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Speed Dating In The 19th Century

New Year's Calling card for a group of gentlemen in 1877. (Courtesy of McLean County Museum of History)

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 communitywide speed dating.

Conventional Behavior

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 download to each other all the juicy information they had gleaned from the parade of gentlemen callers.

End Of An Era

When New Year's Day fell on a Sunday, as it did in 1882, the calling day was shifted to Monday. A story from Washington, D.C., in The Advance reported that "the New Year's Day calling on the second was a great success." It was a bright, brisk day, the paper observed. "You may judge how extensive this calling is, when you know that one morning paper of the 1st had seven and a half close-set columns of names of ladies who would 'receive' — say not less than 900."

During the Calling Day era, a shoe store on Pennsylvania Avenue advertised "calling" and "receiving" shoes.

The Hill's Manual cited another reasonable reason that New Year's Calling was an acceptable pursuit: It kept women from sending invitations to specific men, which "looks very much like begging." Moreover, the etiquette guide added it would discourage uninvited guests from visiting, which would defeat the rite's purpose "and thus the custom would go into disuse."

Eventually, the custom did fall by the wayside, for various reasons. Inclement weather, for instance. On Jan. 2, 1891, the New York Times reported: "With what little remained of the antiquated Knickerbocker custom of New Year's calling, yesterday's storm wrought havoc. Strangely enough, the intensely disagreeable atmospheric conditions worked disruption after a double fashion. Not only did they deter many who would otherwise have paid visits to their friends from so doing, but it put an effectual damper upon what seemingly promised to prove a revival of the custom of receiving."

A 1904 issue of Town and Country magazine blamed the gradual disappearance of the practice in New York on the city's burgeoning population. And on morphing manners and mores. "Think in this age of women of fashion being arrayed in semi-ball toilette at midday and remaining in their drawing rooms, with a short intermission for dinner, on a stretch of 12 hours."

As the 20th century wore on, there were attempts, in Philadelphia and other places, to revive the tradition. But by 1923 the New York Times was referring to the ritual as "old fashioned."

The newspaper observed: "People had pretty much grown tired of all those young chaps tramping through their parlors. People began the surly custom of leaving card baskets outside their doors. So as to be relieved of the trouble of entertaining their friends."

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