Calling Cards in the Regency Era
Edward assured them himself of his being in town, within a very short time, by twice calling in Berkeley Street. Twice was his card found on the table, when they returned from their morning’s engagements.’
–Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility.
The idea of “paying calls” comes up frequently in Regency-era fiction, because, in the absence of social media, the paying of short calls on one’s acquaintance was the social glue which held society together. In bite-sized fifteen-minute ‘catch-ups’ one could keep a useful acquaintance going, without having to put in too much effort. There were many rules of etiquette to follow in the making of calls, sometimes known as morning calls, which I will cover in another blog, but today I wanted to show you some authentic calling cards and explain some of the mysterious etiquette surrounding them!
I got interested in this because in my latest work-in-progress, A Return to Norland, Fanny Dashwood begins a season in London by leaving her calling cards with her acquaintance in town, so that they know she has officially arrived. So of course, this led to more research and this blog!
Calling cards were an important part of polite society. Often the first meeting between two parties began with the civility of exchanging cards. A gentleman or lady always carried them and would give their card to the footman who answered the door, who would then announce their visit to the gentleman or lady of the house. Everyone had calling cards, females from the age they were considered ‘out’ to gentlemen, to elderly spinsters; so long as you were somewhere in the middle or upper classes, you would pay calls and leave cards.
Wives and husbands each had their own cards. Let’s say Mr and Mrs Toffeenose called in at their friend’s house, Mr and Mrs Neverhome, they would each leave a card. One from Mrs Toffeenose to Mrs Neverhome, and one from Mr Toffeenose to Mr Neverhome. The gents only left cards for the gents, unless he were specifically calling on the lady. Ladies never called on or left cards for men, unless it was strictly a business matter. The number of residents in a home must also be considered. If Mrs Mary Toffeenose called at a house where there was a lady of the house, a daughter or two and an elderly mother-in-law, three cards would be left. If there were a husband, but Mary Toffeenose called without her husband, she would not leave her card for the husband, only cards for the wife, daughters and elderly mother-in-law.
Calling cards not only served to announce one’s arrival in town, or that you are sorry you missed someone not at home, but also they were given to those with whom you desired to have an acquaintance. For example, if Mary Toffeenose wanted to climb the social ladder and try for a friendship with Lady Rotteneggs, she would visit, present her card to the groom or butler, who would ask her to wait, while the card was delivered to Lady Rotteneggs. Lady Rotteneggs would then either accept the card and have Mary Toffeenose shown into the drawing room, or she would return the card to the groom and tell him to tell Mrs Toffeenose that she ‘was not at home’. This was a way of screening those who you considered below you or whom you did not want to pursue as an acquaintance.
‘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. In a few minutes the servant returned, and with a look which did not quite confirm his words, said he had been mistaken, for that Miss Tilney was walked out.
Catherine, with a blush of mortification, left the house.’
–Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
This phrase ‘not at home’ wasn’t actually considered a lie, even if the person were home. It was generally accepted in society that to say you are not home, means that you are either unable or unwilling to receive at that time. If it was a new acquaintance, you may not try again, as to be rejected generally meant that the person did not desire your acquaintance. But most of the time it meant just that the person really did not feel like guests, and would probably see you another time. By far the best way to see if you were welcome, was to simply leave your card without enquiring if the lady were home, and wait for her to return to call. If she did, then you were on the road to an acquaintance with that person.
Calling cards were about the size of our business cards today, give or take a bit—the men had to have smaller ones as they kept them in their pockets, but ladies could have slightly larger ones—and were always kept immaculately in a special card case. These were pretty, elaborate and painted, made of tortoiseshell, filigree, silver, or even leather sometimes, but were always carried about the person so that a card could be given when the situation called for it. The cards themselves, in the Regency era at least, were plain. Cream was usual, and were generally only embellished with the name of the person. Days and times of one’s ‘at home’ days could also be inscribed on the cards. The gentlemen could add their addresses, town and country, in the corners, but ladies did not. Sometimes they might write a short note on the other side giving their business, or saying when they would call again. Personal calls were often indicated by turning down the edge of the card (see image below). That way the recipient, if out, would know the caller came personally, that they did not just ask the groom to present it. Below are some card cases and cards which will give you an idea of how plain the cards were and how pretty the cases!
Cards, especially of those you considered desirable acquaintances, were displayed in a salver on the hall table so that others could see whom of high-society was calling on you—in order to impress your lesser-ranked callers. In Austen’s Persuasion, Sir Walter and Elizabeth took great pride in displaying the cards of prestigious Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret on their hall table for all to see:
The toils of the business were over, the sweets began. They visited in Laura Place, they had the cards of Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and the Honourable Miss Carteret, to be arranged wherever they might be most visible: and “Our cousins in Laura Place,”–“Our cousin, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret,” were talked of to everybody. – Jane Austen, Persuasion.
So next time you call on someone who isn’t home, consider resurrecting that most necessary nineteenth century social protocol, and leave a personal calling card!