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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Calling Cards & Paying Calls: Social Etiquette in 18th Century

Publication Date: May 31, 2022

"I should never have called on him. I'm afraid we cannot escape the acquaintance now."

18th century painting of The Suitor by Arturo Ricci showing a gentleman presenting flowers to a lady in a drawing room with a father chaperoning
The Suitor by Arturo Ricci

Our chat for this post is on calling cards (or visiting cards) and calling etiquette.

We'll be focusing on the late 18th century and through the Regency, specifically, rather than an extended history. The post is separated into two categories to cover both calling cards and calling etiquette, with an overlap in transition. An opening disclaimer is that many of the rules of calling card etiquette (not social call etiquette, only the calling cards) come from the Victorian era. The cards were just gaining popularity in the late 18th century, with loose etiquette formalizing during the Regency, and then do-or-die expectations established by the Victorian era. The rules we follow in historical romance novels were those best known during the Victorian era rather than during the Georgian era since there were ample publications teaching the etiquette and establishing the rules within the Victorian era. We'll start off by looking at calling cards, then finish the discussion with social calls in general.

Calling cards became not only popular in the 18th century (starting in France), but a necessity in terms of etiquette. The cards we see throughout the Georgian period are minimalistic in design, small in size, and typically only listing the person's name without embellishments or adornments. Common additions to the name might be their address, their title if applicable, and their "at home" times for receiving callers. Calling cards became decorative and much larger once we roll into the good ol' Victorian era. The Victorian cards are fairly extreme in embellishment, even having the card itself cut into a shape (or how about having a photograph next to the name?). After the Victorian era, calling cards became a thing of the past, so we only see this narrow window of roundabout a century, from late 18th century to late 19th century. Here's a small collection to view from 1785-1816.

It wasn't until the second half of the 18th century when they became popular in England. While originating in Asia in the late 17th century/early 18th century, France takes the credit for popularizing the trend in the mid 18th century, followed by a spread through Europe and then to England in the late 18th century, used first only by royalty and nobility, but by the turn of the century moving into aristocracy and gentry and by Regency anyone within fashionable society. Both ladies and gentlemen had cards. Gentlemen could present their cards to both men and women, while ladies could only present theirs to other women (unless accompanied by her husband's card).

Oscar Wilde's 1897 calling card featuring the alias Mr. Sebastian Melmoth
Oscar Wilde's 1897 calling card featuring an alias.

Calling Card Etiquette

Calling cards were primarily used by the beau monde, that is fashionable society, be they gentry, aristocrat, or otherwise. It was a symbol of wealth which soon became an essential social correspondence if one wished to move in society--or shall we write that with the capital s of Society to denote the difference between society at large vs the fashionable circle of Society? Anyone who was anyone kept a silver tray at the sideboard near the front door where callers would leave their cards. A calling card was similar to our modern business card, even in design, but the usage was more formalized and socialized. The number of cards doled out annually could easily reach into the thousands.

Gentleman Caller Presents Calling Card to Liveried Footman
Calling Card Sketch from The Art of Manliness

A single card could express a multitude of meanings, a thank you for a lovely party, condolences, a notification of a pending visit, a notice of being in town or at home, etc. When someone was newly arrived to town, for instance, they may travel from home to home to have their manservant pass off a card to the footman at the door as an announcement that the person was in town and available for calls.

If someone called on a person who was not at home, the footman would accept the calling card to pass on or leave the calling card on the aforementioned silver tray. Even those paying calls would leave their card on the tray as they left to ensure their card was seen by other callers and to invite the master/mistress of the house to return the call. It was common for the cards to remain on the tray even after they had all been viewed by the master/mistress of the house since a full tray would show off their popularity to anyone else who called. Callers would see not only the impressive stack of cards but whose name was on the cards. Imagine seeing a coincidentally placed card on the top of the pile from Duke Charming. If Duke Charming is paying calls to this person, then clearly this person is someone to befriend!

