Although the phrase “calling card” has come to mean many different things in today’s society, (anything from evidence left at the scene of a crime to a pre-paid phone card) calling cards first started off as pieces of paper about 3.5 in. by 2.5 in. They were used in Victorian times to keep in touch with friends, offer congratulations or condolences, screen visiting guests, or fulfill social requirements after attending a ball or dinner party. Both men and women carried calling cards. There were few differences between a man’s calling card and a woman’s, but the calling card of a man was typically smaller due to the fact it had to fit into his breast pocket. The fronts of the cards were usually very simple containing only the person’s name and perhaps their address, as well as a lady’s reception hours, if applicable. Mr. or Mrs. was sufficient for a title, unless it was necessary to indicate rank, such as Earl or Duke. Cards were usually carried in small cases composed of anything from gold, ivory, tortoise shell, leather and filigree, to wood and papier-mâché.

There was more to calling cards than simply stopping by and dropping one off. There were very specific etiquette rules to be followed regarding cards. On a first call, the woman would remain in her carriage and allow a servant to deliver her card to the house. The lady of the house could then decide whether or not to accept the visitor. It was usually considered impolite to inquire if the mistress was home on a first call. One was expected to leave a card, and the lady of the house would make a return call if she was interested in establishing a relationship with the caller. By the middle of the 19th century, it was acceptable for a wife to leave her husband’s card as well as her own. She would leave one of her own cards and two of her husbands: one for the mistress of the house, one for the master. It was also acceptable to place the names of any grown daughters on the lady’s card, but only if they still lived at home. Calling cards were usually placed on a rimmed silver platter, or a china bowl in poorer households, with the most prominent names on top. A card with a turned down corner indicated that the card had been delivered in person rather than by a servant. Some cards had the words Visite, Felicitation, Affaires, and Adieu (visit, congratulation, businesses, and good-bye) printed on the reverse side, one on each corner. The appropriate corner would be turned down to indicate the purpose of the call.

Not only were rules regarding cards rigid, there were very stiff regulations surrounding the making of calls themselves. A newcomer to the area must wait until others called upon her; she could then make a return call, but only during the accepted days and hours printed upon the card that had been left during the original call. A formal call was required after a ceremonious event such as a wedding or childbirth. Calls concerning congratulations or condolences were made about one week after the event and if the caller was an intimate friend, it was acceptable to ask to see the person; otherwise, the caller could only inquire of the servant the condition of the person being called upon. It was vital to make a formal call to the hosts of an event such as a dinner party or a ball, even if the person had been unable to attend. Such calls were made 3-7 days after the event. There was a specific time to make each kind of call: ceremonial calls were made between three and four in the afternoon, while semi-ceremonial calls were made in the hour following. Intimate calls were made between the hours of five and six. Sunday was expressly reserved for close friends and relatives. Calls and cards should be returned within a week to ten days, if at all possible.

As of late, it has become popular to leave a “virtual” calling card when signing the guest book of a website or when sending an e-mail. There are several online sources providing these digital calling cards so that you too can continue the Victorian tradition of leaving your card.