In the 19th century, a great deal of social discourse was done by letter writing and by paying calls.
But what is a call, exactly? In the days before Alexander Graham Bell, a call was a visit.
Back in the day, a well-to-do lady would pay morning calls to her friends and acquaintances. First of all, in the Regency, a morning call was more likely to take place in the early afternoon. Say that this lady has just come to London for the Season. She gets into her carriage and calling cards in card case, takes off for her acquaintances’ homes. She has a servant drop her calling card off at the homes.
|From Country Living|
The card is dropped onto a silver tray in the front hall by the other person’s servants and later given to the mistress of the house for perusal.
If a receiver later reciprocates, then the acquaintance may be furthered or renewed. If the lady was new to the neighborhood, she would wait for her new neighbors to call on her before calling on them.
Say our lady calls on a good friend, who is at home to visitors. Her card is taken to her friend by a servant, who tells the servant to admit and announce the lady. Calls were usually taken in the drawing room; for a more intimate friend, a boudoir might do.
Calls tended to last about twenty or thirty minutes. One repaid a call with a call.
It was proper to call after a ball or a dinner party or a wedding or birth in a family. A lady would also distribute calling cards to announce when her family was leaving town.
As the 19th century wore on, the etiquette for paying calls became more complicated. Subscribed times during the afternoon were reserved for new people, acquaintances and connections, and friends.
Men and women carried calling cards. As the 19th century wore on, women were allowed to drop off their husbands’ cards along with their own.
So what did these cards say?
For a man, a calling card listed his name, title and address. Sometimes they wrote a little note on the card, as we sometimes do with business cards today.
The British obsession with tea became stronger in the latter half of the nineteenth century. During an “At Home” afternoon, a lady could become peckish while receiving all those calls from lots of people. Refreshments were served to one’s guests to be polite; eventually, those refreshments became tea time.