Victorian Calling Cards from the 1800's

     A HISTORY OF VICTORIAN CALLING CARDS   

In the day of genteel manners and formal introductions, the exchange of calling cards was a social custom that was essential in developing friendships. The custom of carrying calling or visiting cards began in France in the early 1800's.  It quickly spread throughout Europe, and then became vastly popular in the United States, especially the New England area from 1840-1900.  Calling cards were carried primarily by the "well-to-do" ladies who made a point to go calling on friends and family on a specified day of the week or month, depending on their location and proximity to neighbors.    The gracious reserve of a simple calling card is a gentle reminder of one's presence, and the care poured into a finely crafted card is a welcome courtesy. 

There were hundreds of thousands of cards printed from 1800 through the 1890's and styles progressed to include: 

Early calling cards were created one at a time by a skilled penman.  Each card displayed the bearer's name written in calligraphy with a bit of flourishing.  Doves, wheat, and flowers were commonly added as ornamentation on these early cards.  On each of these cards, the pen was held perfectly still while the card itself was rotated. This cherished and highly skilled craft of calligraphy and embellishment of that era is unsurpassed today.  

Calling cards were left at each persons home the individual went to visit, whether they were home or not.  The person visiting would typically either leave their card in a "card receiver" which was set on an entry table in the foyer or on a parlor table or leave the card with a servant so that the homeowner would know they stopped by.  A married woman would leave her and her husband's card at each visit.  According to Warne's Etiquette for Gentlemen (1866), individual cards were to be left for the lady and for the master of the house.   If there were sisters or daughters at the house being visited, individual cards were also to be left for them but no more than three should be sufficient to meet any case. 

In the Victorian day, the design, style, and even color border of a card actually carried a message to the receiver.  The meaning of the folds were as follows:

  • A folded top left corner meant the visitor had come in person; this corner unfolded meant a servant was sent. 

  • A folded bottom left corner signified a farewell

  • A folded top right corner meant congratulations

  • A folded bottom right corner expressed condolence. 

If there was a black band around the edge, it signified the carrier was in mourning over the loss of a loved one.  These various customs for folding corners fell in and out of fashion and the by 1900's, the folding of corners went out of style..

Cards progressed and became even more beautiful with the invention of chromolithography.  This enabled the card makers to print gorgeously rich colors on Victorian "scraps" and attach them to plain cards.  These new cards were called hidden name calling cards.  Among the fanciful images printed using chromolithography on the Victorian scraps were hearts, birds,  scrolls, lush bouquets of flowers, graceful hands and so much more.

Chromolithography is a wax-resist color printing process that requires one color at a time be printed, held to dry, then the next color was applied.  Over a dozen colors could be added to each scrap using this very time consuming process and glazing was added over the top to preserve the color and finish.  The result of this effort was a permanent vibrant color that is as beautiful today as it was over 100 years ago.  These cards are breathtakingly beautiful and a piece of historical lost art.

A lot of men made a nice living during the height of the calling card era as either a penmen/calligrapher or by becoming a traveling salesman representing a specific card company.   Each card company supplied the salesman with a "SAMPLE BOOK" or leaflet displaying the currently available styles and prices.  The salesman would travel around taking orders and sending them to the company.   A packet of 100 plain cards could be bought for about a dollar and the finest fringed cards cost $1.25 a dozen.   Sample cards and books can be seen on the next page.

No part of the card was ignored when it came to ornamentation.  The edge of the card was just as fancy as the rest of the card.  Edges were gilded (lined in gold), daintily pierced, stamped, fancy razor cut, and scalloped.  Some had hand applied fringe borders or braiding of fine colorful floss through the piercings for a very special presentation.   Some cards collectively told a story such as the courtship cards at the bottom of this page.  Six different calling cards with different poems take you through a couples courtship from chance meeting to marriage. 

Silver and silver plated calling card receivers or trays were set out on entry tables for visitors to drop their cards into.  These card receivers always were cleverly made to include phrases, animals, scroll and fancy cutwork exhibiting the unique and ornate Victorian designs of that day.  Examples of these trays are depicted on the following page. The cards themselves were carried in a variety of finely crafted card cases made of sterling, mother of pearl, tortoiseshell, velvet, ivory, and more.   In the book Decorum, published in 1877, the following recommendations were made for refined visiting card etiquette: "Visitors should furnish themselves with cards. Gentlemen ought simply to put their cards into their pocket, but ladies may carry them in a small elegant portfolio, called a card-case. This they can hold in their hand and it will contribute essentially (with an elegant handkerchief of embroidered cambric) to give an air of good taste."  Card cases for gentlemen were available and were smaller and more simply designed than the ladies.  The calling cards carried by ladies were typically much larger than men's and their card cases were larger and more decorative as well.