Willa Cather's calling card featuring "at home" day and handwritten message
Willa Cather's calling card featuring "at home" day and handwritten message

While the cards were often plain with only a name, they might have a handwritten message on the back, which is something we see in A Counterfeit Wife when Sir Roland leaves a brief but polite message for our hero. Messages could be about anything, but usually they included important info like the reason for the call, the visiting hours of the card giver, the time of the upcoming supper party, etc. The expectation for delivering calling cards to a recipient is that they would be hand delivered in person, but despite what rules Victorian etiquette set, that wasn't a set rule in the Georgian era, as often (especially in the country) calling cards would be delivered by a servant to ensure a visit was welcome and expected. Imagine, for instance, having to trek across the moors to pay a call on a neighbor who was upwards of ten miles away only to learn they were on holiday. Instead, a card would be sent in advance by a servant with the anticipation of calling, and a return card would be sent by the person's servant, either unadorned to indicate a call was welcome any time or with possibly a hand written message inviting for a certain day or noting the at home days/times.

Hands down, one of the best articles on calling cards can be found on Common Place: House of Cards: The Politics of Card Etiquette in Nineteenth-Century Washington. While it focuses on the growing popularity and etiquette in America, it goes into the international history, the training of the servants in calling card etiquette, and more. Wonderful detail, great examples, a page to bookmark and read through.

Although this page on The Gentleman's Guide to the Calling Card from the Art of Manliness is dealing specifically with Victorian etiquette, it has some of the most detailed information on calling cards I've found, from popular message notations to the social occasions in which you could send a card in lieu of calling. You name it, this article has it! Just keep in mind that it's looking quite specifically at the Victorian era, not the Georgian period. The fun twist about this page is its call to modernize and bring back the calling card, complete with design ideas, companies that make/print calling cards, and when and how to use a calling card in the modern world (are you tempted to resurrect this lost art?).

Another page to check out is The Etiquette of Using Calling Cards from Jane Austen's World, which includes a few links with examples of calling cards and etiquette details. Although this is from Jane Austen's World, the links are *drum roll* looking at Victorian etiquette, yet again, and in one case American etiquette. Hence the disclaimer at the beginning of this write up--the majority of printed information we have on calling card etiquette comes from the Victorian era, and most of the newspaper articles (linked further into this discussion) listing the etiquette come from America. It's safe to say that the Georgian era, be it late 18th century or early 19th century, would have had looser etiquette rules since the cards were just gaining popularity.

Now, let's get into some of the specifics on the purposes of calls and the etiquette of usage. Leaving a card indicates not only that the person dropped by but that the person anticipates being formally invited to call again and is inviting a return call. It was customary for a gentleman caller to leave only one card--for the master of the house. If a lady caller was calling on a home with a master and mistress, then she would leave two cards--one for the master and one for the mistress--and possibly even three cards--two from her and one from her husband. If the lady caller was calling on the home of a bachelor, she would have to leave her husband's card along with hers, never just hers. It should go without saying that an unmarried lady would never under any circumstances whatsoever call on a bachelor, so if a lady is calling on a bachelor, she had better be married, and thus leave two cards.

How was anyone to know the rules? During the Georgian era, they were learned by doing, word of mouth, observation, and so forth, just as any behavioral expectation would have been learned (and to some extent, still is). In all likelihood, those expectations changed from year to year. As we progress towards the Victorian era, however, it's not just word of mouth anymore but in actual newspaper publications where card etiquette was explained. This particular one (from pg 38 of the Oct 2, 1892 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) is from America, so while it's exceptionally detailed, take into consideration the differences in customs not only from country to country but also time period. This one (from pg 8 of the Nov 10, 1892 edition of The Wichita Eagle), likewise, is from America and the Victorian era, so again, it provides fabulous detail, but do keep in mind the country and era is a century and a continent different. I still find it fascinating, though, and it tells us a lot about calling card etiquette, much of which would have been carried over or evolved from the Georgian era.

There were, allegedly, coded messages, such as folding a corner to express a sentiment, be it congratulations or condolences or otherwise. I can't confirm if this sort of coding was happening during the Georgian era or if it was exclusive to the Victorian era. Several articles have pointed to this being a tradition not popularized until the early to mid 19th century, and a few of those articles claim the meaning of the folded corners was regional rather than universal. This article from David Mitchell is one of my favorites on the topic. Regardless, the best documented codes are as such:

  • If a caller is hand delivering the card in person, the upper right-hand corner of the card will be folded.

