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I did myself the honour of calling in Berkeley Street last Tuesday, and very much regretted that I was not fortunate enough to find yourselves and Mrs. Jennings at home. My card was not lost, I hope.” Willoughby to Elinor, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 28

The astute reader of Sense and Sensibility knows that Willoughby took care to visit Berkeley Street at precisely the time when no one would be “At Home” to receive him. This duplicitous action served to raise Marianne’s hopes when there was none, for Willoughby was already courting Miss Sophia Grey, an heiress with 50,000 pounds. When he found no one at home, Willoughby most likely placed his card in a silver salver on the hall table, much like the one from 1765, see image.

The etiquette of the time dictated that when a gentleman paid a call to a lady, he must leave his card behind. If no one was “At Home”, the visitor, in this instance Willoughby, would turn down one corner of the card. This meant that he had come in person. A gentleman was obliged to leave two calling cards, one for the man of the house, and one for the lady. If there was no gentleman, then only one card would be left.*

A visitor bearing a card in person carried more social weight than if one merely sent a groom or footman to present the card. Cards, like ladies’ fans, conveyed many messages. If a card was merely presented reciprocally by a third party, the card giver could be giving the strong message that they were unwilling to further the social acquaintance. “A reciprocal card may be given to the caller. If it was not presented formally, this usually meant there was no desire to further the acquaintance. If, however, a formal call was returned with a formal call, there was hope for the relationship to grow.” If a card was conveyed to the mistress of the house, and she decided not to receive the caller, then this would be a clear rejection. In this instance, the butler would announce that his mistress was ‘not at home’.
A gentleman’s card was slightly smaller in size than a lady’s, for he had to carry his cards inside his coat. Both sexes would have their names printed in simple script on cream colored stock. Cards were most likely kept in a beautiful card case (Click here to see an example), which came in many shapes and styles. Fancy visiting cards printed with flowers and scenes did not become popular until the Victorian era, and even then the upper classes refrained from using showy cards. Printed on the card were the person’s address and name, preceded with a title (or Mr. or Mrs.). The precise name and title on the calling card would be announced to the person who was receiving. Visits were kept short, no more than 20-minutes to 30 minutes, and were held in the drawing room on the first floor. Formal morning calls were actually paid after luncheon, between 3-6 pm on the day that the lady of the house had announced she would be receiving.

In 1861, Mrs. Beeton published her seminal Book of Household Management, and wrote that: “a strict account should be kept of ceremonial visits, and notice [taken] how soon your visits have been returned. An opinion may then be formed as to whether your frequent visits are … desirable.” Miss Caroline Bingley, for example, made it quite clear with her short and belated visit to Miss Bennet, who was visiting London, that she did not wish to further the social acquaintance. More importantly, Jane quickly understood her point.

It was quite the practice to impress other visitors with the names on the calling cards left on one’s silver salver. Obviously, the card of the most notable visitor, such as Viscountess Dalrymple in Persuasion, would be displayed most prominently on top of the card heap.

The Bath paper one morning announced the arrival of the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and her daughter, the Honourable Miss Carteret; and all the comfort of No. –, Camden Place, was swept away for many days; for the Dalrymples (in Anne’s opinion, most unfortunately) were cousins of the Elliots; and the agony was how to introduce themselves properly.

Sir Walter, however, would choose his own means, and at last wrote a very fine letter of ample explanation, regret, and entreaty, to his right honourable cousin. Neither Lady Russell nor Mr Elliot could admire the letter; but it did all that was wanted, in bringing three lines of scrawl from the Dowager Viscountess. “She was very much honoured, and should be happy in their acquaintance.” The toils of the business were over, the sweets began. They visited in Laura Place, they had the cards of Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, and the Honourable Miss Carteret, to be arranged wherever they might be most visible: and “Our cousins in Laura Place,”–“Our cousin, Lady Dalrymple and Miss Carteret,” were talked of to everybody. – Persuasion Chapter 16

A person leaving town would inform his friends of this action by dropping off a card with the letters P.P.C. written on them. The initials meant “pour prendre conge” or French for ” I’m leaving.” [Some cards used P.D.A. (pour dire adieu)]*. When a man married, he sent round cards to former acquaintances who were respectable enough to frequent his home. Anyone not receiving a card automatically understood their acquaintance to have been dropped. (Georgian Index) (Also, The Jane Austen Centre.)

