J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2018

When Did the British New Year Begin Before 1752?

The earliest examples of a poetic address from colonial American newspaper carriers to their customers on New Year’s Day are all from the fast-growing city of Philadelphia. The first three date from the years 1720-22. No broadsides of those addresses survive, but they were included in a 1740 collection of verse by the Philadelphia printer with the delightful name Aquila Rose.

Then comes another in 1735, and a third from Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette in 1739. Those do survive as flyers, and the second is dated “Jan. 1, 1739.” The Checklist of American Newspaper Carriers’ Addresses catalogues twenty-nine more between then and 1752, the year that the British Empire shifted from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar.

Part of that shift was settling the first day of January as the start of the year. Before then, the English year officially turned over on the Feast of the Annunciation, or 25 March. So when were those pre-1752 New Year’s greetings distributed, around 1 January or around 25 March?

According to that checklist, every address but one that bears a date in its headline was pegged to 1 January, and the exception was dated 31 December. Others discuss winter. None treats 25 March as the start of a new year.

It turns out that most of the British Empire was counting years two ways. The “historical year” ran from January to December. The “civil or legal year” started on 25 March. Parish records often had headings for new years in both January (“New Style”) and March (“Old Style”). From January to March, literate English people designated the year with what looks like a fraction: “1707/08.” (Scotland had officially decided back in 1600 that the new year started in January, so it didn’t need such tricks.)

In daily life, people recognized the discrepancy. I looked at the published diary and correspondence of Massachusetts judge Samuel Sewall. On 1 Jan 1701, he wrote a mediocre poem that starts “Once more! Out God, vouchsafe to shine,” which certainly sounds like he was counting off a year, but he never labeled the poem as such. Richard Henchman responded to Sewall, however, with his own poetic lines which do refer to “our New-year” and “A New-Year’s Day.”

Later remarks from Sewall:

  • “Monday, Jany 1. 1704/5 Col. Hobbey’s Negro comes about 8 or 9 mane and sends in by David to have leave to give me a Levit [trumpet blast] and wish me a merry new year.”
  • “Jany. 4, 1704/5… My Service to your Lady; I wish you both a good New Year.”
  • “Jan’y 21, 1716/17… January begins this New Year (the Julian Year) with almost every body but Englishmen.”
  • “April 1, 1718… Now that upon all Reckonings, we are come to the beginning of a New year, I wish it may be a good and Joyfull one to you.”

Likewise, Sewall’s contemporary the Rev. Dr. Cotton Mather delivered a sermon titled “A New Year Well-Begun: An Essay Offered on a New-Years-Day” on 1 Jan 1719 (as we’d number the year)—but on the title page the date was “1718/19” because officially he wasn’t in a new year yet. In correspondence between Sewall and Mather there’s at least one letter dated “11th month”—but when had they started counting?

Newspapers reflected that confusion. In March 1720, Gov. Samuel Shute proclaimed that the last day of the month would be a fast day. The Boston News-Letter presented that news in its issue dated 7-14 Mar 1720.
The Boston Gazette printed the same proclamation in its issue dated 7-14 Mar 1719.
Look real close at the Gazette’s date and you’ll see that someone has crossed out the “19” and penciled in “20,” perhaps for later cataloguing.

Another newspaper example: The famous John Peter Zenger free-press case took place in 1734, by our reckoning, but the newspaper in question carried a date of 18 Feb 1733 because Zenger still used O.S. dates.

The English calendar(s) thus provided two days for reflection on the passage of time and opportunities to do more in the next twelve months. That system also required more mental calculation about how a person should write the date and what other people might have meant by a date. The calendar reform of 1752 wasn’t just about catching up with the rest of Europe on the Gregorian Calendar; it was about nailing down the official turn of the year.


Bill Harshaw said...

I wonder if the "legal year" has a remote descendant today. In some jurisdictions leases (of land or residences) expire on a fixed date, my impression is they're in the spring.

J. L. Bell said...

Could be. Here in Boston a lot of apartment leases end at the beginning of September because of the academic year, causing runs on moving trucks and traffic jams. The lease dates migrated there because of economic forces, not tradition.

Anonymous said...

In related news: In Colonial New York City May 1st was known as "Moving Day." On February 1st landlords would give notice of new rental pricing that would be going into effect later in the year, and residents would begin searching for better deals. On May 1st ALL leases in the City would expire at 9am, causing thousands of people to all change their residences at the same time (complete with, yes, runs on moving carts and traffic jams).

Did Colonial Boston have a similar day?

- R. Doctorow

[For those interested, Wikipedia has an article, with some illustrations of the bedlam].

oldCrankyPants said...

Is this why the Fiscal Year begins in April? It's a bit later than March 25th but its close.

J. L. Bell said...

I don’t know of any account of a “Moving Day” for renters in early Boston. The New York custom, attested to by a letter dated 1759 and a magazine article from 1800, suggest the 1 May moving date derived from Dutch law, which of course had no influence on Boston or Philadelphia.

J. L. Bell said...

According to Wikipedia at least, the British fiscal year starting on 1 April is indeed a remnant of the civil year beginning in late March.

In the U.S. of A., the government’s fiscal year starts on 1 October. But that was pushed back from 1 July in 1776.

Charles Bahne said...

Wrong century! The U.S. government fiscal year was changed from July 1 to October 1 in my lifetime, so it must have been in 1976, not 1776. Of course, John, I know that you're accustomed to writing about the 18th century, but this was a 20th century event.

J. L. Bell said...

You're right, Charlie! I'd looked up the date of the fiscal year, but my fingers are so used to typing dates that start "17" that the sentence ended up talking about a federal budget even before there was a federal government.