Exchanging cards is a common day practice for the modern day businessman and woman; a standard procedure for basic networking and client communication. However, did you know that the concept is over 200 years old, and had a much wider variety of purposes that were used by your everyday person?

An Art Deco Sterling Silver and 14k yellow gold ladies purse, complete with mirror, compact, coin carrier, and card holder.

The act of leaving a calling card can be traced back to 18th century France, where the practice of delivering a ‘visiting’ card to the servants of royalty was necessary in requesting an audience or invitation. Calling cards quickly became a compulsory ritual among the cultured, and by the early 19th century, the custom had spread throughout Europe, England, and America.

Image credit - http://www.daysofelegance.com/callingcards.html

Calling Cards started with simple designs, but soon became heavily embellished.

Calling cards were used for all manner of occasions; parties, wakes, dinners, celebrations, and dances. It was not uncommon for a distinguished gentleman or lady to carry around a selection of cards for a variety of different circumstances.  These cards played an important part in social etiquette, as it allowed hosts to count their attendees, the bereaved to leave their condolences, revellers to thank their hosts, and suitors to begin their courtships. Calling cards started simple, with often just the hand written name of the card holder; but soon grew to be elaborately decorated symbols of status. But of course, no sophisticated man or woman would be seen without the necessary accessories one would need to deliver and receive these socially imperative cards.

An exotic 19th Century English Tortoiseshell and Mother of Pearl Card Case.

Enter, the card case. This handy storage device, which was small enough to fit into the breast pocket of a gentlemen’s jacket, was another way of subtly displaying ones taste and class. Exotic materials such as tortoiseshell, crocodile leather, mother of pearl, and ivory, were popular choices for card cases, as they showed how well travelled the owner was; whilst sterling silver and coloured gold were other luxurious materials used to express ones refinement.

Circa 1900 American monogrammed sterling silver card tray – the height of sophistication.

But how did calling cards change hands? In the upper echelons of society, a guest would leave their card with the house servant once they entered the premises; whilst in a middle class home, a small tray would be left in the foyer for visitors to leave their cards upon. The way you left your card was also an important consideration, as if one were to fold a corner of a card, one would be implying a certain intent or message. A fold on the bottom left was a farewell, a fold on the bottom right was a message of regret or condolences, a fold on the top right was a congratulations, whilst a fold on the top left was important to let the receiver know that you had come in person.

A card for every occasion – this card case had a handy organiser inside.

These popular customs continued into the early 20th century, with some of the more bizarre and intricate rituals dying off faster than others. What we are left with now is the modern day business card, an important tool for branding and networking. It’s funny to see that 200 years later, these cardboard rectangles are still used to make a lasting first impression.