Who’s calling?

As much as we at Seven Trees enjoy the convenience of having friends, family and acquaintances at our beck & call via Facebook, email and cell phone, sometimes it seems our ancestors had the drop on us in terms of class and style when it came to ‘visiting’.

Households of the class to engage servants to man/ma’am the front door spent a considerable amount of time paying calls to similarly situated households, with an elaborate structure of etiquette and protocol observed in the process.

“”At home” or “not at home” was the crux of the entire social-calling venture. Most women (and women were the main organizers and participants of these ritual vistis) chose a particular day and time to be “at home”, to receive callers.  Morning visits were paid usually between the hours of 12 and 5, but never on Sundays, which were reserved for family and very close friends.

The Ladies Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, c.1872 instructs:

 “When the servant answers your ring, hand in your card. If your friend is out or engaged, leave the card, and if she is in, send it up. Never call without cards. You may offend your friend, as she may never hear of your call, if she is out at the time, and you trust to the memory of the servant.”

Calling cards were left on trays in the entry hall, from ornate silver salvers to pretty china bowls, depending on one’s place on the socio-economic ladder.

In Regency/Georgian times (think Jane Austen) calling cards were very simple, usually the person’s name in the center on cream-colored card stock. By the Victorian era, cards were much more colorful and elaborate.

And naturally calling cards needed a convenient container to keep them tidy and close at hand. These cases became a way to show off one’s sense of style and level of income. The example below, in sterling silver, has a ring linking the two chains, permitting the owner to wear it on her finger for safe-keeping.

These cermonial calls were supposed to be kept short; 10 to 20 minutes considered sufficient, and never more than 30. Even these brief visits were rife with potential politeness pitfalls. Here are some guidelines to help one avoid breaches of etiqutte:

“If your friend is at home, after sending your card up to her by the servant, go into the parlor to wait for her. Sit down quietly, and do not leave your seat until you rise to meet her as she enters the room. To walk about the parlor, examining the ornaments and pictures, is illbred. It is still more unlady-like to sit down and turn over to read the cards in her card basket. If she keeps you waiting for a long time, you may take a book from the centre-table to pass away the interval.

Never, while waiting in a friend’s parlor, go to the piano and play till she comes. This is a breach of goodbreeding often committed, and nothing can be more illbred. You may be disturbing an invalid unawares, or you may prevent your friend, if she has children, from coming down stairs at all, by waking the baby.”

 Calling cards were also a vehicle for delivering “secret” messages by folding down certain corners of the card:

  • A visit in person (as opposed to being sent by a servant): the right hand upper corner
  • A congratulatory visit: the left hand upper corner
  • A condolence visit: the left hand lower corner
  • Taking leave (if you were going on a long trip): right hand lower corner
  • If there were two of more ladies in the household, the gentleman turned down a corner of the card to indicate that the call was designed for the whole family.
Even more could be communicated via a set of abbreviations of French phrases jotted on the card: 
  • p. f. – congratulations (pour féliciter)
  • p. r. – expressing one’s thanks (pour remercier)
  • p. c. – mourning expression (pour condoléance)
  • p. f. N. A. – Happy New Year (pour feliciter Nouvel An)
  • p. p. c. – meaning to take leave (pour prendre congé)
  • p. p. – if you want to be introduced to anybody, send your visiting card (pour présenter)
More rules applied when a lady’s morning caller was a gentleman. Here is just the tiniest tip of the etiquette iceberg:

“In parting from a gentleman caller, rise when he does, and remain standing until he leaves the room, but do not go towards the door.

When a gentleman calls in the morning he will not remove his outside coat, and will hold his hat in his hand. Never offer to take the latter, and do not invite him to remove his coat. Take no notice of either one or the other.”

Women kept a close eye on who called, and how soon their calls were returned, as a way to gauge whether or not the acquaintance should be continued. Close friends naturally called more often, and a woman with a large social circle may not pay more than brief morning calls to most households. One way to show beyond a doubt that someone’s company was no longer desired was to respond to their calling (and card leaving) by sending one of your own cards to them, via servant, in an envelope. This practice seems to have been the paper equivalent of the cold shoulder.

With cell phones and Facebook nearly inseparable from the average human, this elaborate method of ‘friending’ people might be thought a dusty relic of pre-electronic times. But there has been a modern resurgence of calling cards as a way to share contact information in a more personal and tangible way than entering a number into one’s phone, or trying to remember an email or web address. Having a simple card with one’s name, email, website, etc. is a tool worth considering, not just for convenience, but also because it’s just plain cool!

The Gentleman’s Guide to the Calling Card has some more ideas for designing and using calling cards.

For a more historical look read Paying Social Calls at The Jane Austen Centre.

For a hardcore immersion into the source material, dive into Morning Receptions or Calls from The Ladies Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness. The entire book is strangely fascinating. Did people really pay attention to all those rules and restrictions??

And if you’re a shiny-thing-loving magpie like me, shopping for antique calling card cases will be high on your list. Ruby Lane has quite a selection to browse, sadly not cheap though.

On the home front, the living room is finally done being painted! On to the next room….


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