How Washington Celebrated in Times Gone By
Washington Started Idea
Reception Given in New York Brought to Capital
Presidents Keep Precedent
Refreshments Once Served – Everbody Welcomed –
Dearth of Military – Marine Band Utilized

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, December 31, 1910 [p. 8]

The celebration of the advent of the New Year, the old Roman and religious holiday, observed to a greater or less extent throughout the civilized world since the infancy of Washington, has been one of the days whose observance is becoming more and more popular.

Here it is given a national as well as local character. In the larger cities and state capitals it is celebrated in much the same manner.

Whether its observance, brought from Europe by the Dutch settlers in New York and the Huguenots of France in the Carolinas, was based on the superstition that the admission of a female to a home New Year morning brings ill luck to the house is not known. Certain it is that this belief is yet held by many, notwithstanding the increased enlightenment of the people. If we believe the traditions of a century ago it was the common belief of the masses. That this idea is adhered to to some extent is seen from the fact that numbers of women now living have had doors shut in their faces and in rural districts many have been warned off by dogs and guns from usually hospitable farmhouses.

Olden Watch Night
From the time of the foundation of the government the first day of the year, and, in fact, the eve of that day had been equally as fully observed and in a manner approximating the character of the Christmas observance. Here in Washington the principal feature of New Year day is the reception at the White House by the President and ladies of his family.

But especially by the young was the watch night a feature of the olden times. At the New Year eve balls and parties the old year was danced out and the new year danced in, while some families were gathered about the fireside until the death of the old year was pealed out and the hubbub outside, made by the shooting of pistols and crackers, blowing of horns, beating of drums, etc., announced the birth of the new year.

In the Methodist churches, white and colored, solemn services were held, the congregations assembling usually at 9 or 10 o'clock and enjoyed a sermon and experience meeting. As the hour of midnight approached, on bended knees, all sang the covenant hymn. After prayer they were dismissed.

Large was the attendance at these services. Long were the hours in the colored churches, for the law required all colored people, free and slave, to be indoors from 10 p.m. till 4 a.m. Hence the services therein were at least six hours long.

The morn of New Year was usually spent by the young after the manner of the Christmas observance.

If weather permitted some secular work was done. Many stores were open during the morning hours.

Prior to the forties even the government departments were open. It need not be said there was little departmental work done other than that demanded imperatively. It was expected that at noon every government officer or clerk should attend the levees at the White House and also call on the ladies of the heads of their respective departments.

This, too, was the day when presents were exchanged. In some families still are preserved the four-bladed penknife and silver pencil which were then the popular gifts.

Aside from the President's levee, the heads of departments and bureau chiefs held open house. The mayor of the city, officers of the military and fire companies and, in fact, the heads of almost every association or corporation did likewise. Hotels and taverns were scenes of conviviality, as were many groceries. Many private families received and entertained. It is not therefore strange that for that day many were merry from the seductive glass.

Washington Began It
The receptions of the President were introduced by Washington. Doubtless the first President held them not on account of any superstition, but because he already found it to be a well-kept holiday at the seat of government, then in New York.

The first observances held in that city were the receptions of the prominent officials during the day. Mrs. Washington held the levee at night.

In Philadelphia, however, the presidential levees of Gen. Washington and lady were attended by both sexes. They were very brilliant functions. At these levees the guests, after paying their respects to the host and hostess, were seated and served with refreshments, tea, coffee, plain and plum cake.

The custom was to exchange a few words, after bowing to each other. There was little handshaking. At the close the President expressed the hope that the cordial and cheerful observance of New Year day would never be forgotten.

The receptions of John Adams in Philadelphia were repetitions of those of Washington. On the arrival of Mr. Adams in Washington he found the White House unfinished and the grounds thereabout ungraded. He held but one public reception during the year, the first of January, when the doors were open to all who chose to call.

This reception was held on the second story in the oval room. The house was entered by the south door, then the principal entrance till after Madison's day.

Mr. Jefferson, on entering the White House, came as a widower. His two daughters, aided by Mrs. Madison, wife of the then Secretary of State, did the honors.

Callers were received in the most democratic manner. The company, after paying respects to the ladies and the President, promenaded the east room and partook of refreshments. At his Fourth of July reception the Marine Corps paraded in front of the house.

When Mr. Madison and his wife entered the White House it was foreseen that the mansion would be the center of great and brilliant assemblages. At the levees and other functions the ceremonials and formal etiquette on preceding administrations was relegated.

Mrs. Gales' Account
The level of January 1, 1814, is thus described by Mrs. Joseph Gales:

"Yesterday, being New Year day, everybody, affected or disaffected toward the government, attempted to pay Mrs. Madison the compliments of the season.

"Between 1 and 2 o'clock we drove to the President&s, where it was with great difficulty we made good our entrance. There all of our acquaintances endeavored with the utmost civility to compress themselves as small as they could for our accommodation.

"The Marine Band, stationed in the anteroom, continued playing in spite of the crowds pressing on their very heads. But if our pity was exacted for those hapless musicians what must we not have expressed for some members of our own sex, who, not fancying the excessive heat of the apartments had more reason to prevent the efforts of another to relieve herself from the effects of the confined atmosphere. All perhaps will not understand that I allude to the rouge which some of our fashionables had laid on with an unsparing hand and which, assimilating with the pearl powder, dust and perspiration, made them altogether unlovely to soul and to eye.

