The first thing I found when beginning research on Calling Cards (aka Visiting Cards) was this line from Lillian Eichler’s 1921 Book of Etiquette, which says “The origin of the social call dates from the Stone Age, when the head of a family used to leave a roughly carved block of stone at the door of another as an expression of good will and friendship.” THIS CANNOT BE TRUE, RIGHT? Let’s just take a moment to picture that, a caveman thinking to himself “You know, I really should call on that eligible girl Kathleen,” and carving his name into a rock and then leaving it with her chaperone. It’s beautiful.
A calling card was essentially a proto-business card, and was used in far more social situations with far more rules. You know how awkward it is to admit you’ve been networking and hand your card to somebody? (If not, you’re a better, confident person, teach me to be you.) Imagine doing that with someone you wanted to date, and there were set hours in the day with which to do it, and guardians had to be involved. Yeah.
Half of the rules of dating cards are about fonts, sizes, and card stock. Men’s cards were longer and narrower than Ladies cards, and Emily Post notes that a “fantastic or garish note in the type effect, in the quality or shape of the card, betrays a lack of taste in the owner of the card.” However, Marion Harland’s Complete Etiquette mentions “the styles of calling cards change from year to year even from season to season so that it is impossible to make hard and fast rules as to the size and thickness of the bits of pasteboard or the script with which they are engraved. Any good stationer can give one the desired information on these points.”
The rest of the rules concern when to leave or send cards. The basic idea was that Person A would not expect to see Person B in her own home (unless already invited or introduced) without Person B first leaving his visiting card at the home of Person A. Cards are left for bereavement, used to RSVP to events (bring the card a week before if you’re attending, earlier if not), and absolutely must be left “within a few days after taking a first meal in a lady’s house; or if one has for the first time been invited to lunch or dine with strangers.” Turning down the corner of a card meant that more than one person from the family name on the card had arrived.
There’s also this great anecdote from Emily Post. So (new money) Mrs. Vanderbilt was having a super lavish ball and everyone wanted to go. (Old Money) Mrs. Astor waited and waited and didn’t receive an invitation, so finally she sends around a note asking where her invite is. And Mrs. Vanderbilt responds: Mrs. Astor has never called on her and she wouldn’t be so presumptuous as to invite someone who had never called on her to a ball. So Mrs. Astor sends her card, Mrs. Vanderbilt invites her and they eventually become great friends.
It all sounds pretty exhausting, and involving a lot of footwork. For instance, this is an excerpt from Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions on how Naval Officers should conduct themselves with calling cards: “In formal calls, both the officer and his wife left a card in the tray provided for such a custom near the front door. In the most formal situations, the husband would leave two cards, one each for the senior being called upon and for his wife, while the officer’s wife would leave only one, since the inviolable rule of polite society was that ladies did not call on gentlemen. If the senior was unmarried, only the officer himself left a card.” The book also notes that this etiquette was far more rigid in Europe.
However, there is one aspect of this whole circus that I wish still existed: “Not at home.” If you are not available to entertain a guest when the guest calls, your servant (ha) would simply say that you are “not at home.” That could mean you’re out, it could mean you’re taking a nap, or it could mean that you hate the person calling and don’t care to hang out with them right now. It doesn’t matter, because they just leave their card and try again later. Only if you’re in your drawing room do you officially have to accept anyone, and you never have to explain yourself.
I DREAM about this lifestyle. I mean besides having a drawing room and lots of people to do my bidding, I dream of a life set up structurally so that I don’t make myself feel guilty about turning down social engagements. If you want to be social, you either had to go to someone’s house, or essentially set up office hours, and if you didn’t feel like it someone else could just say you weren’t there. It’s a perfect, cowardly move and I want it. But maybe we should all learn from this model and work on setting boundaries in our lives. I can’t be the only one who struggles with that, right? Let’s meet back here to discuss how that’s going for us. If I’m not available, leave your card.