San Francisco History

Giving Greetings to the New Year

by Walter J. Thompson

New Year’s day was ever an important event in San Francisco. The community ever welcomed it with acclamatory demonstrations and entertained it with an enthusiasm bordering on devotion during its stay. ‘Twas thus from the earliest of the young golden days to these later days of sedate splendor. Looking down the vista of the years embracing the period of evolutionary progress one cannot only feel the thrill of the successive years as it was felt by all those who participated in the enjoyable events, but one can recall how Mother Nature usually smiled her sweetest at San Francisco’s efforts to play the host to the New Year infants that brought her prosperity in always a cumulative degree by furnishing climatic conditions that were ideal. Hearken to the strain of one of the early day chroniclers in proof of this.

“It is New Year’s day. God made it. There is nothing blue save the skies, and everything puts on a robe of golden beauty colored in the sunlight and bordered on the edges of the day with trimmings of stars. Nature’s great face wears a smile as irresistible as that of the girl you love most dearly. One cannot but feel its influence, for its seems spread out everywhere. * * The bay lies around the hem of our city’s robe of beauty like a spaniel at the foot of his master, and the ships, resting like swans on a sea of silver, swing leisurely with the tide, and, like the ladies, await calls.

“All maledom empties into the street—all ladydom remains at home. It is a gala day, a holiday, a day for polishing anew the chain of friendship and interlocking the links of love. * * Bright and cheering as is the sunlight without are the smiles within doors, and soft as the balmy air are the words breathed by the festive board. * * ‘Tis a good time, a grand time, a happy time.”

Could anything be more prettily put? Doesn’t that cheery bit of descriptive matter written in 1853 apply to the San Francisco of 1916, with, of course, the changes in customs wrought by the years that have gone considered? And the changes in customs relating to the rejoicing over the advent of a new year are quite marked. In the good old period to which the old-timers of the town revert with keen delight the arrival of the stork bearing the baby new year in a bit of warm flannel was hailed with a certain amount of jubilation, rather tame in comparison with the dim of hilarity that accompanies the coming of the long-billed and long-legged bird in these immediate days.

Mind you, I’m not driving a heavily laden ice wagon ruthlessly over the respected customs of these times just because they do not seem to the old-timer to be as pleasurable and appropriate as did the old. Nor am I deciding whether it is better to take in Father Time’s dimpled little darling out of the midnight’s dews and damps with a cheery greeting and a caress and tuck it away snugly until the morning of the day which was to be set apart for going about bragging of the health condition of the new-comer among one’s equally enthusiastic friends and pouring libations in its continued well-being, or whether the coming of the infant should be met with a community charivari beginning hours before his arrival and continuing long afterward, thus keeping the little fellow in a state bordering on exhaustion and rendering his first day in his new surroundings anything but one of unalloyed delight.

It was Charles Lamb as spokesman for Ella who said that no one ever regarded the 1st of January with indifference, and out on this western strip of ocean shore, cut off from direct communication from former homes and home ties, the people of San Francisco were true to that idea. But it was New Year’s day with them and not New Year’s eve that came in for the merry approval of all. The traditions of the old homes whether in the snow-bound district of New England or in the cold, crispy clasp of the Middle West or amid the soft surroundings of the sunny Southland, held them all as one band of brothers in regard to the seeing the old year out and the new year in and the blessed privilege of devoting the next day from sun-up to sun-down to making New Year’s calls, with “friendship going on foot, aristocracy on wheels and love on wings,” and with the god of hospitality superintending the whole festive affair.

As was that spirit in San Francisco, so it was in all American cities. Having attended watch meetings, which were then much in vogue, or sat up in the family circle or lingered around some gay gathering where pleasure’s wand was the symbol of the occasion, until the bells and whistles sounding from many a downtown place, the San Francisco of those days retired to bed satisfied that the blithe new year had arrived on time and in the pink of condition and he fell asleep with the intention of arising early and playing the happy, genial host to the new kiddie in Father Time’s family.

New Year’s calling in the early days of this city was not burdened with pretentiousness nor was it along extensive lines. Home life was in the making in those days of the fifties and the life of the town centered in the convivial groups of the Montgomery-street resorts. There hospitality and conviviality joined hands and danced merrily around the overflowing punch bowl. Later, when the city donned its metropolitan mantle and social centers, as well as home circles, were established on Rincon Hill, at North Beach, on Russian Hill and later beyond Larkin street and the flats of the Mission, the new year gayety took on all the dignity and tone which marked it in gay Gotham and other large cities. The open house became the symbol of the day and was accepted everywhere and by everybody as the proper thing to signalize the New Year’s arrival. Hospitality’s wave rolled high and all the world, his wife and relations were in the swim.

New Year’s calling reached a high state of originality of detail in San Francisco. The community had not attained that stage of growth as to be out of the district or neighborhood sociability classes. Ties of relationship or friendship bound the residents of North Beach, Russian Hill and the Mission in close bonds. It was the time of social clubs, minstrel clubs and other organizations, the members of which coming from different parts of the city met upon the common ground of sociability for purposes of mutual entertainment. It was the time of the Elite Club, the Rosebuds, the Golden City Minstrels, who gave performances that were equal to any of Billy Emerson’s, Billy Birch’s or Ben Cotton’s best, and a score of kindred organizations that bound the young people in links of liking and ofttimes later of love.

