Ephemeral New York posted a few days ago about the lost tradition of New Year’s Day “calling,” which involved the city’s gentlemen making the rounds and the ladies receiving them. The tradition was particularly popular in the late nineteenth century. Included in ENY’s post, which mourns the passing of the tradition (which subsided over a century ago), is an earlier lamentation from the Times in January 1888. Seems the young gentlemen just weren’t what they used to be:
Some of the ‘old boys,’ however, could be
seen yesterday in their spotless kid gloves and shiny ties making the
rounds as solemnly as they did 30, 40, or 50 years ago . . . . In none
of the brownstone districts yesterday were the familiar sights of other
New Year’s Days to be encountered . . . . Not even the acknowledgment
of a basket for cards was shown either on Fifth or Madison avenue of
the cross streets.
The “cards” mentioned here would be cartes-de-visite, small calling card-sized photos you wouldn’t necessarily have used for everyday business but certainly would have pulled out to make the rounds of a New Year’s Day. Even ordinary people had them made; they are quite common in archival collections related to the late nineteenth century and are quite fun to handle. Many people created elaborate frames or scrapbooks for them, like schooldays photo albums for grownups (though many parents had cards made for their children as well).
The American Antiquarian Society, which owns over 5,000 such cards, dates the height of the fad to the 1860s, which coincides, of course, with the Civil War. And so you’ll find lots of photos of soldiers and officers off to battle among cartes-de-visite collections.
According to the City Gallery page on the topic,
By 1862, the fashion of “having one’s likeness photographed upon his visiting
card,” according to Scientific American, had been modified into the custom of distributing
dozens of small portraits among friends. Every young lady expected to receive photographs from a
relative, a love interest or friend and then with the aggressiveness of a “lady beggar”
as Vanity Fair put it, she besieges all of her acquaintances for personal photographs in order to
form her collection. Cartes de visite were often autographed with a signature at the bottom of the
card just below the image for handing out to guests by a variety of prominent persons such as
politicians, reverends, actors and dancers.
What to do with all the cards you might receive on New Year’s Day? The St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys and Girls in 1877, in an article about homemade holiday gift ideas, we find these instructions for thrifty youngsters on how to make a receiver for cartes-de-visite, with accompanying illustration:
“For this you must procure from the tin-man a
strip of tin three times as long as it is wide–say
six inches by eighteen–with each end shaped to a
point, as indicated in the picture. Measure off
two bits of card-board of exactly the same size and
shape; cover one with silk or muslin for a back,
and the other with Java canvas, cloth, or velvet,
embroidered with a monogram in the upper point,
and a little pattern or motto in the lower. Lay
the double coverings one on each side of the tin,
and cross the outside one with narrow ribbons,
arranged as in the picture. Overhand firmly all
around; finish the top with a plaited ribbon and a
little bow and loop to hang it by, and the bottom
with a bullion fringe of the color of the ribbon.”
If Ephemeral New York’s wish is granted and the old tradition of calling returns, maybe shutterfly or flickr could come up with a handy equivalent of the carte de visite form.