"Her majesty's appearance was truly regal, dressed in a robe of pink satin trimmed elaborately with ermine, and white velvet and satin turban with nodding ostrich plumes and a crescent in front. Gold chains and clasps were around her waist and wrists.

"'Tis here the woman that adorns the dress, and not the dress that beautifies the woman.

"She is admired and esteemed by the rich and loved by the poor. You are aware she snuffs, but in her hands the snuff box seems only a gracious instrument with which to charm.

"Her feeling of cordiality to all guests is in contrast to the manner of the President, who is very formal, reserved and precise, yet not wanting in certain distinction. Being so little in stature, he was in eminent danger of being confused with the plebeian crowd, and was pushed and jostled about like a common citizen.

& quot;But not so with her ladyship. The towering feathers and excessive throng distinctly pointed out her situation wherever she moved.

“After partaking of some ice cream and a glass of Madeira, shaking hands with the President and tendering our good wishes, we departed.”

War Ends Receptions
The destruction of the White House by the British put an end to the large receptions during Mr. Madison’s terms.

Mr. Monroe was accompanied to the White House by his family. During his two terms the New Year receptions were kept up and hospitality extended to all callers, these functions being brilliant in the surroundings of a newly restored White House.

John Quincy Adams came in 1825. Mrs. Adams presided over the White House. New Year day it was the custom to receive persons of all classes, who walked up and presented themselves, then stalked through the apartments, while waiters were passing around refreshments. A visitor says:

"At one of these levees Mr. Adams was pushed about for more than two hours. He stood in the center of the center room and most pathetically shook hands the whole time.

"In the ladies' corner it was all chat, flutter and graceful bowing. In the ball a band was planted to keep the nerves of the company in the proper degree of agitation.

"The court diplomatique appeared, each in his own national costume. At the President’s there was talking, squealing, promenading, bowing, drinking coffee and sipping liquors.”

Upon Gen. JacksonD's entry was brought here a large contingent from the south. His receptions were exceedingly democratic and immensely crowded. Foreign ministers, consuls and charges, and the army and navy officers in full uniform attended by ladies in the height of fashion made a brilliant scene. The President was attended by Webster and Van Buren.

It was said that one of the receptions of Van Buren was the finest that ever took place in Washington. The people were introduced to him by the marshal of the District; the visitors after paying their respects partook of refreshments and attempted to promenade in the east room. Mr. Clay and other prominent men of the day were called on by many.

At a subsequent reception there stood behind him the young Mr. and Mrs. Van Buren. Recently wedded, they received much attention. After this the serving of refreshments ceased.

As Seen by Mrs. Tyler
Mr. Harrison’s term cut short by his death in 1841, the next reception was that of John Tyler, January 1, 1842. Mrs. Robert Tyler writes:

"The 1st of January, 1842, is passed, never to return, and I am nearly to going off with it. I never felt so tired in all my life as I am this evening, standing up for two hours and shaking hands with I don’t know how many thousands of people.

"Such big fists as some of the people had, and such hard shakes as they gave my poor little hand, too! One great hearty countryman gave me a clutch and a shake that I amost expired under.

"But I couldn’t help laughing when Fletcher Webster whispered to me, 'When taken to be well shaken.'

"At half-past 11 we ladies took our station at the end of the blue room, while father stood in the center, we being the lesser lights to receive the foreign ministers and the cabinet, who made their appearance half an hour before the crowd. The first half hour was a very pleasant one, and passed rapidly away.

"At 12 o'clock the crowd rushed in, men, women and children, a very orderly crowd, though, and nicely dressed. After the first rush of the sovereign people came the ladies and their respective escorts.”

In 1843 there was a large attendance. It is said to have numbered about seven thousand. The arrangements were an improvement.

Robert Tyler and his bride stood by the President. Nearly all of the celebrities of the day were present.

During this administration Mr. Tyler was instrumental in having an auxiliary guard police force appointed. Subsequently it was mostly relied on to regulate the crowds at the receptions. At the same time was inaugurated the custom of the Marine Band giving concerts both at the White House and Capitol.

Mr. Polk's first reception, January 1, 1846, was well attended. It was eclipsed by that of the year after, although at that time there was dearth of military and naval officers here.

"Maj. Breeches" at Levee
It goes without saying that in such crowds there were episodes which excited comment and experiences which bordered on the ludicrous. It was at one of President Polk's levees that one of Washington's merchant tailors became known as Maj. Breeches.

It so happened that when he reached the President the latter did not catch his name, and asked it. The tailor replied:

"I made your breeches."

"Glad to see you major," said the President. "What regiment and where from?"

"You do not understand. I am not of the army. I made your breaches," vociferated the caller.

But in the confusion the President continued to fail to understand. Not until the caller, with some vehemence, cried out: "My name is ---, and I am the tailor who made your breeces!" did he recognize the knight of the goose and scissors.

The joke was soon known, the name of Maj. Breeches attached, and it stuck for many years.

Gen. Zachary Taylor had one New Year reception, that of January 1, 1850. This was attended by many who had become prominent in the war with Mexico. In the following July his death occurred at the White House.

At these levees, notwithstanding the bitterness of some political campaigns, but seldom has there been anything to mar the enjoyment of all. If there was any place where good will ruled it was at the White House.

In those days it was all classes of people except the colored who called. It was a time when statesmen, judges, officers and clerks hobnobbed with the merchants and mechanics, all bent on making the occasion enjoyable.