Artifact Corner: Calling Cards

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another Artifact Corner. Today we will be looking at a very small, and seemingly insignificant piece of paper. This is a calling card for Fannie Hall, the last member of our family to live in our home. It is a heavy card stock, with black engraved letters that states “Mrs. Francis B. Hall, 17 Cumberland Avenue,” on the front, and is blank on the reverse. It is quite simple and elegant in its simplicity. We have a handful of other calling cards as well. All of these cards are from the late Victorian to early Edwardian period, which was the heyday of the calling card. Let’s learn a bit more about the history and social etiquette of calling cards.

The origins of the calling card or visiting card date back to the 18th Century in France. They could be used for a myriad of different reasons. They could be sent as a thank you for a lovely dinner, to offer condolences, or for something as simple as a hello. Their popularity quickly spread from mainland Europe across the Atlantic, and became very popular on the East coast of the United States. The earliest calling cards were white card stock with black engraving, similar to the ones used by Fannie Hall. Other popular motifs or illustrations on calling cards included, floral borders, greek key borders, urns and birds.

As printing technology advanced in the Victorian Era, calling cards became more elaborate and vibrant. The social etiquette behind calling cards was also becoming more elaborate at this time. In a book written by John H Young called, “Our Deportment,” he says this about calling cards:

“To the unrefined or unbred, the visiting card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. It’s texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position.”

Similar to a business card today, the appearance of your calling card was indicative of your social standing. Most calling cards in the Victorian period simply had your name and your address, with some type of colorful decoration. Your calling card could be your first impression on a prospective employer or even a potential romantic partner.
Calling cards were very much a tradition of the upper and middle classes. If you were heading to visit a friend or relative, upon ringing the bell, a servant would answer the door, and you would hand them your card. If your friend or relative was home, they would be given the card, and you would be brought in to see them. If they were not home, the card would be given to them upon their return. Calling cards also became a means for young men to court women. If a gentleman was unknown to a woman, he would send along his card. If she was interested in meeting with him in person, she would send her card to him as the formal invitation. If she had no interest in meeting with him, she would either send nothing in response or send his calling card back in an envelope with no other information. Sending someone back their own card in an envelope was a polite declination of their attentions. You could also leave a set of initials on a calling card which would be code for the reason for their visit. Here are some examples:

• p. f. – congratulations (pour féliciter)
• p. r. – expressing one’s thanks (pour remercier)
• p. c. – mourning expression (pour condoléance)
• p. f. N. A. – Happy New Year (pour feliciter Nouvel An)
• p. p. c. – meaning to take leave (pour prendre congé)
• p. p. – if you want to be introduced to anybody, send your visiting card (pour présenter)

Our calling cards were not for courting. Most of these are late Victorian, and by that point, Fannie and Frank Hall had been married for decades. These calling cards were from family and friends that came to call on the couple for a visit. They are all in quite good condition, and a lovely example of a forgotten social etiquette. We hope you enjoyed this look back at calling cards or visiting cards. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot