Fine points of etiquette that are portrayed in Oscar Wilde’s plays and other plays of the time mattered only to the leisured classes, for people who worked for a living did not pay calls and behave so formally. Although a great many books and guides were written at the time about correct behavior among the elite, these were read only by those who were rising in status, so that they would be less likely to make societal errors, or by those wanting a glimpse of the lives led by the very rich.
ictorian society, in the strictest sense of the word, was composed of fewer than 1,500 families drawn from the aristocracy and substantial gentry. People who were “in society” had country estates, and during the social season, they moved to a town house in a fashionable part of London.
The London season took place in May, June, and July, during which time members of society occupied themselves with shopping, paying calls, going to concerts and sporting events, and giving parties. By tradition, the season’s most important social event was the opening of the May exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, when new works by the most contemporary painters were shown.
During the day, many of society’s men were involved with meetings at the House of Lords, as the season also coincided with Parliament being in session. Social events provided an opportunity for cementing alliances, conducting political business, and promoting the interests of the elite.
Paying calls was the social recreation of upper-class women. Calls were short visits lasting fifteen to thirty minutes. Paying a call on someone new was a means of seeking further contacts, and returning calls signaled that an acquaintanceship could continue. The usual hour for paying calls was between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. If a woman was busy or not in the mood for visiting, it was perfectly acceptable for her servant to tell callers she was “not at home,” which simply meant that she was not receiving visitors – it was not considered an insult to the caller.
A lady never called on a man under any circumstances. It was considered improper and would likely result in scandal if discovered.
The central function of the social season was its role in making marriages. Private balls and parties were arranged so that young men and women of suitable backgrounds could meet. Before a girl could be considered eligible for marriage, she “came out” of the classroom and was introduced to fashionable society. Such formal entrance into society was marked by presentation at court when the girl was eighteen years old. Daughters of the aristocracy were automatically available. Other young ladies could be presented if their fathers were important country squires, members of the higher clergy, high-ranking military or naval officers, or substantial physicians or barristers. Daughters of wealthy manufacturers and merchants were presented only towards the end of the Victorian period.
Marriages were no longer “arranged” as they had been in earlier centuries, but mothers, grandmothers, and aunts put careful thought into introducing young people with compatible interests and comparable social standings. There was no dating – young people from respectablefamilies did not go places together except in the company of other people.
People in the middle and upper classes were careful to use titles and family names when speaking to or about others in their own class. No one past the age of childhood used first names unless they were invited to do so, and schoolboys called each other by last name only. Highstatus men of the same social class usually continued to use surnames (or the landed name attached to their titles) among themselves throughout their lives, unless one man was much older than the other.
Older girls and young women addressed each other as “Miss” until they became close friends. Between single men and single women, first names were not used until a couple became engaged. Cousins, however, could use each others’ first names freely, regardless of age and sex.
The convention that a man asked permission from a woman’s father before proposing was required only if a large fortune was required. Otherwise, in both the elite and middle classes, the man proposed in person or by letter. After the woman accepted, he approached her father or guardian for a formal interview, during which time the father would inquire about the suitor’s prospects and establish how long it would be until the marriage would take place.
The social season ended when Parliament recessed – traditionally for the opening of grouse season on August 12. Unless one traveled abroad at that time, autumn was devoted to country sports at estates in various parts of the country. The ladies walked, talked, and amused one another while the gentlemen were out shooting or hunting.
The rest of the year, after the social season was over, most members of society lived separate lives in the country. However, some of the more active members of society spent time together during the off season as well, visiting for several days at a time at various country estates.
In the Victorian era, calling cards were used by every lady and gentleman of means. While the custom began in Europe, it spread to England and America quickly, and the intricate courtesies of how and when to leave cards was a facet of Victorian social life and etiquette. Everything about a card carried a meaning, from its design and motifs to a turned-down corner or black border.
Cards could be colorful or plain, with lovely calligraphy or printing. Some cards had the name hidden in the design or behind a colorful decorative front card. Some cards were black and white lithographs with the color added by hand, but others were done in Chromolithography, which used a different plate for each color, resulting in a richly colored and detailed card. Most cards carried only the name of the person, as it was a token of a personal visit—not an item to be referred to later for information.
Although the calling card usually supplied only the name of the caller, there was a method of leaving a message with no words by folding a corner of the card.
