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Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Visiting cards in the Regency

Copper plate filled with facsimile Regency visiting cards (Rachel Knowles's experimental history 2022)
Facsimile Regency visiting cards
(Rachel Knowles's experimental history 2022)
Visiting cards

Visiting cards or calling cards were small rectangular pieces of card similar to a business card today. They were inscribed with a person’s name and often but not always with their address. An important part of Regency etiquette, visiting cards could be used for initiating contact with a stranger, as well as letting someone know you had called.

What did a Regency visiting card look like?

They varied in size and design, but the consistent theme seems to have been small and rectangular.

Some were plain rectangles of parchment or card, whereas others came with a pre-printed design around the edge.

Several of the printed cards I looked at were by William Sharp (1749–1824) – one of the most distinguished British line engravers. He engraved plates for trade cards as well as visiting cards.

Trade card for William Sharp, Engraver London (1749-1824) The Met Museum DP885194
Trade card for William Sharp, Engraver
London (1749-1824) The Met Museum DP885194
Calling cards were always inscribed with the person’s name. I came across a few examples of cards with two names on—typically, a lady and her daughter. The cards did not always include their address. Some mentioned the person’s position.

Some cards had the details handwritten, others had the name engraved onto the card. Some, like Colonel Roche’s card designed by Cipriani, had the name incorporated in an elaborate design.

You can look at a large collection of calling cards in the British Museum collections here.

How big were Regency visiting cards?

The visiting cards I looked at in the British Museum’s collection varied in size, ranging from 32mm X 66mm to 78mm X 121mm. The majority of cards were at the smaller end of the scale.

To put this into context, a standard US business card today is 50.8mm X 88.9mm (3.5 X 2 inches) and a standard British card today is a little wider and shorter at 55mm X 85mm.

I decided to do a little bit of experimental history. Using the cards on the British Museum’s website as a guide, I created a number of facsimile Regency visiting cards for characters in my novels using the dimensions of actual cards and similar designs.  

The photo below shows my card (based on US measurements despite being in the UK!) and a selection of the cards I made. As you can see, most of the calling cards are smaller.

Although many of the plainest and smallest cards I looked at were for men, some gentlemen’s cards were as big and as elaborate as those used by ladies.

Facsimile Regency visiting cards with a modern business card to show relative sizes (Rachel Knowles's experimental history 2022)
Facsimile Regency visiting cards with a modern business
card to show relative sizes
(Rachel Knowles's experimental history 2022)
Leaving cards when someone was ‘not at home’

The etiquette of leaving cards is linked to the etiquette surrounding morning calls.

You can read about morning calls here.

When making a morning call, it was customary to present your card on arrival. By this means, the visitor discovered whether the host was ‘at home’ to visitors and specifically, whether they were willing to receive you.

If the visitor was an acquaintance, then the response of ‘not at home’ either meant that the person was out, or that it was simply not a convenient time for visitors.

In Domestic Duties or Instructions to young married ladies on the management of their households (1825), Mrs Parkes wrote:

As the words ‘not at home’ have become synonymous with ‘being engaged’, they neither deceive , nor are intended to deceive; therefore they may be employed innocently, as far as regards our friends and ourselves.1

If the visitor was a stranger, then ‘not at home’ might mean the same, but it might indicate that the person did not desire the acquaintance.

Either way, if the person was not at home, the visitor would leave their card. They might turn down the corner of the card to indicate they had visited personally. Alternatively, as in one example I found at the British Museum, they might write the words ‘called’ or similar on it to indicate that they had left the card in person.

In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood knew that Edward Ferrars was in town because he left his card:

Edward assured them himself of his being in town, within a very short time, by twice calling in Berkeley Street. Twice was his card found on the table, when they returned from their morning’s engagements. Elinor was pleased that he had called; and still more pleased that she had missed him.2

Etiquette dictated that the person should return the visit as soon as possible. However, if the visitor was a stranger and the person did not desire the acquaintance, it was sufficient to send a card instead.

