Calling Cards - A Study in Victorian Decorum

The tradition of leaving one’s calling or visiting card goes back some 300 years. It was considered the duty of the women-folk to pay the social calls, such as calls of condolence, congratulation, and calls on the ill. “Occasions when other calls are obligatory. After a wedding breakfast, a luncheon, a dinner, a card party, or any evening entertainment to which one has been invited, a call should be made after the event whether one has accepted or not.” - the Delineator, c.1880. Often times the ladies would leave their husband’s cards along with their own. In a Delineator magazine of that era it is stated that: “It is generally understood that women leave their husband’s cards. The custom is for a married woman calling formally on another married woman to leave one of her own and two of her husband’s cards, one of his being for the hostess, the other for her husband.”

The arbiters of good taste in Victorian times set out the proper forms of conduct down to the last “t”. One of the most fascinating of traditions was that of the “at home”. This was a set visiting time on weekday afternoons, generally between 2 and 4 p.m. Each household would let it be known on which days their own “at homes” were to be held. (The hostesses could indicate their own “at home” days by having a day of the week engraved on the lower left of their calling or visiting cards.) The proper amount of time spent in visiting at such a function was between twenty to thirty minutes. Tea would be served along with the appropriate cakes. The hostess would have taken care not to serve too elaborate a presentation so as to appear to be aspiring beyond one’s station. The more skilful at this social game could fit in two or three visits in an afternoon. And of course one must return a visit within a suitable time despite how distasteful this duty might be it would otherwise be considered a social gaffe. The Delineator also suggests appropriate frequency of calls: “As a rule, it is impossible to do more than make a single call a year on acquaintances in large cities, and this is supposed to be sufficient.”

In the middle part of the 19th century hand-written cards were often made to order by experts in the art of calligraphy. These experts in penmanship might be considered the lineal descendants of the old “letter writers” of the 16th century. It was these chirographers (artists of pen decoration) who would ply their trade in the streets, parks, and fairs, quickly tossing off a dozen or so cards for a very reasonable sum. Their script had the appearance of copperplate printing with its elaborate ornamental style of lettering and flourishes of fanciful birds, ribbons, swans, quill pens, and flowers. [see card 1] For the more affluent, handpainted cards were produced by professional artists. And of course, amateurs, those scores of young ladies at home, would often strive to create their own tastefully personalized cards. Calling cards besides always displaying the name of the donor would often times also contain an appropriate phrase or a short, often sentimental, verse.

When we are old we’ll smile and say We had no cares in childhood’s day But we’ll be wrong. Twill not be true. I’ve this much care. I care for you. [American verse c.1880]

The writers for Godey’s magazine, that magazine of fashion and good taste, in the 1870’s even went so far as to prescribe the appropriate details on calling cards: “ Its texture should be fine; its engraving, a plain script; its size not too large or small to attract attention in either way.” While it was deemed appropriate to present small white cards for formal calls, for less formal calls, or for those in less fastidious circles, coloured ones could be utilized. These more elaborately embellished ones might have been Decalcomanias (c. 1880) - in more simple terms decals. According to Webster’s Dictionary: Decalcomania - the art or process of transferring pictures and designs from specially prepared paper (as to glass). To those in the know a calling card was truly a mark of one’s breeding. From the 1879 volume entitled Social Etiquette of New York one learns that: “The friendliest sentiments are expressed by a timely card. It tells its little story of fondness or of indifference, according to the promptness and the method of its arrival. It announces a friend, and it says adieu. It congratulates delicately, but unmistakably, and it is the brief bearer of tidings which a volume could explain with no more clearness.”

The vast majority of calling cards available were those created commercially by lithography. Up until the 1870’s, the lithography was generally monochrome - that is of a single coloured ink. [see card 2] Some cards can be obtained that were done in black ink then labouriously hand painted. [see card 3] By the third quarter of the 19th century card manufacturers were experimenting more and more with different papers and effects - embossed cards, die cut edges, coloured cards, striped papers, linens, marbleised papers, and most importantly of all multiple colours. [see card 4] The advent of chromolithography started slowly enough through the 70’s with innovative printers attempting the combination of two or three colours at a time. [see card 5] By the 1880’s and 1890’s the art of chromolithography had reached its golden age. Magnificent combinations of fifteen to twenty colours created wondrous pictures with fabulous colour contrast and depth.

The Crown Card Company of Cadiz, Ohio (self-proclaimed “dealers in Fashionable Visiting Cards”) produced calling cards through the 1880’s. In their “New Sample Book” produced circa 1885, the consumer was offered a wide variety of cards ranging in very reasonable prices from 12 for 15 cents through to 30 for 10 cents — all in assorted designs. [see card 6] Of course one purchased cards according to one’s means and much more expensive cards could also be acquired. The following ad appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in the late 1860’s: “Visiting cards for the coming season are of unglazed card board, large and almost square. Tinted cards, especially buff, are fashionable. The lettering is in old English text, or in script. The expense of fifty cards is $3.50.”

One of the most intriguing developments in visiting cards in the 1880’s were the aptly named “hidden name” cards. In these creations, colourful die cut paper scraps were applied on the central portion of the card to conceal the giver’s name. These delightfully served to add a little spice of mystery for the recipient. [see card 7] The paper scraps used standardized iconography of friendship such as extended or clasped hands, birds, floral flourishes or nature scenes. As in other Victorian decorative arts the creators of calling cards made ever increasingly elaborate offerings as the century progressed. The card pictured as No. 9 exemplifies this Victorian flair for the elaborate. Not only is the calling card a “hidden name” one, but the card has die cut edges, embossed paper and best of all instead of the paper scrap simply being applied over the individual’s name, this card features it applied on a die cut envelop whose decorated flap lifts to reveal the die cut name card enclosed within!

As with the giving of flowers, with leaving cards there was a special significance for the manner in which the card was left. One could bend a corner of the card to add a special message — the rather complicated “language of cards.” In his Learning How to Behave, c. 1880, Arthur M. Schlesinger wrote: “Quite apart from such details as the correct size and typography was the difficult symbolism involved in bending the edges. Turning down the upper right-hand corner signified a personal visit; the upper left corner, congratulations; the lower right-hand corner, adieu; the lower left corner, condolence; the entire left end, a call on the whole family. This practice, introduced from abroad shortly after the Civil War, commended itself to city dwellers who had little time or inclination for individual visits and yet did not wish to feel negligent of their duties.... Despite its conveniences, the custom was becoming passe by the 1890s. The sign language proved too great a tax on the human intelligence.” [see card 8]

Naturally, appropriate receptacles had to be devised for the proceedings. Calling card receivers were created out of glass, wood, and, most notably, silver. Typical early card receivers were approximately six inches in diameter, and were often mounted on a pedestal. That giant of silver plate manufacturers, the Meriden Britannia Company, produced but four different designs in 1861. Twenty-five years later, in 1886, Meriden Britannia was able to offer fifty-eight card receivers and six card tables! Decorative motifs on these receivers could include butterflies, insects, owls, elephants, children, cherubs, swans, frogs, peacocks, storks, fruit, squirrels, cats, dogs, deer, flowers, fantastical foliage. Some card trays even incorporated art glass vases in their designs. By 1890 the peak of formal elaboration had been reached. The next couple of decades saw the return to less ostentatious creations.

Calling cards can afford an interesting historical perspective of the development of printing through the 19th century. Directly associated with these innovations is also the progression of Victorian decorative style. We can as well catch a glimpse of the unique social customs of that day and age with their regimented sense of decorum. As with other ephemeral items one marvels that such beautiful little momentos has managed to survive some one hundred to one hundred and fifty years and now can provide us with so much delight and joy.

Walter Lemiski is the Director of the Canadian Depression Glass Association. He also runs the bi-annual Vintage Glass Show & Sale -- in 2007 on Saturday, April 14th & Saturday, November 17th. Walt's two books "Elegant Glass with Corn Flower" and "Glass Barware: Deco & Beyond" are available from the author for $35.00 each. For more information about the CDGA, glass books or the Vintage Glass Shows please write or visit