#31 A call for a calling card revival

In Homeworking on February 10, 2010 at 11:29 am

If you don’t actually have a job, do you need a business card? Successful freelance friends have boasted that they’ve never bothered. But that was when there was work around and business to be had. Now we need to use every means available to remind people of our existence: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and, for instances of social faceworking*, cards.

My first ever own-brand business cards arrived yesterday, designed and ordered online at Moo, a really useful printing service who do also do stickers, postcards, greetings cards, etc, but who insist on sending cute emails from ‘Little Moo’ apologising for only being a piece of software but letting you know that Big Moo will be posting your cards to you forthwith. Nevertheless, I was so pleased with my modern, multicoloured cards, that I even splashed out on the iPod-esque acrylic holder:

The answer, perhaps, in the absence of actual business, is to revive the practice of the calling card or carte de visite, popular in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and upon which many a plot device has been known to hinge. [Viz the duplicitous behaviour of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility.] I for one love the idea of arriving unannounced at someone’s house, presenting my card to their manservant, and awaiting a response. I understand that how it worked was that if the gentleman or lady upon whom you had called subsequently dispatched their own card, then that could be seen as an invitation for a more prolonged visit. Perhaps even a cup of tea.

There were all sorts of unspoken codes governing the size and appearance of calling cards (for example, unmarried men used smaller cards) and a system of turning down different corners to signify particular reasons for the visit. This is all discussed most marvelously in  The Art of Manliness. A sort of American version of The Chap. It in turn quotes from the 1879 book by John H Young ‘Our Deportment – or the manners, conduct and dress of the most refined society’:

‘To the unrefined or unbred, the visiting card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position.’

Another useful site, How To Do Just About Everything, refers to a 1893 New York Times article on the subject, quoting:

‘a society woman’s calling card follows her everywhere she goes, remains when she is gone, and is the recognized representative in the payment of social debts when personal attention is impossible.’

And celebrated American etiquette guru Emily Post had plenty of rules on the importance, and appropriate usage, of cards.

A quick Google has also thrown up the fascinating snippet that the calling card underwent a brief revival amongst Chicago gang culture of the 1970s and ’80s where for a time, leaving a calling card was not actually a metaphor.

* ‘social faceworking’ is one of the made-up buzzwords that comes with your business card order as a challenge to slip authoritatively into conversation. I told you they were cute.

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