Calling Cards Communicated a Quaint Yet Complicated Code in Old Cincinnati

In the era when you couldn’t just text somebody ”What’s up,” calling cards were a popular—and in some cases, mandatory—way to keep in touch.
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Before instant messaging, before texts, even before telephones, folks maintained relationships by calling—in person—on their friends and acquaintances. Such visits were often mandatory if someone hoped to maintain their position in society. To maintain a reasonable limit on the amount of mindless chit-chat folks had to endure, it was often appropriate, and sometimes decreed, that a person “visited” by dropping off a calling card.

Leaving a calling card counted as fulfilling the obligation of a personal visit during the Victorian era.

Young Man Handing Card to Bewhiskered Butler From “Punch, or the London Charivari,” 31 May 1862 Digitized by Google Books

You may be excused for thinking this a callous and perfunctory substitute for an actual visit. However, noted etiquette authorities such as John H. Young in his substantial 1885 Cincinnati-published tome, “Our Deportment, or the Manners, Conduct, and Dress of Refined Society,” insists:

“To the unrefined or unbred, the visiting card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position.”

This exposition of one’s social position began with the card itself. Neither too small nor too large and bearing only the name, in a plain font, of the bearer. This was especially true for women, because only prostitutes added address to their calling cards. If necessary, as in announcing a new residence, the husband might add the address, never the wife, and it was preferred to pencil the new address on the back. Business cards were never used for social calls, although it was forgiven if a doctor appended “M.D.” to his name.

Your card – through your choice of paper stock, typeface and ink – told your acquaintances everything they needed to know about you, to the extent that actually visiting with you was somewhat superfluous.

From “Our Deportment, or, The Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society” by John H. Young, 1885, Cincinnati, F.B. Dickerson & Co., Page 78 Digitized by Internet Archive

Your card could, properly, take the place of an in-person call. If your servant, or a messenger, delivered the card, it was handed over intact to the recipient’s servant. (Well-mannered people did not answer their own doors.) Another etiquette book, also published in Cincinnati, is “The Illustrated Manners Book” of 1855. The anonymous author describes the process and its rationale:

“In fashionable society, much is saved by the use of cards, and by considering visiting or making calls a mere ceremony, to be got over as easily and rapidly as possible. A lady takes her visiting list, and walks or rides round to the house of each acquaintance. If the lady on whom she calls chooses to see her, she does so for ten minutes; if not, she directs the servant to say “engaged,” or “not at home,” which means only, not receiving company, and the caller leaves a card, which answers every purpose, and for which she gets a call or card the week following. The ceremony is attended to, and each lady is left to employ her time as she pleases; and is not compelled to be bored hour after hour with disagreeable, meddling, intrusive, and repulsive people.”

If you called in person to deliver your card, you turned down the right-hand side of the card. To indicate a call upon the lady of the house, you folded your card in the middle. If calling upon guests at a house, you left a card for each guest. You could also turn down a corner of your card to specify the nature of your call. According to Young’s “Deportment,” the code was this:

A simple visit – right-hand upper corner

Felicitation – left-hand upper corner

Condolence – left-hand lower corner

Pour Prendre Congé (French: To Take Leave) – right-hand lower corner

Although the folded lower right-hand corner signified that the bearer was leaving town for an extended period of time, it was perhaps more proper to have special “P.P.C.” cards printed. According to Young:

“A card left at a farewell visit, before a long protracted absence, has “P. P. C.” (Pour Prendre Congé) written in one corner. It is not necessary to deliver such cards in person, for they may be sent by a messenger, or by post if necessary. P. P. C. cards are not left when the absence from home is only for a few months, nor by persons starting in mid-summer for a foreign country, as residents are then supposed to be out of town. They are sent to or left with friends by ladies just previous to their contemplated marriage to serve the purpose of a call.”

You will note that everyone who was anyone was supposed to be out of town throughout the summer, either at a vacation home in the country or touring Europe. In the autumn, when the upper crust came back to Cincinnati like swallows returning to Capistrano, everyone was required to call upon everybody else, and to leave a card. Even if you arrived in person, it was considered a faux pas not to leave a card. As Young says:

“Where a lady is receiving morning calls, it would be too great a tax upon her memory to oblige her to keep in mind what calls she has to return or which of them have been returned, and in making out lists for inviting informally, it is often the card-stand which is first searched for bachelors’ cards, to meet the emergency. Young men should be careful to write their street and number on their cards.”

If you received an invitation to dinner or a reception, it was incumbent upon you to leave your card with the person who invited you, whether you accepted the invitation or not. When someone died, you were expected to leave a card at the mourning house, with no expectation – unless you were an intimate friend of the family—to actually speak to anyone. When a marriage occurred, all acquaintances, whether invited to the wedding or not, were expected to call upon the bride within ten days of her taking possession of her new home.

Cards could also convey sterner messages. Suppose you received an unwelcome call, or even a call from an old acquaintance you no longer wanted to see socially. The solution was simple, unmistakable, and cold. Having received a call, or a card, from such a person, you were obliged to return the call. But, to put an end to the cycle of calls and return calls, you simply sent your return card enclosed in an envelope. That said it all. The envelope communicated clearly: “Our obligations to each other are at an end.”

If this seems callous, keep in mind our modern circumstances. Do you return every text you receive? Every email? Every Instagram message? Maintaining a balance among our social obligations has obsessed Cincinnatians for centuries. “The Illustrated Manners Book” of 1855 has this to say:

“If you neglect to call on any one, it is taken as a signal that you drop the acquaintance. This is no offence, but only your convenience and your right. You have just as good a right to drop an old acquaintance as to make a new one. In each case, you have first to consult your own convenience and happiness.”

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