“I did myself the honour of calling in Berkeley Street last Tuesday, and very much regretted that I was not fortunate enough to find yourselves and Mrs. Jennings at home. My card was not lost, I hope.” Willoughby to Elinor, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 28
The astute reader of Sense and Sensibility knows that Willoughby took care to visit Berkeley Street at precisely the time when no one would be “At Home” to receive him. This duplicitous action served to raise Marianne’s hopes when there was none, for Willoughby was already courting Miss Sophia Grey, an heiress with 50,000 pounds. When he found no one at home, Willoughby most likely placed his card in a silver salver on the hall table, much like the one from 1765, see image.
The etiquette of the time dictated that when a gentleman paid a call to a lady, he must leave his card behind. If no one was “At Home”, the visitor, in this instance Willoughby, would turn down one corner of the card. This meant that he had come in person. A gentleman was obliged to leave two calling cards, one for the man of the house, and one for the lady. If there was no gentleman, then only one card would be left.*
A visitor bearing a card in person carried more social weight than if one merely sent a groom or footman to present the card. Cards, like ladies’ fans, conveyed many messages. If a card was merely presented reciprocally by a third party, the card giver could be giving the strong message that they were unwilling to further the social acquaintance. “A reciprocal card may be given to the caller. If it was not presented formally, this usually meant there was no desire to further the acquaintance. If, however, a formal call was returned with a formal call, there was hope for the relationship to grow.” If a card was conveyed to the mistress of the house, and she decided not to receive the caller, then this would be a clear rejection. In this instance, the butler would announce that his mistress was ‘not at home’.
A gentleman’s card was slightly smaller in size than a lady’s, for he had to carry his cards inside his coat. Both sexes would have their names printed in simple script on cream colored stock. Cards were most likely kept in a beautiful card case (Click here to see an example), which came in many shapes and styles. Fancy visiting cards printed with flowers and scenes did not become popular until the Victorian era, and even then the upper classes refrained from using showy cards. Printed on the card were the person’s address and name, preceded with a title (or Mr. or Mrs.). The precise name and title on the calling card would be announced to the person who was receiving. Visits were kept short, no more than 20-minutes to 30 minutes, and were held in the drawing room on the first floor. Formal morning calls were actually paid after luncheon, between 3-6 pm on the day that the lady of the house had announced she would be receiving.
In 1861, Mrs. Beeton published her seminal Book of Household Management, and wrote that: “a strict account should be kept of ceremonial visits, and notice [taken] how soon your visits have been returned. An opinion may then be formed as to whether your frequent visits are … desirable.” Miss Caroline Bingley, for example, made it quite clear with her short and belated visit to Miss Bennet, who was visiting London, that she did not wish to further the social acquaintance. More importantly, Jane quickly understood her point.
It was quite the practice to impress other visitors with the names on the calling cards left on one’s silver salver. Obviously, the card of the most notable visitor, such as Viscountess Dalrymple in Persuasion, would be displayed most prominently on top of the card heap.
The Bath paper one morning announced the arrival of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, the Honourable Miss Carteret; and all the comfort of No. –, Camden Place, was swept away for many days; for the Dalrymples (in Anne’s opinion, most unfortunately) were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was how to introduce themselves properly.
Sir Walter, however, would choose his own means, and at last wrote a very fine letter of ample explanation, regret, and entreaty, to his right honourable cousin. Neither Lady Russell nor Mr Elliot could admire the letter; but it did all that was wanted, in bringing three lines of scrawl from the Dowager Viscountess. “She was very much honoured, and should be happy in their acquaintance.” The toils of the business were over, the sweets began. They visited in Laura Place, they had the cards of Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and the Honourable Miss Carteret, to be arranged wherever they might be most visible: and “Our cousins in Laura Place,”–“Our cousin, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret,” were talked of to everybody. – Persuasion Chapter 16
A person leaving town would inform his friends of this action by dropping off a card with the letters P.P.C. written on them. The initials meant “pour prendre conge” or French for ” I’m leaving.” [Some cards used P.D.A. (pour dire adieu)]*. When a man married, he sent round cards to former acquaintances who were respectable enough to frequent his home. Anyone not receiving a card automatically understood their acquaintance to have been dropped. (Georgian Index) (Also, The Jane Austen Centre.)
Read more about calling cards in these links:
- *Etiquette for Gentlemen: Rules for Perfect Conduct, Copper Beech Publishing, 1995, p. 13. ISBN 978 1 898617 08 2
- Update: In September, 2008 the Jane Austen Centre featured this post about calling cards: The Ritual of Paying Social Calls.