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History comes calling

I researched the genteel history of the calling card, an old social technology that’s being revived. This was the A2 section cover story in The Age on 21 February 2009.

To those aged under 40, organising social lives in a world without phones and email is bewildering to imagine. But until the early 20th century, European and American society had a far more subtle and streamlined social tool than your MySpaces or iPhones: the calling card.

Emily Post, doyenne of American etiquette, wrote in her bestselling 1922 guide that with a hairpin and a visiting card, a woman “is ready to meet most emergencies”. Post wasn’t joking. When paying and receiving visits to private homes was the dominant aristocratic and bourgeois social interaction, the calling or visiting card was nothing less than the key to polite society.

These days, calling cards are making a comeback. Despite the much-trumpeted rise of online social networking, many of the most important interactions in our lives still take place offline, in contexts where presenting business cards can seem clumsy or pretentious. While we reject the notion of being defined by our jobs, we still want to be treated seriously. What’s more, the quaintness of calling cards appeals to young people who long for the elegance and sublimated sensuality now associated with old-fashioned customs.

Said to have originated in China in the 15th century, calling cards hit Europe in the 17th century. They thrived, especially in England and France, and a complex system of rules began to govern their use. Calling cards operated like a combined address book, answering machine and Facebook feed, allowing people to introduce themselves, track relationships, manage social engagements and gently repel unwanted associations. Nobody expected to be admitted to a house without having first sent their card – often, the first time someone visited, they would simply leave the card and depart.

Calling card etiquette was the preserve of the privileged because it depended on servants; one of the main reasons calling cards died out was the decline of domestic service as a working-class career. You (or your servant) went to someone’s house and delivered a card from your ready supply to the maid or butler who answered the door. Every posh house had a silver tray beside the front door, which would be offered to the prospective visitor. “A servant at the door must never take the cards in his or her fingers,” Post wrote.

The servant would then retreat with your card, and if the person on whom you were calling were at home, you would be invited in. If they weren’t, your card acted as a message that you had called. “Not at home” was a delicate concept that encompassed actually being out, not receiving visitors, and wanting to avoid a particular person; the polite visitor would respond as if the explanation were perfectly true. Failure to receive the host’s card in return was a much more definite snub.

Etiquette manuals such as Post’s Etiquette or Isabella Beeton’s Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) give a modern reader the impression that people back then were simply deluged with calling cards. Wives would leave their husbands’ cards; gentlemen would leave a card for each lady residing in the house. Cards were sent out with invitations and enclosed with replies. Several days after a party or ball, guests would return with their cards – which often dictated whether they would be invited to future events.

It was vital that a card made the right first impression. “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,” said John H. Young in Our Deportment (1879).

Many cards included only the bearer’s name – aristocrats, military men and physicians could also include their titles. Others also included an address. Ladies’ cards were the largest; unmarried girls carried smaller, almost square cards, whereas a gentleman’s card was a narrow rectangle. Spouses or a debutante and her mother might share a card. By the late 19th century, extremely plain engraved cards were deemed most elegant, followed by hand-lettered cards. Large or ornate lettering appeared tasteless.

Especially fancy cards featured engraved corners on the reverse side that could be folded over to indicate the reason for the visit. Generally, the upper right corner was marked “Visite”, meaning it had been delivered personally; the upper left corner “Félicitation” for a congratulatory visit; the lower left corner “Affaires”, for a business visit, and the lower right corner “Adieu”, to indicate the bearer was embarking on a long trip.

For a temporary absence, the initials PPC (pour prendre congé, or to take leave) were handwritten into the card’s lower left corner. The language of etiquette was always French, reflecting its origins at the court of Louis XIV. RSVP is the only such abbreviation to survive into contemporary socialising, but many others were inscribed on calling cards: PR (pour remercier) was a thank-you card; PC (pour condoléance) a mourning card and PP (pour presenter) a card of introduction.

Even children were trained in calling-card use. Post describes a pair of twin girls with their own small cards, one bordered and engraved in pink and the other in blue, the address on each reading “Chez Maman”. The children, upon visiting a newborn baby cousin, sent their aunt flowers accompanied by annotated cards: one child had artlessly printed, “He is very little,” and the other, “It has a red face.”

Many of these rituals still survive among the American military, where it is customary for servicemen and women to call on their commanding officers. Elsewhere, calling cards are being revived because of their flexibility and convenience – and perversely, because of online activity. When you are chatting to someone at a party or in a bar, you might mention your blog or website, or want to share your email, without having to hunt for pen and paper.

Thanks to the internet, anyone, anywhere can obtain their cards from the world’s finest suppliers, including Crane & Co, the venerable stationers who make the paper for US banknotes, and Mrs John L. Strong, the luxury New York supplier to royalty, world leaders and celebrities. Printing company Moo.com merges online and offline worlds by allowing customers to create calling cards from their own online images, while crafting community site etsy.com hosts 396 boutique calling-card sellers.

The popularity of calling cards also reflects our growing reluctance to be defined by the jobs we do. Instead, our personal, professional and intimate relationships overlap and interact. As our private selves become increasingly visible and professionalised, the formality of a card acts as a subliminal prompt that who we are outside work also deserves respect and recognition.

Appealingly, calling cards transcend the constraining narrative of a “career”. For university students, they’re a less obnoxious alternative to a business card, helping make contact with potential recruiters and befriend tutorial buddies. And for retirees and stay-at-home parents, calling cards legitimise their current lifestyle and maintain a lifelong habit of making social connections.

For freelancers and itinerant professionals, calling cards actually replace business cards. These “portfolio workers” have clients and customers rather than jobs and employers, and their professional and social selves mingle, forming a personal brand. But the opposite is true for working mothers, whose career success often depends on maintaining a disciplined separation of work and home. For these women, a calling card introducing themselves as their child’s parent avoids the “unprofessional” scenario of having to arrange next Tuesday’s play date within hearing of their bosses and colleagues.

Of course, the calling card is a romantic ice-breaker. It ensures potential paramours don’t judge us by the jobs we do, nor reduce us to a first name and scribbled digits on a beer coaster. Simultaneously intimate and casual, whimsical and practical, calling cards are attractive to an irony-reared generation afraid of being mocked for displaying too much sincerity. Actually asking someone out risks humiliation, but giving them your card looks cool.

Since the new calling cards are almost always exchanged in person, the act of offering the card has become suffused with old-fashioned romance. Whether or not the Regency and Victorian eras were actually so prudish and socially rigid, the calling card is attractive because of its cultural links to the subtle language of hidden feelings.

Many social communications today are so depressingly obvious and ham-fisted that any evocation of a more genteel age is refreshing, however ironically it’s adopted. So, here’s my card… call on me. I’m the same girl I used to be.