CALLING CARDS AND CASES
Calling cards and their elaborate carrying cases were indispensable social aids in the 19th century. Now, they make attractive mementoes
of a bygone age.
Card cases could be plain and simple or very elaborately decorated, reflecting both the owner's taste and his or her
budget. Cards, too, range from simple black and white typographic ones to colourfully printed examples, which became popular at the end of the 19th century.
The ritual of the calling card evolved in the early 19th century as part of a social system which was class-conscious and governed by strict rules of etiquette. Men met each other mainly through business, the armed services or clubs, but women were home-based and had to venture out to meet one
another. The 'card and call' routine helped women to get together initially and to establish their compatibility without any implied commitment to a relationship - other than as aspiration on the part of the caller.
THE RITUAL OF CALLING CARDS
Cards were left during 'morning calls', directly after lunch. On a first call etiquette demanded that the visitor stayed no longer than a few
minutes; on leaving, her card, along with two of her husband's, would be left on the hall table. If the lady was out or did not want to receive the caller, the parlour maid was instructed to say 'Not at home'.
The important part of calling was how quickly the call was returned - the quicker the better, as it meant social acceptance. No return call was social death.
A few ladies received guests every week but most found it more convenient to set aside days or which to entertain all their callers. In the latter case, calling cards would state something like 'second and fourth Wednesdays'. Few gentlemen, apart from clergy, called on 'At Home' days as they were usually working, but they were by no means excluded.
There were 'Visits of Condolence' in cases of bereavement and 'Calls of Congratulation' for announcements of engagements or marriage. Congratulation calls were often attempt to secure an invitation to the event.
Secret codes were sometimes contained in the lea mg or presentation of a card. For examples, if a lady was calling with her husband,
she could signal so by turning down the top left corner of her card. Turning down the top right meant she was alone.
The cards themselves were always white and tastefully engraved in crisply raised black
copper late. This made them expensive, but no one could afford the stigma of cheap-looking cards. Ladies' cards were larger than mens' but both types were carried in elegant cases.
CALLING CARD CASES
Ladies' cases were about 5cm/3in wide and often elaborately decorated, as they were very much costume accessories. Mens' cases were often curved to fit snugly while carried in a pocket. The earliest cases were made in silver, but mother-of-pearl, often inlaid with precious metal, became fashionable after 1830. After 1850, cases appeared in a wider range of materials including tortoiseshell, ivory, papier mache', leather, wood and porcelain.
The calling card ritual continued into the early 20th century, though the rules were steadily relaxed as society became less formal.
Calling cards are not usually a stock item of antiques shops, though they may be found in dealers with a specialist interest in card cases. However, they do turn up at flea markets and junk shops. Though they have little inherent value, calling cards add a nice touch to a collection of card cases.
Card cases, especially silver cases, have been popularly collected for many years as there are so many types and styles to choose from. Antiques shops that specialize in jewellery quite often have a few cases in stock.
Many older cases from the early 1800s were made in silver with delicate filigree scrollwork and they were generally fashioned by Birmingham silversmiths. These, however, are quite rare and pricey. Cases produced after
1850 are more commonly found.
Some cases open at the side and contain leather or leatherdoth pockets to hold the cards, but the majority have hinged top openings so that the top quarter of the case swings back to reveal the cards. The catches and hinges on these were subject to much use and are often faulty.
Repair work to tiny parts may seem minor but, unfortunately, it can be surprisingly expensive to rectify problems.
OVER THE TOP
One of the most collectable post-1850 designs is the so-called 'Castle Top'. These cases are heavily ornamented pieces with die-stamped views of famous buildings, such as Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey or the Albert Memorial. They can be dated precisely by hallmarks and are often stamped with the name or initials of a specific maker.
Any variations on the basic case design are especially prized by today's collectors. Swivel mechanisms, or 'automatic' cases that release a single card when a button is pressed, attract a lot of attention. Likewise with novelty cases. These were often made with an enamelled finish and decorated to represent such items as a stamped, addressed envelope. More expensive are gentlemens' cases of an erotic nature. Some of these show images of naked women bathing or reclining on sofas.
Cases were also made to hold black-edged mourning cards. These were normally designed to complement the cards and had a black ebony finish. Otherwise they were usually plain except, perhaps, for a small silver motif or the owner's monogram.