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Collecting Victorian Calling Cards: Vintage Antique 19th c. Customs

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 Mrs. E. Harris Millinery 1870-80’s Advertising Trade Card Victorian Calling Card Philadelphia

Mrs. E. Harris Dressmaking & Millinery Shop c. 1870-80’s Advertising Trade Card in Calling Card Format, West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

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An Article on Victorian Calling Cards, Friendship Cards, Advertising Calling Cards, Surnames & Customs by Debra Clifford, Ancestorville

    At Ancestorville, we have over 850 Victorian era family identified calling cards to go up. They range from the ornate die cut Victorian hidden name cards, to handwritten cards in beautiful old script, to printed cards with simply the name of the bearer. Some cards have the wife’s maiden name and printed town name as great genealogy clues, and some not. They offer an invaluable look at family names, customs, naming patterns, nicknames, and genealogy. Each offers an important clue as to surname, and lost family ties.

Victorian Calling Card for Ellen C. Hildreth

c. 1850-60`s Early Friendship Calling Card for Ellen C. Hildreth. Found in in Berkshire County, Western Massachusetts, MA.

We also have many early coated stock cards from the 1840-60’s, also known as “Friendship Cards”. This card is a cousin to the early Reward of Merit cards, a school related paper item given by a teacher to a student for good conduct. Often these friendship cards have moral lessons, poetry, quotes or verse indicative of the time period. They also may be religious in nature. Above we see a beautiful example from our ancestor site. These cards are usually hand tinted or colored, as they were printed before the advent of printed color or chomolithography.

Many of our 1870-90’s cards were found together as a collection of cards in a certain region of the country. We sort them by like family names, if so, and carefully document the location each item was found; as to county, state and region. Please note that where an object is found, is not necessarily an indication of where a family lived. Although sometimes a clue, ancestral migration made the mailing and movement of ephemera common between separated family members.

Each family member had their own card; parents, brothers, sisters, older children, newlyweds. Cards were also printed announcing the joyful birth of a child. Calling cards were first introduced in France in the early 1800’s and caught on throughout Europe and America as an important social craze. The height of the popularity of the calling card era coincides with the reign of Queen Victoria, Queen of England from 1837-1901, which is commonly referred to as the “Victorian era”. Queen Victoria truly lived her life in celebrity status, influencing both a generation at home and “across the pond.” We suggest the 1997 film “Mrs. Brown”, starring Judy Dench as an older Queen Victoria. It is a wonderful look at her steady and illustrious reign. We also suggest the more recent 2009 film, “The Young Victoria”, which looks at her young years as Queen.

The Victorian era had its own distinct style, language, culture, literature, arts, architecture, artifacts, traditions, beliefs, values, and behaviors that contributed to the influence on all aspects and classes of American 19th c. culture. Role, status, and social class was very important in describing the interactions of individuals and social etiquette, thus filtering down to all classes.

The use of calling cards was perceived as “high style”, carried by “well-to-do” ladies and gentleman who made a point to call on friends and family on specified days of the week or month. Also known as “visiting cards”, each one is different and beautiful. Most are unique and one of a kind, with early examples of stone lithography printing, hand tinting, the handwritten word, die cut papers and cardstock, unique fonts and typefaces indicative of the era, and exhibiting unusual paper delineations.

Below we see a “hidden name” card, whereby a fancy “scrap” (as in “scrapbook”, another Victorian era craze) was lifted to reveal the caller’s hidden name. We find both fancy male and female cards in our travels. The card below has the Victorian symbols of a woman’s hand and flowers, to convey the message of friendship. Hearts, doves, birds, scrolls, urns, cupids, forget me nots, roses, and women’s hands were common calling card themes.

c. 1880`s Fancy Hidden Name Victorian Calling Card of John Hopp
c. 1880`s Fancy Hidden Name Victorian Calling Card of John Hopp. Found in Upstate New York, NY near Livingston, Monroe, & Ontario Counties.

The CDV or Carte de Visite Photograph, the first paper photographs, have their roots in the calling card, as well as the Advertising Trade Card. We see an unusual advertising trade card, in the style of a calling card at page top. This advertises the Philadelphia area woman run millinery business of Mrs. E Harris.

Below we see a beautiful and unusual c. 1860’s Civil War era albumen photograph of H. Grant, which is the wonderful union of paper photography onto a Victorian calling card format. This Grant family calling card was found in New Hampshire. Do you know him?

Victorian Calling Card of H. Grant Manchester, New Hampshire NH
c. 1860-70`s Albumen Photographic Calling Card of H. Grant. Found in Manchester, New Hampshire NH in vicinity of Hillsborough, Merrimack & Rockingham Counties.

The term “Calling” or the verb “to call” was a common Victorian term for making a visit. The card was left at the door, or in the front parlor in a silver urn, basket or “Card Receiver”. These receivers held cards for the family to receive, whether they be home or not. Cards left served as a reminder of just who had called, thus requiring a visit or correspondence in return. This served as a mode of communication, to receive messages, greetings and announcements of who was in town, births, deaths, sympathy announcements, engagements, and general social events. As a form of communication, the calling card in itself was considered a very important message. It was an exciting day of a young Victorian era family member to be granted their first calling card.

Proper manners, and acceptable social etiquette were paramount to one’s social standing in a community, and “Calling” or “Visiting” was the most important leisure activity of the period. Calling card etiquette itself dictated the clothing, length of stay, time of visit and how long to stay. Women were the more frequent callers, this being an important ritual of daily life of upper class women. It was simply the job of the woman of the house to keep the family in good social standing in the larger social world. There were strict rules on how a woman was to behave, with men’s calling habits showing less strict rules and ceremony.

A call may only last fifteen minutes, with several calls being made in a single afternoon. It is noted that the folding of card corners communicated different meanings, such as an upper left corner fold might say congratulations and a lower right fold might signify a goodbye.

c. 1870-80`s Humorous Victorian Calling Card (May I.C.U. Home?)

Cards were often (and thankfully!) saved and glued into scrapbooks as family mementos. Young people exchanged cards and autograph and scrapbooks to be kept as cherished mementos. The humorous card above was found recently. This card first had us looking at the surname for clues, until we realized it to be a humorous Victorian play on initials! Rarely would we use initials today in all our legal and social dealings, although it was very common practice in the 19th century to do so.

Overall, we see each calling card on our site as a beautiful, one of a kind piece of history, and with the added benefit of a family surname attached! The ancestors who owned these cards lay in graves across America, and await being found. At times with unusual names, we have found explicit genealogy info online from one single card. We hope a your lost family member is represented on our Ancestorville site, but we also invite you to “adopt” a family and do some online genealogy research. We will be happy to add the info you may find to the listing. These spirits await being found by their 21st century families and historian friends. Enjoy!

— Debra Clifford, Ancestorville.

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debra clifford ancestorville Join ~debra on facebook at Ancestorville Genealogy on the topic of lost family antique items, early photographs, genealogy surnames and family history topics. Search our site for your lost family antique material by family surname, county, town, city and state.

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