Let Me Leave You My Calling Card

Want to take a peek into a fascinating social custom from the Victorian era? Calling cards (also called visiting cards or visiting tickets) were all the rage in the 19th century and represented an indispensable way to communicate. The cards did much more than just announce a visit, they relayed important social messages. For example, a calling card with a folded corner, or a card in a sealed envelope sent clear messages that accompanied strict etiquette protocols. By the early 1900s, calling cards fell out of fashion. Today’s business cards are a leftover relic from the calling card era.  

Calling Card of Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant

Calling cards first became popular in Europe in the 18th century and were favored by royalty and nobility. Their popularity spread across Europe and to the United States and soon calling cards became essential for the fashionable and wealthy. Society homes often had a silver tray in the entrance hall where guests left their cards. A tray full of cards (with the most prominent cards on top) was a way to display social connections.

Both men and women used calling cards and they were distinguishable by size. Men’s cards were long and narrow so they could fit in a breast pocket. Women’s cards were larger and during the Victorian era, became more ornate and embellished. According to this article from 1890, a typical society woman handed out nearly three thousand cards each year.

Victorian Calling Card

When wishing to arrange a visit, a caller generally waited in a carriage while a servant delivered the calling card to a household. If delivering the card in person, it was customary to fold the upper right-hand corner. This indicated that the caller made the effort to deliver the card personally. The visitor then returned home and within a few days would likely receive a calling card in return, sometimes with a short note written on the back. This usually extended an invitation to visit. Visits were generally short, formal, and at designated visiting hours. If a calling card wasn’t acknowledged, or worse, returned in a sealed envelope, it meant the offer to visit was rejected.

When leaving a calling card, different messages could be communicated by folding different corners of the card.

  • The lower left-hand corner to express condolences
  • The upper left-hand corner to express congratulations
  • The lower right-hand corner indicated the caller was planning a long trip and did not expect an acknowledgment

If the household contained more than one woman, a gentleman caller folded a corner to indicate he intended to visit the entire household. A woman also followed strict protocol when leaving calling cards. She never left her card at a home where a bachelor resided without also including her husband’s card. When leaving after a visit, a woman generally left two of her husband’s cards – one for the master of the house and one for the mistress.

The social rules were enough to make your head spin, but upper-crust society was schooled in the practice, and newspapers published calling card etiquette rules for others to navigate.

By the early 1900s, calling cards began to decline in popularity just as the use of business cards was on the rise. A change in formal social customs and new-fangled telephones led to a steady decrease in arranged visits. Businesses, which adopted the calling card custom, continue to use them today. If you would like to learn more about calling cards and their impact on the social customs from earlier days, search Newspapers.com!

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123 thoughts on “Let Me Leave You My Calling Card

    • Calling cards were a wonderful tradition. I have been trying to find a company that still prints them. If anyone knows of one, could you please reply to this thread? I still write letters and cards, it’s more personal than emails and FB contacts etc. You’d have to pry my fountain pen out of my cold dead hands. Wink!

      • Try InstyPrint (I think they’re still around), UPS Store or Office Depot. Or, to support local indy businesses, look in the yellow pages for printers. Yeay, you!!

      • I still use calling cards and buisness cards. Each has separate info. Any place that prints buisness cards can probably print calling cards.

      • You can create your own cards using Victorian images from clip art and blank business card or a similar type of paper with embossed or shaped edges. I have collected antique calling cards for years and made an exhibit of them, along with their history, at the Museum where I have worked for 25 years, the William Clark Market House Museum of Paducah, Kentucky, and it was quite well received. I also had a ‘man’s’ exhibit of personalized Victorian shaving mugs, which opened eyes of both sexes when they both debuted. I keep my original calling cards in a three ring notebook that hold mylar business card pages to protect them from handling and wear. Best luck with your endeavors!

    • Yes, I have a letter sent in 1870 from Northumberland to a relations who had emigrated to Australia. It complains that a carte de visite that had previously been sent had not been acknowledged.

