Calling Cards or Visiting Cards were found in France as early as the 18th century and their use spread through upper class society all across Europe. They were considered an essential part of the daily lives of those with wealth and influence. The custom began with simple cards bearing a printed name used to announce one’s arrival. Victorian society took the cards to a whole new level of intricacy of design. The evolution in the embellishments of the cards reflected the development of printing practices and innovation in technologies as well as aesthetic preferences of the day. Colour, artistic design and fancy script became fashionable. Calling cards often had adornments of doves, young women, kittens, hearts and hands. The edges were embellished with such things as ribbon, cloth fringe, scalloped borders and flaps to conceal a secret message.
Calling Cards had a few additional common purposes. The cards were used to express congratulations, acknowledgment of kindness, condolences and arrival or departure. Calling Cards were presented at the door and collected on a small, ornate silver tray designated for that specific purpose. A full tray of cards suggested a level of popularity and social stature. Cards from prominent people would be carefully placed on top so they would be visible and impress other visitors. If the host or hostess was at home and wished to receive the visitor, the guest would be admitted. An absent host or hostess would find a card that had been left upon their return home. Etiquette dictated a card be sent to the person who left their card. If a reciprocal card was not sent, that reflected a social snub. The woman of the household was usually tasked with receiving and distributing calling cards. The gender and marital status of a person determined the dimensions of their calling card. A gentleman’s card would be designed to fit in a breast pocket. A lady’s card was larger. Calling Card cases might be made of silver, tortoiseshell, ivory or mother of pearl.
A folded corner on a card also signified a certain message. A top left corner folded down conveyed congratulations, while a lower left corner fold was a message of condolence and a lower right corner fold indicated a long absence coming up.
Calling cards were a means of establishing and strengthening relationships between people. With the emergence of penny post cards and eventually the telephone, social interactions changed over time and the calling card custom became less prominent. The modern practice of giving potential acquaintances a business card with contact information on it is a relic of the original Calling Card.
Middleville and District Museum has a display of beautiful Calling Cards with examples of the plain, cream coloured cards with a simple name printed on each, as well as the colourful, ornately embellished cards. You may recognize a few familiar names. Be sure to view these Calling Cards in the parlour exhibit on your next visit to the Museum.
This journal is written, researched, and maintained by the volunteers of the Middleville Museum.