Hilary Evans
Mary Evans
The Party That Lasted 100 Days

A stock of visiting cards was an essential item in everyone's personal equipment. They were called for continuously throughout the day as identification to trades-people and servants; but between equals they played an even more vital role in the elaborate game of etiquette. The following notes, culled from a variety of handbooks with titles such as Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided (by 'A Member of the Aristocracy'), show just how careful one had to be, for, as this author points out:
The etiquette of card-leaving is a privilege which society places in the hands of ladies to govern and determine their acquaintanceships and intimacies, to regulate and decide whom they will, and whom they will not visit, whom they will admit to their friendship, and whom they will keep on the most distant footing, whose acquaintance they wish further to cultivate and whose to discontinue.
The practice of leaving cards principally devolved on the lady; a wife should leave cards for her husband as well as for herself. A young lady would not usually have a card of her own, but her name would be included with that of her mother—or other chaperon—if she was 'out'. If for any reason she was visiting without her mother, she would use her mother's card but draw a pencil through her mother's name.

The object of leaving cards was to signify that a call had been made; it was a gesture of politeness, and expected to be returned with equivalent politeness. A lady arriving in Town would immediately leave cards on all her acquaintances to tell them that she had arrived. The same happened when she left, in which case she would write 'PPC' (=pour prendre conge, to take leave) in the lower corner.

The actual leaving of the card went like this: the lady, waiting outside in her carriage, would ask her manservant to inquire if the lady of the house at which she was calling was 'at home5. If the answer was 'not at home' she would get him to hand in three cards—one other own and two other husband's. Her own card was for the mistress of the house, her husband's cards for both master and mistress. If the mistress of the house was 'at home', the visitor would, after making the call, leave two of her husband's cards on the hall table on leaving. She would not put them into the card-basket, or leave them on the drawing-room table, or offer them to her hostess; but she might on reaching the hall hand them silently to the manservant of the house, or she might wait till she got outside to her carriage again and then send them in by her own manservant. If other ladies of the family besides the hostess were included in the call, the visitor would turn down one corner.

Cards were left by every guest after invitations to the following entertainments: balls and dances, receptions, private theatricals, afternoon concerts, dinner parties. What is more, cards were left even if the invitation had been refused. They should be left the day after the entertainment, if possible, and certainly within the week. On these occasions the cards were left without inquiry as to whether the hostess was at home, except in the case of a dinner-party, which implied a greater degree of intimacy than the other entertainments listed.

A lady should not leave cards on another lady to whom she had but recently been introduced at a dinner-party or afternoon tea. She must first meet her several times in society and feel sure that her acquaintance is desirable, before venturing to leave her card. This was very delicate ground for the social climber; many must have been the agonising decisions debated and made before taking—or not taking—such a fateful step!

Leaving a card on someone left the ball in their court; it had to be 'returned'—that is to say, the recipient had to respond with a card-leaving of her own, within a week or ten days after receiving. A call must not be returned by a card only, or a card by a call. But a lady of higher rank could return a card by a call, which signified gracious condescension; or, less graciously, she could return a call by a card only. This would signify to the unhappy recipient that the, senior lady wished the acquaintance to be of the slightest. If she did not wish there to be any continuance of the acquaintance at all, she would of course simply return neither card nor call—which would constitute an outright snub.

If a friend was ill, one left a card with the words 'to inquire after Lady So-and-So' written above the printed name. In return, a card was sent, probably by a servant with the words 'return thanks for kind inquiries' written on it.

Card-leaving was not regarded as nearly so important for men. It was recognised that they had little time for this activity, and were not usually expected to conform as strictly as their womenfolk. But they were looked on with favour if they did. A bachelor was expected (and it was generally in his interest) to leave cards on the master and mistress of a house with which he was acquainted as soon as he was aware that they had arrived in Town. If he himself had been away, he would leave a card immediately after his return. He would leave one for the mistress of the house and one for its master. Even if his real interest in the house was neither the master nor the mistress but their pretty daughter, he would not leave a card for her but for her parents or chaperon. A gentleman did not leave his card upon a married lady, or the mistress of a house, however gracious or agreeable she had been to him, unless she expressly asked him to call or gave him to understand in an unmistakable manner that his doing so would be agreeable to her.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.