      • I think cartes de visite were not substituting for the calling card–They seemed to be like today’s post card–to show where you are or what was happening in your life (school/military etc.) In contract the calling card was very specifically for the purpose of the societal function of “calling.” Many areas/people had very specific times of days for calling. And to not be “received” during a person’s “known” calling time would be seen by the caller as an insult of sorts. Some women spent (and perhaps men) spent hours at a time in their carriages during this activity–going to homes and waiting to see if they would be received. You apparently could figure out yours (and others) status by who accepted you, and who rejected you. Even in the 1950-760s I know that wives of U.S. military officers used them, but in a less structured way. I remember a silver tray by the front hall for collecting cards of women who visited my mother.

    • I believe lithographed images of different flowers (different flowers shared different feelings, like pansies, forget me nots, lily of the valley, etc) languid ladies hands, white doves, birds, or different seasonal themes, etc were normally used on calling cards, along with the name of the person, in different fonts and styles. The colors were often extraordinary!

    • My thoughts as well. With all the crap going on, this is what they deem necessary for publication? Really?? Most folks that are interested in that “era” are most likely well informed of such things. With the issues all around us, I’m sure there are more important topics we could touch on.

      • You are as wrong as two left shoes. Firstly, this is a charming little refresher in cultural literacy. “With all the crap going on,” this sort of thing is needed now more than ever. Go and be a bitter troll elsewhere.

        • Couldn’t agree more!!! For some, courtesy is a thing of the past, so its history is unimportant. For most of us, though, it is interesting to know how we got to where we are! Great read!

          • I enjoy the fact that there was a time when people took pride in their appearance, presented themselves with Grace dignity and most of all were courteous to all. It is a lost art.

          • I also agree that a lighter subject than Covid can be a welcome moment of conversation or reading material. Such a small part of Victorian life to read about, yet in the day it was a very important part of genteel good manners amongst those who could observe the finer points of keeping in touch with their acquaint-ences. I was interviewed about the lost art of correspond-ance, (ie, the art of personal letter writing) in a newspaper article and I shared the different aspects of doing the same, such as what stationery paper types should be used for close friends versus a new friend, (mourning paper had a black edge, and the wider and blacker the border, the closer the dead loved one) the need for sealing wax, different quill pen types, colors of inks, the blotter paper that should be used, and the way certain words were or were not used (thus the term, ‘the turn of a phrase. The word CRAP never appeared) and the proper way to address or sign off with each form of missive. I, myself, enjoyed that fresh bit of a most interesting topic from long ago.
            Certainly, emails, texts, and other modern forms of keeping in touch today are handy , but how many texts and tweets will remain from today’s date 100 years from now… when your grandchildren might enjoy seeing what grandmother or grandfather’s handwriting and way of turning a romantic phrase may have looked on paper? I did about a third of my family research from a stack of family letters that survived in a cardboard shoebox tied up with string. Each was charming in its own right. I think how our families dealt with everyday things, or unusual events in their lives (maybe even the Spanish Flu of 1920?) might be just as interesting, or even more so,as reading the newspapers 100 years from today, covering the same kind of topics, such as Covid. But the personal side shared in letters and how our families lived thru such times, written in their letters, diaries, and notes would be a wonderful tribute to their courageous spirits and can-do attitudes!
            There is quite enough doom and gloom on the telly and U-Tube today to satiate any realist or concerned citizen. What is the harm of reading about a long ago custim and widen our horizons just a small bit? I enjoyd the article and hope to see more like it in the near future. 🙂

        • I agree! It is part of our history and we need to have information like this to enlighten our days!

      • It’s good to take a break from hearing about all of the “crap” that we hear about 24/7! It’s good to hear about something positive for once. Of course all the “crap” will continue to take center stage in the news. If you didn’t like the article you shouldn’t have read it.

        • To only read articles that support your point of view, making you feel good, is a recipe for disaster in a democratic society.

          • Pete, who said anything about reading only one point of view? Taking a break to read something light-hearted is a good thing.

          • Jack, my point being, exposing yourself to alternate points of view is necessary to have the real dialogue needed for problem solving. Or we could just have leadership that never needs advice because they are always right. Don’t fear opposing views. Learn from them.

          • Actually, this is not a democratic society, we are a republic society. Study the Constitution and history. I find a lot of articles that I don’t care for, but I discover something of interest that may change my life. Hoping for a life without COVID19.

