The social call was an important ritual during the Victorian era. Calling cards became popular in Britain, Europe, and the eastern United States as a way to screen callers and keep out undesirable visitors. These cards were usually 9cm x 6cm. A lady's card was larger than a gentleman's, who had to fit his in his breast pocket. The card was made of heavy white paper, plain and unruled, "elegantly engraved" – during the early 19thCentury, highly decorated or gaudy cards betrayed ill breeding. Later in the century, as elaborate printing and engraving became less expensive, the wealthy displayed some truly gaudy examples indeed.
The engraving was in simple type, small and without flourishes, although script became more elaborate as the century went on. A simple 'Mr.' 'Mrs.' or 'Miss' before the name was sufficient, except in the case of acknowledgement of rank (Earl, Viscount, etc.). Early Victorian cards bore only a person's title and name, with the name of their house or district sometimes added. By the end of the century, the address was added to the card, and when applicable, a lady's reception day.
These cards were usually carried in special cases, made of ivory, tortoiseshell, leather, or even paper-mache. The truly wealthy carried cases of silver or gold.
A tray full of calling cards was like an advertisement for Victorians, showing who had visited. It wasn’t unusual for the cards to be arranged in order of social status, with the “best” names at the top of the pile. It was traditionally the obligation of the upper-class women to deliver and accept calling cards, although she could leave a copy of her husband’s card for the master of the house (along with two copies of her own cards, one for the master and one for the mistress).
Specific times were allocated for different types of calls. A "morning call" was made in the afternoon. "Ceremonial calls" were made between three and four o'clock, "semi-ceremonial calls" were between four and five o'clock. Calls made between five and six o'clock were deemed "intimate calls." Sundays were always reserved for friends and family only. Visits were always quite short, lasting from ten to thirty minutes, and if another caller arrived during a visit, the first caller was expected to leave within a few minutes of the second caller's arrival.
Occasions which warranted a social call were many. Calls of condolence or congratulations, of course. Yet proper etiquette also required social calls for many occasions which today would be properly resolved with a polite letter; one was not allowed to express thanks, tender regrets, or even accept an invitation with a written message. You must pay a return call within three days of another party's first call upon you. You must also pay a call upon friends prior to departing from town and after returning.
As soon as a family arrived "In Town," the wife and mother was expected to circulate not only her card, but her husband's and those of her sons and daughters as well. She could either deliver the cards herself, waiting within the carriage to see if the mistress of the house was "at home" ("not at home" was a polite rejection of her family), or she could send the cards around by a servant. Upon receiving a card, one should reply with their own card, either delivered by hand or by a servant. Sending a card enclosed within an envelope, or not returning a card at all, meant that the person wished to maintain their social distance. A social call was returned with another social call.
Rules for calling:
· dress for calling; ladies who are "at home" should wear tasteful clothing, "with a certain amount of lace and jewelry" (but no artificial flowers or glittering gems); callers should wear the sort of clothing they would wear to church or an afternoon reception; a gentleman wears a "morning" suit until six o'clock (gray, striped trousers, black vest and coat, bowler or top hat) and evening attire after that (a black dress suit)
· receive visitors at whatever time they should call; if you cannot be interrupted, have the servant say that you are "engaged" rather than telling the falsehood that you are "not at home"
· greet the hostess politely as soon as you are shown into the drawing room or parlor
· make your conversation bright and witty
· take young children or pets when making social calls
· look at your watch
· be in haste to seat yourself; stand and converse for a few moments
· stare or meddle with the articles in the room; do not seem to be aware of anything but the company present while visiting
· walk around the room staring at the pictures and other objects while waiting for the hostess
· call across the room to address anyone; cross the room and speak quietly
· introduce politics, religion, or other weighty topics to the conversation
· scratch your head or use a toothpick, earspoon, or comb
· tell long stories, talk scandal, or spread rumors
· make any remarks about another caller who has left the room
Source:The Essential Handbook of Victorian Entertaining, adapted by Autumn Stephens, Bluewood Books, 2005