During the Victorian era, calls were an important social event. Certain afternoons were set aside as "at home days" for people to come calling; proper calls typically lasted no more than 15 minutes. If you were not well acquainted with the person you intended to visit, the appropriate time to call would be between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. If you knew the family well, you could visit between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Calling cards played a big part in this elaborate ritual. Calling cards were about the size of today's business cards, though they could vary in design from a plain white rectangle to an elaborate, full-color art piece. They always had the person's name written on them -- usually in calligraphy, though printing plates could also be made of a person's card so that they could be ordered in bulk.
When a caller came in person to make a call, they were shown into the parlor to wait while the butler went to see if the lady of the house was "at home."
While the caller waited, he or she had the opportunity to look through the cards laying in the card receiver to see who else had paid calls recently. The cards of important people were often left at the top of the stack to impress visitors.
After receiving a card or a visitor, the lady of the house was obligated to return the call, either in person or with a card. Women kept records of calls paid, received and owed; if calls were not paid, it was considered a snub -- a serious etiquette faux pas in Victorian times.
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Fort Bend Museum Staff