      • Well, I happen to have a whole collection of these unique little cards that came to me from my grandparents. I never really knew their purpose, but now I do. Thank you for providing this information. I cherish them even more!!

      • I am tired of hearing about Covid and the unrest in the country. This article was a nice change.

  1. I remember reading in a Little House book that Laura Ingalls and her friends would exchange them, the way girls would trade stickers in my day.

    • Pete S. I really don’t think that you understood my comment. It was about reading about something good for once instead of all the bad in the news. I’m by no means ignoring the corona virus or any of the problems that are going on. I’m always up for opposing views. Not when what I’ve said is complicated.

      • Stop trying to explain because Some people just need to b*tch about something or invoke political correctness all the Time. I found the information very interesting. Go ye all and breathe deeply, live lovingly and appreciate what we do have.

  2. We formerly lived in an 1890 Victorian house, which we furnished entirely as in that period. A friend who taught 4th grade arranged for her students to visit, to see what a home of that time was like. Before coming, the children created personal calling cards. I greeted them at the door, dressed as the house’s maid and holding my little silver plate. As we toured the rooms, I told them about the various things of interest to them. We had a wonderful time and I kept their sweet calling cards.

  3. When my husband was in the Army – late 1960’s – both of us left our calling cards when we visited senior officers or an officers event. It was pure class.

    • I fondly remember those Army customs. We would also use the cards in calling on the commanding officer and wife when we would arrive at a new post. I have a couple of silver calling car trays that were gifts of that era. Looking back, it was really a great custom and a time when you felt part of a historic tradition.

    • My dad was in the Army from 1944 to 1975. After their deaths, I found some of my mother’s calling cards in trunks of old photos and papers. Brought back the pervading sense of “formality” that clung to every social interaction. (Also found in those trunks was a wedding invitation sent in the 1880s! Still perfectly legible, and with its original envelope.)

    • I am a 1968 graduate of the Naval Academy. Among our first issues was a book on etiquette. Prior to our graduation, the class attended a lecture that included a section on the meaning and use of calling cards.

      • Interesting William. As I read about calling cards it took me back to the military also. I was a graduate of Army OCS in 1967. I remember the silver plate at the Colonel’s door. Maybe the military was the last to use a true “calling card”.

  4. In Britain, this practice began in the 1760s, which was the Georgian, not Victorian, era. They were called ‘visiting cards.

    • Great point!

      The first known “visiting” or calling cards were used in 15th century China. And then as you said, the custom was picked up by nobility in Britain.

  5. I’m always saying I’d like to get back to this…….no dropping in unannounced!

  6. I love the Victorian era and have a small collection of these cards. Great article. Thank you!

  7. I have my great grandmother and great grandfather’s calling cards from 1866. I didn’t realize they were calling cards. Thanks for enlightening me.

    • I bought some of these cards from a thrift store with names on them. I thought they were place setting cards. Silly me!

  8. In 1970, it was customary to order cards engraved with your name when you ordered high school graduation announcements. A card was included in each mailed announcement. Several years later, the practice of military officers leaving calling cards after a visit was slowly dying out. I put a small brass table near the door and often our visitors would leave their card. I thought it was fun if someone left one!

    • By the time I graduated (1980), we were still doing the graduation card thing, and trading them with other seniors, as I know my elder brother had done five years before. I mounted mine with photo corners in an autograph book and, before commencement, got my classmates to sign each adjacent page.

    • Cathy — Thanks! As I was reading this article, I was thinking of commenting the same thing.

      Somewhere packed away, I still have a box of the (many!) unused engraved calling cards from my 1966 high school graduation.

      • Hi, I got the same cards when I graduated but the engraver spelled my name wrong so I could never use them. My mom spelled my first name GwenDaleAnn, the engraver didn’t capitalize the right letters and didn’t get them all in, I did send a message that my name is unusual and to be careful. Oh well, I think I will have some new cards made so I can leave them.

    • Yes! I graduated in 1971 and we all had our calling cards published, to use in announcements and otherwise! I love reading about the earlier traditions.

  9. Really people. Some of these comments are just so rude. Also, shows etiquette doesn’t exist anymore.
    So for as the “what’s going on in the world”,
    why are you on Ancestry?

