(This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on December 30, 2020. Enjoy!)
To the unrefined or underbred, the visiting card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude, even before his manners, conversation and face have been able to explain his social position. The higher the civilization of a community, the more careful it is to preserve the elegance of its social forms. It is quite as easy to express a perfect breeding in the fashionable formalities of cards, as by any other method, and perhaps, indeed, it is the safest herald of an introduction for a stranger. Its texture should be fine, its engraving a plain script, its size neither too small, so that its recipients shall say to themselves, ‘A whimsical person,’ nor too large to suggest ostentation. Refinement seldom touches extremes in anything.
From “Our Deportment” by John H. Young, 1879 & 1881, p. 76.
Calling cards were a necessary accessory for a gentleman or lady when calling upon friends or acquaintances, or wished to announce their presence in Town. They also were a handy way to recall who had come to visit and which calls needed to be returned – or not. Cards were placed on a silver salver in the entry hall. A lady’s card would have her name, sometimes her address, and the day that she received visitors in the bottom left corner.
A turned down upper right corner indicated the card had been delivered in person, rather than by a servant. More elaborate cards had the words Visite (right upper hand) Felicitation (left upper hand) Condolence (lower left hand) and P.P.C. – pour prendage conde (right lower hand) imprinted on the corresponding corners of the reverse side. That way, whichever corner was turned over, the reason for the visit was readily apparent. P.P.C. meant the family was temporarily leaving the area. Also, Adieu could be used in this instance.
Until a formal acquaintance was recognized, members of the families could not socialize with one another. Which explains Mrs. Bennet’s frustration that her husband has not called upon Mr. Bingley. She has visions of his $5000 a year flying toward another family’s daughter. It was the expected practice of the day for established members of the community to call upon new arrivals. Unlike the social restrictions in Town. There, a socially inferior family was expected to wait for the call from someone of higher social standing. Acceptance by those of higher status was the key to social mobility in Regency society, which explains the reason behind much of Caroline Bingley’s behavior. Mr. Darcy’s friendship with Charles opened doors to places the Bingley siblings would never attain on their own.
Only men called upon men. Women did not initiate the relationship themselves. However, once the man of the house performed introductions, or, in the case of the Meryton Assembly the Master of Ceremony (Sir William Lucas) performed introductions, then the ladies could interact socially with them. Visits were most often made in the afternoon. As a general rule, new acquaintances attended between 3-4 pm, frequent acquaintances between 4-5 pm, and close friends would come after 5 pm, often staying for dinner.