Godey’s Lady’s Book played an important role in shaping the cultural customs in 19th century America. The “Queen of Monthlies” is best known for the hand-tinted fashion plate that appeared at the start of each issue, which provide a record of the progression of women’s dress.
Beyond clothing fashions, the articles and editorials in Godey’s included descriptions of current trends and acted as an arbiter of manners and helped shape many of the traditions practiced by American families today.
This was part of an 1890 series of articles covering a year of American domestic traditions and lore.
A Year in the Home: January
By Augusta Salisbury Prescott
It is more than a pity that the good old Dutch custom of making and receiving calls upon the first day in the year has been dying out among us.
Every year, with the possible exception of last, has seen fewer and fewer homes thrown open as of yore with a hospitable welcome to all friends and friends’ friends who might be inclined to call and avail themselves of that hospitality. But last New Year a decided backward jump was made to the days when “come one, come all” was the watchword; and, judging from indications, many more will follow the lead and be “at home” this year. Even in the summer when the over burdening and overpowering temperature made all ideas and plans for winter as vague and remote as possible, one frequently heard on hotel piazza and seaside promenade, scraps of conversation to indicate that a good old-fashioned winter was looked forward to by all.
Indeed, the feminine world seems to have awakened to the fact that directoire gowns and old-time flowing sleeves, reticules and bead-bedecked coiffures are to be worn, that such costumes will appear to better advantage if the wearer is entertaining and entertained after the old-time manner; dancing stately minuets and cotillions, rather than the latter day waltz, giving noon-day feasts and calling them “luncheons ” instead of “breakfasts,” and setting the evening reception hours much earlier than has been the style for the last decade. So, with all these contemplated changes, it is proposed to begin the year by extending to all male friends the old-time right hand of welcome on New Year day.
Of course no young woman will essay to “receive” without a chaperone, who may be her mother or some married friend. But this will not be a deterrent to any, for chaperones can always be found whose delight it is to gather about them a bevy of bright girls to assist in social duties.
The subject of a New Year’s day toilet is always a vexed one for the fair sex, at least, for those of them who would fain clothe themselves in trained and décolleté dresses, yet who hesitate to do so because all traditions are against décolleté in the day time. To be sure when the rooms are darkened and taper, gas, or electric light is supplied, there is a semblance of night, but even with this artificial arrangement, full dress is not considered “good form.” While, to wear one dress in the afternoon and another in the evening, making the change at twilight offers too many practical difficulties. Callers are apt to flock in profusion at about that time, so that no hostess can be sure of an uninterrupted minute. And everybody knows that to keep a New Year guest waiting, is an unheard of thing.
So the dilemma shows but one way of escape, namely, to wear a house toilet that will be suitable at morning, noon or eve. For matrons, a dinner dress of black or colored silk, elbow sleeves, square or V shaped neck, relieved as one pleases. by jets, diamonds, or other ornaments, and made elegant by the dress-maker’s art is above criticism, and is sure to be admired, while the hair-dressing may be made as elaborate and becoming as possible. Many fancy pins are worn. Long ones, comb shaped, high pointed ones and a little army of daggers and arrows project in every direction from my lady’s coiffure.
For young women the light bengalines, Henriettas, and cashmeres offer such variety of color and quality that something just suitable can always be found. Black net makes a pretty costume with ribbons and flowers. These materials are softer, and hence more manageable than heavy materials, and are considered more appropriate for an all day’s toilet. If those who are to receive together take care to select their dresses to harmonize, one with another, the result may be made wonderfully pretty. Three dresses, one of pale green, another light pink, and a third, a delicate corn color, make a charming combination, and if, with the wearers of these, there is a chaperone dressed in a handsome gown of black lace with gold embroidery, little more can be desired in the way of a color picture.
A little care should also be taken to provide chairs that do not clash in color with the dresses, so that, for example, the young woman who is as lovely as an artist’s fancy could paint her, as she stands clad in shimmering green, may be able to rest for an instant without making herself a nightmare, by sinking into a light blue chair.
A portière of becoming shade can be draped for a background, or a scarf thrown over a chair of objectionable hue. Matters such as these are of slight detail, but important when it is taken into consideration that one remains stationary nearly all the time, scarcely stirring from one’s post of duty during the entire reception hours.
What to eat, how to serve it and where, are always knotty points, especially if one has a small reception-room with little or no space for tea tables, chocolate stands, or biscuit trays.
In such cases a small spread is often provided out in the hall, and presided over by a waiter who offers the guests, as they depart, the hospitality of the house. In larger establishments, a dining-room back of the parlor is thrown open, and guests are invited by the hostess to repair to it. It is seldom on these occasions that the tables are presided over by the ladies of the house, as the many coming and going guests demand constant attention.
Bouillion with salt, but no pepper, is always on the menu, and this, with raw, pickled or stewed oysters, small sandwiches and cakes, make a respectable showing. Cold sliced meats may be added, also pickles, preserves, fruits and bon-bons, but a more limited repast will be found quite as satisfying, for no one stays to partake of a full meal.
On the vexed wine question, one can say little. Only this—remember that your wine glass is not the only one that is held to a man’s lips during the day, and that your wine and your Roman Punch and your fancy drinks add one more to the already bewildering list of intoxicants that have been offered him, to lead him astray when New Year resolves are still fresh upon his mind and conscience.
In the hope that this may happen to meet the eye of some of the sterner sex who contemplate a New Year round of calling, let this one word of advice and caution be appended. Do not—I say it authoritively— do not touch upon the weather as a topic of conversation. If you could but be the hostess and hear the vast number of widely varying opinions as to the climate, both present and in store, it would disgust you for all time with the subject. Nor is the matter of calling, nor the number of guests one has received, etc., a fresh topic.
To be sure it is not easy to find things to say when thrown suddenly upon neutral ground, often with no hint of another’s tastes, and no knowledge of another’s accomplishments nor pursuits. But then there is always the subject of health, the “how very well you are looking.” that every woman expects, and there is the decoration of the rooms, about which it is permissible to speak, and it is also appropriate, at this time of all times, to inquire after the health of the family, if one is acquainted.
A party of merry girls, hoping to enliven the monotony of “receiving,” hit upon a little scheme whereby they might at the same time reward those who were exceptionally happy in the choice of remarks.
A number of small bows and arrows were selected and fastened together with bits of bright ribbon and a silver pin attached. As a caller rose to go he was accompanied to the parlor door by one of the young hostesses, and if he had uttered at no time during his stay a word concerning either the weather or the number of people out calling, he was presented with a little ribbon bedecked bow and arrow, which was fastened to his coat by the fair one’s hands.
It is a reflection upon the resources of our small talk when the narrator is compelled to record that out of four-score calling acquaintances, but five received these badges of honor.
Beware of that bugbear, the weather. He who discusses it…
“Is louted and laughed to scorn
For the veriest dolte that ever was borne.”
Source: Godey’s Lady’s Book, January, 1890
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