To the unrefined or underbred, the visiting card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude, even before his manners, conversation and face have been able to explain his social position. The higher the civilization of a community, the more careful it is to preserve the elegance of its social forms. It is quite as easy to express a perfect breeding in the fashionable formalities of cards, as by any other method, and perhaps, indeed, it is the safest herald of an introduction for a stranger. Its texture should be fine, its engraving a plain script, its size neither too small, so that its recipients shall say to themselves, ‘A whimsical person,’ nor too large to suggest ostentation. Refinement seldom touches extremes in anything. From “Our Deportment” by John H. Young, 1879 & 1881, p. 76.
During the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian eras, calling cards were a necessary accessory for a gentleman or lady who called upon friends or acquaintances, or who wished to announce their presence in town. In fact, one wasn’t received unless one conveyed one’s card first. Gentlemen could place their addresses on their cards, but ladies could not, and a matron would naturally place her married name on her card, such as Mrs. John Smith.
The best calling cards were made from plain, excellent quality paper and were engraved. They were kept in beautiful cases, such as the one above. A gentleman’s card case was slightly smaller than a lady’s, since he had to carry it in his pocket. Ornamentation on a card was considered to be poor taste, although as the 19th century progressed, the more colorful calling card seemed to become quite common.
For the recipient, calling cards were a handy way of recalling who had come to visit, and which calls needed to be returned. They were also effective in letting one know exactly where one stood in the social order. For example, if an individual received a calling card in lieu of a personal visit, well, then, the point was likely made.
For more detailed information about calling cards, click on the following links:
- The Gentleman’s Page goes into great detail about the etiquette of handing out cards in late 19th Century America. By scrolling down the page, you can view several samples of calling cards here.
- Calling Cards and the Etiquette of Paying Calls goes into some detail about using this important accessory.
- Calling Cards and Stationary describes the use of calling cards during the Victorian period, such as: The card was conveyed to the mistress of the house, who would then decide whether or not to receive the caller. Out of respect, no questions or inquiries as to the whereabouts of the residents or the mistress were asked during the initial visit. If the mistress was ‘not at home’, it was a rejection of the visitor. A reciprocal card may be given to the caller, but if none was given formally, this generally indicated less desire to further the acquaintance. However, if formal calls were given, there was hope for the relationship to grow.
- The Georgian Index depicts a card case and offers a short description.
- Calling Cards: Story and History provides a short description of paying calls and using calling cards.
- Update: In September, 2008 the Jane Austen Centre featured this post about calling cards: The Ritual of Paying Social Calls.
Calling card of Le Marechal Foch, French hero who lived during the turn of the 20th century. Note the writing on the card.