In February 1807 Jane Austen wrote of a visitor they had missed whose visit they were unable to return because the visitor had left no address:

Mary has for some time had notice from Mrs Dickson of the intended arrival of a certain Miss Fowler in this place. Miss Fowler is an intimate friend of Mrs Dickson, and a good deal known as such to Mary. On Thursday last she called here while we were out. Mary found, on our return, her card with only her name on it, and she had left word that she would call again. The particularity of this made us talk, and, among other conjectures, Frank said in joke, “I dare say she is staying with the Pearsons.” The connection of the names struck Mary, and she immediately recollected Miss Fowler's having been very intimate with persons so called, and, upon putting everything together, we have scarcely a doubt of her being actually staying with the only family in the place whom we cannot visit.3

19th century silver calling card tray, Redlich Co. Minneapolis Institute of Art
19th century silver calling card tray, Redlich Co.
Minneapolis Institute of Art
How many cards should be left?

It was polite to leave a card to each person in the household whom you had intended to visit.

In Domestic Duties (1825) Mrs Parkes wrote:

Where cards are to be left, the number must be determined according to the various members of which the family called upon is composed. For instance, where there are the mother, aunt, and daughters (the latter having been introduced to society), three cards should be left.4

Leaving cards on arrival in town

When a person arrived in a town where they had some acquaintance, it was customary to call or leave cards to let them know of your arrival.

In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Jennings left cards on her return to London:

The morning was chiefly spent in leaving cards at the houses of Mrs Jennings’s acquaintance to inform them of her being in town.5

Some hotels had printed cards for those staying there to use. A hotel guest could write their details on these cards and leave them with their acquaintances so they would know where they were staying.

Facsimile hotel cards with handwritten names (Rachel Knowles's experimental history 2022)
Facsimile hotel cards with handwritten names
(Rachel Knowles's experimental history 2022)
Leaving cards to begin an acquaintance

If you deemed someone worthy of being included in your circle of acquaintance, you could leave your card in the hope of initiating a relationship.

In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot and Miss Elliot made such an impact on Bath society that they were inundated with cards:

Their acquaintance was exceedingly sought after. Everybody was wanting to visit them. They had drawn back from many introductions, and still were perpetually having cards left by people of whom they knew nothing.6

In a letter to her sister in January 1807 Jane Austen complained that their acquaintance was growing too quickly:

Our acquaintance increase too fast. He was recognized lately by Admiral Bertie, and a few days since arrived the Admiral and his daughter Catherine to wait upon us. There was nothing to like or dislike in either. To the Berties are to be added the Lances, with whose cards we have been endowed, and whose visit Frank and I returned yesterday.7

Leaving cards to convey thanks

Cards could also be sent to convey thanks. In Arthur Freeling’s The Pocket Book of Etiquette (1837) he wrote:

After dining at the house of a lady , it is customary to leave a card the next day, or as soon after as circumstances will permit.8

Leaving cards to take leave

When a person was leaving the area, such as going from London to the country, it was customary to take leave in person, or by leaving cards.

Leaving a calling card after receiving a verbal invitation

In The Pocket Book of Etiquette (1837) Freeling wrote that it was advisable to leave a card after a verbal invitation from an acquaintance:

Occasionally verbal invitations are given to evening parties, by persons with whom you have not been in habits of intimacy. To prevent the awkwardness of being an unexpected visitor, you will, previous to the party, leave your card with the lady of the house.9

Sending and receiving cards when someone got married

When a gentleman married, he might have acquaintances that he would not wish to be part of the circle he would introduce to his wife. After his marriage, he and his wife would send cards to those acquaintances they wished to keep. If you did not receive a card, you assumed that the relationship had been dropped.

In The Pocket Book of Etiquette (1837) Freeling wrote:

When a man is about to be married, it is customary for him to give a dinner to his bachelor friends. He then informs them of the intended alteration in his circumstances; the health of the bride elect is drank, and it is understood that the visiting acquaintanceship ceases, unless a special invitation is received, or unless a desire to renew it be intimated by his sending his own and his wife's cards, with the customary favors.10

Etiquette required the couple to send cards in return for any left at their house after their marriage. Mrs Parkes wrote in Domestic Duties (1825):

A newly married woman, on arriving at her future home, will have to send her cards in return for those which are left at her house, after her marriage. She may afterwards expect the calls of her acquaintance; for which it is not absolutely necessary to remain at home, although politeness require that they should be returned as soon as possible. But having performed this, any further intercourse may be avoided (where it is deemed necessary) by a polite refusal of invitations.11

In Sense and Sensibility, the self-interested Lady Middleton

…determined (though rather against the opinion of Sir John) that as Mrs Willoughby would at once be a woman of elegance and fortune, to leave her card with her as soon as she married.12

Leaving cards when someone died

It was customary to leave a card in condolence rather than visiting someone who had been bereaved unless you knew the person very well.

