My “First Monday of the Month Blog” for Western Fictioneers was published today. Here it is.
The irony of writing about the stresses and tensions brought on by the holidays — 1883 through 1887 — does not escape me. Last month’s blog, I tried to understand Christmas at that time. It was not my direct intention to follow that up with New Year’s at this blog, but, here I am.
You see, my Fugitive Sheriff ends up telling someone, “Getting caught isn’t my problem, at least not till New Year‘s Eve. I’ll have to work over in Park City on New Year’s Eve. Snow or no, you can bet the Federal Authorities will do their duty in Park City’s saloons on New Year’s Eve.”
So, I realized I pretty much had the problem of trying to know how people celebrated New Year’s in the 1880s. It turned out to be a lot bigger problem that I expected. Like with Christmas, I found few direct references to New Year’s in the West. With two exceptions. There are no end of opportunities to celebrate New Year’s in the West today, but that doesn’t tell you much about how it was celebrated then. And New Year’s Resolutions (about more below) are dutifully recorded in diaries and journals all over the West.
Without a doubt, the place to start is with champagne. The name has been around since the 1600s, although its protection as the sparkling wine from a certain region did not occur until 1891. Long before then, Dom Perignon added two features to the wine he pretty much invented, thicker glass and a rope snare to keep corks in place. The stage was set for shipping and a wine that began as a luxury with the Kings of France became industrially produced in the early 1800s and, yes, shipped to the West in the 1880s. While you did not have to be a King of France to buy it, you did have to find a way to make more money than you could working in the mines or poking cattle.
It might be noted that a quarter of the population of the west was British born (or about two-thirds of the non-American born emigrants) and whisky remained the favored New Year’s Eve drink in the UK until the 1980s. It would not be much of a stretch to guess it was so in the West in the 1880s.
It seems that before football games, there was another game: calling on ladies.
In the 1880s, New Year’s day, rather than New Year’s eve, was the time for gala entertaining and Open Houses, usually held from noon until six p.m. Tradition held that all the ladies of a family, and all boys under the age of ten, stayed at home to receive callers while the gentlemen went out to pay visits. Newspapers would even print lists of the homes that would be open and the hours they were receiving visitors. The only requirement for admission was a calling card.
“A general and cordial reception of gentlemen guests upon the first day of the year, by the ladies of almost every household, also by clergymen, and by gentlemen upon the first New-Year’s Day after marriage, was a Knickerbocker custom which prevailed in New York. It was once a day when all gentlemen offered congratulations to each of their lady acquaintances, and even employees of a gentleman were permitted to pay their respects, and to eat and drink with the ladies of the household. Hospitalities were then lavishly offered and as lavishly received.
“Many gentlemen, even among those who take wine ordinarily, refuse it upon this day, because they do not like to accept it at the hand of one lady and refuse it from that of another. Again, many ladies, from whose daily tables the glitter of wine-glasses is never absent, do not supply this drink to their guests upon this day, because it is dangerous for their acquaintances to partake of varied vintages, the more specially while passing in and out of over-heated drawing rooms.”
At these calling events, a New Year’s Dinner and New Year’s table was presented (as published in Minnesota in 1880):
New Year’s Dinners–Raw oysters; mock turtle soup; boiled turkey with oyster sauce; roast haunch of venison; currant jelly; deviled crabs; potato souffle, baked turnips, stuffed cabbage, beets, lima beans, dried corn, and canned peas; biscuit, French rolls, rye and Indian bread; chicken salad, cold sliced ham; celery, cold slaw garnished with fried oysters, pickled walnuts, variety pickles; sweet pickled cucumbers, peaches, and plums, spiced currants and gooseberries canned pears or strawberries; English plum pudding; chess pie, potato pie, mince pie; orange souffle, pyramid pound cake, black cake, Phil Sheridan cake; Bohemian cream; oranges, raisins, figs, nuts; tea, coffee, chocolate.
New Year’s Table–When receiving calls on New Years’ Day, the table should be handsomely arranged and decorated, and provided with rather substantial dishes, such as would suit the taste of gentlemen. Too great profusion, especially of cakes, confectionery, and ices, is out of taste. Selections may be made from the following: Escalloped oysters; cold tongue, turkey, chicken, and ham, pressed meats, boned turkey, jellied chicken; salads, cold slaw garnished with fried oysters; bottled pickles, French or Spanish pickles; jellies; charlotte-russe, ice-creams, ices; two large handsome cakes for decoration of table, and one or two baskets of minced cake, fruit, layer, and sponge cake predominating; fruits; nuts; coffee, chocolate with whipped cream, lemonade.
I also note that oysters made an appearance at a gathering of early Dakota Territory settlers on New Year’s Day in 1880. Not merely traced back to Ancient Greeks and Romans, American Indians on both coasts considered them a staple in their diet. Abraham Lincoln also served them to guests at parties at his Illinois home.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote in Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography.: “There were oysters and honey and sauce [from] home dried fruit the Boasts had brought with them. We told stories and joked and had a happy New Year’s day.”
The mention of Chinese New Year’s occurs frequently and one notable reference even identified that the 1880 census listed more than 100 Chinese in Evanston. …. The Chinese staged lavish New Year’s celebrations at the end of winter on the traditional Chinese calendar, including a dragon parade through downtown and fireworks.
New Years Eve
Perhaps the greatest way to bring in the new year occurred on New Year’s Eve of 1879. Edison gave a public demonstration of his new light bulb, lighting up his laboratory and a half mile of streets in Menlo Park before of thousands of spectators. By 1881, Edison’s Pearl Street station in New York was supplying about 400 outlets for eighty-five customers. Cities in the West first became lit with electricity in the 1880s.
The closest to us Western Fictioneers Google hit on search string “New Year’s Eve” came up on page 7, Meg Mims’s blog: “Toss these babies in the oven and save ’em for your New Year’s Eve party. Mmm! Very easy to make.”
It is said the ancient Babylonians were the first, but the Romans took it up and then the Christians. In fact, the first day of the new year became the traditional occasion for thinking about one’s past mistakes and resolving to do and be better in the future. It turns out all over the West, people made resolutions. They not only made them, they wrote them down in their journals and diaries. Mostly, they resolved to make a better life for themselves and their families. They not only resolved, they made better lives for themselves and their families — Us.
Happy and Prolific New Year to All Western Fictioneers.