Sunday, January 16, 2022

Ring in the New Year - Past New Year's Traditions 1865-1920 by Jo-Ann Roberts


Happy New Year, Friends!

Since many of our holiday traditions in the United States came to our shores from immigrants looking for a better way of life for themselves and their families, New Year's was no exception. 

Following the Civil War, parties, dancing, and festive spirits were staples of New Year's celebrations, just like today. Yet, there were many other odd, quaint, and charming customs that, for the most part, are no longer practiced today. 


Wealthy folks would hold "open houses", inviting all the local eligible bachelors into their homes to meet their unmarried daughters...similar to today's speed dating! The bachelors would spend about fifteen minutes chatting with the unmarried daughter, provide her with his calling card and move on to the next home. If interested, the daughter would call upon the bachelor for another visit to talk and to meet her family.

In New York City, young men would race around the city to visit (call on) as many young women as possible. By the 1890s, the custom had fallen out of fashion in in favor of more exclusive New Year's Eve parties.  

The calling card to the left is that of Mr. Augustus Rux (pictured on the card). Apparently, he was successful as he married Mary Beck in 1916. They had two children together.

New Clothes

While many people didn't have the means to purchase a new outfit to wear on New Year's Day, women and girls often tied ribbons in their hair. Pioneer men might sport a new kerchief to symbolize fresh beginnings, and leaving of all the past year's hardships.

The Threshold 

The threshold represented the crossing from one year to the next. At the stroke of midnight, the front door was flung open, and one greeted the new year with shouts of "Welcome!" The head of the household would take three bits of bread before throwing the loaf against the door while those gathered prayed "that cold, want or hunger might not enter" in the coming year. 

If the first visitor of the year to cross the threshold by stepping into the home (whether family or friend) had dark hair, it meant good fortune was ahead for the family. If the person had blonde hair, it meant troubles loomed.

Pigs and Clovers


Postcards were often sent to and from loved ones, a number of them containing pigs and clovers, as they were considered bearers of good fortune for the year ahead.

Cleaning the Hearth

Cleaning out the ashes from the hearth was completed on New Year's Eve as a sign of sweeping away all the past year's misfortunes and ushering in the new year with a clean slate.


People would playfully predict one another's fortunes for the new year interpreting each other's tea leaves, and by engaging in opening the Bible to a random page. Known as "dipping", the player would, without looking, point to a particular passage. The selected excerpt was thought to predict the good or bad fortune of the person doing the dipping. 

Bell Ringing

Many towns and cities rang bells at midnight to chase away evil. This may have led to the present-day tradition of noisemakers and party horns. 

The tradition of ringing in the new year at Times Square in New York dates back to December 31, 1904.

In 1904, the New York Times newspaper moved their location to Longacre Square.  To mark the joint celebration of its move, a name change to Times Square, and the impending new year, thousands were invited to the festivities.

Shortly before midnight, dynamite exploded as a signal that fireworks were set to begin, and the giant numerals 1 - 9 - 0 - 5 were illuminated atop the New York Times building in the direction of theaters, hotels, and restaurants downtown. This annual celebration with fireworks continued for the next two years. 

In 1907, New York banned fireworks and a new way to ring in the new year was sought. It was decided a ball, constructed of wood and iron, and illuminated with 216 electric lamps would signal the new year. 

New Year's Eve, 1907. The streets were blocked off from traffic and the crowds kept back to ensure safety for all visitors, hence the scene seems bare.

The ball has changed locations through the years, its move to its current location at One Times Square in 2009. The dropping of the ball has been an annual tradition in Times Square since December 31, 1907, the only exceptions being 1942 and 1943 in observance of wartime blackouts.

Although many of these traditions are obsolete or have morphed into something different, opening one's home, along with special foods served and enjoyed on New Year's has lasted for generations. My wish for you is still the same as those who have gone before us...luck, good fortune, prosperity and health throughout the coming year.


  1. Thank you for the post. I thought the early speed dating trend was funny.

    1. Bea, this was a fun blog to write. And yes, I agree about the speed dating trend. It might make a good scene in a book with all the fellas coming and going...especially if a nosy neighbor suspected something else was going on!

  2. Thank you for this informative post. Most of the customs were new to me. I enjoyed learning them. I didn't know about pigs being lucky, but my mom always served a ham on New Year's Day--along with black-eyed peas.

    1. Caroline, I so enjoy learning how and why we celebrate holidays...especially about the speed dating, and how Times Square got figured in the celebration, as well as the noise-makers.


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