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Name one individual who wouldn’t like to have an intimate circle of friends, and I will name a very sorry person, indeed. I am perhaps, among my acquaintance, the one most desirous of solitude, yet I too, partake of the joys of friendship.
What is now a very open network of acquaintances with the aid of technology was not always so. Before the assistance of such, during the nineteenth century, connections were made by people of prominence using the calling card system.
The calling card was an essential part of introductions, invitations and visits. A gentleman’s card would be smaller than a lady’s to fit within his breast pocket, and a lady would carry hers within “a small, elegant portfolio called a card-case."
Many families of status would travel to and from their country and city homes to escape the harsher weather of each location. Upon arrival, a lady of gentle status would begin making calls (personal visits) to notify her acquaintances that her family was then in town.
Cards were placed on a silver salver in the entry hall, with the most prominent cards displayed on top.
Calling cards in themselves, held messages. A turned down top left corner signified that the caller had come in person. If this corner was unfolded it meant a servant had been sent. A folded bottom left corner signified a farewell. A folded top right corner meant congratulations, and a folded bottom right corner expressed condolences. A black band around the edge of a card meant that the carrier was in mourning.
Each household would have what was called an “At Home” day. The particular day of the week was specified on their card, e.g. “Tuesdays in November,” and on this day they would accept visitors. It was ill-mannered to simply drop in unannounced.
The visits expected were reciprocal ones from those whom the family had called on earlier that week. A return visit would be made within a week, or at the most, ten days. A call would be returned with a call, a card with a card and so on.
A young lady would often eagerly examine the contents of the salver in hopes that one of her suitors had come by while she was out. Hand-written notes were often given to servants to deliver to the recipient, which was quicker than sending by post and could consist of many each day. A sweet Acquaintance Card might be given to a prospective young woman such as the ones pictured below (bottom two) which would require immediate response or complete denial.
Upon calling on a household, the caller would place his or her card on the salver or give it to the servant who greets him, whether or not the mister or mistress of the house received him. It was left as a reminder of who had visited, and to return the call.
A visit would last no more than an hour unless one was a relation, but most callers stayed only fifteen minutes to a half hour. If another visitor arrived while they were still present, the first callers would quickly make their leave.
Patience was exercised by many individuals who received less than desirable company and endured them for the sake of keeping peace within their circle of friends or because the caller was in possession of a considerable fortune. Money spoke quite distinctly then as well as now.
Times were different for each type of call. “Morning calls” were made in the afternoon. These were simply return visits. “Ceremonial calls” were made between three and four o’clock. These calls were made the day after a ball, when it sufficed to leave a card, or a day or two after a dinner party, and within a week of a small party, to show appreciation to the person who gave the ball, dinner, or party. A visit was not required.
“Intimate calls” were made between five and six o’clock, but never on Sundays, as this was a day set aside for family and close relatives. Intimate calls signified a time when close friends or family could visit. It would also be the hour young ladies prepared their parlor for the gentlemen they hoped to receive that evening.
With the turn of the century and the Great War, such courtesies as calling cards and At Home days were made obsolete. About the closest thing to it now is a guest book which is displayed in the entrance of homes for visitors to sign as they leave.
Perhaps the rigidity of calling cards is best gone, since it gives place to a more humble hospitality. On the other hand, it made manners of utmost importance and if one did not wish to lose a friend, he must stay in contact.
Even though these days afford us every luxury of connecting with loved ones, doing so too often gets put on the back burner, with ‘more important’ priorities addressed first.
While the Victorians had the ulterior motive of moving upward into society, the system of calling cards, nevertheless, kept them in close contact with one another due to the importance of not giving offence. A person’s word was relied upon and a commitment was not easily broken without offence.
While our modern-day circles of friends may be larger and less focused on status, they are still as important. People need one another the same now as then and social graces are perhaps all the more important because of what has been lost to us.
"You know the people next door are very grand. They won't know us--and they go out in a real private carriage sometimes. And they have an 'At Home' day, and people come in cabs. I dare-say they have piles of plate and jewellery and rich brocades, and furs of price and things like that. Let us keep watch to-night."
I obtained my information from the following websites along with numerous nineteenth century novels: