A visiting card, also called calling card, is a small card with one’s name printed on it. It was carried by both men and women in the 18th and 19th century as a way to announce themselves in an acquaintance’s home or to request an invitation to visit.
“The essential convention was that a first person would not expect to see a second person in the second’s own home (unless invited or introduced) without the first having first left his visiting card at the second’s home. Upon leaving the card, the first would not expect to be admitted at first, but instead might receive a card at his own home in response from the second. This would serve as a signal that a personal visit and meeting at home would be welcome.
On the other hand, if no card was forthcoming, or if a card was sent in an envelope, a personal visit was thereby discouraged. The whole procedure depended upon there being servants to open the door and receive the cards and it was, therefore, confined to the social classes which employed servants.
Some visiting cards included refined engraved ornaments, embossed lettering, and fantastic coats of arms. However, the standard form visiting card in the 19th century in the United Kingdom was a plain card with nothing more than the bearer’s name on it, kept in highly decorated card cases.” (wikipedia.org)
When looking at visiting cards, one might think it is the same as a business card. But that would be incorrect. It is indeed similar, but it is not the same. As a matter of fact, it was improper for one to leave their business card at a home in place of a visiting card. So, businessmen often carried both.
The reason behind this rule of etiquette is actually quite logical. The visiting card was a way for someone to say I want to spend time with you and talk as friends. On the other hand, the business card said: I want to spend time with you to sell a product or service; I am looking to make money off of you someway.
So, needless to say, it was easier to be invited or granted entrance into a home with a visiting card.
Just like with everything else, there were rules that governed the making and delivering of visiting cards. A lady’s card had to be white and have the measurements of 2.5 to 3.5 inches wide and 2 to 3.5 inches long. Letters engraved on the card had to be of simple fonts. And there could be no pictures or elaborate art placed on the card. It was most important to avoid any sign of gaudiness. Gaudiness was a sign of bad taste.
Ladies living in the city could have a short address using small letters at the bottom of the card. This address would only include a street number and name; never the city, state, or zip code. Phone numbers were also not included on the visiting card.
Visiting cards had many other purposes. They could be used as a way to relay a change of address, a R.s.v.p. answer, and a condolence message. They could also accompany flower arrangements and other impersonal gifts. Ladies would often write short notes on the back. So, they could be used in many ways.