Calling Cards and the Etiquette of Paying Calls

by Michelle Hoppe


By the beginning of the 19th century, the etiquette of calling was a firmly established ritual in society, and the calling card an essential part of introductions, invitations and visits. Calling cards evolved in England as a way for people to get into the elite social circle, and for those already there to keep out the unwanted. Calling cards could keep social aspirants at a distance until they could be properly screened.

The Cards

A lady's card was larger than a gentleman's, who had to fit his in his breast pocket. Cards during the Regency era were smaller than the 9 x 6 cm of the Victorian era. A lady's card may be glazed, while her husband's was not.

The engraving was in simple type, small and without flourishes, although script became more elaborate as the century went on. A simple 'Mr.' Or 'Mrs.' before the name was sufficient, except in the case of acknowledgement of rank (Earl, Viscount, etc.). Early Victorian cards bore only a person's title and name, with the name of their house or district sometimes added. By the end of the century, the address was added to the card, and when applicable, a lady's reception day.

Visiting card cases were made of a variety of materials, including silver, ivory and papier-mache. Their lids during the 1830s often depicted views of castles, such as Warwick or Winsdor. By the 1840s, after Queen Victoria's purchase of Balmoral, Scottish views became popular. Cases during the Regency were primarily of filigree, leather and tortoiseshell. Victorians preferred ivory, tortoiseshell and woodwork. Because gold and other metals were expensive, only the wealthy could afford cases made of these substances.

Victorian cards were larger than their earlier counterparts, so only a few were carried at a time.

Rules for Calls and Leaving Cards

A lady would start making calls as soon as she arrived in Town, to notify everyone that her family had arrived. She remained in her carriage while her groom took her card and handed it in.

The card was conveyed to the mistress of the house, who would then decide whether or not to receive the caller. If the mistress was 'not at home', it was a rejection of the visitor. A reciprocal card may be given to the caller, but if not presented formally, that usually meant there was no desire to further the acquaintance. If, however, a formal call was returned with a formal call, there was hope for the relationship to grow.

Cards from visitors were placed on a silver salver in the entry hall--the more impressive names displayed on top. The trays had a pie-crust rim so the cards would not slip off. In less wealthy households, china bowls were used to hold cards.

For a first call, one was wise to simply leave the card without inquiring as to whether or not the mistress was at home. She would then take the next step.

By mid-century, a wife could leave her husband's card for him. She left her own card, plus two of her husband's--one for the mistress of the house, and one for the master. The names of grown-up daughters could be printed on her card when they accompanied her on a call as long as they were still living at home.

A turned-down corner indicated that the card had been delivered in person, rather than by a servant. Some elaborate cards had the words Visite, Felicitation, Affaires, and Adieu imprinted on the reverse side, on the corners. So whichever corner was turned up, one of those corners appeared and explained the reason for the visit.

Calls should be made only on At Home days. Days and times for these were engraved on visiting cards.

A newcomer waited until she received cards from neighbors. It was then good manners to call on those neighbors who left cards.

Formal calls were made following ceremonial events such as marriage or childbirth, and also as acknowledgement of hospitality. Calls for condolence and congratulations were made about a week after the event. If intimate, a visitor may ask for admission. If not, they inquired of the servant as to the person's well-being.

Ceremonial visits were made the day after a ball, when it sufficed to simply leave a card. Or within a day or two after a dinner party, and within a week of a small party.

Times were allocated for each type of call. 'Morning calls' were made in the afternoon. 'Ceremonial calls' were made between three and four o'clock, semi-ceremonial between four and five, and intimate calls between five and six--but never on Sunday, the day reserved for close friends and relatives.

Visits were short, lasting from twenty to thirty minutes. If another caller arrived during a visit, the first caller left within a moment or two.

A call should be returned with a call, a card with a card, within one week, or at the most, ten days.

If a family was temporarily leaving the area, they wrote P.P.C. (pour prendage conge) on their cards when they called.


Visiting Cards and Cases by Edwin Banfield, Baros Books, Wiltshire, 1989. ISBN#0948382031

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1993 ISBN#0671793373

The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England From 1811-1901 by Kristine Hughes, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, 1998. ISBN#0898798124

The Model Wife Nineteenth-Century Style by Rona Randall, The Herbert Press, London, 1989. ISBN#0906969840

Some of these books are available for purchase in our on-line bookstore in the non-fiction section.

Also see the Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons for more suggestions.

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