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    Auction Finds

    Life-size Black Americana calling-card holder

    The wooden carved statue with the brown painted face looked more boy than man. He wore a gray coat with striped pants and a servant’s half-smile. His open left hand was extended as if he were waiting to serve, not to solicit.

    He stood in a conspicuous spot on a riser in a large open room at the auction house, with framed prints and paintings on a wall behind him, an antique bench holding a folk art box at his left side and a room of furniture straight ahead. You couldn’t miss him.

    The statue had been carved from wood – quite possibly a single piece for the most part since I could see no seams – and then painted. The auction house described it as a “Carved wood black Americana figural card receiver.” He was carved as a delightful servant, someone to accept the calling cards of guests and visitors.


    A bottom view of the Black Americana statue at auction. The statue is a servant waiting to accept calling cards from guests.

    The auction house didn’t indicate how old the statue was – the staffers likely didn’t know – but its purpose was anachronistic. Who announces their arrival with calling cards anymore, except folks on British TV shows or movies from the era when it was expected.

    A century or more ago, a certain upper class of people did walk around with calling cards to announce themselves when they visited or requested a visit. About two years ago, I found a stack of about 15 to 20 calling cards that looked to be from the early 20th century with the printed and written names of singles and married couples from this country.

    The earliest visiting cards or social calling cards, I learned, were carried by Victorian men when they visited their female friends for tea in the afternoon. The cards were eventually carried by both men and women, and were of different sizes for each.


    A full view of the Black Americana calling card holder statue.

    The system of using the cards had its own rules. Emily Post noted in her 1922 etiquette book that “the correct hour for leaving cards and paying formal visits is between 3.30 and 4.30.” They were normally left on a tray with the butler or servant, and the guest would wait for an answer before actually calling on the person.

    Perhaps the statue at auction was a leftover from that era.

    I tried to fix his place in time, checking out his clothes, face and haircut. He wore a jacket that didn’t represent any period to me – but I’m no expert on fashion history. The clothes were plain, the type you’d expect a servant to wear. The shirt had a Peter Pan collar, which began appearing on children’s clothes in the early 20th century, but mostly on women’s and girls’.


    A close-up of the face of the Black Americana calling card hold, with prominent grooves on the forehead and cheeks.

    The face had deep grooves, reminding me of the scarification among some African peoples – rather than furrows left by years of worry. Could he have been carved by the hands of someone whose ancestry stretched far beyond these shores? I also noted the curls depicted in detail in the hair.

    I also looked along his body in front, the sides and the back hoping to find a maker’ name. I found nothing to give him some identity. He was a folk-art carving, and like so many of such pieces, nameless and unsigned, just a living testimony of some anonymous hand that felt a need to create.

    Googling, I found several smaller Black Americana card holders, including a business card holder that sold for $140 at an auction in 2006. Some taller ones were described as butler card holders with trays, but they lacked the bulk of the one at auction. I found a 1940s tabletop Lucite card holder depicting Josephine Baker in her banana skirt, with an asking price of $350.

    I wasn’t around when the statue was sold. If I had bought him, I would’ve stood him in a corner to give him a rest from his years of servitude.


    The back side of the calling card holder statue.


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