Each year on December 31st, people standing in Times Square and people all over the world sitting around their television countdown as the ball drops in New York City. While “Dick Clark’s New York Rockin’ Eve” is a modern tradition, there is a long history of New Years celebrations in New York City.

Bells Ring in the New Year

Trinity Church
Trinity Church

Before the ball dropped, celebrations of the New Year in New York City started at Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. The custom may have started as early as 1698 when a bell was installed in Trinity’s steeple, but the first record of a bell ringing in the New Year was in 1801. Crowds came to hear the eight bells in the belfry played by James E. Ayliffe, the official bellringer. The New York Herald described the scene in 1860:

“There were numerous watchers around and about the venerable walls of old Trinity at the mystic hour ‘when spirits are said to walk abroad,’ lingering there to hear the first thrilling peal of the clattering bells intheir iron tongued farewell to the dying year. And presently it came. First, the three-quarter chime, giving the world to know that there remained but one-quarter of an hour ere the year 1860 would be drawn into the ever-moving stream of ages.”

The crowds grew each year until police officers were needed to control the crowds in the 1890s. The tradition would be popular until the beginning of the 1900s when fireworks in Times Square gained the attention.

New Years in the Victorian Era

During the Victorian Era, after the bells rang in the New Year, New Yorkers celebrated with visiting the houses of friends and family. An excerpt from The Lotus, a magazine published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described the tradition: “Every door was thrown open. It was a breach of etiquette to omit any acquaintance in these annual calls when old friendships were renewed and family differences were amicably settled. A hearty welcome has extended even to strangers of presentable appearance.”

The day was a chance for young, single gentlemen to visit the homes of young, single ladies to meet available women in the area. This practice soon turned into young men trying to visit as many houses as possible on the day, drinking a glass of Madeira at each one.

The Ball Drops in New York City

New York City New Year's Eve ball circa 1907
The first New Year’s Eve ball from 1907

Our tradition of the ball dropping at midnight didn’t start until 1907. The publisher of the New York Times Adolph S. Ochs had set off fireworks on New Year’s Eve for three years to entertain his party guests and the 200,000 people who came to watch them. However, the hot ash that rained down on the city caused New York City officials to ban fireworks in 1907.

Ochs needed a new way to amaze the city. There was a metal ball that dropped from a pinnacle at Western Union Building to signal noon each day. Ochs was inspired to create his own version, with a ball made of wood, iron, and 100 electric light bulbs at the top of the Times Building. The crowd that gathered counted down as the 700-pound ball was lowered by ropes and pulleys. When the clock struck midnight, a sign that read “1908” lit up the building and spectators blew horns and rang cowbells to usher in the New Year.

The celebration has continued each year since, except for 1942 and 1943. The ceremony was skipped those years due to the “dimout” of lights in New York City during WWII. Even though the ball didn’t drop those two years, people still gathered in Times Square to have a moment of silence and then a ringing of chimes.

New York City New Years Eve Waterford Crystal ball
 New York City’s New Years Eve Waterford Crystal ball

Come December 31st, New York City and the rest of the world reflected on the end of 2018 and celebrated the start 2019. Happy New Year!

Curious about what women wore when young gentlemen paid them a visit on New Years? See Recollections Victorian Era Gowns. Two examples are below.

Check out these Victorian Era New Year’s Greeting Cards.

by Faith Briggs