The Parlor

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Books of etiquette disagreed on many details of making calls, but all agreed that they should be made. The morning call was generally a visit of about fifteen minutes; less than that was rude, more was inconsiderate of the person being called upon. “First calls” were paid on new arrivals after a “suitable” interval had been allowed them to settle their new homes. “When should a lady call first upon a new and desirable acquaintance?” asked Mrs. M. E. W. Sherwood in Manners and Social Usages. “Not hastily. She should have met the new and desirable acquaintance, should have been properly introduced, should feel sure that her acquaintance is desired. … Too much haste in making new acquaintances, however—‘pushing,’ as it is called—cannot be too much deprecated.” It was, of course, the prerogative of the lady being called upon to decide whether she was “at home” or not. In the country, where callers might well have come some distance by carriage, it was considered rude not to be “at home” and, worse than that, to be unfriendly. But in the city it was a lady’s privilege to receive callers or not, so long as she exerted discretion and was “at home” more often than not. In no city was calling more elaborate or more of a social burden than in Washington. “The American woman is making an heroic effort, here as elsewhere, to do what is expected of her,” wrote the author of Social Usages in Washington during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. “A lady in official life sometimes devotes four afternoons in the week to the business of paying calls, making as many as thirty or even fifty in a single day.” This kind of calling was merely “dropping cards” on people, an onerous task that had nothing to do with friendship or hospitality, and was merely a kind of tribute that women were expected to pay to the demons of etiquette.

The use of calling cards grew to ridiculous proportions during the nineteenth century, and the rules for using them became so elaborate that scarcely anyone could master all the nuances and idiosyncrasies. “However laughable it may appear to some persons, to see bits of pasteboard with names on them, left at the doors of houses,” wrote Mrs. John Farrar early in the century, “it is a most convenient custom, and the only way of being sure that your call will be known to your friend.” Mrs. Farrar, a sensible woman with humor, would have been astonished at what eventually came to be the tyranny of the card. Forty years later the anonymous author of Social Etiquette in New York devoted two chapters to the use of cards, one for gentlemen and one for ladies, and it was a solemn matter indeed. The discourse began:

To the unrefined or underbred person, 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 disagreeable attitude, even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position. The higher the civilization of a community, the more careful it is to preserve the elegance of its social forms.

Mark Twain was certainly one of “the unrefined or underbred” whom the author had in mind. Five years earlier, in The Gilded Age, Twain, who took special delight in needling the socially pretentious, had written of the use of cards in Washington:

Mrs. A pays her annual visit, sits in her carriage and sends in her card with the lower right-hand corner turned down, which signifies that she has “called in person;” Mrs. B. sends down word that she is “engaged” or “wishes to be excused”—or if she is a parvenu and low-bred, she perhaps sends word that she is “not at home.” Very good; Mrs. A. drives on happy and content. If Mrs. A’s daughter marries, or a child is born to the family, Mrs. B. calls, sends in the card with the upper left-hand corner turned down, and then goes along about her affairs—for that inverted corner means “Congratulations.” If Mrs. B.’s husband falls down stairs and breaks his neck, Mrs. A. calls, leaves her card with the upper right-hand corner turned down and then takes her departure; this corner means “Condolence.” It is very necessary to get the corners right, else one may condole with a friend on a wedding or congratulate her upon a funeral. If either lady is about to leave the city, she goes to the other’s house and leaves her card with “P.P.C.” engraved under the name—which signifies, “Pay Parting Call.”

One can almost hear the author of Social Etiquette in New York sneering and saying “Tsk! Tsk! Doesn’t he know that P.P.C. stands for ‘pour prendre congé?’ ” The language of etiquette, like the decoration of the parlor, was French. In fashionable circles the “party call,” which one omitted to pay on a hostess within a week of a party at the cost of social ostracism, was called a visite de digestion.

It was on the manners of the parlor that writers about etiquette concentrated their principal fire, though the manners of the dining room and of the street came in for their fair share of comment. The parlor was, after all, the principal private room in which public manners were most on display, and it was the place where guidance in proper behavior was presumed to be most needed.