Use of the Calling or Visiting Card in Georgian/Regency England
In the 18th Century a very necessary addition to a lady’s reticule or a gentleman’s pocketbook were their calling cards. All ladies and gentlemen of our era carried them to be used to announce their arrival/departure or to show they had been to visit while someone was out; a calling card was essential in conducting oneself in polite society.
The calling card, also referred to as a visiting card, was made of of sturdy paper stock, measuring a modest 3 inch by 2 inch for a lady’s card and slightly larger for a man’s card. A person’s name and their direction (residence details) were engraved, or written on the card so the that recipients may return calls with confidence. Cards varied in style, some more ornate than others but the same basic information was shown.
A calling card was a convenient way of letting friends and acquaintances know you had arrived in town for the season or had returned home from a journey. This little gesture allowed those you sent your card to know you were available to call upon. If your footman or maid carried out this task for you, the cards were delivered as is, but if you delivered the card personally, the corner was turned down to indicate it had been given by you. Your card was also used as a devise to announce you were leaving a place. You would send your card with the phrase “pour prendre conge” which roughly translates from French “to take leave.” The back of the card was blank and was often used to write a few words to clarify the reason for the visit, or to leave a message.
Cards were given to housekeepers and butlers to announce one’s visit as well, the card, usually presented to the lady or gentleman of the house on a silver salver making it terribly formal. If the lady or gentleman of the house was not at home or otherwise engaged at the time one paid their call, the cards from those who visited were all kept on the tray and inspected when one returned home. Should someone have a guest staying with them who accompanied them on their morning calls the name of the guest would be written on the card in advance to let the recipient know the guest had also paid a call so they may be included in the return visit or letter.
Today, business men and women give their card by way of introduction and to establish contact and this has carried over from earlier use. Visiting cards began as simple cards with engraved information and over time evolved to include boarders and flourishes just as business cards today have become more colourful and eye-catching.
The calling card in the 18th century allowed a person to make their presence known in a variety of ways and was essential to polite society.