With the development of early penny post cards around the turn-of-the twentieth century, visiting became less common and the postcard era began.  

THE PICTURES BELOW DEPICT A VERY SMALL SAMPLE OF A PRIVATE COLLECTION
OF OVER 2000 DIFFERENT CARDS AND ARE NOT FOR SALE

This first card below is a double fringe, double hidden name salesmen sample calling card -
an extremely fine example of the best card that was available in that day at 12 for $1.25


First scrap open says "Souvenir of Friendship"

Second scrap would have bearers name- this is a Sample Card


Fringed hidden name card with swan on scrap


Gorgeous heavily fringed calling card to be left from December through January

Combo fringed envelope card with decorative scrap

Very early hand tinted card c. 1840

Poem reads:
There is a gem that's brighter far
Than purest gold or diamond star
Shining in darkness as in light
 Unharmed by storms and knows no blight.

Tho error o'er it casts its gloom
And persecutions round it throng
All be vanquished all must die
While truth victorious soars on high.

Victorian calling card
 

Plain name cards - hundreds of styles, sizes, and images were available


 

Very personal card showing a patriotic emblem with the bearers initials


"Compliments of" hidden name card

Hand penned name on fancy greeting card

Beautifully pierced and scalloped border laced with pastel floss and  tied
1

HIDDEN NAME (ABOVE AND BELOW)


 



BELOW IS EXTREMELY FANCY DEEP PINK FRINGE APPLIED TO BORDER


A "HAPPY NEW YEAR" FANCY FRINGED CALLING CARD WITH BEARER'S NAME IN ENVELOPE

This card is essentially a large Victorian scrap with the bearers name imprinted

A wonderful example of a fringed fan hidden name calling card - bearer's name under bird scrap


Delicate Victorian scraps with bearers name imprinted or written
Note that it was proper for even young ladies to carry cards


Wonderfully rich colors and rose border on this chromolithography salesman sample card
Victoria Series - 12 for 50 cents

Hands clasped in friendship were a dominant theme on the cards and in jewelry during the Victorian era

UNUSUAL COLOR PURPLE FRINGE

Hidden name card with left corner folded and fringed - the top left corner fold indicated that the bearer had come in person

DOUBLE HIDDEN NAME artists palette card

Untroubled be thy days (on first scrap)

Sample card No. 596 12 for 30 cents with  Name

Very early hand tinted etchings with calligraphy name

More very early cards - hand tinted - many with poems

 

BELOW ARE TWO OF THE EARLIEST CALLING CARDS CIRCA 1840
HAND FLOURISHED by SKILLED CALLIGRAPHER
2

RARE AND DELICATE "GELATINE" CARDS - they also come in clear, dark green and dark blue

Gelatine card with applied scrap and printed name


Figured Gelatine sample card  (have to hold card to light to photograph properly)

 

TRANSPARENT CARD
TWO OWLS ON BRANCH CAN BE SEEN WHEN THE CARD IS HELD TO LIGHT WITH A PHRASE BELOW THE OWLS:
"AH! COULD I E'ER DECEIVE THEE?"


 

Photograph sample card and actual card below

 

Below are 2 comic cards (I AM "name" Who the Devil Are You?

and 2 Acquaintance Cards that the young gentlemen gave to prospective girls - very clever

Below are gorgeous examples of various styles of envelope cards



The envelope card below has a secondary envelope of a fancy pierced card backing with scrap applied

Silver foil envelope

Printed Victorian scrap with bearer's name

Right after the Civil War, carrying cards depicting real persons - famous Generals,
Presidents, and Presidents wives were common.


AMAZINGLY ACCURATE DEPICTIONS OF CIVIL WAR GENERALS


 

Very ornate double hidden name calling card on decorative cardstock

 

Below - Animals were quite popular on cards - these are all double hidden name cards

This inventive card has a gelatine window through which you can see a couple and is
a hidden name card

More double hidden name cards

Below - this New Year's calling card to be left from December through January
and features hand calligraphy name and year - 1883

COURTSHIP IN 6 ACTS

Below is a complete set of very charming calling cards depicting a couples Courtship
from chance meeting to marriage. Images courtesy of Kelly Laughlin

The poems on the cards above are so clever:

 

 

CALLING CARD RECEIVING TRAYS, SAMPLE BOOKS, AND VISITING CARD CASES

 

This page was last updated 09/04/11
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