The Etiquette of Calling
Calling was a somewhat ritualized version of the old American custom of visiting. It was not nearly as important for the gentleman as it was for the lady. In the middle to late nineteenth century the woman of the house was responsible for the social standing of her family in the outside world. Victorian Society (the Victorian Period was from 1837 to 1901) had very strict ideas about how people, especially women should behave. Etiquette of the day mandated that Victorian ladies pay visits or social calls to each other. If the woman was genteel, she was presumed to have the time to devote to this activity of conspicuous leisure. Middle class women ventured forth each afternoon to keep their social contacts alive.
Calling was considered the most important leisure activity for women. To be proper and considerate calls were made between three o’clock and five o’clock in the afternoon. Calling at any other time of the day or during the evening was considered rude and improper. When a woman set forth from home to attend to her social duty she was often dressed in special garb known as a visiting toilette that included a fine dress for daytime wear, hat, gloves, and parasol.1 Ladies did not call on gentlemen except on matters of business. Men making calls were allowed to do so in the evening whereas women were not. Gentlemen called on one another with little ceremony. A gentleman made formal calls dressed in a proper suit, hat, and gloves.
At each home the visits lasted no more than fifteen to thirty minutes and the time was spent in polite general conversation. Several calls could be made in a single afternoon in an effort to maintain acquaintances, climb the social ladder, and offer condolences or congratulations. One was to depart early and quietly, as soon as possible after the arrival of other visitors, but not as to let it appear that their arrival was the cause.2 Not to have participated in the calling ritual with its extremely strict rules was to risk being considered ill bred.
Calling cards were an important part of the social responsibility. Introduced in the 1850s, they quickly became popular. If a lady found the subject of her visit not at home or unavailable, or she simply had no intention of visiting in the first place, she simply left her calling card and two of her husband’s. Husbands did not normally accompany their wives when they paid social calls. If the lady being visited was home and wished to receive callers, the guest left two of her husband’s cards. One was for the lady being visited and the other for her
1 Ellen M. Plant, Women at Home in Victorian America. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1993, p. 123.
2 Alexander V. Hamilton, The Household Cyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Daily Wants. Springfield: W.J. Holland and Company, 1873, p. 309.