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
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
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
A folded top right
corner meant congratulations
A folded bottom right corner expressed
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
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
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
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
And persecutions round it throng
All be vanquished all must die
While truth victorious soars on high.
Plain name cards -
hundreds of styles, sizes, and images were available
Very personal card showing a patriotic emblem with the
"Compliments of" hidden name card
Hand penned name on fancy greeting card
Beautifully pierced and scalloped border laced with
pastel floss and tied
HIDDEN NAME (ABOVE AND
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
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
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)
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
sample card and actual card below
Below are 2 comic cards (I AM "name" Who the Devil Are
and 2 Acquaintance Cards that the young gentlemen gave
to prospective girls - very clever
Below are gorgeous examples of various styles of
The envelope card below has a secondary envelope of a fancy pierced card
backing with scrap
Silver foil envelope
Printed Victorian scrap with bearer's name
Right after the Civil War, carrying cards depicting
real persons - famous Generals,
and Presidents wives were common.
AMAZINGLY ACCURATE DEPICTIONS OF CIVIL WAR
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: