The Formal Visit and the Calling Card
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
In our last posting, we talked about the Etiquette of the Ballroom in late-18th and early-19th century America and how it was both similar and different from that of Regency England. However, whether in England or America, being acceptable to “polite society” so that you could be “introduced’ to others at the ball was not the end of your interaction with etiquette. In fact, it only was the beginning of your obligations if you were to become an “acquaintance” that would have a chance to be invited into the inner circle of the “better” families and have a chance for marriage, social interaction, or business relationships within their group.
What was an introduction?
An introduction is exactly what it sounds like – where one person is introduced or presented to another. Today, if we go to a party or a networking event, a mutual friend might introduce us to someone we don’t know, but it is acceptable, if we are brave enough, to introduce ourselves and expect the person to introduce themselves back. In the Regency, it was not as simple as that and in today’s world, it is hard for us to get our heads around the significance of an introduction. (Note: Just as in our last post, in this article we will use the term “Regency” to signify the period from about 1785 to 1830 in both England and the United States)
In a formal setting, a third party was always involved. The third party was recommending one person to another. Since an Introduction meant more than just knowing someone’s name, the person making the introduction was assuming a grave responsibility as to the appropriateness of the relationship. At balls, the introducing role could be taken by an official person, such as a Director/Manager/Patroness or the Master of Ceremonies
The two most basic rules for introductions were that:
A gentleman is always introduced to a lady and,
A person of lower social rank is always presented to the person of higher social rank.
The idea is that the lady or more important person can decline the introduction. So, at a ball, a lady, or her chaperon, could refuse an introduction to someone whose acquaintance was considered undesirable or questionable. By accepting an introduction, the lady was welcoming the relationship and would be expected to dance with the gentleman, unless she was not dancing at all or already engaged to dance. Likewise, a person of higher social rank could refuse to be introduced to an ill-bred person since, by accepting the introduction, they were accepting their society.
What Next? – Social Calls (Morning Calls)
As was noted in our last posting, having been thought suitable to be introduced to a young lady or to have a young gentleman introduced to you was only the beginning. Just because one had been introduced at the ball, it did not give you the right to assume that you were considered a suitable acquaintance and that your company would be welcomed beyond the ballroom. That would be decided when one made a social visit, or morning call, the following day.
These Social Calls went far beyond just serving to allow for courtship between eligible young people. They were the glue that held Georgian, Regency, and Victorian societies, in both England and America, together–at least for the gentry and wealthy of society. It’s how they tapped into the grapevine, networked, ministered to the poor and sick, navigated new, and nurtured existing relationships.
Social Calls occurred in the afternoon, between noon and three PM, with the period between 3 and 5 PM reserved for calls by close acquaintances. So, if these calls were made in the afternoon, why were they called “morning calls?” During the Regency era, the wealthy defined that segment of the day differently than we do today. Here in the 21st century, "morning" is officially defined as the half of the day between Midnight and Noon. But in the early-19th century, "morning" was defined as the period from dawn until the time of the main meal of the day, which was dinner. Thus, the morning extended into what we think of as afternoon and even into what we would now call the evening. The Regency morning ended when one sat down to dinner which was served somewhere between 6 and 8 PM.
Some of the “rules” for making Social Calls were:
A social call was expected to last at least 15 minutes and not to exceed half an hour.
A woman needed an introduction before she could call on another family, and their women, however, a gentleman could call on another gentleman without the benefit of an introduction.
A gentleman who had been introduced to a lady at a ball was expected to pay a morning call on her the following day. Not doing so showed that there was no desire to further the acquaintance and would be considered a serious snub.
A lady, either married or single, did not call at a man's lodging
A gentleman calling on a family asked for the mistress of the house if the visit was a social one, and the master if it was a business call.
A card was left if the lady of the house was indisposed or not at home.
It was acceptable for a gentleman to call on a daughter of the house if she were above marriageable age or a long-standing friend.
Callers were received by men in their business room or library, by women in the morning room or in their drawing-room.
Pets and children, both regarded as potentially destructive and annoying, were not welcome on morning calls.
A person new to the city or country area waited for social calls, also known as Calls of Ceremony, to be made to them by those already living there before they made a call of their own.
In the country it was acceptable for a man to make a call or leave a card with someone of higher social standing if they were new to the neighborhood.
Return Calls should be made only on At Home Days. Days and times for these were either engraved or written on visiting cards.
A newcomer to an area waited until she received cards from neighbors. It was then good manners to call on those neighbors who left cards.
Formal calls were made following ceremonial events such as marriage, childbirth, and as acknowledgement of hospitality. Formal visits were made the day after a ball, when it sufficed to simply leave a card if the lady was not available. Or within a day or two after a dinner party, and within a week of a small party.
