Calling Cards: 19th Century Voicemail

Calling card and case. The quality of the case was a sign of class. Because wasn't everything?

Calling card and case. The quality of the case was a sign of class. Because wasn’t everything?

In the early 19th century, England imported calling cards from France. It was yet another thing to have fussy manners about, and soon there were complex rules and ways of showing how classy you were with a small rectangle of paper.

Getting a little fancy, there, aren't we? You know, she's only as good as she should be.

Getting a little fancy, there, aren’t we? You know, she’s only as good as she should be.

Calling was a complicated business. Early afternoon for sort-of-friends, a bit later for friends. Cards were given to a servant. If no one was home, they were left in a tray in the foyer to be perused later. Otherwise, they were presented to the lady of the house, who could then decide if she were home or not. “Not at home,” was a polite fiction translating to: “Not right now, I’d rather milk weasels.”

If you wanted to make someone’s acquaintance, you paid a call and left your card. Maybe you’d be seen…but probably not. If you got a card back, well, that was a good sign. It meant: “Sure, maybe we can do coffee.” If you didn’t get a card back, it was more like: “Sure, maybe we can do coffee…IN HELL.”  At any time after you left your card, you might receive back a card in an envelope. This was more like: “You can have your coffee alone in Hell, and if you call again, I’ll send you there personally.” That little envelope was the coffin to your social hopes.

Was there more? Of course there was. This was 19th century England. Initials standing in for French (because French = classy) words could be noted on the card:

  • Pour féliciter (p.f.) was congratulations. Probably given to women who had finally managed to poison their aged, rich husbands.
  • Pour remercier (p.r.) expressed thanks, for that special friend who held your hair back.
  • Pour condoléance (p.c.), condolences. For when a beloved dog died.
  • Pour prendre congé (p.p.c.), leaving town. You know, for the house in the country. (An aside, when a gentleman dumped his mistress, it was said he gave her her congé. Because I know you wanted to know that.)


Now, I don’t know if this was concurrent with the initials, because the meanings overlap, but for a time there was also the custom of folding the corners of the card.

  • Upper left: Congratulations
  • Upper right: I came myself. In a carriage! I didn’t send a servant. No really, I was totally here.
  • Lower right: Buh-bye.
  • Lower left: Again, the dog.
There'll be none of that fringey-wingey frippery here. No sirree.

There’ll be none of that fringey-wingey frippery here. No sirree.

Early in the century, cards were spare. Use nice paper and a skilled calligrapher, and leave the rest alone. Frou-frou was considered gauche. Later on, it was probably still considered gauche, but people got up to all sorts of paper shenanigans anyway. New printing processes meant color! Flowers, critters, castles, etc.,  were printed on “scraps” and attached to the card. You lifted a side of the scrap to see the name of the caller, Sometimes more than one thing was hidden beneath various folds, like greetings or poetry and such. These later cards are gorgeous, and because of the sealing process, they are still bright. I don’t know if I can get down with the fringe, though. Even I have my limits.

Seriously, this looks like a paramecium.

Seriously, this looks like a paramecium.




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