One of the customary rituals performed by the Victorians was the exchange of small cards called "calling cards", or sometimes referred to as "visiting cards", since the cards were exchanged while paying a visit to ones home. With this ritual, as with many Victorian rituals, came strict rules, etiquette, and many books were written on the proper usage of calling cards. This charming yet time consuming custom has since eluded us and the exchange of such cards is no longer widely practiced in our modern society.
Calling upon others was a lady's principle occupation. Each lady chose a day of the week which she declared herself at home to receive visitors and the rest of the week she reserved for visiting others. Certain events, such as births, engagements, marriages, and deaths required that those who performed the event or immediate relatives be called upon. After each party that was held, every guest had to call upon the hostess that held the party.
A married lady that visited another married lady would leave a total of three calling cards. One was her own calling card and the other two were her husband's cards. One of his cards was for the hostess and the second card was for the hostess' husband.
After receving a card or a visitor, the lady of the house was obligated to return the call, either in person or with a card.
During the afternoon, calls to known aquaintences took place. If one was well aquainted, the call was generally paid between 4 and 5, if you weren't that well aquainted with your hostess, calls were made between 3 and 4. If a caller did get to see the lady of the house, they were shown into the drawing room, located on the first floor of the house (second story, to Americans). Ladies left their parasols on the ground floor, gentlemen took their riding crop and hat with them.
A proper call only lasted 15 minutes. If someone else came during their call, it was polite to ease their way out after introductions (if the other caller was a social equal, or superior and didn't mind the introduction). With another person present, conversation stayed comfortably in the areas of the weather and other generalities, without mention of people who might not be aquaintences of everyone present.
As the usage of calling cards continued to flourish, an intricate code of "card turning" evolved, in which certain corners of the card were turned to indicate the purpose of the call. There were four statements that could be said just by turning the appropriate corner designated for that particular statement. The statements were viste, meaning that you appeared with the card in person. The upper left corner would be turned if this was the message you wanted to convey. The second is felicitation, meaning that you congratulate the recipient. To convey this message, the upper right corner would be turned. The third statement is conge, which announces that you are leaving town. Turning the lower left corner would convey this message. And the last statement is condolence, which is an expression of sympathy. The lower right corner would be turned to convey a sentiment of sympathy.
Many calling cards were beautifully decorated and imprinted with such images as roses, clusters of flowers, hearts, doves and other birds, and ladies' hands. Calling cards for mourning contained only a black border around them and no other decorations.
Calling cards were left in receiving dishes in the hostess's foyer or in the parlor. Receiving dishes were often very ornately decorated. Ladies carried their calling cards in cases, which were made of leather, silks, or silver.