How & why everyone used calling cards in the early 1900s

Note: This article may feature affiliate links to Amazon or other companies, and purchases made via these links may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. Find out more here.

Victorian-era calling card

When to leave calling cards after an entertainment

To leave cards after receiving hospitality is a time-honored custom which even in these days of change still holds good. It may be asked how did it originate, and what is the reason for so doing, and why should there be any difference made between one function and another — that is to say, why leave cards on one occasion and pay a personal call on another?

It may occupy too much space to enter at length into the why and the wherefore of these points in card leaving, it is enough for the purpose of this article to say what is done under given circumstances. Broadly speaking, to leave cards after being entertained by a friend or acquaintance implies a slight recognition of the civility received.

The distinction made between leaving cards after a dance or reception and calling after a dinner party is a very sensible one, as to receive calls from one to three hundred people, even if spread over a week, would be more than most women would care to go through, but to receive the calls of from ten to fifteen dinner guests would be pleasant rather than irksome.

Party or tea with guests - visiting and calling cards

Again, these calls are reduced in number in most instances by the wives only calling and leaving their husband’s cards, while bachelors’ calls are never over numerous, even after dinner parties.

The time allowed to elapse before paying these calls is rather in favor of the caller’s convenience. A call need not be made within the current week if more convenient to postpone it until the following one, but between the most intimate friends, it cannot be dispensed with without some excuse being made for the omission, absence from home, press of engagements, and the like reasons, but something must be said to prove that, if the right thing has not been done, it was not from want of knowledge of what was due on the occasion.

When these calls are made, it is understood that very little is said respecting the previous dinner party; It is not discussed, as, after ten days. It has become ancient history, but a word is said early in the visit as to the party having been a very pleasant one, and that is all; the talk glides at once into other channels, unless some prominent person was one of the guests or the visitor had been introduced to a relative of the hostess, when some personal remark is made.

In leaving cards after a dance, there is a distinction and a difference for those who are acquainted and unacquainted with the hostess, and a great number of dances include the latter in both town and country society.

In town, those who have received invitations through friends only, or from a hostess by desire of the same, leave cards, as do those acquainted with her, within the current week of the dance, if not on the following afternoon, but in the country, when guests forming a house party are taken to a dance, they do not leave cards, there being no time for so doing before the expiration of a visit, therefore is not expected from them.

Calling card from Willa Cather

After a dance, it is not the rule for any of the guests who have been present to ask if the hostess is at home, but merely to leave cards, and if this is not done; immediately after the event this card leaving might be considered as actual calling, when not to ask for the hostess would be to place the calling on a different footing.

Concerning the cards that should be left: A mother leaves her own card, with her daughters’ name upon it, but not her husband’s card, as, naturally, he is not invited. A young married lady, on the contrary, does leave her husband’s cards, he having been invited, and whether present or not, his cards, in consequence, are left.

When young girls are invited without their mothers by the friends and acquaintances of the latter the same routine of card leaving is followed, the mother’s cards are left, with the daughters’ names upon them. Cards are also left after a dance by all those invited, yet not able to be present, save when prevented by illness, when cards cannot be left.

Afternoon entertainments have released themselves in a measure from subsequent card leaving in two ways. After very large functions the guests leave their cards in the hall on departure, or they leave them on arrival on a table as they enter, and this applies equally to large afternoon at homes within doors and to garden parties also large, both in town and country.

The other mode of emancipation takes effect after small afternoon at homes and garden parties, when to leave cards would be considered over ceremonious, either on the day of the entertainment or subsequently, save in the form of first invitations.

Dancing c1905 fashion beauty


Etiquette of the visiting card: How to use calling cards (1909)

Arizona Republican (Phoenix, Arizona) April 27, 1909

Rules governing the use of visiting cards: When, where, for whom to leave them

“Ask me anything you like,” said Mrs Wright cordially, to a friend who had been puzzled over some points of etiquette.

“You are very good to help me,” said Mrs Howe. “After living out of town for some time, as I have done, one gets out of touch with many things.”

“In town or out of town there are always certain accounts to be kept with society,” answered Mrs Wright. “In smaller towns and country neighborhoods, the same general duties should be done. I don’t mean to call them ‘duties’ only. They should be pleasures.”

“But with my children to think of, I have neglected social duties or pleasures,” pleaded Mrs Howe.

“That is a natural and a frequent excuse,” said her friend, “but it is not altogether fair to your husband or yourself to neglect society, and not fair to seem indifferent to your friends. Then you must remember that you have two girls. They should give you a new interest in social life.”

“But they are children!” exclaimed the young mother in surprise.

Antique flower calling card

Keep in touch for the children

“They will not always be children. They will be grown up before you realize it. While they are growing up, you must not drift away from social interests or customs. You must stay bright and young for the sake of your husband, children, friends and society in general.”

