History of the Calling Card
The Rules of Social Visiting
Written by Melody Tinder
The etiquette of the 17th through the 19th centuries and beyond is visible in vintage black-and-white movies showing women wearing exquisite hand-sown dresses, living in mansions with carved furniture and architectural accents befit for a castle. Servants were the mainstay for the well-to-do and played a vital part in a family’s daily existence. We can only imagine the life of the prominent in those eras, for little of the splendor remains in today’s world. It is peculiar, however, that one tradition, that of the exchange of a little paper card, has made its way down through the ages, even though it has seen drastic transformations for its use.
Calling cards can be traced to China’s 15th century where they originated. The social tradition gained popularity during the 17th century in France and became widely used among the aristocrats and royalty of England during the 1800s when the custom spread throughout Europe and eventually to America.
Requests for a meeting
Strict rules were set in place for the use of the special card. Gentlemen were allowed to carry them in jacket pockets while ladies were required to use a special case. Women were not allowed to have their own card until they had been in social society for a year.
It was customary for each home to have a plate or bowl placed on a table in the entrance hallway specifically for the cards. If a person wished to meet with someone of the same social status, they would instruct their servant to deliver a calling card to the other person’s home. Requested visits for the first time required a separate card for each lady of the household. Thereafter, a single card meant that the presence of only one person was desired.
When the servant arrived, he was greeted at the door by the other person’s servant, who would be holding a special plate in the palm of his left hand where the card was to be placed. Then, he would return to his employer’s residence. After the hostess received the card that was put on the plate, and if she chose to accept the request, she would reciprocate by sending her servant, carrying her calling card, back to the initiator’s house, indicating that a visit would be welcomed. Usually, if an invitation was declined, the exchange of cards would not take place; or, if a card was sent back in a sealed envelope, no further communication would be made by either party.
A European gentleman, in certain instances, may have personally left a calling card instead of sending his servant. If so, the upper right corner would have been folded down, indicating that it was delivered in person. If the card was folded in the center, it meant that the presence of more than one person was requested, perhaps all of the family members. In America, however, European tradition was discarded and cards were not bent.
Printing on the cards
Simplistic cards had only the name of the person in a script type, but others were very imaginative with elaborate and colorful designs. The French had various abbreviations printed on cards, which denoted several meanings. These included, on a celebratory card of congratulations, the initials p.f. (pour féliciter), meaning in English “to congratulate.” A card used for an expression of gratitude would have p.r. (pour remercier), translated to English as “to thank.”
Calling cards of the present
Most traditions do not have the staying power like that of the calling card. Today, we exchange small cards, approximately the same size as in bygone eras, with pictures and information for contact purposes or promotions. They are primarily a means of identifying one’s business and are freely displayed on countertops, at networking events, and handed out as a form of business communication.
Even though the etiquette rules associated with the calling card have all but disappeared, the tradition of exchanging names on little cards still exists in its modern form known as the business card.
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