Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Use Visiting Cards Anymore

You know, like this.

You know, like this.

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.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Bundling

Bundling is another fun and folksy tradition that seems pretty strange today.

Bundling: because people have different mating practices than pigeons.
By Aomorikuma (あおもりくま) (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The basic idea is: a boy and a girl like each other and want to get to know each other better. However everyone lives in tiny houses with tons of people so there is no privacy. Also it’s winter and the house is cold. So what do you do? You throw those two crazy kids into bed with a board between them for propriety’s sake and let them chat all night. (It also helped to conserve candles and firewood- practical!)

An alternate version was tying each person up in a sack to their necks so that no hanky panky could happen.

How well the practice actually worked at upholding good American morals is anyone’s guess- Washington Irving noted “that wherever the practice of bundling prevailed, there was an amazing number of sturdy brats born” so maybe it didn’t work so well after all.

There were even popular songs about it:

Nature’s request is, give me rest,

Our bodies seek repose;

Night is the time, and ’tis no crime

To bundle in our cloths.

Since in a bed, a man and maid

May bundle and be chaste;

It doth no good to burn up wood

It is a needless waste.

Let coat and shift be turned adrift,

And breeches take their flight,

An honest man and virgin can

Lie quiet all the night.

It seems to have been most common in colonial America and had pretty much died out everywhere by the 20th century, after being practiced by the Amish for some time beyond everyone else.

It seems like a kind of warm and cozy first date- maybe I will add it to my OkCupid profile. What do you think, would you like to bundle up with someone this winter?


You can read a LENGTHY 1930’s treatise on the practice here if you are interested.


Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Dueling Etiquette

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr fight their famous duel
(Alexander Hamilton is the hottest founding father, please discuss.)

Duels were a popular way of hashing out ones differences from the Middle Ages to the late 1800s. During that period, guns became much more accurate and thus you were more likely to actually DIE during a duel. Also, people started going to law school when they didn’t know what to do after graduation, leading to more lawyers who could resolve our differences in a courtroom rather than on a field of honor.

Dueling worked like this:

A gentleman insulted another gentleman and that second gentleman challenged the first to a duel. Each chose a “second,” a person to act as their representative and make sure the fight was fair. The seconds would actually do a lot of the work. They did all the negotiating and trying to calm everyone down, then when that failed, they loaded the guns, counted out the paces, and signaled to fire.

There were several ways to end a duel which had to be agreed on before beginning. It could end at first blood, when one party was too injured to continue, death, or after each man had fired one shot. They could even agree to purposefully miss- apparently in their famous duel, Alexander Hamilton  purposefully missed (or deloped) Aaron Burr. Either Aaron Burr didn’t get the memo or was a true cad because he (obviously) shot to kill. Though, some duelists felt that this practice  implied that you thought the other guy was not worth shooting and was thus even more of an insult.

Some fun dueling etiquette facts:

  • There were several published codes of dueling. The Code Duello in Ireland in 1877 and the Wilson Code by a South Carolina governor in 1838

  • Duels usually took place at dawn in some hidden location like an island in a river to help avoid arrest because you a) can’t be seen and b) the jurisdiction over strange locations is often hazy.

  • Only gentleman were allowed to duel, because you had to have a certain level of honor before it could be insulted. “Lower class” men had different ways of resolving their differences.

  • If a man refused a duel, he might be “posted” meaning a poster would be placed in a public place calling him a coward or some other foul thing until he was SO insulted that he would have to accept the duel.

  • The goal of a duel was not necessarily to kill but to gain satisfaction and show that you were brave enough to face death for your honor.

  • One statistic says that between 1700 and 1845, in England, dueling had a 15% death rate.

  • Back when duels were fought with swords, women would fight topless. The reason for this was so that if they were stabbed, the sword wouldn’t push any of their clothing into the wound, causing infection. Men had never thought of this and many wounded duelers died of sepsis.

How To Never Address Anyone Again

These titles have been out of use since we stopped hanging witches.

You would think that since America doesn’t have a nobility, the historical use of titles would be very straightforward, but there are a few interesting uses that we don’t have anymore:

Goody/Goodwife and Goodman

If you’ve ever read The Crucible or other books based in Puritan America, you’ve probably come across the term Goodwife and its abbreviation Goody and have perhaps seen the term Goodman. Obviously these terms came with the colonists from England but seem to have been used mostly by the Puritans in New England. To an extent the term denoted church membership, as those who belonged to the church were “good.” They seem to have been titles denoting a slightly lesser social status than those addressed Master and Mistress, but still with some social standing in the community. The term fell out of use in the early 1700s.