“You are right — I am going to try to follow your example,” said Mrs Howe, gayly. Then she added, “If my girls have as good manners when they grow up as your Rosamond, I shall be happy.”

“I did not intend to draw down so much flattery on my head or on Rosamond’s,” said Mrs Wright, laughing. Then she continued confidingly, “Rosamond’s coming out this winter has been a joy instead of a task, because I have tried always to keep in touch with society and its ways. A girl’s coming out brings up all sorts of matters for discussion, and one needs to be prepared with information.”

“I see that you are having a very busy winter,” said Mrs Howe. “Yes, a busy and delightful winter; and now that you tell me you want my suggestions, I shall have another pleasure. Is there not something you want to discuss?”

Calling card of Herman Melville

The importance of cards

“Yes; it seems to me that one of the most important things is the etiquette of cards. It is strange that a bit of pasteboard means so much, isn’t it?”

“Not when you think that cards help to unite society. We could never pay off our social debts, or even remind people of our existence, without these useful little bits of pasteboard.

“Cards are very often, too, the expressions of kindliness, sympathy or congratulation. After all, there is a common-sense reasons about the use of visiting cards, as in most social matters. Leaving cards is a step toward renewing friendships, forming or enlarging one’s circle of friends. If one does not follow the prescribed rules, it is a sure step in the wrong direction.”

MORE  Victorian etiquette: See 129 rules that men were supposed to follow

When to call and leave a calling card

by Edna Egan – The Ogden Standard (Ogden City, Utah) February 09, 1918

Often you have heard women remark on occasions when they are asked whether or not they have called upon some new arrival in the community.

“Oh, I’d just love to call on her. But, my dear, I’ve heard that she is so terribly formal and stands on ceremony that I don’t dare call for fear I will commit some frightful faux pas.” And yet the etiquette of calling is not nearly so complicated as it is popularly conceived.

Antique calling card with bird eggs

Formal calling, except in the most conventional society and diplomatic circles, is rather going out of vogue. It is largely being displaced by the disarming custom adopted by so many hostesses of serving informal afternoon tea to callers.

This has dispensed with a great deal of the purely formal technical points which have heretofore been considered essential to the etiquette of calling, and has made the time-honored institution a much more friendly affair.

MORE  43 sweet vintage Valentine's Day cards from the early 1900s

Purely formal calls are usually paid between three and half past five in the afternoon; it is a matter of judgment on the part of the caller as to exactly what time she shall spend with her hostess.

It is a safe rule to follow, however, not to spend more than half an hour. Indeed, it is not always necessary to tarry any length of time at all, or even to alight from one’s motor or carriage. Cards may simply be sent in by footman or maid.

Calling in small towns or suburban communities is much more a matter of real friendship-forming pleasure than the conventional custom of large cities. A new arrival is called upon not so much out of conventional courtesy, but from a real desire to make her acquaintance.

In the case of a bride or a newcomer, the calls paid them by their neighbors are usually returned immediately, or within the expiration of a fortnight at the latest.

In the case of a matron who has moved into a new neighborhood, it is proper that the residents and neighbors call on her to extend their welcome and the various courtesies current among neighbors.

Some people are deplorably lax in this same particular. While they call on new arrivals eventually, the tardiness with which their courtesy is extended deprives if of half its spontaneity and good will.

Miss Van Rensselaer calling card - vintage

The woman who recognizes the virtue which lies in “doing it now” in the social sense, is the one who may feel the complete satisfaction of having done herself justice the payment of her social obligations.

A call that is well-timed and appropriate in its nature is always appreciated by the recipient, and regarded as an act of spontaneous good-will and friendship. But one that is made long after the expiration of the customary number of days is open to the suspicion of having been made a matter of social necessity.

The matter of leaving cards is one of the purely technical points of calling etiquette, and one which varies widely in different communities and under different circumstances.

Victorian-era calling card

For the first year after her marriage, a bride may use cards engraved “Mr and Mrs S,” for during that time, she is still supposed to be paying off obligations incurred in both their names.

A matron leaves two of her husband’s cards and one of her own with her hostess, unless there is an unmarried daughter in the house who bears part of the burden of entertaining, when she substitutes two of her own and one of her husband’s.

During the first year following her bereavement, a woman in mourning does not use any cards at all, as she may receive but not return calls. After the expiration of the year, cards with a black border of any desired width are used during the conventional period of mourning, usually an additional year.

A young girl, even though she may still be in school, must have her cards engraved with “Miss” followed by her name. On the other hand, a young unmarried man, unless he has some professional title, has simply his full name engraved on his calling cards.

MORE  How to have a proper Victorian garden party (1899)

More stories you might like

See our books

Because the fun never ends:

Join the fun

Don’t miss out on the latest and greatest vintage stuff!

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.