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    Auction Finds

    Being served with a calling card

    The small flat cards were scattered about in a box lot of metal items that had no relation to them. There were about 15 to 20, likely someone’s collection or a compilation pulled together by a dealer hoping to sell them.

    I recognized them as the cute little cards I’d seen extended at someone’s door on the British dramatization of novels on PBS’ “Masterpiece Theater.” But I never acquainted them with the upper-crust lifestyle this country. Here they were, though, nicely designed with red and pink flowers, white doves and extended hands with cuffed sleeves. Most simply had printed names of men, women and couples on them while some also had commercial – not personal – inscriptions.

    calling card

    An array of calling cards with printed names of men, women and married couples.

    I could imagine a man or woman dropping off the card (as in the British shows) at someone’s house or place of business to introduce himself or herself, or to show that they had arrived (in every sense of the word).

    Today, we pass along business cards to make sure people remember us, as well as to “network,” our term for making an acquaintance and a business contact. Use the term “calling card” today and people will think you want to make an international phone call to Brazil or New Zealand. It has taken on a whole new meaning from the 18th and 19th century when traditional calling cards were used to show that someone had been “called” on.

    The first cards were used in China, made their way to Europe in the 17th century and became pretty popular in 18th and 19th century Europe and the United States, according to a website that offered photos of cards from one woman’s 20th-century collection.

    calling card

    Calling cards from the auction. Most were adorned with roses and other flowers.

    The earliest visiting cards or social calling cards – as I found them described on the web – were carried mostly by Victorian men, according to the blog Women also apparently used them when they visited their female friends for tea in the afternoon.

    The cards were simply designed with no more than the person’s name (or the married couple’s) and address. Men and women cards were different sizes; cards had no initials, only full names in most instances, and “the correct hour for leaving cards and paying formal visits is between 3.30 and 4.30,” according to the 1922 book “Etiquette, in society, in business, in politics and at home” by the lady of manners Emily Post.

    Cards were usually left on a tray with the butler or servant, and replies awaited before a person would actually call. The system came with its own set of rules for different occasions.

    A grouping of calling cards from the auction.

    The cards began disappearing when the telephone changed how people communicated with each other, according to A 2008 Time magazine article stated that the cards were making a comeback with moms for playdates and retirees who no longer had jobs with cards. A Los Angeles Times story offered some guidelines from people in the know about designing your card. And here are some other tips, if you are so inclined.

    Later, the cards were apparently not just confined to the moneyed. I found several mentions of ephemera that included calling cards from African Americans.

    Contemporary artist Adrian Piper used them to send a message. The Indiana University Art Museum has two calling cards she created in 1986 to show the harm caused by racism and sexism. A light-skinned black woman, Piper would be at events where white people would tell racist jokes in front of her, assuming she was white. Soon, she began handing out a brown card telling of her distaste for such statements in her presence. She handed out a white card to let men know that although she was alone she was not available.

    calling card

    Two calling cards created by African American artist Adrian Piper send a message to impolite people. These two are in the collection of the Indiana University Art Museum.

    The California State Library has 1890s papers and documents from the African American Episcopal Church that included calling cards of pastors, including a J. Harvey Jones, described as an itinerant preacher who also pushed pain medicine.

    On eBay, someone was selling a calling card – which looked more like a business card – for a black photographer in New Jersey. Emory University this year acquired the photographic collection of a Philadelphia man that included calling cards belonging to black disc jockeys.

    Like the photographer, I use my business card as a calling card to introduce myself and help people remember my blog. I also accept cards for much the same reasons, putting them into a basket I keep in my office for future reference.

    Do you have calling cards or business cards you use in the same way?

    calling card

    This calling card/business card of a black New Jersey photographer was being sold on eBay.



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