Mistress and Master

Early forms of address for people of the middle and upper (but not noble) classes, precursors to Mister and Mrs. Mistress was used for both married and unmarried women. They fell out of use sometime in the 1700s as the democratization of language preferred Mister and Mrs. (which is still short for Mistress, but obviously pronounced Missus) or Miss for all people.

For a while, Mrs. was used as term of respect for women even if they weren’t married- such as calling the cook and housekeeper Mrs. Lastname to denote their rank even if they weren’t married. Miss also was derived from Mistress. An interesting historical fact about the use of the word Miss was that in a family, the eldest daughter would have use of the title Miss LastName and her younger sisters would be called Miss FirstName until the eldest married and the next was bumped up. The use of the term Master for the minor, male children of a house survived well into the 20th century.

During the period immediately following the Revolution, Americans were trying to figure out what they would call each other. Many advocated for a no-frills approach and an ending of most earlier courtesy titles. One wish was to change female titles to eliminate a distinction between married and unmarried women. For those who think the term Ms. originated in the 20th century, it has actually existed as the abbreviation for Mistress as long as Mrs. and Miss have been around.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do that Anymore: Display Wedding Gifts

This is something like what the display would look like. Via The Smithsonian

Now that we’ve learned how to give a wedding present, we can all be grateful that we no longer have to worry about it being displayed in the bride’s home to be judged against all the other presents that people have given!

As I mentioned in my post on The Southern Belle Primer, in the past, many brides would display their wedding gifts in their home for people to come and see.

This custom began sometime in the late 19th century, right around the time that wedding guests started to give significant gifts. Prior to that time, the bride’s family provided all of the household equipment the couple would need through the trousseau with guests giving token gifts, if anything. In fact, giving large wedding gifts would imply that you thought that the family could not properly provide for their daughter.

But by the end of the 19th century, that had all changed and manufactured goods had become pretty cheap and people started the wedding gift traditions that we know today. Unlike today, appropriate wedding presents were commonly accepted to be things like china, crystal, silver, and fine linens. These types of items made a much more lovely display.

The basic idea is that the gifts were displayed in the bride’s home for guests to see before or during the wedding. It was much more common at that time for weddings to take place at home, so it actually kind of makes sense to have the gifts displayed, since they were already there. Also, “visiting” at people’s homes was much more common around the turn of the 20th century, so it wouldn’t be as strange as it seems now for people to stop by to see the gifts- in fact, it made it a little bit easier to just have them out instead of having to pull them out of wherever they were stored every time someone came by.

There were variations over the years:

In 1896 Maude Cook writes that if the presents are not to be exhibited at the wedding reception, the bride frequently gives an informal tea the day before to her lady friends for the purpose of displaying them.

The Dictionary of Etiquette in 1904 said that it is not in good taste to display the gifts, but if they are, the names of the givers should be removed and only close friends invited to see them.

Emily Post’s 1922 book states that wedding presents should be sent ahead of time so they can be unwrapped and displayed in the brides home to show them off in a pleasing manner, not to brag but to show appreciation of people’s kindness. They do not have to be displayed, especially if the family cannot spare the room. If they are not displayed, a small afternoon party can be given for close friends to come and see them.

By 1967, Amy Vanderbilt concedes that you do not see the wedding gift display very often, though it is still correct to have it. She does mention that all the cards with the names of the givers should be removed and that though you can display checks, the names should be covered up. She also suggests grouping gifts of similar value together to prevent people from making comparisons. She also suggests having a tea for close friends to come see them and having them on view during the reception if it takes place at home.

Not everyone thought that these displays were such a great idea. Many etiquette books and the very popular Godey’s Lady’s Book denounced the practice as being vulgar and show offy. Sometimes the bride’s trousseau was included in the display, so everyone would be looking at what underwear you would be wearing the next few years- fun! When Consuelo Vanderbilt famously married the Duke of Marlborough, Vogue ran an article, illustrated, of her trousseau including one and a half columns on her lingerie. Consuelo was mortified “I read to my stupefaction that my garters had gold clasps studded with diamonds…and wondered how I should live down such vulgarities”

I have not heard of this being done  in any recent times, though some etiquette books still mention it and even suggest doing it so you can easily show your gifts to close friends. Perhaps this is a regional thing? Is anyone still doing this? Let me know!