Calls for condolence and congratulations were made about a week after the event. If intimate, a visitor could ask for admission. If not, they inquired of the servant as to the person's and family's well-being.
A call should be returned with a call, a card with a card, within one week, or at the most, ten days.
When calling on a lady, once the gentleman was shown to the morning room or drawing room, what was he to do then? The heart of polite sociability was conversation. The whole purpose of conversation, and the morning visit itself, was to please other people and to be thought pleasing. In general, this conversation was tightly controlled by rules of etiquette. Unsurprisingly, the list of unacceptable topics far outnumbered the acceptable ones.
Politeness demanded a visitor inquire after the health of absent members of the household. Similarly, polite individuals did not ask direct personal questions of recent acquaintances. To question or even compliment anyone else on the details of their dress might also be regarded as impertinent. Personal remarks, however flattering, were not considered good manners. Etiquette manuals counseled such comments should be exchanged only with close family and intimate friends. Unsurprisingly, scandal and gossip should also be omitted from public conversation. Any references to pregnancy, childbirth, or other natural bodily functions were considered coarse and carefully sidestepped. A man could sometimes discuss his hunters or driving horses in the presence of ladies though it was discouraged. Greater latitudes of conversation were allowed when the genders were segregated, particularly for the men.
During the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian eras, calling cards were a necessary accessory for a gentleman or lady who called upon friends or acquaintances, or who wished to announce their presence in town. In fact, one wasn’t received unless one conveyed one’s card first.
The best calling cards were made from plain, excellent quality paper, were engraved, and were kept in cases to keep them fresh, clean, and undamaged. The engraving was usually in simple type, small and without flourishes. A simple 'Mr.' Or 'Mrs.' before the name was sufficient, except in the case of acknowledgement of rank or profession (Senator, Esquire, Dr., Captain, etc.) in which case it might be included either before or after the name as appropriate. Early Victorian, and one can assume late Regency, cards bore only a person's name and title, with the name of their house or district sometimes added. Ornamentation on a card was considered in poor taste, although as the 19th century progressed, more colorful and ornamented calling cards became common for women. When a married lady made a call, she would leave not a single card, but three: one from her for the house’s mistress; one from her husband for the house’s mistress and another from her husband for the house’s master.
Cards were carried in a card case. These card cases were sometimes quite ornamented, particularly those belonging to a lady. A gentleman’s card case was slightly smaller than a ladys, since he had to carry it in his pocket.
Cards conveyed many messages. A card presented in person by a visitor carried more social weight than a card sent via groom or footman. If a card was presented reciprocally by a third party, such as having a servant deliver a calling card to someone’s home, it might be assumed that the card giver was giving the strong message that they were unwilling to further the social acquaintance. If, however, a formal (in-person) call was returned with a formal call, there was hope for the relationship to grow. If one must leave a card because the subject of the visit was out, which the servant should have told you as soon as you asked for the person, bending a corner of the card before giving it to the servant would show to the recipient that the visit was made in person.
When one was making a formal call, a servant would receive the visitor’s cards, and convey them to the mistress, who would then decide whether to admit or reject the caller. If the servant returned and informed the caller that the mistress was 'not at home', this was code for not wishing to make the acquaintance of the caller. On the other hand, if a reciprocal card was presented to the visitor, this showed there was a chance for the relationship to develop, even though the mistress was not available to receive the visit at that time.
Some who were timid, or uncertain as to the reception they might receive, might opt for the safest course, to leave his or her card without asking if the mistress was at home. This would oblige her to reciprocate the call the next day, if only by leaving her own card. Failure to do so was a rebuff, but certainly a less painful one that being rejected at the door.
There were other reasons for leaving a card at an acquaintance’s home. For instance, if one were wealthy enough to have both a home in the city and a country estate/plantation, cards were left at the homes of acquaintances to inform them of one’s pending departure from a residence, or when one reestablished their residence upon one’s return. When leaving a card to announce one’s departure from town or country estate, one should write in small letters “P.P.C.” which stands for the French phrase “Pour Prendre Conge” which means to leave or take one’s leave.
We hope you found today’s article on the etiquette of visiting to be interesting and informative. Hopefully you learned something you did not previously know about visiting, calling cards and the etiquette surrounding them in late-18th and early-19th century America. Please join us again in two-weeks as we look at the “Etiquette in the Street, in the Dining Room, and at Parties.”
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Anonymous. A Manual of Politeness: Comprising the Principles of Etiquette, and Rules of Behavior in Genteel Society. Philadelphia: W. Marshall & Co., 1837.
—. The Laws of Etiquette; or, Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct In Society. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1836.
Dunbar, M. C. Dunbar's Complete Handbook of Etiquette. New York: Excelsior Publishing House, 1884.