So it was that when New Year’s day came around the young ladies of the community households primped themselves up in the fairest of fair garb, threw the front doors of their respective homes wide open and prepared to play the hostess to the young gentlemen who had entertained them so lavishly and so well during the year that had died. Sideboards or specially arranged tables were aglitter with glassware and dishes and overflowing with luscious samples of home cooking and an array of liquid refreshments from tame to wild that cast a glorious glamour of allurement over all. Great had been the preparations for all this. Rosy-cheeked Mamies of the Mission, blue-eyed Nellies of North Beach and curly-haired Fannies of the Western Addition had passed many heated hours in the kitchen building three-deck jolly cakes and snow-coated pound cakes for this occasion, and they fluttered around the festal board like so many fairies at a woodland festival.

Nor had the drove of admirers for whom all this fetching display had been prepared been less idle in looking after their end of the day’s joy. They had been putting in overtime in scratching their polls to evolve new ideas with the purpose of giving a spectacular touch in their calling tours. There was a diversity of procedure among them. Many of the staid and quiet order simply provided themselves with a bunch of newly engraved and elaborately embroidered New Year’s cards and started out on the duties of the day on shanks’ mare. Others hired spick and span livery rigs and rattled around with gay abandon. But one couldn’t expect those merry wags of the Elite and Rosebud circles and those droll dogs of Golden City minstrels to do anything along ordinary lines. No, Indeed! Originality was their trademark and the extremely spectacular was their style. They had reputations to sustain and anything of a commonplace order received no encouragement from them. Likewise was there quite a number of chaps, sometimes called men about town, who went about like Don Quixote in quest of adventures of the extraordinary and out-of-the-groove sort. They were a bright, witty lot of thorough bohemians, who, while not looked upon seriously as prospective homemakers, were welcomed at gatherings for their versatility as talkers and agility as dancers and for the sparkle of life which they carried about with them always. These adventurers, too, were strong in throwing zest and jollity into New Year’s day doings. They ran a close race with the Elites, Rosebuds and minstrel boys. All of them did their calling in groups. Their acquaintance lists were extensive and embraced every part of the city. It was rigs for them and rigs they had in as great variety as profusion. Competition was keen as to which group could come out with the most fantastic and grotesque outfit. Commendation from fair hostesses was the reward they looked forward to. Starting points for these expeditions were located downtown. Kearny street, between Market and Bush, was the favorite assembling place, although the Rosebuds’ and the Elites’ stamping grounds were around Third and Mission and Howard streets, where were also the scenes of many of their social gatherings. The adventurous, freelances always held to Kearny street, which of a New Year’s morn resembled the backyard of the Wizard of Oz with its numerous grotesque combinations. The rigs were not of the kind which the liverymen furnished to the staid and steady old beaux who came out in immaculate linen, sleek broadcloth and with white camellias in their lapels. They consisted principally of rickety-wheeled dump carts that had seen better days in the service of some sand and rock contractor; wheezy-wheeled drays that had long since hauled their last load of merchandise to the water front and disjointed express wagons that were not even considered good enough to haul a load of incoming coolies from the Mail Dock to Chinatown. And the quadrupedal power which moved these vehicles would have made a fine ballet feature for the Beggars’ Opera.

There were horses with which spavins, heaves and other equine ailments had been on the most familiar terms; there were lop-eared, rat-tailed mules that leered at the world with expressions of wicked cunning that was truly diabolical; there were mouse-colored donkeys whose hair hung upon their angular frames and knock-kneed legs with a mangy looseness that was startling. And the harness which held them to the conveyances was usually of bale rope or of twisted colored cloth that gave a bizarre effect. The wonder of the whole was how any part of the outfit held together through the long trips about the city. And no masquerade ever caused to assemble an odder or funnier looking lot of rollicking callers. Long rubber coats or yellow Cape Ann oilcloths, red woolen shirts, calico suits of extravagant pattern, battered plug hats, rusty sombreros, peaked wizard hats, Tam o’Shanter caps, high jackboots, false whiskers and mustaches, and even false faces, all went to make up the costumes of these jolly spirits that sped from house to house throughout the merry New Year’s day.

And the sport that was had through the mixing up of rigs by some practical joker and the dashing off by a band of Bedlamites in a fashionable barouche, leaving their rickety dray and down-and-out donkey for the party of young swells in broadcloth and white chokers to continue their career in! And the glad cheers and jolly salutations that rang out on the air as these parties met on the road and whirled past each other! And the laughter verging on hysteria which held and swayed the girls at the sallies of wit and the eccentric actions of the callers! And the racing that was done to see how many calls could be rolled into the day! And when the day’s sport was over perhaps many were tired to the extreme limit, but one and all were willing to vow it had been a day of real pleasure and genuine sport worthy of the husky new year baby.

Perhaps there were features in the old way of New Year celebration that could be condemned, but every normal man should maintain a little fog belt in his memory and to that fog belt relegate such things and remember only those which are worthy to live like the merry jests of the exuberant young sports and the bright smiles of the fair hostesses who are now sitting in the kitchen while another generation, young and fair, is entertaining in the parlor.

Perhaps the New Year eve celebration, with its broad community spirit of fun and uproar and its bright cafe life, is best after all and more typical of the town, the new town. The old-timers will try to think so at any rate.

“And so, a happy New Year and a many of them to you all, my masters.”

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 31 December 1916. 20.

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