  • If someone's card was returned, they were being rebuffed/rejected/cut.

  • If the card had a fold on the lower left-hand corner, it was meant to express sympathy or condolences for a death, illness, or otherwise.

  • If the card had a fold in the lower right-hand corner, then it meant the person called before making a trip, so no need to return the call.

  • If the fold was in the upper left-hand corner, then it indicated congratulations or felicitations of some nature.

Calling card featuring a folded corner
Calling card of Mrs. E. H. Wright, circa 1860 with upper left corner fold. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Calling Etiquette

The rhythm of paying calls was straightforward: Person A calls on Person B. Person B returns the call. The returned call should be within a few days, the sooner, the better, ideally the next day, but definitely not longer than a week. While there is a world of rules on card etiquette, conversation, behavior, etc., the basics are easy. PA calls; PB returns the call. Easy! Right?

And yes, even if you did not like the person, you'd return the call. Not to do so would be worse than blocking them on social media--for you and them. In fact, breaking any of the rules would be disastrous, leading to a great deal of "unfriending." As straightforward as paying calls sounds, it was far more complicated. Shall we begin with moving into a new place? Seems a reasonable place to start.

Let's first assume Mr. and Mrs. Fabulous have moved into their new home. What now? Do they call on their neighbors to introduce themselves? No! Why do you suppose in Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennet was so angry at Mr. Bennet for not calling on Mr. Bingley when he first moved in? Had Mr. Bennet not called first, Mr. Bingley would not have been able to call on the Bennets. So let's go back to Mr. and Mrs. Fabulous. They've just moved in and are getting settled into the new house. They don't know a soul in the neighborhood. Until they're formally introduced to others, they cannot socialize, for they cannot introduce themselves. There were only three ways for them to meet their neighbors:

  • a welcoming committee (of established volunteer committee members) could call as a group, thus initiating the introductions, for once the committee had met the new neighbors, the committee members could then introduce the new neighbors to existing neighbors;

  • similarly, the oldest and/or most established neighbors could call, either as a group or individually (the vicar and his wife would be a prime choice for this task, as they would likely be among the "most established" in the neighborhood);

  • finally, the gentlemen in the neighborhood could call (individually, not as a group), thus initiating a return call wherein each gentleman who called on Mr. and Mrs. Fabulous may introduce them to his family, who could then continue that cycle by introducing them to more neighbors. The gentlemen were the ones to make the initial call and then the initial introduction to the wife/mother/daughter or otherwise.

If we return to Mr. and Mrs. Fabulous, then we might assume Mr. Muttonchops called on them first to introduce himself and welcome them to the neighborhood. Mr. and Mrs. Fabulous would then return the call, and Mr. Muttonchops would introduce the Fabulouses to his wife and ten daughters. Now having met them, Mrs. Muttonchops could call on Mrs. Fabulous with three of her friends to extend introductions. The social web begins from there. Put that into perspective of Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Bingley moves in, and Mr. Bennet pays him a call, which then allows Mr. Bingley to return the call by visiting the Bennet residence and being introduced to all Mr. Bennet's lovely and single daughters.

Now, let's make clear that town rules were different from country rules. For instance, if Mr. and Mrs. Fabulous were in fact Lord and Lady Fabulous, and they had just moved to London, then Mr. Muttonchops could not introduce himself to them because he would be considered socially inferior. Lord and Lady Fabulous would need to call on him first. But in the country, who was socially inferior or superior did not matter one whit, only who knew whom, so Mr. Muttonchops would be the one to call on Lord and Lady Fabulous first, as in our previous scenario. From this single example alone, we might be able to understand why those who lived in the country full-time were considered to be bumpkins or countrified--they would not be acquainted with town etiquette and could easily make a blunder of things by doing the opposite of what was acceptable.