Sending a card with a letter of recommendation

Sometimes, a stranger was given a letter of introduction by a mutual acquaintance or someone of importance. In these cases, it was customary to deliver the letter in person, and to include a visiting card with the letter.

Etiquette demanded that the person receiving the letter of introduction should respond by sending a card as soon as possible. They were not, however, obliged to receive the person.

Putting your connections on display 

Facsimile Regency visiting cards for the Earl and Countess of Castleford (the couple from A Reason for Romance) I'm sure Sir Walter would have wanted these cards on display too! (Rachel Knowles's experimental history 2022)
Facsimile Regency visiting cards for the Earl and
Countess of Castleford (the couple from A Reason for Romance)
I'm sure Sir Walter would have wanted these cards on display too!
(Rachel Knowles's experimental history 2022)

Having the right connections could make a lot of difference to your standing in society. In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot is desperate for his relative, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, to recognise him:

Sir Walter, however, would choose his own means, and at last wrote a very fine letter of ample explanation, regret, and entreaty, to his right honourable cousin. Neither Lady Russell nor Mr Elliot could admire the letter; but it did all that was wanted, in bringing three lines of scrawl from the Dowager Viscountess. "She was very much honoured, and should be happy in their acquaintance." The toils of the business were over, the sweets began. They visited in Laura Place, they had the cards of Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and the Honourable Miss Carteret, to be arranged wherever they might be most visible: and "Our cousins in Laura Place,"—"Our cousin, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret," were talked of to everybody.13

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian Regency era romance and historical non-fiction. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

Find out more about Rachel's books and sign up for her newsletter here.

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Notes

  1. Parkes, Mrs William, Domestic Duties or Instructions to young married ladies on the management of their households (London, 1825).
  2. Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811).
  3. Austen, Jane, Jane Austen's Letters, Collected and Edited by Le Faye, Deirdre (1995).
  4. Parkes op cit.
  5. Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811).
  6. Austen, Jane, Persuasion (1817).
  7. Austen, Jane, Jane Austen's Letters, Collected and Edited by Le Faye, Deirdre (1995).
  8. Freeling, Arthur, The Pocket Book of Etiquette (Liverpool, 1837).
  9. Ibid.
  10. Freeling op cit.
  11. Parkes op cit.
  12. Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811).
  13. Austen, Jane, Persuasion (1817, London)

Sources used include:
Austen, Jane, Emma (1815, London)
Austen, Jane, Jane Austen's Letters, Collected and Edited by Le Faye, Deirdre (Oxford University Press, 1995)
Austen, Jane, Mansfield Park (1814, London)
Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey (1817, London)
Austen, Jane, Persuasion (1817, London)
Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (1813, London)
Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility (1811, London)
Freeling, Arthur, The Ladies' Pocket Book of Etiquette (7th edition) (London, 1840)
Freeling, Arthur, The Pocket Book of Etiquette (Liverpool, 1837)
Parkes, Mrs William, Domestic Duties or Instructions to young married ladies on the management of their households (London, 1825)
Trusler, Rev Dr John, A System of Etiquette (1804) 

All photos © RegencyHistory.net

2 comments:

  1. I’ve loved these last few posts. I’m a surface pattern designer working on a collection with a Regency theme, and one of them is named Morning Calls! Perhaps you can help with my research for another pattern: I’m looking for any records of art exhibits in 19th c. London. I’ve found your fantastic posts on the Royal Academy, Townsley, Reynolds etc. Do you have any recommendations for where I might continue my search? I wonder if newspapers or journals might have some details of works/artists displayed as well as the where and when? I’ve had much better luck with info on statuary and archaeological finds; not so much for paintings and 2D media.

    Regardless, thank you for your blog. It is truly a treasure!

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind comments about my blog. I'm glad you've found the posts useful. Have you come across the chronicle for the Royal Academy summer exhibitions? This gives lots of information about what was on display: https://chronicle250.com. You might try looking in Feltham's The Picture of London - the 1818 edition lists exhibitions and collections. The Literary Panorama might help as well. Both these available on Google books. Hope that helps.

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