Calling Card Cases

A relic of propriety commonly thought to belong to the Victorian Age, they were actually introduced by the French a century before.

In Jane Austen’s acclaimed novels of the early 19th century, which describe the everyday life of the English landed class and more ordinary folk, the heroines make social calls with some frequency. Indeed, there was a strict protocol, the ignorance of which could spell social doom. The most necessary item was the calling card. Similar to the modern business card, it served as a record of the visit.

While not many finely printed cards survived, a large number of the slim, rectangular cases used to contain them are still around. Made from materials such as silver, tortoiseshell, ivory, mother-of-pearl, leather, wood and papier maché, in countless styles, they are decorative and very collectible.

Formal social calls are commonly thought to be a Victorian activity, but, like many fashionable habits, it was the French who introduced them in the 18th century. By the beginning of the 19th century, the custom had spread all over Europe and had developed a complicated pattern of etiquette to which anyone who aspired to the genteel ranks of society conformed. As Austen’s characters demonstrate, there were rules for when to call, the number of cards to leave, the size of the cards and even their style of engraving.

Gertrude Pringle, author of Etiquette in Canada (1932), wrote: “Every hostess had her day at home, which for convenience was the day observed by everyone in the same quarter of the city. On such days the streets were lined with carriages and ladies armed with lists and card cases went forth to battle. It was possible for a purposeful lady, fortified with a carriage, to pay from 20 to 30 calls in one afternoon, including those ‘not at home’ on whom cards were left.”

Each caller left a card (bearing name, address and at-home day) in the card receiver on the hallway table so that not only the hostess but other callers could see who had been there. If the hostess was not at home, the caller submitted a card to the servant, turning down one corner to indicate it was delivered in person.

Although calling is associated most with women, men were not excepted from this social obligation.

Warne’s Etiquette for Gentlemen (1866) was quite clear on this. “If your object is merely to drop cards, simply inquire after the health of the family and leave a card for the lady of the house. Where there are sisters or daughters, it is sometimes considered enough to turn down the corner of the card to intimate that they are included, but this is now rather going out. A separate card is now usually left for the young ladies, and one for the master of the house ... three are sufficient to meet any case.” If a gentleman found the lady of the house to be out, he was advised to leave his card rather than visit her young daughters. “Young ladies do not receive calls from gentlemen, unless they are very intimate with them or have passed the rubicon of thirty summers.” A married woman was expected to leave her husband’s card as well as her own.

Calling cards were used to announce every important event from wedding receptions to births to deaths. Ten days after a funeral, for example, it was customary for visitors to leave cards with handwritten messages. When survivors were prepared to receive guests, they sent out black-bordered cards. Gradually, this black border grew thinner until it finally disappeared, indicating the grieving person had recovered.

The earliest calling cards took the form of ivory tablets the size of a playing card on which a message could be written. The tablet was returned to the caller with a message in response. Individual cards were probably introduced in the 1820s or 1830s. A lady’s card was larger than a gentleman’s and was permitted to be glazed. Later, along with a person’s name and title, his or her address was often engraved in the bottom corner. The usual dimensions for a calling card were about three inches by four inches in the 1830s and a little smaller from the 1850s. Late in the 19th century, the enve¬lope card case, suspended on a chain with a ring for attaching it to a chatelaine, evolved.

Most card cases appear to have had red velvet linings, though those made of metal were often gilded inside. A small rectangular plate on the outside of the case could be customized with the owner’s name or initials.

The earliest cases were made of sterling silver, and this became the most widely used material. It was hard enough for protection while being durable and beautiful enough to give many years of wear. Hallmarks from Birmingham, England, prove continuous production from 1802 to 1906. Birmingham was called “the toy shop of Europe” by Irish statesman Edmund Burke, and was the renowned centre for small silver production. Georgian silver cases are much heavier than early and mid-Victorian examples.

The abolition of the silver excise duty in England in 1890 led to a reduction in the prices of silver card cases for a less moneyed market, which meant that even more were produced and sold to those with social aspirations. Silver cases have survived well and are generally in better condition than those made of other materials.

The market for silver cases is especially appreciative of repoussé examples. Bill Kime, head of Decorative Arts at Waddington’s auction house in Toronto, says “scenic card cases are the crème de la crème. Among the Victorian silver are the repoussé examples with cathedrals, monuments and other architectural motifs depicted. They are the Rolls Royces. It wouldn’t be unusual to have good silver cases with interesting decoration bring more than $1,000. An average silver one with floral engraving, something more mundane, would be more likely to bring $100.”

During the third quarter of the 19th century, mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell cases were produced in quantity. In the best cases, light pearl was used. In lesser examples, a mix of light and dark shell in diamond-shaped pieces was used. The dark shell contains a mix of colours with pre¬dom¬inant green, pink and black. One Birmingham maker sold ladies’ cases at the 1851 Great Exhibition with 730 diamond-shaped pieces of shell.

Although most card cases were made in Europe, where some dealers specialize today in card cases, silver cases were produced in the United States in the latter part of the 19th century. These are highly elaborate in comparison to English examples and fetch much less at auction because they were rarely hallmarked. No Canadian makers are known.

Other desirable materials are ivory, especially intricately carved Oriental examples, and papier maché. Bill Kime of Waddington’s agrees and adds: “Some of the lacquered papier maché cases have just fantastic painting on them. It seems to have been an area where craftsmen gave their imagination free rein.”

The Glenbow Museum in Calgary has an extensive collection of card cases, many with histories. Pictured with this article is the carved ivory case and coin purse brought to Canada by immigrant Antoinette Mikish. Born in Vienna, she lived in Czechoslovakia before emigrating first to the United States in 1908 and then to Saskatchewan to work as a governess. She became housekeeper for a widower and married him in 1914. Among her possessions was the card case, lined in blue velvet, and the coin purse, lined in pink moiré silk. They are in perfect condition and are complete with a velvet-lined wooden case. Antoinette probably did not have much use for them in her new life.

When buying card cases, condition is very important. Check the hinge and fastening, if applicable, since these are often damaged or broken. Look for missing fragments of wood veneer, mother-of-pearl or tortoiseshell, and chips on papier maché. Be careful of purses and cigar cases masquerading as card cases. Interior fittings and things such as foil linings are obvious giveaways of impostors.

Prices run the gamut. A coin silver case is listed in the 1996 Antique Trader Price Guide for $38.50, while a 1910 Fabergé silver-gilt and enamel example is listed at $8,050. Several silver and tortoiseshell cases are listed between $80 and $100. Miller’s 1995 Price Guide lists an 1845 silver case stamped with studies of Windsor Castle for $900–$1,050.

While formal social calls are no longer considered essential, collecting beautiful items from that period can be a way of holding onto gracious times a little longer.

Marnie Andrews has launched four magazines, the first of which was Antiques! She is a Toronto based writer, editor and publishing consultant. Her new collectibles column with Homemakers magazine will begin with the February/March 2006 issue. She can be reached at: or visit her website