Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Conventions and Etiquette of Social Calling

My "Canton Export" Carved Ivory
Visiting Card Case (front side)
[From my own collection]

This Blog explores the strict conventions which once existed around social calling, especially the use of "calling" or "visiting" cards.

Pictured above is a finely carved 19th century case designed to hold such cards. This family owned Chinese "Canton Export" ivory card case measures 112 by 75mm and came to New Zealand after the death of my Scottish Great Aunt in 1920 but I believe it may in fact have belonged to my Great Grandmother who died in 1865. The style certainly appears consistent with what was available at that time. The cartouche shaped carving on both sides features finely detailed flowers including the border and carved edges. While the ivory has slightly yellowed over the ensuing century or more this all forms part of the patina of age of the last 150 odd years.

A Close-Up of the above
Intricate Hand Carving

All manner of decorative card cases became available throughout the 19th century, being designed to hold personal calling cards bearing one's name. The usage of such cards appears to have commenced in early 18th century France but then being limited to the aristocracy and upper social classes. But by the beginning of the 19th century the exchange of calling cards had also become firmly established throughout the middle classes, not only in Europe but also in America.

For the aristocracy and upper middle classes, the giving and receiving of calling cards remained an indispensable tool in undertaking a complicated and almost bewildering aspect of social etiquette, that of home calling. This is generally referred to as the "card and call system" and now appears quite comical - if not absurd - in this more egalitarian day and age. Very strict rules governed the usage of such cards and should one not follow these well established rules one's own social standing and prospects would necessarily suffer as a consequence.

My "Canton Export" Carved Ivory
Visiting Card Case (rear side)

As a bare minimum, a personal visit to another individual in their own home (without a prior invitation or established friendship) would not be made without first leaving a card at the home of that person. The caller would however not normally expect to be admitted during this initial call. As almost all the upper classes employed servants convention decreed that the recipient need not personally acknowledge the caller at this point although they might do so for a brief greeting as a matter of courtesy if they so desired. The card could however also be delivered by a servant and an edge of the card would be folded down to denote this fact.

A Close-Up of the above
Intricate Hand Carving

But the mere delivery of a card would indicate that a personal visit to the caller was desired. If this "social advance" was acceptable to the recipient they would then, either immediately (if the caller had been personally greeted by the lady of the house), or within a set period of time, leave their own calling card at the home of the initial caller. This then indicated to the original caller that a personal call was indeed welcome. But then, if no card was received in return or sent in an envelope the "advance" had been rebuffed.

My "Canton Export" Carved Ivory
Visiting Card Case With the Cover Removed
showing the thin ivory sleeve 

Such a personal call would however, only be expected on "at home" days and at a particular time during the mid afternoon (confusingly known as a "Morning Call") and for a maximum length of time until one had become better acquainted. Should another caller visit at the same time it was seemly for all to be introduced then to tactfully make one's excuses and "withdraw" as soon as possible. After the initial personal visit an invitation, subject to their suitability, social standing and reputation, might be extended for a longer visit, normally later in the day and where one might then, or upon a further invitation being extended, also be introduced to close friends of the host. Naturally their general demeanor, standard of conversation, and ability to converse knowledgeably, would all be closely scrutinized by all present.    

The conventions around the use of calling cards in the middle social classes were rather less rigid but inappropriate or unwanted friendships would still be actively discouraged. Should a friend or new neighbour call and present their card it was considered good manners to at least return the visit so such cards still retained a very useful purpose in initiating and confirming friendships. Callers might also be given a private invitation to call or simply be invited to at "at home" day.

The Calling Card of Mrs Robert [Helen] Lawson
of 17 Summerside Street, Leith, Scotland

The calling card shown here belonged to Mrs Robert [Helen] Lawson, the 'matriarch' of a grain milling and merchant family with premises at 64 Grassmarket in Edinburgh then later in Manderston Street Leith. She was therefore part of an established and well-off "middle class" merchant family but where social conventions would still be rather less rigid and defined. This card was actually given, together with the thoughtful gift of a cookery book, to my family in New Zealand by a friend of Mrs Lawson while visiting the Antipodes. Mrs Lawson has written on the back of the card, "See you make a good use of this book & cook up [for] the friend who brings it with my compliments". Interestingly, the black border indicates that Mrs Lawson's husband was by then deceased so we can date this card reasonably accurately to the late 1880's to early 1890's.  

An "At Home" in Royal Terrace
Dunedin, November 1909
[Source "The Otago Witness", Papers Past] 

"At Home" social gatherings are also worthy of mention, having become popular among the middle classes from the 1870's onwards, even persisting in rural New Zealand into the 1930's. Such "At Home" gatherings were held in the manner of the French system whereby visitors would be received on a particular day of the week without a formal invitation being given. Details of the "At Home" would be informally circulated beforehand with an open invitation for friends and relatives to call, even sometimes being advertised in the local newspapers. In the days before the introduction of the telephone this overcame many of the difficulties inherent in planning and organising private social gatherings. Close friends were not expected to attend every "At Home" but would be expected to make an effort to attend occasionally in order "to maintain a friendly footing". Friendships between others might also be initiated at these gatherings and some kind of entertainment provided which was appropriate for the occasion. The British "Cassells Household Guide", being published in the 1880's, helpfully covered the expected format of such gatherings in some considerable depth, including exactly what was expected of the host and of the prospective visitors.

An outdoors "At Home", November 1925
[Source "New Zealand Herald", Papers Past]

One would expect to be served afternoon tea but guests would, at least in New Zealand, have considered it unseemly to arrive totally empty-handed, so a small offering towards the afternoon tea, a small gift for the host, or a contribution to any good cause they were promoting would have been offered and this gesture would normally be returned "in kind" at a later date. An "At Home" could also be used as a society fundraiser or as an opportunity to call and present a gift to someone upon a special occasion such as a birthday, wedding anniversary or impending marriage.

Copyright : Unless otherwise stated all items are from my own collection. Images may be freely copied for personal use provided this site is acknowledged.

Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :
  • "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
  • "Cassells Household Guide", 1880's [per "Victorian London"]


  1. Let me note two things. Firstly the carving on the ivory box was exquisite and presumably expensive, but I am guessing that the cards themselves were more functional and less expensive. Secondly it is interesting that well established, well-off middle class merchant families were somewhat less bound up in rigid social conventions. So you had to have money to afford superbly carved ivory, but money by itself was not the biggest determinant of social niceties. Class was.

    1. Thank you Hels, As usual your comments are perceptive.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...