Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Etiquette for Women by Irene Davison

This facsimile edition of a 1928 guide to modern manners was a joke Christmas present, but it has proved surprisingly enlightening, particularly on the use of visiting cards.  I've read about visiting cards in many novels, but have never really understood their function properly.  Irene Davison's lucid exposition explains this in great detail.  Visiting cards can be used to broker a social connection: cards were left with newcomers to a district, and that newcomer would be obliged to return card.  This does not, however, necessarily lead to a closer acquaintance; it may be the end of the matter.  If you called on a friend or neighbour and she was out, you would leave cards, and an obligation with her to return the call.  Cards were also left after an entertainment of some sort by the guests, presumably in lieu of the thank-you note that might be sent today; they could be left to enquire after an ill person, and to announce that the card-owner was moving away.  The book also sets out the complicated rules around leaving your husband's card as well as your own:

"Strictly speaking, your husband, not his card, should go calling with you.  As he doubtless has more urgent duties claiming him in the City, you take his visiting card along with you to represent him, and at the end of your call, leave it for your hostess.  If your hostess be married, you leave another of your husband's card for her husband.  Thus, you see, the two cards you leave for your husband are instead  of the calls he should have paid your hostess and her husband." (26)

There are several paragraphs more on what to do if you, or your hostess, is unmarried or widowed, or lives with a male relative.  I can't help suspecting that these rules were put about by stationers, to ensure repeat trade: hall tables must have been awash with visiting cards representing husbands too busy in the City for social life.   Presumably most of them ended up as kindling, although there seem to be a few collectors out there of the cards of the famous.  When did visiting cards die out, I wonder?  I expect the Second World War put an end to the practice, and Davison suggests that "in many places cards are dispensed with altogether" (35), although they must still have been significant enough, as they merit a chapter of their own.  The dance of the cards reminds me, irresistibly, of the etiquette of Facebook and Twitter, although presumably it's not necessary to ensure your husband is friends with all of your Facebook contacts.

The book is also good on introductions, which so often seem to fox the Provincial Lady and her peers, and explains the rules of seniority which governed middle-class life during this period but which have mostly died out now and can be incomprehensible to the modern reader.  In some respects, however, we have reverted to a greater formality.  Davison notes that "the formal breakfast and its accompanying formal speeches are now seldom part of a wedding entertainment", and describes a wedding party that would be very low-key by today's standards.  Some of the rules about social contact epitomise the stereotype of English reserve: when you move to a new area, you must wait to be called upon; if a stranger picks up a dropped glove, you must thank them, but not enter into conversation; if a passing male friend of the friend you are with greets you or raises his hat, you should make no acknowledgement, not even a wordless bow.  I suspect that some of these rules were old-fashioned by 1928, as guidance on these matters tends to be behind the trend; I hope to some extent that they were fading away, as they give a picture of a cold world, lacking in spontaneity and designed to discourage social connections.


  1. Re visiting cards: I came acorss a few in a secondhand shop recently and was researching the odd abbreviations that a couple bore - I found this page: http://artofmanliness.com/2008/09/07/the-gentlemans-guide-to-the-calling-card/ -- may be of interest to you.

    Best wishes, Paul

  2. Thank you, Paul - fascinating stuff! And thanks for reading and commenting on my post.