Not according to Jeremy Musson (Country Life 13th Sep 2001). The very idea of visiting a house merely to leave a card to announce a person's passing presence to a perceived social equal seems extraordinary to us. Yet it was an almost daily activity for women of a certain class, and for men. The personal calling card did not come to an end until the rise of the telephone and the motor car, extending the geographical range of social activity of all classes. The social upheavals that followed WW1 inevitably brushed away the more complex minor social customs developed over the previous century of comparative peace. Nonetheless some cases were still being made as late as the 1930s.
There were many accounts in memoirs and social etiquette guides that made the rules clear e.g. if a stranger is taking possession of a house, it is customary for those of the surrounding gentry who may desire his intimacy to call and leave their card. Thus we can say that calling cards, and the etiquette they required, became as indicative of social standing as an entry in an aristocratic Who’s Who. Note of course that it was the card-case itself that carried these social signifiers.
Silver calling card case
by Taylor & Perry, Birmingham, 1838
10 cm, width 7 cm, weight 77 gms
photo credit: Antiques Boutique UK
photo credit: Antiques Boutique UK
The solid sterling silver visiting card case above was made by John Taylor & John Perry, hallmarked in Birmingham. The year letter may be a P for 1838. Beautifully crafted in a cast and pierced style, the case is decorated with flowers on both sides. Blank shield areas have been left on front and back, open to personal inscriptions. The sharp-eyed reader can see the flip open style lid.
As the 19th century progressed, this little fashion accessory came to be created out of a number of attractive materials. In fact they eventually became much more elaborately decorated, echoing the High Victorian fascination with ornamentation. And Birmingham seemed to be the most popular assay office for these elaborate silver card cases.
enamel, gold and seed-pearl card case,
10 cm, 1899-1903
designed by Michael Perchin, Fabergé
photo credit: Sotheby’s
Calling-card cases are now resurging as precious objets d’art, both in popularity and value, prized for their craftsmanship and beauty. Auction houses look for rare designs, mint condition and refined provenance. A Fabergé Imperial enamel card case 1899-1903, decorated with gold and seed pearls, was sold at Sotheby’s in 2009 for £181,000. It was made for the Empress Maria Feodorovna, wife of Romanov Emperor Paul I of Russia. The case was designed by workmaster Michael Perchin in St Petersburg. Note that the surface was enamelled in translucent green enamel stripes over hatched engine-turning and the rim mount set with seed pearls and a cabochon ruby thumb piece. Struck with workmaster's initials and Fabergé in Cyrillic, this was auctioned by Sotheby's as part of The Lost Inheritance of Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. I would have mortgaged the house to buy this 10 cm’s worth of gorgeousness!
Chinese export ivory card case,
9.5 cm, late 19th century,
finely carved figures, amongst oriental architectural structures and foliage.
Americans began using calling cards around the same time as the Victorians, and cases were produced mainly on the East Coast. These too are now popular. But it is British silver cases that now command a premium, being more robust than those in ivory or mother-of-pearl. An auction that engrossed avid fans 11 years ago was of a very rare case with a 1845 engraving of Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in Britain, made by master craftsman Nathaniel Mills of Birmingham. I would have married my first born into a wealthy family to have bought this one!