Wednesday, September 3, 2008

New Year's Eve Bash

No Times Square, But Gotham Welcomes 1830 in its own way.

by David Minor

It had been mid-summer back in 1828 when Scottish traveler James Stuart first arrived in New York City. His timing was such that he had missed the city’s New Year’s Day celebrations by a good eight months. Perhaps fortunately for him. He might have been callithumped. There are a number of possible origins of the obscure word ‘Callithumpian’. Whatever the source, it’s described in “Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words” as, “a noisy demonstration”. The whole thing was a British import, as described by historian Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas. “By beating on tin pans, blowing horns, groaning and shouting catcalls, the music was performed as a gesture of deliberate mockery . . . the callithumpians . . . directed their 'rough music' against those who seemed to be claiming too much dignity or abusing their power."

On January 1, 1828, the entire cacophonous shivaree got out of hand. It had begun up in the theater district along the Bowery, when a contingent of middle-class revelers, armed with all sorts of noisemakers and well fortified with liquid refreshments started tossing limes (don’t ask me where they found limes in early Manhattan during the winter) through the windows of one of the local bars. Then they made their boisterous way over to the City Hotel on Broadway (where the Stuarts would put up in the coming summer). After roughing up attendees at a fancy ball there, they turned next to a nearby African-American church, bursting through the street door, smashing windows, breaking up the pews, and physically assaulting the congregation who were gathered to see in the new year. Heading down Broadway they looted shops all the way down to the Battery Park, where they tore down its iron fence and tossed assorted missiles through windows surrounding the park where the city’s elite had their town houses. Then they presumably scattered, stumbling off to nearby gutters to lie down and make their resolutions.

We don’t hear of repeat performances in the immediately following years. Certainly now, in 1830, the Stuarts apparently enjoyed a much more sedate celebration, since he makes no mention of any merrymaking at all. The sun rose on a quite mellow January 1st; the Stuart party caught a steamboat out of Hoboken and headed off to Brooklyn Heights to watch the various sailing packet boats headed for and returning from Europe. Stuart reports, “I never witnessed a more animating scene. On our return through New York we were surprised to observe the streets more crowded than at any former period . . . it is usual for people of all descriptions to call at each other's houses, were it but for a moment, on the first day of the year. Cold meat, cake, confectionaries, and wines, are laid out upon a table, that all who call may partake; and it seems the general understanding, that such a one's friends as do not call upon him on the first day of the year are not very anxious to continue his acquaintance.”

As we’ve seen repeatedly 19th century Americans really liked to pack away the vittles. Local bakers outdid themselves creating the ‘confectionaries’ Stuart mentions. During the holidays they would each advertise their grandest creations and visitors come around to gawk at the grandest, before they’re cut. One of the bakers would seem to have been going for a Guinness record, had such things existed then. His cake weighed in at 1500 pounds.

© 2006 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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