Like the modern day business card, calling cards were a necessary accessory carried by both gentlemen and ladies during Regency England. If a person visited friends or acquaintances, they would present their calling card to the butler, who would then announce their arrival to the head of the household. A person would not be received in a good household without a calling card being presented first.
Calling cards were made from a high quality paper and engraved with the gentleman’s name and address. A lady’s calling card did not have an address, but it did carry the woman’s married name. Decorating the card was considered taboo and in poor taste, but the cards did become available in more colors in later years. The engraving was simple and people were labeled with Mr. or Mrs., of course titles of rank were included on the calling card.
Lady’s calling cards were larger than the male counterpart, since the males needed to fit theirs in a breast pocket. Women’s calling cards may be glazed and engraved with simple type, but like the colors, the script became more elaborate as the years past.
Calling cards were a great way to recall who visited and to know if a return call was necessary. A lady returning to town may make the rounds, allowing her groom to pass out her cards while she waits in the vehicle. A dog-eared card meant the card was delivered in person by the caller, and not from a servant.
Once a card was received, the head of the household would decide on whether to receive the caller. To be informed by the butler that “the mistress is not home” is a rejection and code for the mistress does not wish to make your acquaintance. If the caller receives a reciprocal card not presented formally, than this meant there was no interest to continue the acquaintance. A formal returned visit meant a friendship was possible. Callers unsure of the reaction they’d receive, usually left a card and didn’t ask if the mistress was home. In turn, the mistress would feel obligated to return the call, if only done by leaving her card. An unreciprocated call meant the person was rejected.
Cards were often placed on a silver salver in the entry hall, with the most influential names purposely placed on top of the pile. This allowed guests to glimpse lofty visitors. The less affluent used a bowl to hold the cards.
Of course there were special guidelines and even a timetable for paying a call upon someone. Morning calls, which were less formal, were made between eleven and three. These calls usually lasted fifteen minutes, and children and pets were not allowed. Formal ceremonial calls (congratulations or condolences, which was seen as a duty) were made between three and four in the afternoon and typically took place a week after the event. Semi-ceremonial (after a ball or formal dinner) calls were conducted between four and five, and typically made a day after the event. Intimate calls were made between five and six. Sunday was a day reserved for family and friends, no acquaintances or strangers paid calls on the Sabbath.
Calling cards were also a way to let people know you’ve arrived in town or that you were preparing to depart. Generally the caller left more than one card, one for the mistress of the house, one for the gentleman, and one for the butler. Calling cards were carried in decorative cases, often made of silver, ivory or paper-mache. The lids of the cases were artistically detailed later in the century, but during the Regency they were primarily filigree, leather, or tortoiseshell. Only the wealthy could afford cases made from pure metals like gold.
A special thank you to http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2007/05/21/the-etiquette-of-using-calling-cards/ and http://www.literary-liaisons.com/article026.html and Visiting Cards and Cases by Edwin Banfield, Baros Books, Wiltshire, 1989.