Paying calls as a formal social requirement was most popular in the Victorian Period (of COURSE) but was dying out when Emily Post wrote Etiquette in the 1920s. Oddly, my 1967 copy of Amy Vanderbilt still has a chapter on it, though she acknowledges that the practice died out after WWI.
The first thing you need to know is that calls were called morning calls even though they took place in the afternoon. This comes from an earlier practice where any time before dinner time was called morning.
The other thing to know is that paying calls was basically a full time job for society ladies. They would go around almost every day to their friends and acquaintances to keep up with what was going on with everyone and making sure your family was still in good standing. Basically, social networking before the internet. This was such serious business that women would keep ledger books of who they regularly called on, if those calls had been returned, and if they owed anyone a call. Then they would whip out these “calling lists” when it was time to host a party and boom, there is your invitation list.
Fortunately, you didn’t always have to actually talk to all of your friends. You could often just drive around to their houses and leave your card, thus getting your obligation out of the way (and your friends would keep everyone’s cards on a tray in their front hall so everyone could see how important they were!). This was especially important when you came to town after being away (or being at your country estate for a while). You would drive around and leave a card at the house of everyone in your social circle. That way they would know that you were around and they could invite you to parties and other social events. Then when you left town, you would do the exact same circle of friends and acquaintances, but this time you would write P.P.C. in small letters in a corner of your card. This is an abbreviation for pour prendre congé which, for those of you who have forgotten your high school French, means “to take leave” and would signal to everyone that you were leaving.
Aside from paying calls when you arrive in town, when you depart, and just the regular round, there were several situations that REQUIRED a call to be paid. Anytime you were invited to a ball or a dinner or any other kind of social function (whether you actually attended or not), you had to pay a call on the hostess within a week or so of the event. You also had to pay calls when a friend got engaged or when someone died. Men didn’t have to do the regular call paying, but they did have to pay calls after receiving invitations or attending parties. Anyone who didn’t pay these required calls would find themselves never invited to one of that hostess’s events again, so!
Interestingly, men also had a large number of calls to make after he got married. It was assumed that all the friendships of his bachelor days automatically ended when he got married. By paying a call on any or all of them after the wedding, it said that he found them respectable and wanted to remain friends.
When you actually wanted to see someone during a call and not just leave your card, there were additional rules to follow (of course!). You would enter the house and ask the butler or other servant if the lady of the house was at home. If she was out or busy, the butler would tell you straight away that she was “not at home” and you would leave your card and depart (however, if she heard your voice and wanted to see you, she might come out and say “I am at home to YOU, my friend!”). Some women would screen their callers by looking out the window and signaling to the butler whether they wanted to see them or not, but once the butler had taken the card and brought it to the lady of the house, she basically had to see the person. There was no pretending you weren’t home once your servants had acknowledged that you were.
So once you were in, you were brought into the drawing room, which is where guests were received. You would keep your hat on to signal that you weren’t staying long (men removed their hats but kept them in their hands). Conversation during calls was polite and mild. You would stay about 15 minutes and then you would leave. Refreshments were rarely served, but if they were, it was rude for a hostess to insist that her guests take something, as it was possible that they had had tea and cakes at the 6 houses they had previously called on and could not eat anymore.
A particular tradition around paying calls that was definitely common in New York City and likely in other places too, was the New Year’s Day call. This was a very regimented form of calling where all the women of the family would be at home all day with a spread of nice foods and all the men would go out and pay in person calls at the homes of practically everyone they knew. Since the men would be paying possibly 50-100 calls in the day, they would get started by 9 or 10 am, which meant that the women would have to be up, hair done, and in place in the parlor or drawing room by that time (so they would have to wake up by 5 or 6 am, or possibly earlier if their hairdresser was booked!). Then there would be a steady stream of men coming by all day long for just a few minutes at a time. A completely exhausting time for everyone. The practice died out when fashionable neighborhoods in Manhattan spread out and it wasn’t possible to visit all your friends in one day anymore.
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England by Daniel Pool
Etiquette by Emily Post
The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness by Cecil B. Hartley
“New-Year’s Calls,” Harper’s Bazar Magazine January 1, 1870
Complete Etiquette by Marion Harland