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New Year different a century ago

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

Celebrating the new year a hundred years ago in Fort Wayne didn't always include a big party on New Year's Eve. Instead, the first morning of a new year a century ago brought the opening of doors at the mansions of prominent, wealthy families. They expected visitors who made "New Year's callings" throughout the day. No invitations were issued, and all were welcome. The women of the house offered large spreads of food and drink, and dressed in their finest day gowns to receive the guests. Men, dressed in their best cutaway coats and plug hats, came singly, or in twos, or in fours, on foot and by carriage from early morning till dusk.

The favorite refreshments? Chicken salad ("enough to fill a washtub") and generous portions of champagne and wine. In some homes, music was played and occasionally there was dancing. After a drink, a bite to eat, and an exchange of pleasantries with the ladies presiding at the reception, the gentlemen moved on to the next house. Fortunately, this was not usually a great distance. If ever it seemed a man had had too much to drink, it was recalled, "tactful means were used to shut off his supply."

This was a men's social. The only way for women to participate in the festivities was to help the various hostesses preside in their reception halls. A hostess planned for this day for weeks because she could expect two or three hundred visitors.

The most famous of the open houses were held at the Olds mansion on West Berry, the Bond house on Fairfield, the O.P. Morgan home on East Washington, and the John Bass home, at that time on West Washington.

Although it was assumed among those in high society that only the "right sort of people" would actually partake of the open-house benefits, others who did not quite fit in began to appear in greater numbers. To satirize this development and poke fun at "society," a Sentinel reporter went out one New Year's Eve in the 1880s, dressed "in a paper shirt, ornamented with a one- dollar diamond stud, and a dress coat rented from a dealer in second-hand clothing." Acting the part of a "hayseed," the young man jostled two millionaires patiently waiting to greet their hostess, helped himself to a handfull of food, and swaggered out as if too tipsy to make it to the next stop.

When this sort of "party crashing" grew in earnest, the formal "New Year's calling" was soon abandoned.

But in their prime, the New Year's Day parties ended with a grand dance in one of the homes. The biggest party was usually at the Randall home, at the northwest corner of East Berry and Lafayette streets, then the largest home in Fort Wayne.

One dance was held in the living room of the house, called the "Welcome Hall," where the popular string ensembles of Frank Casso and Fred Fisher alternated to provide continuous music for Virginia reels, contradances and the quadrille. The Sentinel reported that the ladies on this occasion "blossomed out in satins, rare laces, and elegant velvets richly colored, and wore diamonds, pearls and other jewels." The dance ended at 2 a.m. The Randall home was the best-known center for all sorts of celebrations by "high society" in Fort Wayne in the 1890s. Built in 1868 by Franklin Randall, the city's "Civil War mayor," the Italianate home burned down in 1873 and Randall had it rebuilt exactly as before that same year. (It was finally demolished in 1950.)

Because Randall was the chief Democratic figure in northeastern Indiana, he often played host to traveling public officials. One astonishing New Year's visitor was Gov. James D. "Blue Jeans" Williams (his nickname came from wearing the common dungarees of the farmer). Hundreds had gathered at the Randall home to meet the governor, while a band played its greetings and the Randalls waited to show the dignitary in. But when the governor stepped from his carriage, he promptly blew his nose without benefit of handkerchief, crossed the sidewalk, and did it again. The stunned audience watched in amazement as old "Blue Jeans" completed the episode with an expert use of his sleeve.

New Year's Day celebrations were not limited to those "of society." In union halls and working-class neighborhoods, there were large, well-stocked parties. The Elks Club started a now time-honored practice of "fining" the members for frivolous "offenses," such as wearing the wrong tie, in order to raise funds for worthy causes.

It was the fashion, in men's minds, to hire a carriage to take ladies out for an evening's festivities, but some of the eligible women in town grew concerned "about the tax on the pocketbooks of their generous knights." Accordingly, a number organized themselves into a "No Carriage Club." This, too, became quite a fad.

For those who preferred not to drink alcoholic beverages, the temperance advocates had their own functions. One group, "The Red Ribbon Club," included some of the most prominent names in the city (Bass and Olds, for example). Among the popular diversions were dancing a highland jig or holding a vigorous courting dance (both in Scottish costume). Parties of all kinds typified Fort Wayne's "ringing in the new." Masked balls with grand marches and midnight unmaskings were common. Balls were sponsored by such groups as the Arion Society, the Ladies' Hairdressing Club and The Hanna House Social Ten.

--Dec. 27, 1993