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David Carr, the late Times columnist and media critic, starred in videos years ago that were shot in Times Square. At the end of them, he cheerily said: “They call it Times Square for a reason.”
Carr’s point was that many people don’t know that the square is named for the newspaper. New York City changed the name from Longacre Square in 1904, in honor of The Times moving its offices there.
Adolph Ochs, who was the publisher of The Times at the time, celebrated the move by staging a New Year’s Eve fireworks display in the square. He organized the first midnight ball drop three years later, a tradition that continues even though The Times no longer occupies the building at the center of the square.
This year’s celebrations will be muted as coronavirus cases surge. Attendance will be limited to 15,000 people instead of the usual 58,000. Paris, Los Angeles and other cities are also downsizing their celebrations.
Today, we’re looking back. We focused on past New Year’s events that resonated in this unusual year.
The Times’s first New Year’s: The newspaper, founded in September 1851, covered its first New Year’s Eve less than four months later. It advertised religious ceremonies “appropriate to the close of the year” and stores selling New Year’s presents. On Jan. 1, the paper listed the past year’s notable deaths and “principal events,” including a gale that struck Massachusetts, a world’s fair in London and a coup in France.
The Civil War: On Dec. 30, 1862, Union troops near Murfreesboro, Tenn., played “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia.” Their Confederate foes answered with “Dixie,” and the two sides ended the night playing “Home, Sweet Home” together. The battle that followed, fought between New Year’s Eve and Jan. 2, 1863, was among the war’s deadliest.
Also on New Year’s Eve 1862, abolitionists held vigils as they waited for President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He did so the next day, freeing enslaved people in the states that had seceded from the Union. The vigils became the origin of the New Year’s Eve services that some African American churches still hold.
World War I: America entered World War I in 1917, and Times Square on New Year’s Eve that year was “thoroughly sedate and solemn,” The Times reported. Soldiers and sailors, forbidden to drink, sat in restaurants and hotels. Sugar was rationed, and dinner at the Waldorf Astoria was meatless. Broadway, “ankle-deep in confetti” a year before, was “gloomy, deserted and silent.”
Flu pandemic: New Year’s Eve 1918 also took place during a pandemic. A brutal fall and winter wave had killed tens of thousands of Americans. By Dec. 31, some cities had loosened their public health measures, inviting a more joyous holiday. “Hotels and clubs and other places where revelers congregate to greet the new year are overdoing themselves in the way of entertainment,” The Chicago Daily News reported.
And an image that may resonate in 2021: At a Milwaukee hotel ball, dancers wore masks as prescribed by the health department.
World War II: New Year’s Eve 1941 — less than a month after the U.S. joined World War II — found Times Square upbeat and patriotic. More than half a million people cheered and sang the national anthem under Broadway’s neon lights. “If Axis ears did not hear last night’s revelry in Times Square it was not that New Yorkers didn’t try,” The Times reported the next day.
Still, the square featured a robust police presence, street signs with evacuation instructions and loudspeakers in the event of an air raid. And later wartime holidays were less festive. Because of the “dim outs” meant to conceal the city from a possible attack, 1942 and 1943 were the only New Year’s Eves since 1907 that did not feature Times Square ball drops.
Transition to television: Today, most people experience New Year’s Eve in Times Square as a television show with musical interludes. The Canadian-born musician Guy Lombardo and his band, the Royal Canadians, were early pioneers. They broadcast over the radio starting in the 1920s and, in later decades, on television, an example Dick Clark, Carson Daly and others built on. This year, too, live television will be flush with celebrity-driven countdowns. If you’ll be ringing in the New Year from home, here’s what to watch.
It was a year of returns, from Broadway plays to Brooklyn parties, and The Times sent photographers to capture as much as possible. These are our favorite arts and culture photos of 2021.
What you won’t find on this list: Artfully posed Zoom photos (thankfully). What you will find: photographers in theaters and studios and concert halls and museums and streets, as well as revelatory portraits of Léa Seydoux, André De Shields and a snail named Velveeta.
Thanks for spending parts of your mornings with The Times this year. Happy 2022! See you Monday.
P.S. Jeffrey Henson Scales, a Times photo editor, shared this photo of his home studio to discuss the Year In Pictures on TV:
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