A stack of calling cards on a silver tray
Calling Cards on Silver Tray

But what about calling cards? When calling on someone, in general, the person doing the calling would present their card to the footman who opened the door (and for the record, a butler does not open the front door. This article from Geri Walton is a fun one--get ready to fall down the rabbit hole of her blog!). This visit could go several ways. The ideal exchange is that the caller would not ask to be admitted or ask if the master/mistress of the house were home, rather the caller would simply leave the card with the footman. This initiated contact without risks. The card acted as an invitation to call. The recipient would then call on the person the next day (or be considered rude not to do so), or possibly send/bring a return calling card, which would indicate an invitation for the original caller to return for a visit rather than just a card drop off.

But let's assume the caller didn't just leave the card rather asked if the master/mistress of the house were home and receiving callers. Since the footman would already have instructions from the master/mistress of the house as to if they were at home and receiving, the footman could reply to the affirmative or negative. There were always exceptions, of course. Let's run through a few alternate scenarios:

  • The footman has replied in the negative, but the caller insists (politely) the footman double check.

  • The footman has replied in the negative, but the caller insists it's an emergency.

  • The footman is ready to reply in the negative but is made aware the person calling is a family member and may be exempt from the "we're not at home" instruction.

  • The footman is ready to reply in the negative but is made aware the person calling is Duke Charming.

  • The footman is ready to reply in the affirmative but is uncertain if the master/mistress really wants to receive a call from this particular caller.

If any of these scenarios occur, what then?

  1. The footman says he must ascertain if the master/mistress of the house is indeed from home or by his mistake is actually at home and receiving.

  2. Depending on circumstances, the caller may be asked to wait outside or inside the parlor or drawing room or receiving room or wherever.

  3. The footman passes the calling card to the master/mistress of the house or reads aloud from the card, and the master/mistress determines if they are receiving callers (i.e. receiving this particular caller).

    1. Depending on where the master/mistress likes to sit, they may have already seen who was approaching the front door, such as the mistress seated by a front window in the drawing room of her townhouse, looking out to the street below.

  4. If affirmative, the footman may then guide the guest to wherever the master/mistress wanted to receive them.

  5. If negative, the footman can

    1. hand the master's/mistress's card to the caller as an indication that the caller is welcome to call again (or the person may call on them in return) but the master/mistress is not receiving currently, or

    2. extend his apologies that the master/mistress is "from home" or "not at home," followed promptly by the shutting of the door (uh oh).

If asked to wait outside while in town, a caller's social life could hang in the balance, depending on how long the footman took to return. The longer the footman takes, the more obvious it is that the guest isn't a friend and/or isn't welcome. The best situation is either to be invited inside to wait or to be told at the door without waiting that the master/mistress is from home. Any waiting could be the end of social life as the caller knew it since it would be obvious by span of time that the master/mistress was indeed at home and considering the caller's card first, followed by informing the footman to turn away the caller.

We can adjust that scenario so that rather than the caller presenting the footman with a card, the caller waits in the carriage while a groom/valet/manservant or lady's maid/ companion/ groom delivers the card to the footman at the door. It could be merely that the groom delivers the card, and then they leave since the goal was to leave the call as an invitation for a return call, or it could be that the groom awaits notice from the footman as to if the person is at home, receiving calls, offering return cards, or otherwise.

Moving forward, assuming cards had been presented, exchanged, all that jazz, there were two types of calls: formal and social.

Painting by Jean Carolus of three women calling on a woman in mourning.
Afternoon Tea by Jean Carolus, 1879

Formal calls were expected as good etiquette and could not be avoided. These included "thank yous" for a recent dinner party, soiree, ball, whatever; "condolences" or "bereavements" which were paid by the women to the grieving neighbor after roundabout a week of the death or illness (and often were repeated once a week with any food or necessities that might ease pain during mourning); "wedding congratulations" which could happen as long as two months after the wedding and would be at the new couple's home or residence.

