The Weird History of Victorian Calling Cards

Call me, maybe? – Victorian Calling Cards

Personal calling cards were already a thing in China in the 15th century, a long time before they became the forte of comic villains and fictional gentlemen burglars in 20th century movies. Between those two eras, calling cards formed a strange and complicated language in 19th century England.

In genteel English society of the time, calling cards took over as an etiquette fad, and reached the level of social obsession. They were part of esoteric rules of conduct and communication, which should sound very familiar to those of us who’ve seen the sweeping growth of the internet in current times.

Carl Duisbergs personal calling card DPLA d96d170c3bdc5f0397287d716e502f68 page 1
Calling card for Carl Duisburg (1861-1935), Image: Wikimedia Commons

Back then a calling card was handed to a servant of the house by a servant accompanying a visitor, who waited outside in their carriage while this elaborate exchange occurred. The card mentioned the name of the gentleman or lady visitor and an arcane set of symbols and code, which we’ll come back to in a bit.

Calling Card, Image: Alan Mays

This semi-remote ping or poke (as we’d call it today) would then be answered by the receiver in a similar codified way. Maybe they’d arrange a meeting in response, but if their reply was delivered in an envelope it was a sign to maintain some social distance. Cards didn’t just hold the bearer’s name. Sometimes they also contained little initialed messages from French phrases, like p. f. (pour féliciter – congratulations) or p. r. – (pour remercier – thanks), or p. f. N. A. (pour feliciter Nouvel An – Happy New Year).

Calling Cards, Images: Alan Mays

In other times a more symbolic approach gained popularity. You folded different corners of the card to signify different messages. The upper left corner meant a congratulatory visit, while the lower left was a condolence visit. Or was it the other way round?

Everyone was confused by these ever changing rules back then too, experiencing a feeling many of us understand when dealing with digital communication today: FOMU – Fear of messing up.

Thankfully, in time, less and less people could afford servants and these complex rituals were replaced by that new wonder of social technology, the telephone.

It didn’t all go away though. It wasn’t too long before we were at it again with made up words (Hello), strange symbols (of egg plants) which no was quite sure what to make of, and mysterious acronyms of questionable meaning.

Full circle. LOL.

  1. Pelikan Twist Fountain Pen –
  2. Bamboo Reed Pen –
  3. Rhodia Dot Pads –
  4. Speedball Dip Pens –
  5. Ecoline Inks –

Share your stationery love