I, on the other hand, have probably collected two or three dozen. A couple of the young men press a polite hand against mine when they leave. I keep the cards in my pocket, mostly to take back to the ranch to show Rosa and Cory and my friends at school how “the city folk celebrate.” Here’s a calling card from Walter Adams. I know nothing about him and can’t even remember what he looked like. The fellows all look alike in their black jackets and top hats.
“You are behaving in a manner that makes Aunt Rebecca giddy with joy,” Chad whispers in my ear when he and Mitch return from their own visiting rounds. Justin didn’t go with them. He is immune. He was married last September, and he and Lucy are helping Aunt Rebecca and Mother entertain the many guests. I would not put it past big brother to also be keeping a special eye on Melinda, Betsy, and me, along with Betsy’s young friends, to make sure the gentlemen callers remain gentlemen (which they all did. Not like last night.)
The gentlemen callers partake liberally of Aunt Rebecca’s hospitality. A huge table is spread in full view between the parlor and the entrance foyer. They can’t miss it. It’s handsomely decorated and displays all kinds of dishes that suit a gentleman’s taste, and only a few specially chosen cakes and confections. When I ask Auntie why there are hardly any desserts, she huffs. “Those are entirely out of taste for an occasion like this.” Well, alright then. She has lavishly offered the following, some of which I do not recognize until Mother steps in and tells me their names.
- scalloped oysters (very expensive)
- cold tongue (no thank you)
- chicken (why both? Mother didn’t say)
- ham and pressed meats
- boned turkey (say what?)
- jellied chicken
- salads and cold slaw garnished with fried oysters
- bottled pickles
- French and Spanish pickles (from France and Spain, I reckon)
- charlotte-russe (see the picture below)
- ice cream
- two large white cakes for decorating the table (nobody ate any)
- baskets of sponge cake
- fruits, nuts
- hot chocolate with whipped cream (mmmm!)
- no alcoholic beverages (I think this is because the young men, visiting so many homes, could become a bit tipsy by the time they called on the twentieth home.)
I suppose the gentlemen have enjoyed Aunt Rebecca’s hospitality. Our first batch of gentlemen finish their round of refreshments and light chatting. They check their timepieces and bid us ladies good-bye around 12:15. In and out, as promised. I keep the door open because three fellows are headed up the walk. The departing men adjust their top hats, brush down their woolen coats, and make no attempt to lower their voices. “Hullo there, Robert,” one greets the next group of visitors. “They are good cooks in this house, as you will shortly discover.”
Robert steps through the wrought-iron gate and waves back. “I hope she has laid out some good refreshments. By thunder, I’m ready for some warm apple pie and a good cup of coffee.”
Sorry, Robert. No apple pie here, I think with a grin.
One of the fellows slaps Robert on the back then tips his hat at me as they stroll past and into the foyer. “I’ll just take the coffee,” he responds. “You two may have had no champagne last night, but I did. Believe me, this is much too early to be paying calls on ladies.”
“Buck up, Walter,” Robert admonishes as they disappear inside. “We’re just getting started. The list in the Examiner is long this year.” He pulls a newspaper clipping from his coat pocket, glances at it, and shoves it back inside. “Ah! New Year’s Day!”
I smile, turn around, and shut the door.
P.S. The photography session with Aunt Rebecca’s “Pookie” did not take place, for which I’m sure my brothers are happy. It seems Pookie was allowed to wander around during the calling hours from noon to 6 p.m. Since the dog is friendly, he (she?) imbibed far too many morsels and tidbits of rich food from the callers, most of which should never to given to dogs. As a result, Pookie became ill and out of sorts. Aunt Rebecca put Pookie to bed and said he must have rest and quiet. We left the next morning early to catch the ferry to Oakland, where we were scheduled to take the railroad cars back to Fresno at 9 a.m. So, no embarrassing photographs of our family with Aunt Rebecca’s precious new pet.
Note from Mrs. M. Everything mentioned in this post is taken from real-life Victorian New Year’s Day customs of the 1800s. Happy New Year!