    • Linda, you may not be aware that while some explore ancestry to discover their link to famous relatives, others may use the service to discover who owned their relatives or how their ancestral families were split apart and “sold down the river” so to speak.

      • “You’re a bundle of sunshine,” said Pete’s ex-wife never.

      • seriously ?
        Get a life champ or a hobby that does not involve clogging comments and forcing your opinion where it is not welcome.
        go to a democrat’s rally or stage your own personal protest on the world.
        leave the rest of us in peace to simply enjoy reading an article we choose to read and enjoy.

  10. I explore ancestry and my family history to remember those to whom I am related. Those who have died have not dissolved into nothingness. I expect to associate with them some day. Let them not be forgotten even now. The resources available today to remember them are astonishing.

  11. What a lovely and informative article. I had no idea the different corners conveyed their own little messages. Thank you for this.

  12. My mother (born 1910) would often mention to me that the neighbor’s dog had left his ‘calling card’, which was a signal to me to go clean up the mess. It was a long time before I understood the reference. 🙂

    • i have heard the dog story often in recent years . i grew up in a small country town and my mother and her friends would “call” on a new resident. that was why you kept your cake tins full and changed into tidy clothes in the afternoon as you did not know when a couple of ladies would “call”.

  13. I have a lovely silver ‘wallet’ that belonged to my grandmother. The calling cards fit on one side and slots for coins on the other side. It is monogrammed with her initials on the outside.

  14. I have two small albums that my grandparents each filled out pages then apparently exchanged them while visiting. Never heard of these, but they are nice little albums, one decorated with a colorful print and the other in turtle shell. I drag them out from time to time and am amazed by the formality of language.

  15. We still used a form of calling cards in high school, we would collect them from our classmates. Graduating in 1960, intesting to see the fonts and small embossed/raised picture area chosen by each each of us.

    • I wonder if that’s what we had to order along with our graduation announcement (Class of ‘78). We had what amounted to a plain “calling card” with just our name printed on it. We had to put it into the announcement in a little slot made just for the card. I think I still have them.

      • I had forgotten about those cards we received at High School graduation – I guess mine were thrown away finally. I do wish I still had some. Thanks for reminding me of those.

  16. Thank you for the article! My great grandparents left me an album full of calm cards and now I understand them better. It all adds to my interest in history and genealogy.

  17. The practice of leaving calling cards survived into the early 70s in the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command. It was expected for a junior officer to leave his card on the silver tray when visiting a senior officer. The card was simply engraved with the officer’s rank and name. The wive’s cards were engraved “Mrs” and their husband’s name…not their first names. These were used for formal and informal visits between officers’ wives. Formal or not, the wives “carried” their husband’s rank in social settings with other officer’s wives.

  18. I grew up in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. In the late 1950’s, not only did our parents use calling cards, but we high school students did also. My wife and I were married in 1964, and we received at least 2 silver calling card trays as wedding gifts. This practice was alive and well much later than the Victorian era.

  19. This was a very interesting article. The protocol seems almost overwhelming! It was fun to read all the comments, a refreshing break among all the unrest going on in our world.

    Mr. Abernathy, I agree that our remembering those who have gone before helps keep them from being dissolved into nothingness. I like that description. Learning where they came from leads to learning about those places and living conditions.

  20. I have an albumn of my husband’s grandmother’s calling cards, as well as those belonging to her mother. They are 1890-1910ish. Now that i have read this, i can’t wait to dive into that book, and see if the corners are turned down.
    This ettiquette is very interesting. It seems a lot to keep straight.

  21. Nowadays the ‘calling card’ is a messenger post or a snapchat. One is expected to ‘like’ the post, even if one doesn’t respond in words, and ignoring said post is called ‘ghosting’ – the height of bad manners in polite Gen-Z society.

  22. I have three different cards, one from my grandmother, one from her husband a minister and one from my grandmother’s sister.
    It was fun to read how they were used and folded

  23. I had a older friend that a large box full of these, beautiful pieces.
    She pasted and I asked the family what had happen with them and they indicated that they were burnt. I got a tear in my eyes and asked about other things…..it was a sad day yet I hold the stories of those items within.
    Thank you for the history! Oregon

    • Yes, a bit sad. We save these bits of family history so that we don’t forget those who have passed on to the next stage of life. We love and miss them, and remembering them brings joy.

  24. I have one calling card from my great grandmother from the late 1800’s in Missouri. I didn’t know all the ins and outs of using them, though. I loved this story. I also have a wonderful autograph album of hers and there are several stickers in it. I love them. This was a fun read, thank you.

  25. I loved reading this article! I would love to see more of the embellished cards. It’s time to do more research, just for the fun of it. Thanks for this article!

  26. Very interesting article. I’m a constant reader and have read quite a bit of 18th & 19th century literature. I love getting historical explanations like that specifically clarify the details of those times. And it sure is nice to read something purely informative & educational, rather than political, for a change.

  27. I was motivated to drag out my Vogue’s Book of Etiquette (750 pp., pub. 1969) to check whether the folded corner was turned up or under–no mention at all, but a tremendous amount of info on calling cards nevertheless. Great to learn stuff. Thanks.

    • I think all the corner-folding was from the era of coaches and servants, signals for those waiting in the coach to see if they would be invited in. In the more modern era, you simply went to the door themselves. If no answer, you might have slipped your card into the mail slot to shown you had “stopped by.” If someone answered the door, but the person you were calling on wasn’t there or otherwise available, you left your card to shown you had come to call.

  28. Marsha — What were some of the interesting aspects of calling cards in Vogue’s book that were not mentioned in the original post?

  29. Yes! I graduated in 1971 and we all had our calling cards published, to use in announcements and otherwise! I love reading about the earlier traditions.

  30. Enjoyed and learned a lot about the “calling cards”. I have 2 questions and hoping someone might know the answer.
    #1. I have a calling card from my great great grandmother. The card has the left hand corner folded down towards the front of card and tiny brown bow attached. What is the interpretation of this?
    #2. I have many calling cards of my great, great grandmother. Are these cards worth money?
    Thank you

  31. Thanks for the informative post! I have a number of these in my personal collection and have always meant to find out more about them. All the rules make my head spin!

  32. Very interesting window into our grand and great-grandparents world. I do remember as late as the 1970s the military practice continuing in the Army Corps of Engineers. I have a question that perhaps someone can answer. In addition to printed calling cards there seems to have been a practice of having one’s photograph or one’s family’s photograph printed on a “Carte de Visite” When would these have been used as opposed to the printed cards?

      • I think the cartes de visit were literally todays post cards–to show where you were, or what was going on in your life, or “just thinking of you.” While both were collected, the simple calling card with just your name (and title if appropriate) were for visits. These old “postcards” were sometimes mailed or given directly. Many of the ones I have are not addressed to anyone but seem to have the postage pre-printed on the card.

        • I must respectfully disagree with this assessment. Calling cards extended back multiple centuries, but from the 1860s or so, during the age when the commercial photography process had become easy enough for it to have become “commercial”, local studios, taking heed from larger studios in the metropolises of the era (Nadar comes to mind) CDVs served the same purpose as did calling cards, albeit with greater bragging rights. They were an assertion of greater wealth, within a mechanism of manners, that was startling for its technological immediacy and for its time, very sumptuous. They almost represented a taking back of captured territory. Calling cards themselves were once a bailiwick of the rich, and as nominal wages rose and printing costs reduced, still tenaciously, a symbol of class hierarchy. A similar emotionally-appealing response today might be all the knockoff Louis Vuitton luggage and “Rolex” watches. Ours was always a capitalist society – at times s such, the pride of the world. Whoever mentioned the combination CDV-calling card was NOT yet an available technology was right on the money. I made a long presentation on Quora on the evolution of business cards, with examples of when that capability came into being (and by that point, taken over almost immediately by the business card, was seen de “declassé” for the calling card trade. I hope you’ll forgive my intrusion of my ‘adjustment’ into your commentary, something I undertook specifically BECAUSE your knowledge of the formalities of the times was so intricate and well-considered in other comments you’d made. Please keep it up – just as I hope Ms. Ashcraft does as well. These cultural microcosms are some of the best investigations we conduct as we ponder how, why, and whither society has changed. Best wishes,
          E.N.Haigh II (Ted).

  33. I received a graduation announcement from a high school student in the Class of 2020. It had an engraved name card inserted in the slots. Reminded me of my own graduation ritual. Some traditions never die . . .

  34. Pete,
    So sick and virtually bored stiff at folks who always take the opportunity to blow such incidental items way out of proportion. A e you ever happy or satisfied with anything? Or, is it your eternal quest to self-righteously find a malicious, hidden agenda or “deep” social inequity in every possible piece of history. Things evolve, some quaint…without being evil!
    Chill out and get a life.

  35. A very interesting article, and a piece of history! I have my father’s calling cards dating from his time in the US Naval Academy through WWII. Each time his rank changed, new cards had to be printed. During the War, when a ship arrived in port, it was expected that the officers would present their calling cards to the CO of the base. Doing so was not only Navy protocol, it often got the visiting officers an invitation to dinner at the CO’s home. Who could refuse a home cooked meal?

  36. Now I wish I had paid more attention to what took place in the foyer of my fancy grandparent’s house. I do remember, in the 1940s, a tray by the door, but I never thought to ask about why it was there. Perhaps I equated it to a communion tray and when it was empty, someone had eaten all the wafers. Who knows what a 4 year old little girl might imagine? Loved the article.

  37. The ‘problem pages’ of newspaper and magazines articles in the late 18th and much of the 19th century often contain much advice on the etiquette of leaving cards with an incredible variety of folded corners indicating that you were sorry not to find your friend at home or that you were accompanied by a daughter etc. etc. Research in papers and books of etiquette of the period will reveal much interesting detail. A different code probably occurred in America but I was interested to see that the habit was still extant in high schools there during the 20th century. – presumably without the turned down corners

  38. I thought this was an interesting light hearted article about proper etiquettes and protocols of the past. I find it fascinating how the folded card was a message, be it silent.
    For the haters, this isn’t a place for political bantering, and brow-beating. Stay on topic! This is a article about calling cards, and their uses back in those very early days.

  39. Very interesting. I knew about the cards, but didn’t know so much went into using them.

  40. When I was in the US Army in the 1970s as an officer, we were expected to have “callling cards” and use them when we visited a more senior officer. Only recall using a few of mine and then they seemed to fall out of favor.

    Collecting calling cards and carte de viste (or c-d-v) is a small but intense hobby, especially for cc or cdv of famous or important personages.

    Jim

  41. Fascinating article.

    Coming from a British background of incredibly sophisticated social hierarchy and etiquette rules, I was fascinated to learn that some of this craziness reached the United States.
    Now, the very stable genius in the White House has made new rules to determine which women are “nasty”, and to forever brand them on Twitter. Perhaps “nasty” is a lifelong honor to be added to their business cards.

  42. My husband was in the military and in the 60’s and 70’s calling cards were used on certain occasions, generally New Years Day, and followed similar protocol. I never knew the history or reasoning behind the practice and actually thought it was a little silly. However, I now understand the history and significance and greatly appreciate the explanation !

  43. Ms. Ashcraft, greetings and my compliments on an excellent, informative and unique article on calling cards. In fact, personally, I’d say good for you! It is exactly this sort of microcosm of societal interface that most successfully illustrates the cultural constructs erected in past eras to communicate, both welcome and “keep your distance” on a social hierarchy scale. I did a similar thing (business cards) on Quora about 4 years ago and thought you might like to see. Here’s a link to the post: https://qr.ae/pN29Ok . Also, one thing that, in my view, really ought to be mentioned from both a technological standpoint and one of prestige in conjunction with your excellent piece might be a reference to the CDV – the Carte de Visite, a sure-calling card hybrid of past refinement with future self-promotion in the family of retained keepsakes. Thanks very much! – Ted Haigh

  44. I have a small silver case about the size of a business card with my great-aunt’s name engraved on it with a long chain to wear it around your neck. Had no idea what it could have been used for until someone told me t was a calling card case and explain how they were used. She was born in 1858 and the family was wealthy and part of the higher social status of Galveston, Texas. Really appreciate the information in this article.

  45. How very interesting. I have a calling card passed down from my great grandmother, that was from Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. It has a black border, meaning it was left after he died. There was also a white one (from before his death) that was passed down somewhere else in the family. Thanks for the story about them.

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