By C. Claypool
Some folks, upon hearing the term “calling card”, immediately think of what a pigeon leaves on your car if you are so unwise as to park beneath its roost. But you, my readers, are eminently more sophisticated, and undoubtedly exclaimed to yourselves, “But of course! A social necessity of the stationery family, resembling only in passing its brother, the business card.”
The French claim to have created them in the 17th century, but while origins are debated, we know that by the 1850s, calling cards had grown into an important part of the upper-class social ritual known as “paying calls”, or visiting. Ostensibly, visiting one’s friends, but since these calls involved social position, that might not always have been the case. Calls were made in the late afternoon, even though they were referred to as morning calls.
By the 1870s and 1880s, one could convey simple messages via folding down various corners of a calling card. Thus, should the lady of the house not be at home, or not accepting callers that day, a visitor might convey congratulations by folding the upper left-hand corner of her card. Folding the entire left side over said one had come to visit all the women of the family. If one was leaving town, bending the lower right-hand corner indicated “good-bye”. It was a sort of visiting shorthand. (I imagine that if a lady left her card, ripped into tiny pieces, it might have meant “I saw you flirting with my husband at the Smith’s ball last night, you shameless hussy. Don’t think I don’t know what doing THAT with your fan conveys.” But that’s another article.) Leaving one’s card indicated that one had tried to pay a visit (the social ball is now in your court, dear). If the call was not returned, it was understood that further overtures were not welcome.
While etiquette books recommended simple, engraved calling cards, the Victorian love for ornamentation resulted in chromolithographed cards with colorful floral or novelty designs. One’s card might also indicate the day of the week a lady would be “at home” to callers. Naturally, another home accessory developed to hold these, and ornate, often silver-plated receptacles waited on a table in the front hall. A lady might carry her cards in an engraved silver case, as well.
How many of us collect e-mails as people used to collect these beautiful cards? Interestingly, some current stationery catalogs now offer cards which emphasize beauty as well as business. The Victorian Trading Company is a wonderful source, but Colorful Images also offers some pretty choices.