Here's My Card, S'il Vous Plait

{Posted   25 May 2014}

 You might think that you're a real sociable person. You have 327 'friends' on Facebook (a dozen or so of whom you have actually met in person), and you honestly believe that your Twitter followers really care where you went last weekend. And so, as you sit in front of your computer or with your android tablet or phone in hand, tapping out your tweets and posts, you are convinced that you are connecting with others. The fact of the matter is that despite all the advances in technology, and irregardless of all the gizmos and doodads we have on our phones, we human beings are becoming less and less truly sociable.

 Years ago, unlike during the present age, people were genuinely sociable. They met and interacted with each other in physical reality ~ not just in virtual reality. Many human beings engaged in an archaic ritual that was known as 'visiting' ~ travelling to another person's house and talking to that person - in person. I know that it might sound unusual to some readers, but people actually did that at one time.

 The object of this post is an ephemeral relic of that sociable ritual of 'visiting' ~ the calling card (often referred to as the visiting card). Back then, in that genteel age named for Britain's Queen Victoria, of the House of Hanover, there existed what was known as polite society. Gentlemen opened doors for ladies and assisted them in being seated at the dinner table. In return, ladies said "thank you", instead of calling the men 'sexist pigs'. Friends and associates met at parties for the purpose of enjoying each other's company ~ not just to get drunk and pass out. Men, and women alike, used their fingers to grasp things, not to convey bad thoughts toward one another. Arising out of the air of politeness that imbued mankind's social interactions was the announcement of the arrival of visitors at parties, other social events, or just on a summer evening. And that is where the calling card came into use.

 It is claimed by some sources that calling cards came into general use in China as early as the Fifteenth Century. Within two hundred years, they were in vogue throughout Europe. The cards were quite popular in Great Britain and the United States of America from the Georgian to the Victorian eras.

 Despite eventually becoming popular with the middle and lower classes, as anything in vogue tends to do, the calling card's use, originally, was confined to the aristocratic level of society. It was not just from a desire for exclusivity; the etiquette of the calling cards required that there be servants to make them function properly. A person who wished to visit the home of another would present his card to the maid or doorman of the intended party, and then either wait there, or return home to wait, for a response. The gentleman's address might be written on the back of the card if the lady he wished to visit was not already an acquaintance. If given an approval, by the receipt of the other party's card, the intended visitor would present himself at her door once again, and he would then be admitted. Oh, and I wasn't being sexist a sentence or two ago when I stated that a "gentleman" would present "his" card... In polite society, a woman did not make such a bold move, unless she wanted to be labeled a 'tart' or something worse. The ritual was only completed if and when the lady instructed her servant to hand-carry one of her own cards to the gentleman. If she failed to do this, or mailed his own card back to him in an envelope via the postal service, it was a sign to him that she did not wish to have his company.

 Similar to the present-day business card, calling cards were printed on heavy card stock and were generally under two inches by four inches. A common size was one and one-half by three inches. Initially, calling cards were white, with the person's name printed in black ink, such as the one given out by Hannah A. Burger, and shown at the beginning of this post. The name might be printed in a standard font, such as Times New Roman, but in italics for effect, or it might be fancied up by employing a script font. As shown in the examples illustrating this post, sometimes the initial letters were printed in a different, more elaborate font for emphasis. Some individuals wanted more extravagant cards, and to that end they paid the printer extra to fill the empty space around their names with images of flower bouquets, animals or, as shown in one example above (that of Hezekiah Cobler), the card owner's own likeness. It should be noted that Miss Cobler also gave out cards with only her name on them ~ I wonder how she decided to whom the picture ones should be given?

 In the examples shown here, the two full scenes (of the boy coaxing the lobster, and the puppy with a ribbon) are unique. The card of Henry Reininger includes a scene in which a boat sails past three palm trees along the shore. Perhaps he had visited a South Seas island at one time and longed to return there, or perhaps it was just a dream of his to someday sail past a beach lined with palm trees. The images on the cards undoubtedly revealed something of the person's character.

 The card of Cora M. Walter is unique in this collection, because it contains not only a scene in addition to her name, but also an inspirational poem. Also, quite unique, is the card pictured below, which has an overlay of a hand holding a rose, from which a child, or perhaps a cherub, is emerging. The overlay lifts upwards to reveal Catharine Grabill's name. The purpose of the semi-circular cutouts is unknown; perhaps they were included simply as a design element.

 The last card exhibited here is the business card of D. Miles Walter, who advertised to print a pack of visiting cards for only 10 cents for forty of the nicest cards ever brought before the people.