Read more about calling cards in these links:

  • *Etiquette for Gentlemen: Rules for Perfect Conduct, Copper Beech Publishing, 1995, p. 13. ISBN 978 1 898617 08 2

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Rowlandson illustration from Wikipedia

‘What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! There is nothing like dancing, after all. I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies.’

‘Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world; every savage can dance.’

Sir William only smiled. ‘Your friend performs delightfully,’ he continued, after a pause, on seeing Bingley join the group; ‘and I doubt not that you are an adept in the science yourself, Mr. Darcy.’

‘You saw me dance at Meryton, I believe, sir.’

‘Yes, indeed, and received no inconsiderable pleasure from the sight.
– Conversation between Sir William Lucas and Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter VI.

Dances figure prominently in Jane Austen’s novels. Whether performed in public assembly rooms in Meryton or in private at the Netherfield Ball, dances offered social opportunities for young people to mix and mingle and converse in an acceptable fashion. In an era when a young lady of good breeding was strictly chaperoned and escorted everywhere she went, she would find it difficult during a routine day to meet privately with a single gentleman, even one who was courting her. Indeed, such conduct was strictly forbidden (and the reason why Marianne Dashwood’s behavior with Willoughby was considered shockingly forward). The ballroom, however, afforded a social situation in which a couple could arrange to be together for one or two sets. Since a dance would often last for half an hour, the dancers had ample time to converse, flirt, and even touch one another in an accepted manner.

A gentleman would, of course, never ask a young lady to dance unless he was first introduced to her. This is one of the reasons why Henry Tilney made sure to arrange a formal introduction to Catherine Morland and Mrs. Allen through the Master of Ceremonies.

During this era people were often judged for their ability to dance skillfully, and a gentleman was pressured to cut a fine figure on the dance floor. In his advice to his son about manners and deportment, Lord Chesterfield wrote: “Now to acquire a graceful air, you must attend to your dancing; no one can either sit, stand or walk well, unless he dances well. And in learning to dance, be particularly attentive to the motion of your arms for a stiffness in the wrist will make any man look awkward. If a man walks well, presents himself well in company, wears his hat well, moves his head properly, and his arms gracefully, it is almost all that is necessary.”

It is notable that Mr.Collins movements are awkward, and that his conduct on the dance floor mortifies Lizzy: “The first two dances, however, brought a return of distress; they were dances of mortification. Mr Collins, awkward and solemn, apologising instead of attending, and often moving wrong without being aware of it, gave her all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give. The moment of her release from him was exstasy.” (Pride and Prejudice) Mr. Collins’ ineptness as a dancer would have been immediately understood by the contemporary reader to mean that he was not a polished gentleman. To compound his lack of manners, he boldly walks up to Mr. Darcy to introduce himself.

Young ladies and gentlemen practiced their dancing steps, belying Mr. Darcy’s assertion that “every savage can dance.” Professional dancing masters were employed to ensure that a young lady and gentleman learned the steps to a variety of intricate dance movements. Such instruction also helped a young gentleman to keep his bearing upright. Lord Chesterfield wrote his son, who was taking The Grand Tour, “Remember to take the best dancing-master at Berlin, more to teach you to sit, stand, and walk gracefully, than to dance finely. The Graces, the Graces; remember the Graces! Adieu!” Learning the steps was easier said than done, since “between 1730-1830 over twenty-seven thousand country dances with their tunes were published in England alone.” Thankfully, the Master of Ceremonies would choose only a certain number of dances to be performed for the evening, most likely consisting of the most fashionable dances of that particular year.* (Thompson, The Felicities of Rapid Motion)

