In its holdings of ephemera, the American Antiquarian Society has a collection of just over one thousand calling cards. Calling cards were widely used in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. Many of the cards in the Society's collection date from 1850 to 1880, but there are earlier and later examples.
Both men and women carried calling cards (also called visiting cards) and the social rules around their correct use were complex. Florence Hartley's The ladies' book of etiquette, and manual of politeness, first published in Boston in 1860, gives detailed instructions on the proper use of calling cards. The author writes, "If your friend is at home, after sending your card up to her by the servant, go into the parlor and wait. Sit down quietly. ... To walk about the parlor, examining the ornaments and pictures, is ill-bred. It is still more unlady-like to sit down and turn over to read the cards in her card basket." (p. 82) Men had to take care not to offend their hostesses by neglecting to leave cards after visits or dinners. When courting, the use of cards became even more involved and pages of advice were published in books, journals and etiquette manuals of the period.
The main portion of the calling cards collection at the American Antiquarian Society is divided into manuscript and printed cards which are both then arranged alphabetically by name. Many of the manuscript cards were fully drawn and decorated by their owners. Others were printed cards with blanks, signed in manuscript and occasionally colored with pencil or watercolor. The fully printed cards include letter press, engraved, and lithographed examples, ranging in date from the 1840s through the end of the nineteenth century, including an engraved card for Ulysses S. Grant. The collection also includes a number of blank visiting cards used as salesman's samples, which feature prices per dozen on the verso.
References to calling cards, can be found throughout many of the Society's other collections. The book collection includes several sample books of calling cards which were used by sales agents for large printing firms such as L. Prang & Co (Boston), and smaller stationary companies like Tuttle Brothers in North Haven, Connecticut. Manuscript holdings and archives housed at the Society, including the Cross Family Archive and the George Dubois Family Archive include calling cards tucked into letters and diaries. Many examples of broadsides and trade cards for printers and publishers mention visiting cards and occasionally include sample designs to tempt potential customers. Finally the Society's collection of sentiment cards (small format cards printed with religious or moral messages), includes many cards which were adapted for use as visiting cards by owners who inscribed them with their names.
~ Lauren B. Hewes, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts