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August 6, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Evolution of the Calling Card

By Anne Christen More Blogs by This Author

The act of making friends is as old as time, and staying in touch with them is a mainstay of life. If you feel lonely, have a problem, or just want to chat, you call a friend and let the conversation flow nice and easy. If you’re not in the mood to socialize – but your friend is – you simply ignore the call and return it when you feel like talking. These are basic and unspoken rules of social propriety that almost everyone follows.

But these rules aren’t particular to one generation or one civilization. They have governed people for centuries. Prior to the telephone – which has made staying in contact easy and convenient – men and women undertook elaborate and etiquette-laden acts to cement friendships. These acts were not only expected of polite citizens, but they were required to maintain class structure and encourage socializing opportunities.

Call Me, Maybe?

The calling card was the backbone of 19th century society. To the modern person, it would look like nothing more than a stiff, white piece of paper. But to citizens of long ago, a calling card was a ticket to inner and elite circles. It was the first wedge a person could make into society. In some cases, it was also the last.  


A calling card bore a person’s name, address, and at-home days – meaning those days when he or she was available to receive company. A person left calling cards at the homes of friends and family when he or she arrived in, or departed from, town. It was a way of saying hello and good bye without taxing the occupants of another household. It also permitted the receiver to dismiss the invitation for friendship if she disliked the person leaving the card; she had only to tell the butler she wasn’t “at home,” a message that was passed to the caller in a polite but firm tone. The caller immediately understood and didn’t bother to visit that household again.

While the calling card sounds antiquated and cumbersome, it actually brings to mind a modern means of introduction: the business card. Like its predecessor, a business card usually lists the person’s name, address, phone number, and business hours. And just like people in the 19th century, one can dismiss the business card as useless if the person who handed it over seems questionable or untrustworthy.

Also similar is the pretense of being “not at home” when unexpected or unwanted visitors show up. Butlers are no longer the norm, so most people hide behind locked doors and curtained windows, waiting for the intrusive visitor to leave. Once they do, the person at home breathes a sigh of relief and continues her day as if nothing unusual occurred.

Victorian Facebook

Nineteenth century etiquette demanded that calling cards be displayed in a receiver’s home for everyone to see. Dishes made of silver or glass sat prominently in the foyer and held all the cards the master or mistress had received. This allowed guests to look through them and see who had visited, much like today’s lists of friends on Facebook or Linkedin accounts.

Victorian Wedding

Again, the act of going from house to house to leave calling cards coupled with the pretense of either being or not being at home seems tedious. Surely some people in the 19th century were frustrated by such demands and hated the potential for rejection. Some may even have bowed out of the rigorous circle and opted to stay at home where life was simple and familiar.

These seemingly superficial acts of society are quite similar to modern-day social mediums. We take the time to create accounts on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, and a host of other applications and then send electronic invitations or friend requests to people we know or want to know. Once that’s finished, we eagerly wait to see if our requests are accepted. This process is almost exactly like that of the calling card; the difference is we undertake these activities from the comfort of home rather than driving our buggies up and down the street to acquaintances’ residences.

Still the Same

The similarities between 19th century practices and those of today show us that technology has evolved, but people haven’t. We’re still selective in those we befriend, and we’re still eager for acceptance from society at large. In years to come, we’ll develop new methods of receiving and rejecting friendship requests. The only question is if we’ll behave politely or seek revenge when the rejections come, because even the most polite refusal is still a blow. 

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