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Victorian Calling Card

Victorian Etiquette: Calling Cards


After introductions, visits or "calls" came next in the first round of the proper Victorian social sequence.

Visiting or calling hours were limited, and most sensibly, to a restricted time in the afternoon. No one not privileged, on pressing business, or extremely intimate, would think of invading a household before three o'clock. The custom of restricting hours to certain parts of days, and then to certain days of the week, was started in self-preservation to prevent callers from spreading themselves into whole days — some calling in the mornings, others in the afternoons, still others evenings, and all on any day in the week. Consequently, no one could be offended when refused at half-past two on a Tuesday, when "Mondays, three to six,'' is plainly engraved on a carte de visite.

Victorian Calling Card Case
19th Century Silver Calling Card Case

The accepted rule was to stay only fifteen minutes at a first call, unless, of course, the visitor was urged to stay longer for some special reason. It was an equally good rule to depart as the room became crowded and talking grew more difficult, or at least to relinquish one's place near the hostess. Tea was universally served on calling days in all well-regulated houses. If the visitor was obliged to arrive very early, say at three o'clock, it was good form to decline the offer of tea made specially for them, not only because of the unseasonable hour, but because it made a great deal of trouble.

The visitor placed their card on a convenient place in the hall, or on a tray the servant held out, and then mentioned their name to the manservant, if there was one. A man or a maid usually took the card on a tray, and stood holding the curtains aside, for the visitor to enter, speaking their name audibly at the same time.

Victorian Calling Card
Victorian Calling Card

By the late 1890s, the custom of turning up (or down) corners of cards was no longer followed; nor was it considered necessary for a card to be left for each member of a large family, except on most formal occasions. Ladies who drove when they paid visits usually had a very heavy wrap on in cold weather, which they then would leave in the carriage. But when walking in a thick jacket, it was allowable, more comfortable, and certainly healthier, to take it off in the hall.

A gentleman did exactly the same as a woman, except that he took off his overcoat, if he wore one, in the hall. He would also deposit his hat and stick outside. The drawingroom was no place for the hat; and of course the hat and stick would stay together.

Victorian Calling Card
Victorian Calling Card

A gentleman must be asked to call, before he could venture to do so. He would then call as soon as possible after the invitation was given. Subsequently, if it was a family who entertained often and if his visit had been agreeable, he would receive an invitation to dinner. After, he would call again within a week, and then he would become an “acquaintance” who could be summoned for informal occasions, etc. This rule was not for young girls, whose mothers would be required to do the asking.

Although business men could not pay visits very easily in the afternoons, there was really no excuse for men's delinquencies, especially, and above all, if they had accepted invitations or favors of any sort from ladies. He was then obliged to find half an hour out of the week or visit on Sunday — few houses were closed to visitors Sunday afternoons. On an ordinary week day, he was permitted to call in a brown, blue or any colored coat, fancy waistcoat, and derby hat, and could be admitted up to six o'clock.
Victorian Calling Card
Victorian Calling Card

In dealing with the subject of visiting in general, the receiving party was always a woman. Nevertheless, gentlemen could receive visits from men at their club, or their offices, and there was a distinct etiquette for these ceremonies. Formal visiting among married men was never done at their houses, it was always the wife who received, not the husband. When a gentleman, no matter if he was married, received hospitality at a lady's hands, he was quite capable of paying a visit to show his personal appreciation. It was not necessary for a man to relegate all the visiting to his wife.

Nothing could excuse a delay in returning a first visit within a few days, excluding going out of town or an illness. As well, nothing could exempt one from a call after a dinner, a luncheon, a supper, or theater party, unless, as said before, a person was ill or out of town. In these circumstances, a card would be sent with a word of regret.

Victorian Calling Card
Victorian Calling Card

By the late 19th century, club life and bicycling, and many other informal matters, modified the obligation of persons who met constantly. Nevertheless, it was established that it was always better to overdo the polite than to underdo it. Therefore, a call after each and every act of civility was still deemed a necessary courtesy for a woman to pay, and a responsibility for a man.

The Victorian system of calling appeared to be one that wasted much time, and was rather senseless, but as a code of signals it had its uses. Without it, it was difficult to see how social lists could be recruited for invitations, or any entertaining done in proper order.

Edited from: Etiquette for Americans by a Woman of Fashion, 1898
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