Painting by Nicholas Lancret of a woman receiving a caller in her dressing room
The Four Times of Day: Morning by Nicholas Lancret, 1739. National Gallery, London

Social calls were a different beast. These were referred to as "morning calls," but had little to do with the morning. The typical town hours were 1pm-4pm, while country hours were traditionally 11am-3pm. There were some people known to have extended hours, such as 10am-6pm, but unless a caller knew that, the traditional times would be adhered to so as not to intrude on a family's breakfast or dinner, which would have been about 9-11am for breakfast and 4-6pm for dinner. While the socially acceptable hours would have been within the traditional range, a gentleman may have on his calling card later hours, while a lady may set her hours for earlier, especially if she wanted to have her close companions join her for breakfast during her toilette preparations (here's a fun article from Jane Austen's World about ladies receiving callers in the dressing room). Each person would have (at least) one day of the week scheduled to stay at home and receive callers, one or more days during the week to return calls, and then the remaining days for their personal enjoyment--riding, reading, whatever. It was important when being introduced to new people and/or handing off a calling card to express what day one was at home to receive callers.

Once a caller arrived, it would be rude (to the point of a personal snub and end of friendship) to stay less than 15 minutes but outrageous to stay over 30 minutes. Ideally, a social call should last 20 minutes. If other callers arrived during the call, then the first to have arrived would be the first to leave. Once Person A called on Person B, then Person B would be expected to return the call. Not returning the call indicated they didn't wish to be acquainted any longer. If Person B did want to pursue the friendship but couldn't return the call because they were going out of town or whatnot, then Person B could send along their calling card as a show of good faith (and wouldn't it be nice to include a handwritten message indicating leaving town for a brief time).

Painting by George Morland of two ladies sewing and a gentleman reading
Domestic Happiness by George Morland, 1789

During a call, the conversation and activities would depend on if only women were present, only men, or mixed company, as well as how close in relationship everyone was with the caller. Typically, the room in which the family received callers (be it the drawing room, parlor, or otherwise), would have items for guests to pick up and busy their hands if they chose to do so, such as a book or two set out on a table, newspapers for the gentlemen to peruse, a basket of embroidery for the ladies to choose from and work on if they did not bring their own, etc.

If it were only gentlemen present, they could talk business, dogs, horses, whatever, and usually would conduct their conversation in the library or study rather than in a parlor or drawing room (most of the larger estates have gentlemen/bachelor wings wherein there would be stag parlors, reception rooms, and otherwise for the master of the house to entertain without bringing them into his private study).

An illustration by C.E. Brock from Jane Austen's Emma showing a visit to Mrs. Bates
Emma visits Mrs. Bates by C.E. Brock, 1898

If only ladies were present, they might embroider together while they conversed. The hostess might even have an embroidery basket at the ready for guests who did not bring their own. Note the word embroidery, meaning worsted work or women's work of needlepoint, typically using a hoop or frame, rather than sewing or mending or darning of things like shirts, stockings, etc. Ladies did not mend or darn; they embroidered prettiness. In both A Dash of Romance and in A Counterfeit Wife, we see references to village women retrieving their darning from the bottom of the embroidery basket once the "callers of quality" have departed, which tells us a great deal about their personal lives, how they wish to be perceived, societal expectations, etc. Conversation among ladies during a social call would be only that which was "genteel" (at least while the embroidery is out, right? Once they're pulling out the shirts to mend, I'd say it's open season on gossip!). Personal comments of dress or person were discouraged with preferred topics being the asking after the health of family members, remarking on the weather, inquiring about recent or upcoming social events, or talking of the latest fashion. While gossip would have been ungenteel, that (much like the embroidery vs darning) would depend on the relationship between the hostess and the caller. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet would have kept conversation genteel with Caroline Bingley, but would have gossiped with Charlotte Lucas. I don't think, in this way, much has changed with social interactions!

If the company were mixed, then there could be no talk of horses, hunting, money, duels, gambling, races, childbirth, pregnancy, anything referencing the physical body, and so forth. It's telling when we read in an 18th century novel of a caller who is boldly talking about these things in front of mixed company. While modern readers may not be bothered, readers of the time would have known everything they needed to know about that person by their conversation choices and breach of etiquette. The reader would have judged judgingly with judgy eyebrows. *raises quizzing glass* I think it's safe to say that all of these "do nots" have been violated in historical romance novels intentionally, often for humorous effect (at least we hope it was done intentionally). I've certainly done so in A Counterfeit Wife! From dogs accompanying on social calls to conversations about duels and debts, I think I've broken most of the rules in the Marquess of Pickering's interactions.