If the top left corner was bent or torn, it was a social call.
If the top right corner was bent, it was a visit of congratulations, perhaps for a recent engagement, wedding, birth or other good news.
If the bottom left corner was bent, it was a visit to say goodbye, as if the visitor were getting ready to go on a trip.
If the bottom right corner was bent, it was a visit of condolence, usually for a death in the family.
An unfolded card meant a servant was sent.
Social customs are essential in developing friendships and it was important in society to pay frequent calls and to return calls promptly. Ladies’ cards were often elaborately decorated with a gilded, pierced, scalloped edge. Ladies’ cards might be glazed, men's were not. Men's were more straight forward and of a business nature. Men often wrote their street and numbers; women did not. A black border on the card meant the person was in mourning. Children also purchased calling cards and exchanged them in imitation of grownups.
Servants would carry the caller’s card (on a tray) to the master or mistress of the house, and the visitor may or may not be received. Cards were left at a person's house whether or not the person was at home. Visits were brief, thirty minutes or less and unpleasant topics were never to be discussed. It was considered courteous to leave within a few minutes if another caller arrived, unless invited for tea or luncheon.
Calling Card Symbolism
The birds, hands and flowers depicted on calling cards had a specific meaning: Birds in flight are symbolic of the "winged soul.” The dove signifies purity and devotion. The eagle suggests courage and possibly a military career. The owl suggests wisdom. The swan is symbolic of purity and grace. The swallow indicates a child or motherhood.
Ivy is the sign of immortality and everlasting life. Forget-me-nots are used to symbolize and affection and a wish that love never dies. The poppy is sacred to deities of the moon and represents obliviousness and sleep. A white poppy is the symbol of peace. The violet is the symbol of shy modesty and quiet virtue. A wreath is a symbol of victory, merit and of anything venerated.
Hands, especially lady’s hands, were a popular motif on calling cards. Hands holding a wreath and laurel sheaf symbolized love victorious. Hand holding a sheaf and wreath of roses symbolized hope and love. Clasped right hands signified friendship. Hand holding a rose symbolized love. Hand with the index and little finger extended was the sign for love. A hand holding a fan symbolized flirtation. sandiegoarchaeology.org; Victorian Card Lesson
Etiquette mandated that Victorian ladies pay visits or social calls to each other, and "calling cards" (similar to business cards today), were necessary to keep track of these visits. There was an entire ritual of rules that pertained to social calls and the use of calling cards. For example, in most cases, there were specific visiting hours during which guests could visit.
Each caller was to leave a calling card in the 'card receiver" on the entry hall table. This way, not only the hostess, but other callers as well, could see who had been there. If the woman of the house was not at home at the time of the caller's visit, the caller would leave her card with the servant, turning down one corner of the card to indicated that it was delivered in person.
Calling cards were used to announce every important event, from weddings, to birth announcements, to deaths. it was customary that ten days following a funeral, visitors should leave calling cards with handwritten messages on them. Then, when the survivors were emotionally ready to receive guests, they would send out black-bordered cards. The thickness of the border indicated the relationship to the deceased. As time passed, the border became thinner and thinner, no matter the relationship, until at last, it disappeared all together.
Victorian society had very strict ideas about how people should behave towards one another. These rules or guidelines of morals and manners are called etiquette. They covered almost every possible human encounter including the practice of calling or visiting. In the days before the telephone was a common household item, individuals, both adults and children, wishing to visit a friend announced their arrival with a calling card given to the butler who answered the door.
A table at the front of the entrance hall would have a silver calling card tray on it. During the Victorian era, when a visitor knocked at the door of the mansion, a housekeeper would answer the door. The visitor would present a card with his/her name on it. While the visitor waited, the servant would deliver the card to the person the visitor wished to see.
If the person wanted to receive company, the visitor was allowed to enter the house and was escorted to the appropriate parlor. If the person did not want to receive company or was not at home, the calling card was left as a message that the visitor had come. The rules of etiquette of the time required that such a call be returned within three days.
|Etiquette||Politeness||Parties In General|
|The Visiting Guest||Calling Etiquette|
|Conversation Etiquette||Public Amusement|
|Attending Balls||Dinner Parties||Formal Dinners|
|Dance||Influence of Dance||Guests|
|Music||French Terms||Order of Dances|
|Round Dances||Spanish Dance||Square Dances|