Codes and Cards: Symbology from Victorian-era to Mid-20th Century Calling Cards
Chapter I. Ancient History
Calling card use began in China in about the 15th century and was later popularized on the continent (of Europe) in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
The behaviour for Western use was defined during the Victorian era. Then crystalized in Edwardian England and America where consumerist spirit, fueled by a newly minted ability to surmount social boundaries, held sway.
Along with an increasing popularity of calling cards by the middle and upper classes, dead white male (and female) authors such as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and Edith Wharton, relied upon calling cards to identify class, gender, and economic ability in their writing and amongst their peers.
In the day, even manly men, could be terribly concerned with social convention.
For instance, in his semi-autobiographical novella Martin Eden, Jack London—swashbuckling author of adventures such as White Fang and Call of the Wild—relied on the social currency of calling cards.
Eden’s concern for social convention in this excerpt is evident.
“… When you meet a young lady and she asks you to call, how soon can you call?
… when he found the right shelf [in the public library], he sought vainly for the answer. He was
appalled at the vast edifice of etiquette, and lost himself in the mazes of visiting-card conduct between persons in polite society. He abandoned his search. He had not found what he wanted, though he had found that it would take all of a man’s time to be polite …”—Jack London, Martin Eden, 1913, Macmillan and Company
With one striking exception, calling cards developed in an almost parallel fashion with trade cards.
While trade cards became ever fancier, with borders, decorative cartouches, and ultimately striking full-color, their social cousins grew more sedate.
“By the 1860s and 1870s most of Europe, including Britain, had wholly espoused sobriety in personal cards …
“ … the etiquette of typographic style and layout was rigorously observed: the wording was engraved, printing was in black, card color was white. A man’s town address appeared in the lower left-hand corner, his club on the right; if he had a country address this went on the right, and the mention of the club omitted.”—Maurice Rickards, The Encyclopedia of Ephemera: A Guide to the Fragmentary Documents of Everyday Life for the Collector, Curator, and Historian, 2002, Routledge.
When the 20th century came around, styles associated with the calling card, had formed.
Before the telephone, calling cards were the vehicle by which social calls were made.
Think of them as the original social medium.
Chapter II. Social Norms and whatnot
Seventy or more years ago, everyone aspiring to polite society carried a calling card. Calling cards represented refinement in all social graces and indicated that one honored accepted social manners.
Unmarried daughters living at home did not have cards of their own. Their names appeared, somewhat as an afterthought or burden, on their mothers’ card …
“Sisters without parents used cards with their names listed in order of seniority, or simply as,
‘The Misses Smith’, in the courtesy of the call.
“A gentleman’s card, it follows, was never thus presented; there might well have been unmarried ladies in the household whom it would have been improper for him to have called.”— Routledge
These little cards, usually engraved with just the bearer’s name, were used to make the social call. The word “bearer” is used with care as calling cards were definitely social currency.
“The responsibilities of upper-class and aristocratic women [in the Victorian era] were limited because of the common opinion that they were weak. These women had a range of servants to perform the domestic chores for them, so they usually just had to oversee them. An everyday task of upper-class women was accepting and paying visits, as well as organizing dinner parties for their friends and family. These were occasions where women could prove their homemaking skills and good taste, and to serve as symbols to others about their social status.”—Social Life in Victorian England
When calling, one would not expect to be received; one leaves one’s card, indicating the call has been made. Should your visit be a desirable one, the lady of the house would return the call, leaving her card.
Chapter III. How calling cards worked
And the proper manner for social calling.
Remember, single ladies were never on the street un-escorted. Suitable escorts were considered a husband or male relative.
In a pinch, great gaggles of related ladies with an elder female companion might make the rounds. But a handsome gentleman would definitely be preferred.
After the social call is made and the calling card(s) are left, it was hoped that the social call would be returned.
“Next day Paul found Stubbs’ card on his table, the corner turned up. Paul went to Hertford to call on Stubbs, but found him out. He left his card, the corner turned up.”—Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, 1928, Chapman and Hall.
Chapter IV. A 20th century case study
A little dusty and vintage, this example illustrates how a simple calling card can be put to very personal use.
This particular calling card, front, was found in a gold toned minaudier containing a woman’s absolute essentials ca. 1940: 10 cigarettes, lipstick, face powder—loose, of course—and a gentleman’s calling card.
The back was discovered to have a love note. Perhaps, an army officer on his way to port and to battle in WWII. It can be imagined that Patricia and Lyle met very briefly on a dance floor. Or randomly, at a cocktail party. He leaves possibly forever with only the mash note scribbled in his own hand.
Calling cards can be pretty provocative don’t you think?