The morphing of the calling card

My new calling card

My new business cards just arrived! Actually they are a dual purpose business/calling card. The business I am hoping to promote is my blog: But my personal information is also included. (I’ve asked my IT guy to block out my personal information in the illustration in case some dangerous lurkers on the internet should want to use it for nefarious purposes. You never know.)

In the 19th century, both men and women had calling cards, but women practiced an obligatory custom in which the calling card played the central role.

Her card simply showed her name. Proper etiquette of the time demanded that a married woman be known by her husband’s name so, for instance, mine would read Mrs. Herbert Knapp. In case she had an unmarried daughter her name would also be printed on her card. More than one unmarried daughter? Separate card for each one. And because men had an interest in maintaining relationships with the socially elite, she also carried her husband’s cards which she left in the hall receiver for the gentleman of the house (it being improper for a woman to call on a man.)

Calls were to be made from ten to eleven in the morning and each lasted from ten to fifteen minutes. Essential to the practice was the calling card on which one’s name was engraved in italics.

Complicating matters was the fact that she could just leave a card with the servant who answered the door. 

Once a call was made, the person had to return the call and then that call had to be returned and so on . . . and on. In addition to these routine calls, one was required to call after having been entertained at a dinner party, on the occasion of a death in the family, and to extend congratulations for any number of reasons.

A personal call carried more weight than a call where only a card was left and required that a personal call be made in return. But in effect, if both parties were willing, cards could call upon cards in perpetuity. However, etiquette demanded that these cards be delivered personally.

Immediately upon marriage, the bride and groom sent around cards with both of their names. Thus the bride was able to establish her own calling circle.

Ceremonial calls had to be returned within three days, a dinner party call within a day or two when it was preferable to call in person, and the day after being entertained, when a card only would suffice. Calls of congratulations (a personal call) and bereavement (card only) were to be made about a week after the event. 

Subject matter deemed suitable for discussion was limited. Women were advised not to bring up subjects requiring deep thought, one’s own affairs, disease, and money.

A newly married woman in her twenties could look forward to forty or fifty years of calling. She would raise her children, see them married, become a grandmother, grow old and stout, and through it all be borne back and forth in her carriage, climb the stoop, and leave ten minutes later having had the same insipid conversation she had the last time she called.

Women hated the custom. Edith Wharton called it “an onerous duty.” Yet none of them seems to have considered just not doing it.

4 thoughts on “The morphing of the calling card

  1. OH my! What an amazing chore. It is sort of like the waste of time on Facebook and the Birthday Greetings from your hundreds of “friends.” Unlike the woman of the past on the calling card treadmill, I have made the wise choice to remove myself from the Facebook time wasting runaround. Let’s face it. Social networking is a pain in the butt.


  2. I can’t wait to get the actual card. I was just thinking of getting some of my own, and when I do I might start calling on you.


  3. Oh my goodness! I would need a personal secretary to keep up everyone! Now, I understand why the ladies even had dance cards!


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