Finally, to take tea or not to take tea.

Short answer: callers would not be drinking tea with their host/hostess as we so often read and imagine.

Long answer: Refreshments during calls was expected. What kind of refreshments depended on the wealth of the person and the need to impress the caller. A not-so-well-off person might offer callers a slice of cake, baked apples, or something similar. A particularly-well-off person might offer callers cold meats, seasonal fruits, and even sandwiches. Refreshments could already be assembled on a sideboard, at the ready for callers, or could be brought in on a tray by a servant after the arrival of the caller. It probably goes without saying that the particularly-well-off ate meat and fruit, while the not-so-well-off ate bread and vegetables, so this applies to what a caller would find offered as refreshments, with the not-so-well-off offering varying degrees of carbohydrates and the particularly-well-off offering a carnivorous fare.

As to if there was tea with those refreshments...

Although we often see our characters enjoying tea while making calls, in reality, tea during morning calls was not expected and would have been mighty unusual. Light refreshments, such as seasonal fruit or cake, would have been expected, but definitely not tea. It was a sign of wealth and a need to impress to offer tea. In general, tea would have been reserved for breakfast and after dinner, not for morning calls. Only those people one wished to impress or pay a kindness would be invited to join for after-dinner tea.

Let's first keep in mind that the concept of "afternoon tea" did not exist yet, not until the Victorian era, so no one was having afternoon tea/low tea/cream tea in the Georgian era, entertaining callers or otherwise. Refreshments for callers, yes, but not afternoon tea. That established, not serving tea during morning calls was to do with the price of tea.

This post from Regency History offers a fantastic explanation of tea pricing, tea taxing, tea times, and more--a must read. Don't forget Kim Wilson's book, as well, which delves into where/when we see not only Jane Austen enjoying her tea but also her characters.

If a not-so-well-off person offered callers tea, then it was most likely

  • the hostess was trying admirably hard to impress that caller;

  • the hostess was showing a kindness to a caller in need;

  • the leaves were already previously used and weak;

  • the leaves were potentially smuggled and so tasted of everything it would have been smuggled with;

  • the leaves were likely not entirely tea leaves but a combination of tree leaves, mystery shavings, sheep's dung, etc.--eew.

The particularly-well-off hostess might very well offer tea with refreshments to show off their wealth and/or as a demonstration of favor for the caller. The tea offered by the particularly-well-off (if offered) should be of quality and not taste like everything it was shipped with, but even that depended on how much the wealthy hostess liked the caller.

Speaking of the economics of offering tea to callers, take a moment to imagine the reality of that in terms of quality: the calls were only to last 15-30 minutes, and there could potentially be multiple callers at one time or a stream of callers every half hour from 1-4pm in town or 11am-3pm in country, as well as several days in a row. That's a whole lot of tea being offered to people (not to mention people who might not be well liked). If tea for the family was expensive enough to need smuggling, serving it to every guest throughout every day would have been unwise and beyond extravagant. It was certainly a sign of wanting to impress a caller should the hostess, regardless of economy, pull the bell rope to request a tea tray--perhaps Duke Charming is the caller! I don't know about you, but I'd definitely be offering him tea. Mr. Muttonchops? I'm positive he'll be fine with lemonade.

An absolutely fantastic read on the details of and Jane Austen references to morning calls is at Rachel Knowles' Regency History. This is a must read, so don't miss out (honestly, anything by Rachel Knowles is a must read, so bookmark the page if you've not done so already). This post on social call etiquette from Jane Austen's World looks at social call rules from the early 20th century, but it still reflects some of what the calling etiquette would have been in the Georgian era. To read more about teatime and tea things, check out this former Research Interests blog.

1 Comment

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Samuel Law
Samuel Law
May 10

when did you write this I need the Publisher date

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