Ways to connect in Victorian times

Reporter in Residence
Monroe Mouse

A recent nightly scamper brought me to a new and fascinating exhibit in the Erdman Reading room — a massive collection of beautiful little (almost mouse-sized) cards. Called “visiting” or “calling” cards, their colorful pictures of flowers, lace, and animals caught my eye.

What were they for?

The cards got me to wondering about how humans (and maybe mice) connect with friends and acquaintances. How do you connect with friends? Cell phone? Text? Landline? Email? Snail mail? (Mouse mail would be faster!) Do you just go to the friend’s or acquaintance’s house, knock at the door, or simply barge in?

Since the cards in the Mansion’s display are from Victorian times, my research focused on that era — the later 1800s to early 1900s.

While mail service was available and “sound technology” was being explored, the formal and genteel ways of Victorian life set out specific ways of meeting friends, acquaintances, or business partners in one’s home. The use of calling or visiting cards, adopted from France became, the custom of the “well-to-do” and the “enterprising” middle classes. The general idea was that you couldn’t just drop in! Research took me deeper and deeper into the twists and turns of etiquette (think “Downton Abbey”), so in this report I will give a brief overview.

Here’s how it worked: If not previously invited, you set up a visit by leaving your calling card at the home of the person you wanted to see. You had to then wait to receive their card at your own home in response, which was a signal that your visit was encouraged. The absence of a response meant the visit was discouraged.

The first step of leaving your card was done in the morning hours. Either you — or your servant if you had one — would be welcomed in to leave the card in a “card receiver,” usually an elegant dish placed on a table or fireplace mantel (there are some in the exhibit). I must say, it seems to me that the idea often relied on servants delivering and servants receiving the cards!

Actual visits took place in the afternoon, between 4 and 5 if you and your acquaintance knew each other well, and lasted for 15 minutes or so. You might even enjoy a cup of tea together!

If you were not so familiar with the person you were visiting, you would arrive between 3 and 4 and not be given a snack. It appears that all this visiting primarily involved “ladies of the house,” although men and children also used visiting cards. Unfortunately, if the card bearer was told that “the lady (or man or child) of the house was out,” this meant they were visiting someone else, or were home but didn’t want to see you!

You will see the beauty of the cards when you visit the display. Some are very colorful and detailed while others are quite plain and simple. You may be able to recognize some familiar local surnames. I found several, including Weiss, Staples and Frable.

You will also notice different sizes and printing processes (Emily Post includes a list of specified sizes in her 1922 book “Etiquette,” text available online).

Very interesting are the “secret codes” used with visiting cards. The way the corners of the cards were folded provided important messages. A folded top left corner meant the visitor had come in person; if this corner remained unfolded a servant had delivered it; a folded bottom left corner meant a farewell — the caller was going to be away or perhaps moving; a folded top right corner meant congratulations; and a folded bottom right corner expressed a condolence. A card with no pictures, painted and bordered in black, meant the caller was in mourning for a loved one.

How do you like my visiting card? What message did I send? Note: For mice, chewed corners were not allowed and still aren’t!

There is so much more to learn about the social customs of Victorians, especially those living in Monroe County. The Mansion’s collection also contains later versions of cards — postcards and greeting cards. The display may prompt you to think about and research the way technology has changed, and how it has stayed the same, in the way humans connect with each other. Come and see!blogEntryTopper