The most important lady present would open the ball by dancing the first set, as Elizabeth Elliot did as the eldest daughter. Emma Woodhouse would have also been given the honors. Mr. Darcy’s rank and friendship with Mr. Bingley most likely put his position at the top of the line of dancers. Thus, when he asks Elizabeth to dance at the Netherfield Ball they would figure prominently in the line of dancers. The other couples in a country dance set would follow the lead of the top couple, and progressively work their way down the line. Sets of five to eight couples were popular during this period, with partners standing opposite each other as the other couples completed a sequence of movements

Standing and facing each other in line, therefore, was typical for couples engaged in a country dance. However, they were expected to make some conversation as they waited for the next movement. A gentleman, if he applied himself, could skillfully lead the conversation and put a young lady at ease, or pretend to be interested in any topic she brought up. Mr. Darcy chose to remain silent.

They stood for some time without speaking a word; and she began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance. He replied, and was again silent. After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with:

“It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. — I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.”

He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.

“Very well. — That reply will do for the present. — Perhaps by and by I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones. — But now we may be silent.”

“Do you talk by rule then, while you are dancing?”

“Sometimes. One must speak a little, you know. It would look odd to be entirely silent for half an hour together, and yet for the advantage of some, conversation ought to be so arranged as that they may have the trouble of saying as little as as possible.” – Pride & Prejudice, Volume 1, Chapter 18

In a public assembly, where people paid a fee to attend, people from various walks of life would come in contact with one another. “Aristocrats would interact with gentry, tradespeople, or even servants who were called in to make up a set if there were not enough couples…” (Sullivan, p 168). Mr. Darcy chose to dance only with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley at the public assembly rooms in Meryton, thereby displeasing a wide variety of people, particularly Mrs. Bennet, who was vocal about her displeasure, for there was a scarcity of gentlemen and Lizzy had been forced to sit out two dances. For her part, once a lady refused a gentleman, she was honor bound to pass on other invitations to dance for the rest of the evening.

Private balls became more popular towards the end of the century, when many grand houses began to boast their own ballrooms. At private affairs, the host and hostess could invite the ‘right’ sort of people. These balls were not only more selective, but they provided music played by more professional musicians, and offered delicious and elaborate refreshments as well.

Illustration from The English Folk Dance and Song Society

Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is the music featured at the Netherfield Ball in Pride and Prejudice 1995 (You can listen to it by clicking on the YouTube video above). The piece was written by Johan Playford in 1695, and published in Playford’s Dancing Master, a country dance guidebook. Maggot in those days meant “favorite,” and the term probably was used in conjunction with a favorite dance. “Today there are two modern versions of the dance – one published by Pat Shaw and one by Cecil Sharp. Shaw’s version of Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot is generally accepted to be the most authentic since it follows the AAB structure of the music, and Playford clearly states that the second, or B, line of music should be ‘played but once’.”

Links and Resources:

Festival Ball Tickets for September 27, 2008 are now on sale at The Jane Austen Centre, Bath. Tickets this year are £65. To purchase tickets and for further information on the ball and dance workshop taking place in the afternoon of the ball, contact Farthingales or call 44 (0)1225 471919

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To the unrefined or underbred, 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. The higher the civilization of a community, the more careful it is to preserve the elegance of its social forms. It is quite as easy to express a perfect breeding in the fashionable formalities of cards, as by any other method, and perhaps, indeed, it is the safest herald of an introduction for a stranger. Its texture should be fine, its engraving a plain script, its size neither too small, so that its recipients shall say to themselves, ‘A whimsical person,’ nor too large to suggest ostentation. Refinement seldom touches extremes in anything. From “Our Deportment” by John H. Young, 1879 & 1881, p. 76.

