Sunday, March 15, 2015

Victorian Calling Cards

Hello from Carla Stewart, who is glad that spring is trying to emerge and we are able to bustle about once again and maybe call on a few friends we haven't seen in awhile.

Alas, we rarely do that sort of thing anymore, but rather "meet up" somewhere or "do lunch". Not so for the Victorians both in Europe and in the States as well. People called on each other, stopping in to visit on "At Home" days or just drop a card with an invitation to tea or to extend best wishes for whatever the season might be. And as was frequently the case, the Victorians didn't do things halfway, but elevated it to an art form. And so emerged the calling or visiting card.

Creative commons presented originally by Circuitous Root

Calling cards first appeared in China in the 15th century but didn't make their western debut until the French introduced them in the early 1800s.The custom spread quickly throughout Europe and became quite popular among the "well-to-do" in New England throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century. Syles ranged from simple embossing to hand calligraphy, fringed edges, hidden name cards where the bearers name is imprinted below a Victorian scrap at one edge, photograph cards, gelatine cards which went through a special process and were quite fragile, patriotic cards especially after the Civil War in the US, and every sort of fancy bordered and embellished cards you could imagine. A line or two of poetry wasn't uncommon along with the artwork. Hundreds of thousands of cards were printed from 1800 through the 1890s.
Creative commons presented originally by Circutous Root

Old Design Shop free image

Old Design Shop free image

Old Design Shop free image

Both men and women used calling cards. The lady's version was larger and often fancier than the man's card which needed to fit in the breast pocket of his jacket, and cards from the Victorian period were larger than those of the preceding Regency era. Card holders for women became fashionable and were often of filigreed sterling, mother of pearl, tortoiseshell, ivory or velvet. Because cards were often delivered only to a servant, they were placed in special receivers or trays on a table in the foyer. Both fancy glass and sterling receivers were common.

Occasions for using a calling card:

  • Ladies made calls and delivered her cards immediately upon moving to a town. Local women could choose to invite the newcomer in when she delivered the card or offer her own card to extend an offer of wishing to further the friendship. If no card was offered, this was considered a rejection.
  • Formal calls to offer congratulations or condolensces. Good manners dictated that the call be made within a week of the event, whether an engagement, marriage, addition to the family, or death or illness.
  • By the mid-1800s, women could leave both their own card and that of her husband, always leaving two of his - one for the master of the house and the other for his wife.
  • Taking leave. For extended trips out of town, it was considered good manners to let friends know of your intended absense.
  • Invitations to any sort of occasion, although formal occasions usually had their own invitation that was either hand delivered or posted in the mail.
  • Offer of courtship - for gentlemen to request getting to know an eligible woman better.

Presentation of the card could deliver special messages by turning of one corner or another to relay the message:

  • A folded top left corner meant the visitor had come in person. If unfolded, the card was delivered by a servant.
  • A folded bottom left corner meant farewell.
  • A folded top right corner offered congratulations.
  • A folded bottom right corner expressed condolence.
  • A black band around the edge signified the carrier of the card was in mourning.

Like many customs, the folding of the corners fell out of fashion by the 1900s.

Rules for visiting:

  • Formal calls following a celebratory event or a condolence made within a week of the event.
  • Ceremonial visits (leaving a card only) between 3 and 4 pm the day after a ball. For a dinner party, such visit acceptable within a day or two, and after a small party withing a week.
  • Ceremonial calls were made between three and four in the afternoon. Semi-ceremonial calls between four and five, and intimate calls between five and six pm.
  • No calls on Sunday as these days were reserved for family and close friends.
  • Visits were short, twenty to thirty minutes. If another caller arrived during a visit, the first caller left withing a moment or two.
  • The decision of whether to receive a caller is up to the master or mistress of the house.

Men's Calling Cards:

Generally, a gentleman's card was simpler in design with just his name and perhaps an address. A young man didn't preface his name with "Mr." but men in the military could put their rank and physicians could use a professional title. All other honorary titles were verboten. Typically, gentlement inscribed initials on the card that gave the nature of the visit.

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)

In the US, calling cards were still used until the 1920s although not as extensively as in the nineteenth century. The "death" of the calling card altogether came when Lou Hoover, President Hoover's wife and an activist and promoter in her own right, found the custom time-consuming and old-fashioned. She disliked having to leave calling cards on formal social visits to other spouses of political figures in Washington. She prevailed upon her fellow Cabinet wives to agree to end the custom. Thus ended the calling card tradition.

We've come full circle, though in the twenty-first century where our "calling" cards are now business cards. They're personal and say a lot about the presenter: who she is, her business, how to contact her. Just as the visiting cards of earlier times, both men and women express themselves via the "biz" card.

Do you have a business card? What does it say about you?

Carla Stewart is the award-winning author of five novels. With a passion for times gone by, it is her desire to take readers back to that warm, familiar place in their hearts called “home.” Her newest release is The Hatmaker's Heart. In New York City’s Jazz Age, a naïve, but talented young hat designer must weigh the cost of success when the rekindled love with her childhood sweetheart is lost and her integrity in the cutthroat fashion world is tested. Learn more about Carla at
2015 Oklahoma Book Award Finalist


  1. I love the Victorian custom of calling cards. I happened on a display of them in a local antique store a year ago and had such fun choosing the ones I wanted. (Truth be told I wanted them all.) Looking at calling cards is a great way to see what names were in vogue.

  2. How fun that you found some of the old cards - I would have wanted them all, too! And yes, weren't the names great? Or maybe I should say different!

  3. Really interesting post, Carla. I'm rather glad the tradition died out. It seems a bit tedious. I do have business cards for my writing. They have my website and email address but nothing more personal. I loved looking at the old calling cards and learning about how to use them.

  4. Thanks, Vickie, for your kind words. I think it would have been tedious, too, but often people in the upper class lived for their social connections. I must say this was another example of the proper and oftentimes ostentatiousness of the Victorians. It would have been fun to live during this time I think.

  5. I'm sad that calling cards went out of fashion because a lazy President's wife didn't want to leave them. For shame! I'm sure she had secretaries and helpers of all kinds who could have done this for her. The cards looked beautiful and maybe someone important will bring them back. I have noticed business cards today with bright colors and not the boring printed only ones. An interesting post! sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  6. I learned a lot about card today.. Thank you I really enjoyed seeing & learning about cards.. I did have a business card. D'S Quilting .. said it all :)
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