Calling Cards and Visiting Cards: A Brief History | How to use a Calling Card
Calling cards, also called visiting cards, visiting tickets, or compliments cards, originated in their paper and ink form in France in the 18th century and their popularity quickly spread across Europe and the United Kingdom.
Oscar Wilde's calling card from 1897. The card displays the name he used while traveling after his release from prison.
Calling cards were an indispensable accessory to fashionable, upper class life in Britain, Europe, and the eastern United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Though they started as simple unadorned cards to announce one's arrival, the Victorians took both the cards' designs and rules dictating usage to extravagant heights. New printing technologies allowed for more colorful and decorative card designs, which were fully embraced by the “more is more” sensibilities of the mid to late 19th century. Calling cards fell out of favor in the early 20th century as penny postcards became popular and the Victorian celebration of embellishments gave way to simpler, more structured design.
The earliest uses of calling cards, or at least something like them, reach as far back as the ancient Egyptians, who left ceramic tiles in their temple of worship. The tile depicted its owner’s name and title. Calling cards, also called visiting cards, visiting tickets, or compliments cards, originated in their paper and ink form in France in the 18th century. Their popularity quickly spread across Europe and the United Kingdom. Calling cards soon became essential social accessories for the fashionable and wealthy, and served both as utilitarian objects and status symbols. Leaving one's calling card at a friend's home was a way to express appreciation for a recent dinner party, offer condolences for an illness, or simply to say hello. If the recipient “wasn't home” a servant would accept a calling card or the card would be left in a silver tray in the entrance hall. A tray full of calling cards was like social media for the Victorian era, a way to advertise who was in one's extended social circle. Often the cards of the wealthiest or most influential people were purposefully displayed at the top of the stack to impress future visitors.
Sometimes short messages were written on the card, to specify the meaning of the visit. A lady might write her seasonal visiting hours on her card, or add that tea would be served at a designated time. Coded messages could be left by folding a corner of the calling card: one corner might express condolence, another congratulations. The rules about corner folding shifted with the times and by the end of the 19th century corner folding was considered passe.
The Victorian etiquette of leaving and accepting calling cards was a complicated web of strict rules; to go against these rules could mean social suicide. It was traditionally the obligation of the upper class woman to deliver and accept calling cards, though she could leave her husband's card for the master of the house, along with two copies of her own (one for the master and one for the mistress of the house). Calling with a card at the right time and in favorable circumstances could lead to an invitation to visit. These visits were strictly formalized as well, usually consisting of twenty minutes of polite conversation and allowed only during set times in the late morning or early afternoon. After a call was made, a return call was to be expected and the process continued.
The historical writings about calling cards tend to focus less on the craftsmanship of the cards in favor of the intricate social rules governing their use. But the cards themselves are fascinating pieces of history as well, and reflect the values and changing technologies of their times. The earlier calling cards of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were fairly minimal in their design. Usually, they presented an unadorned handwritten name on white or cream colored stock. The cards were smaller and narrower than the lavish Victorian cards, as they carried less information and little to no decorative elements. However, with the rise of a newly wealthy class and technological advancements in the printing industry, calling cards with maximum ornamentation became the ideal.