Vintage View: The lost etiquette of the visiting card

Kya deLongchamps offers an introduction to the lost etiquette of the visiting card, a crucial grace in high society that could wither the sender. 

Calling was a delicate etiquette in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the calling card its central prop. The upper classes were (and still are), a self-policing club.

The traditions around the making of calls, were a systematic form of exclusion to effectively barricade the hoi polloi from the more intimate reaches and most importantly, the female company of the home.

Understanding how and when, and to whom to call and present a card was just one matter. Knowing what the response to the leaving of a card meant in high society’s unspoken terms of tight connectedness and accepted behaviours, was absolutely crucial.

Despite, what we see in period dramas (where an unexpected card arrives and a servant cheerfully pops a complete stranger into the drawing-room), much of the time the card was floated out onto a silver salver without the expectation of a full, face to face meeting at all.

The card was a herald after an introduction at a social occasion. The introduction was the endorsement by a third party, the card presented at the house of your quarry a suggestion of mutual acceptance. Eighteenth century cards were quite plain on quality paper called Bristol board.

Ladies’ cards were larger as they were not carried in a breast pocket and would not feature an address. If the lady’s daughters were still pouting around at home unmarried, their names would also feature on mama’s card. Beautiful cases were made to carry these expensive engraved cards about in style. Really smart aristocrats had handwritten cards made to order.

When a lady arrived in town she would send out a volley of cards, calling to people she knew to announce she had arrived in town or the district, let’s call it the Georgian tweet.

Generally, return cards and calls would then follow. She might be invited from her pitching point in her carriage into the house once her card was examined. If the socially aspiring did not know anyone in the area, they had to wait for cards from interested neighbours to flutter in the door, and then accept their call on the spot or return interest with a card and a visit. You were expected to call on those who had deemed you worthy of their card at least once, and within no more than a few days.

Subtle nuances, for example the response to your driver’s presentation of your card, that Lady Swagger ‘was not at home’ together with receiving no card or call in return, was a clear, understood rejection of a future relationship.

For whatever reason, you had been summed up, probably through local intelligence, as not meriting her notice, or very likely to compromise it. This mute directive to return to your proper place would be excruciating for someone mincing their way up the social ladder. Returned cards sent in envelopes were also a sign that you were not expected to call again.

How humiliating, to have clip-clopped over there and sat in an open high-flyer with the velvet curtains twitching in the reception rooms on the second floor of some smart town house. Your groom returns with the footman who flatly delivers the formal pronouncement of disinterest.

Forget having a friend request rejected on Facebook, this was death by paper cuts, and a sign of potential social banishment. If the person was genuinely not there, your card would sit on the tray and be given by a servant to them on their return, in order of precedence, the more exalted cards from titled folk, shuffled to the top of the pack.

Visits, where they did take place, were equally stiffened in protocol. The times for calling, printed on a lady’s card, were generally between 3pm and 6pm, and visits were expected to be of no more than fifteen minutes for all but very close friends. Tea, a light chat on the edge of a chair and out the door you went.

Hang around, accepting a fresh cup and monopolising the hostess — you were letting it be known that your background and manners were questionable. This was a testing ground for orderly, acceptable conduct.

Cards might sometimes be left just as an acknowledgement by more distant friends of a great time enjoyed at a ball, or to congratulate or commiserate after a wedding, a death, and so on.

Intimate friends would ‘send in their cards’ and then be announced and brought in to a reception room by a servant, but acquaintances would have no such expectation of just dropping in on a superior in society.

They might pump some information from the servant about how the individual or family were, and then would simply leave. The caller could indicate they had delivered their card in person, by turning down the top right-hand corner of the card, and some cards had little messages to indicate the nature of the call printed on the reverse, to which the corner would politely point.

An individual leaving town for a while, might leave his or her card to announce ‘pour prendre conge’ (‘I am leaving’) for interested members of their circle.

Pretty French phrases were enjoyed by theVictorians, who turned their calling cards into lush tropical illustrations by the end of the century, but the traditions of behaviour persisted, fending off the ascent of the lower orders.

This severe and unvarying decorum might seem ludicrous today, but this odd testing dance persisted in upper circles of society all over Great Britain, Ireland and America well into the 1930s, when changes in social mobility and the convenience of the telephone finally killed off these hideous niceties.


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