02 August 2016

Victorian and Edwardian calling card cases

Everyone I know carries business cards in their wallet, giving them out to new colleagues and clients at work or at conferences. I assumed that Victorian calling card cases did the same job, at least until WW1.

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

Calling-card cases could be made out of everything from gold, agate or leather to sharkskin or wood. And with most cases measuring 10cm tall, they lent themselves to a horizontal hinged or slip-top lid. In the late Victorian era, due to European trading links with the Orient, there was also a range of Japanese and Chinese card cases made of delicately carved ivory. These were exported to meet the European demand, so were intricately decorated for their target markets.

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.

Etiquette dictated that ladies should always carry their cards in a card case, although it was acceptable for a gentleman to carry calling cards in his jacket pocket. Chinese ivory, made for the export market, was usually carved in minutely detailed relief with trees, people, birds, flowers, animals and architecture. So how did the European women maintain the perfect condition of the finely carved ivory in real life conditions? Not surprisingly, some examples of Chinese carved-ivory cases can now fetch several thousand pounds at auction due to rarity, craftsmanship and a new market of avid Chinese collectors.

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!








18 comments:

Andrew said...

I think the calling cards lived on to a good bit later in The Raj, at least until WWII. Calling cards are interesting in that what if a family of note moved in nearby but did not receive calling cards, or very few? I suppose there would be a reason behind such non action.

Student of History said...

The silver calling card boxes look just like trinket or snuff boxes, but with the hinges in a different location. Easy for the silversmiths to diversify.

bazza said...

I have seen a Victorian silver cigarette case which is very similar in appearance to your first picture. Not surprising I suppose.
I am always amused by the way that the police in TV dramas are always handing their calling-cards to witnesses and there are plenty of companies online offering personal visiting cards. I think I'll get me some!
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Top Hat said...

Hels

The Etiquette Of Visiting Cards (your reference in the post) helps explain the multitude of social requirements involved in visiting a family. What a silly rigid system the upper classes had to obey

Hels said...

Andrew

the further away from the centre of upper class culture a family was, the more uncertain they might have been about acceptable social etiquette. So it doesn't surprise us that British and other European families who moved to India, the USA etc needed guidance for longer. Nobody wanted to "do the wrong thing", humiliating themselves or others.

Hels said...

Student of History

certainly artists and craftsmen wanted to expand their market. But they couldn't have created a new market for a product, unless there was an established need for that product. I agree that craftsmen who had already been creating gorgeous snuff boxes for hundreds of years could have easily diversified to calling card boxes, once they learned what a calling card was.

Hels said...

bazza

we don't have the same social etiquette guides our Victorian and Edwardian grandparents had, but your example seems similar to their calling cards and their lovely boxes. How does a modern policeman, lawyer or real estate agent know where to keep his/her business cards, who to offer them to and when?

Hels said...

Top Hat

There were many silly rigid systems the upper classes had to obey (eg what a beauty spot on the cheek meant, how a woman messaged her hopes with a fan), but they must have served a purpose. As soon as these systems failed to be useful, they faded away.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, In addition to the beautiful cases, a large number of the original visiting cards have also survived. Some are heightened in interest by beautiful engraving, or by colored lithography (probably not considered the classiest originally, be we love the strange ones with disembodied hands preferring bouquets, which lift up to reveal the name). Also, many reveal old customs, such as black borders for mourning, or folded corners with a whole system of hidden meanings behind them.
--Jim

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Hels said...

Parnassus

I too have seen very elaborate cards, with all sorts of imagery and text.

Since the most common visiting card in Victorian Britain etc was plain white with just a name on it, we have to assume that the later, fancier ones were meant to be more interesting, more personal or had more of an advertising motive. The very feminine ones, with meaningful flowers or hands of friendship were way over the top.

I quite liked those visiting card that had a professional portrait of the card-owner on one side.

Hels said...

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Mandy Southgate said...

I do like the silver one! I often wonder what I would have been like if I lived in Victorian times - fiercely independent and anti conformist like I am today or the type of fancy lady who would have subscribed to social etiquette and norms.

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Hels said...

Mandy

a clever energetic woman could indeed do what she wanted, but at what cost? Would have have been prepared to be single all your life, or divorced if you were already married? What about the social stigma, meaning you would never be invited to visit other families and would have been sniggered at in church?

Being a coward, I know what I would have done. I would have followed the example of those brilliant salonistas who conducted cultural salons in their homes. The woman sent out invitations to the smartest people in town, shared music or literature or art each week, then invited each attendee to discuss the works with the rest of the group. Drinks and nibblies only - no sit down dinners required.

Gunn said...

The card cases are very beautiful!

Hels said...

Gunn

thank you. Imagine the range of materials, shapes and sizes. I simply mentioned gold, agate, leather, enamel, wood and carved ivory, but there were other materials that I didn't mention eg tortoise shell or didn't like as much eg papier-mache.

Mandy Southgate said...

Yes! I can see how you would have worked the room, making sure you chat to everybody!

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