Calling cards became an essential accessory for the rounds of reciprocal visits that played a significant role in genteel social life. They were used in accordance with an elaborate set of rules, according to which a would-be visitor would first leave her card with a new acquaintance at the acquaintance’s home. The visitor would not expect to be admitted into the house, but would hope to receive a card from the acquaintance in response, as a sign that a face-to-face meeting would be welcomed. If the visitor did not receive a card in response, or if she received a card sent in an envelope (as opposed to one delivered personally by the acquaintance or her servant), she would know that she had received a social snub, and be discouraged from pursuing a face-to-face meeting.
During the 19th century the middle classes, in imitation of more privileged society, adopted the practice of using calling cards. The purpose of the cards changed, however, when fewer servants were available to deliver them, and they evolved as a precursor to the modern-day business card. Calling cards during this period were generally smaller than today’s business cards, and usually consisted simply of a name engraved on glossy cardstock.
Emily Post, writing early in the 20th century, suggests that in certain social groups, calling cards could replace informal party invitations, contain messages of condolence or celebration, be used as endorsements, or be sent by mail. Even for Post, however, there are times when custom dictates that a calling card must be left. First, a guest must always leave a card after dining at someone’s house for the first time, or if they were invited to a dinner but were unable to attend. Another occasion that requires a calling card, according to Post, is the return of a first visit. Post also considers a calling card essential when sending an invitation for the first time, and says that a card should always accompany the inquiries and expressions of sympathy that occur in the case of bereavement or illness in a family.
The following summary reflection from Emily Post conveys the social utility of calling cards, which lasted well into the 20th century: “Who was it that said—in the Victorian era probably, and a man of course—’The only mechanical tool ever needed by a woman is a hair-pin?’ He might have added that with a hair-pin and a visiting card, she is ready to meet most emergencies” (Post). http://gslis.simmons.edu/henty/callingcards.htm