In one of her letters written while she was living in Springfield, Illinois, Mary Lincoln refers to the practice of having “open houses” on New Year’s Day. Recalling the custom years later, Emily Huntington Stuart wrote,
“When I was a child, and even long after my marriage, the custom of keeping open house on New Year’s Day was a long looked-for event. Unfortunately, this delightful social function fell into innocuous desuetude from two causes: one was that in many houses, besides the bountiful edibles, liquor was freely served (especially eggnog) and taking a little here and there, many of the men were quite ‘overcome’ by evening; the other reason was that many undesirable men took advantage of the custom of open house on New Year’s to enter homes where they never would have been invited guests.
“Should a lady be receiving at another house, and ‘not at home’ on New Year’s, or in case of illness, a fancy basket was hung on the door knob, decorated with ribbons and flowers, to receive the cards of the callers . . .
“New Year’s Day was always closed with a bull at the Governor’s Mansion or some other large house, and was the gala event of the year and the fit close to a very gay, happy day. Many of the society dames had kept open house all day, with a bevy of young girls and young married women to assist in entertaining the guests who came to call. It was great fun to keep a record of the callers and to compare notes of their fair speeches, for everyone was jolly on that first day of the year. Closed hacks clattered around the streets on this day (and sometimes sleighs with their tinkling bells) filled with men of all ages. . . .
“A hack or sleigh would drive up and disgorge its contents, the men would file into the double parlors, greet the ladies receiving, and be escorted by one of them to the dining room where hot coffee and refreshments would be rushed in and a gay time would be going on; and when another hack load would come in, the first lot would go to another house. . . .
“What a pity that such a happy custom should have fallen out of fashion, but this was unavoidable and inevitable, as many persons took advantage of hospitality which they had no right to share and entered homes and society where they were unwelcome. I believe this is now called ‘crashing.’ Then, too, there was no prohibition, and many a young man took his first step in dissipation and ruin in accepting wine or egg-nog from the hands of a pretty girl or woman.”
So ladies, watch out for undesirable men, and gentlemen, watch out for pretty girls bearing egg-nog! Happy New Year!