Idaho History

In 19th century, New Year’s was a festive occasion from Owyhees to Boise Front

These “good ol’ boys” celebrated the new year by getting drunk and staying drunk.
These “good ol’ boys” celebrated the new year by getting drunk and staying drunk. Idaho State Historical Society

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day have been celebrated in Idaho from the time there were people here to celebrate them, and in widely contrasting ways.

On Dec. 31, 1864, Idaho City’s newspaper, the Idaho World, reported, “There will be a regular old-fashioned watch meeting at the Protestant church tonight — services by the Rev. Mr. Newton, to commence at 10 ½ o’clock in the evening, to continue until after midnight.”

On Monday, Jan. 2, that season, two New Year’s balls were held in Idaho City. Barney’s band played in Pickwick Hall from 7:30 until midnight, and Paston’s Quadrille band played in Magnolia Hall for the Idaho Terpsichorean Club of about 40 couples that met there weekly. The Idaho World reported on Jan. 7, 1865, “The New Year’s balls on Monday evening were both attended by as many as there was room for, and passed off as happily as those interested could desire.”

Ruby City in the Owyhee Mountains, next to what became Silver City, celebrated the arrival of 1865 in a manner more typical of a mining town with a largely male population: “On New Year’s Eve the boys were determined to get up an excitement, so they formed themselves into a company of about 50 with tin pans and fiddles, and amidst the firing of guns, and yells and hurrahs, the New Year was ushered into existence. The only result produced by this humorous carnival was that the boys all got jolly drunk, and it snowed the harder.”

New Year’s Day in Boise City in 1867 “was honored with a due observance by the people. Business was mostly suspended and the ladies generally devoted themselves to make the day an agreeable one to such of their gallant friends as chose to call. For genuine sociability the ladies of Boise City are bright examples — worthy daughters of mothers who had hearts big as a stack of hay, and whose ideas of friendship forbade their dealing in the spurious article. Yesterday they made themselves useful in returning compliments, and shed halos of glory and beauty over many bachelor abodes unused to their divine presence. May there be many returns of New Years as pleasant and happy as the last.”

In 1869, the day after New Year’s in Boise was given the name Ladies Day. The Statesman observed “a goodly number of the fair portion of our city who made cheery calls upon the sterner sex at their dwellings and business places, bringing ‘happy New Year’ pleasant greetings to each gladdened soul, made jocund by the call, whom they honored in their merry time of visiting.” This, and everything else that appeared in 19th century Idaho papers, was written by men, and usually puts women on a pedestal, calling them “angels” and “models of virtue.” How different the tone might have been if any of what we have quoted above had been written by a woman. We doubt they would have referred to all men as “gallant,” and certainly not as “models of virtue.”

New Year’s Day in early Boise City was a time when many of its wealthier families entertained with open houses where neighbors and friends could drop by for a cheery visit and partake of refreshment from elaborate spreads of food and drink. A Statesman reporter wrote on New Year’s Day, 1870, “Rapidly we passed along the street, occasionally encountering a knot of callers, some of whom began to show indications of mirth not prompted alone by wit. Everywhere indoors we were met by smiles and wine.”

In Idaho City in 1870 it was bachelors who kept open houses to receive calls from their lady friends. “The ladies were out in full force and none of the gentlemen who kept open house can complain of being neglected. … Quite a bevy of young ladies and a number of young gentleman finished up the festivities of the holidays by spending the night in dance and song till the wee sma’ hours.”

In Boise City it was customary for the cannons at Fort Boise “to fire the old year out and the new year in.” In 1872, “this was greeted by the firing of smaller arms throughout the city.”

Faithful readers and friends, I wish you a happy and healthy new year!

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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