Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Victorian Calling Cards

The meaning of a word or a phrase, my pastor often says, depends on the context the author intended to convey.  That goes for cultural terms as well as Scriptural.  

For example, if you tell someone today you got a "calling card," you might mean you'd purchased a small rectangular piece of plastic with code numbers printed on it, that allows the bearer to use a telephone for a certain number of minutes.  

In the 19th century, however, the phrase "calling card" had an entirely different meaning.

I was pleased to find some paper items dating from the mid-to late 1800s at a recent estate sale.  The family had lived in Northern California, and among the things they left behind was a small collection of Victorian-era visiting cards or calling cards.

The system of visiting (calling upon) friends and acquaintances, leaving calling cards, was essential to proper upper-middle class and upper-class etiquette in years gone by.  (The call-and-card system was also a means of keeping unwanted social climbers away.)  One source says that you could not “invite people to your home, however often you may have met them elsewhere, until you have first called upon them in a formal manner and they have returned the visit.” 

If you've read 19th century literature, you may have come across a reference to someone "calling" on another friend and presenting a card with their name printed on it. 

Jane Austen mentioned it:

She reached the house without any impediment, looked at the number, knocked at the door, and inquired for Miss Tilney.
The man believed Miss Tilney to be at home, but was not quite certain.
Would she be pleased to send up her name?
She gave her card.  -- Northanger Abbey

As did Louisa May Alcott:

"Come, Jo, it's time."

"For what?"

"You don't mean to say you have forgotten that you promised to make half a dozen calls with me today?"

"I've done a good many rash and foolish things in my life, but I don't think I ever was mad enough to say I'd make six calls in one day, when a single one upsets me for a week."...

...The family cardcase having done its duty, the girls walked on, and Jo uttered another thanksgiving on reaching the fifth house, and being told that the young ladies were engaged.  -- Little Women

From the Georgian era through the Edwardian, and perhaps a little after that, when you went to visit someone else, you probably presented a calling card when you got to their door. It was a small rectangle of cardstock, about the size of a business card, with your name written or, more properly, printed on it.  People collected the calling cards and often saved them inside ornate cases.  

Some of the cards I found at the estate sale are very plain:

Others are more ornate:

Another popular style was the "hidden name" calling card.  One edge of a colorful embossed design was glued to the front of the card, obscuring the person's name written underneath.  You lifted the other edge of the design to reveal the name of your caller:

You can see words written underneath the flowers on this ornate, oval-shaped calling card.

The collection I found included cards for ladies:

For gentlemen callers:

(Some of the designs don't look particularly masculine!)

And there were even some "salesman's sample" calling cards in the lot, in a variety of designs:

The Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England website has an article on social calls and calling cards:

Another website related to Jane Austen's legacy, recounts the etiquette of leaving calling cards:

"May thy pathway ever be sweet & flowery unto thee."

Here are some other articles on calling cards:


  1. Hi Teresa,
    I love your photos of Victorian visiting cards. I was wondering if I might have permission to copy and use one or two of the photos for a "lapbook" I am creating for a homeschool activity for children. One of the activities involves learning what an old-fashioned Victorian calling card was. And then the child can create their own calling card. But it would be fun to show them colored examples. Thank you for your consideration.
    Susan K. Marlow
    (The "Andi Carter" account is the main character in my children's book series set in 1880 California)

    1. I would be happy to credit your blog under the picture(s).

  2. Hi Susan, I sent you a reply. Basically, yes!