Calling Cards: The Voicemail of Regency England

In the days before mobile phones, text messaging, and emails, people had to rely on face to face encounters and letters for communication. A pivotal part of this communication was the calling card. In many books, calling cards are presented to identify themselves when they go visiting, but calling cards were so much more than that.

Woman's calling card case.
Woman’s calling card case.

Change of Address

Many aristocracy lived in multiple places. When they arrived in town, particularly returning to London or another large city, they would go around and leave calling cards to let friends and acquaintances know they had arrived.

Cards were also dispersed when one was leaving town, with a handwritten indication of their departure.

Sign of Popularity

Sometimes these calling cards would be left out in the hall or drawing room, on display so other people could see what influential and important friends someone had. A large pile of calling cards could be akin to a large friend list on Facebook or an enormous Twitter following

The Polite Snub

Once a calling card had been delivered, it was customary to return to the favor, assuming you wished to further the acquaintance of course. If the person were a friend or someone you wanted a close connection with, a visit was in order. A mere returning of your own card meant you acknowledged the relationship. On the other hand, no reciprocation was a quiet indicator of where you stood on the social ladder.

Leaving a Message

Calling cards contained very little information, many bearing only a name while some included the address of the person. This left plenty of room to write a personal message if appropriate. Just as texting has common abbreviations today, calling cards had a similar shorthand. Turning down particular corners would let the card recipient know certain things, for instance letting them know the card had been delivered in person, indicating a more intimate contact.

Corner turning came to mean more and more as time passed. By the mid-19th century some cards were even being printed with words in the corners indicating common messages (such as visit, felicitations, or adieu). That way the message being left could not be misinterpreted.

Caller ID

The most well-known use of calling cards was in requesting admittance to the house. When visiting someone, a calling card would be presented to the servant at the door. The card would then be delivered to the desired recipient who could then decide if they were at home or not. If the person were not inclined or able to accept visitors at the time, but wanted to maintain the relationship, the denial could be accompanied by one of the mistresses own calling cards. The visit would then be returned within a week.

Image from social calls article on JaneAusten.co.uk. Click to see article.

 

 

The practice of calling cards could be very complicated. As in many matters of etiquette it seems like it would be easy to cause an unintended slight to someone. It isn’t all that surprising that many of the aspects of the calling card are glossed over in historical novels.

What do you think? Should the calling card play a more prominent part in novels or would it be horribly distracting?

 

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