During the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian eras, calling cards were a necessary accessory for a gentleman or lady who called upon friends or acquaintances, or who wished to announce their presence in town. In fact, one wasn’t received unless one conveyed one’s card first. Gentlemen could place their addresses on their cards, but ladies could not, and a matron would naturally place her married name on her card, such as Mrs. John Smith.

The best calling cards were made from plain, excellent quality paper and were engraved. They were kept in beautiful cases, such as the one above. A gentleman’s card case was slightly smaller than a lady’s, since he had to carry it in his pocket. Ornamentation on a card was considered to be poor taste, although as the 19th century progressed, the more colorful calling card seemed to become quite common.

For the recipient, calling cards were a handy way of recalling who had come to visit, and which calls needed to be returned. They were also effective in letting one know exactly where one stood in the social order. For example, if an individual received a calling card in lieu of a personal visit, well, then, the point was likely made.

For more detailed information about calling cards, click on the following links:

  • The Gentleman’s Page goes into great detail about the etiquette of handing out cards in late 19th Century America. By scrolling down the page, you can view several samples of calling cards here.
  • Calling Cards and Stationary describes the use of calling cards during the Victorian period, such as: The card was conveyed to the mistress of the house, who would then decide whether or not to receive the caller. Out of respect, no questions or inquiries as to the whereabouts of the residents or the mistress were asked during the initial visit. If the mistress was ‘not at home’, it was a rejection of the visitor. A reciprocal card may be given to the caller, but if none was given formally, this generally indicated less desire to further the acquaintance. However, if formal calls were given, there was hope for the relationship to grow.

Calling card of Le Marechal Foch, French hero who lived during the turn of the 20th century. Note the writing on the card.

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The sixteenth century English writer, Joseph Addison, stated: “Men have the sword, women have the fan and the fan is probably as effective a weapon!”

The Language of the Fan demonstrates the hidden language of the fan, an art that has been lost, but was once widely followed. Click here for a fascinating explanation. The Language of the Fan.


In Georgian England, women wore fans as a fashion accessory with almost every outfit that they owned. “There were daytime fans, white satin bridal fans and even mourning fans painted with grisaille, i.e. black, white and grey. Classical fans, brought from Italy, replaced the luscious rococo of the French. As well as drawing attention to beautiful and perfectly manicured hands, these items played a big part in delicate flirtations.”

Madame Devaucy, J.A.D. Ingres, 1807

For more about these beautiful and fashionable accessories, go to the following sites:

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On Dancing the Cotillion

In The Mirror of Graces (1811), A Lady of Distinction writes

“The utmost in dancing to which a gentlewoman ought to aspire, is an agile and graceful movement of her feet, an harmonious motion with her arms, and a corresponding easy carriage of her whole body. But, when she has gained this proficiency, should she find herself so unusually mistress of the art as to be able, in any way, to rival her professors by whom she has been taught, she must ever hold in mind, that the same style of dancing is not equally proper for all kinds of dances.

For instance, the English country-dance and the French cotillion require totally different movements.”

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the cotillion as:

late 18th-century and 19th-century French court dance, popular also in England. A precursor of the quadrille, the cotillion was danced by four couples standing in a square set. The first and third, then the second and fourth, couples executed various series of geometric figures.”

In The Gentleman & Lady’s Companion, Printed by J. Trumbull, 1798, the author describes the cotillion as thus:

“Balance all eight, then half round, the same back again, 1st and 2d couple (opposite) take your partners with both hands, chasse with her to your side with five steps, back again to your places, balance with the opposite couples, then cross hands half round, back again with four hands round, a gentleman with a lady opposite balance in the middle, and set, the other gentleman with the opposite lady do the same, right and left quite round until to your places. The 3d and 4th couples do the same figures.”

Click here to read this original source from the Library of Congress.


Also in this blog: Shall We Dance? Regency Style

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