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One of a pair of card racks made of decorated cardboard, French, c. 1820, at Attingham. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

About two weeks ago, The National Trust asked a question about card racks: How were they used? The organization had acquired a number of beautiful examples of 1820’s card racks from Attingham, an estate in Shropshire.  Laurel Ann from Austenprose referred me to the site and to Emile de Bruijn, who had asked the question. I jumped right in, only to discover how little I (or anyone, really) knew about the topic. There was much lively speculation about these beautiful items.

Card racks are small, only large enough to hold visiting cards or small notes. They were designed to be hung somewhere, perhaps on a wall, or over a fireplace mantle. Many were made from cardboard, yet sturdier porcelain examples exist. Their true purpose is now obscure and has faded from memory.

These facts came out as I researched the topic:

It seems that young ladies decorated these card racks from the turn of the 19th c. until at least 1830. Mary Russel Mitford wrote in Our village: sketches of rural character and scenery, Volume 4, 1830:

With regard to accomplishments she knew what was commonly taught in a country school above twenty years ago, and nothing more: played a little, sang a little, talked a little, indifferent French, painted shells; and roses, not particularly like nature, on card-racks and hand screens; danced admirably; and was the best player at battledore, and shuttlecock, hunt the slipper, and blind man’s buff in the county.” p. 131

French emigres made card racks to earn a living:

During the period when the French emigres were so numerous in this country, he (Rudolph Ackermann) was one of the first to relieve their distress by liberal employment. He had seldom less than fifty nobles priests and ladies engaged in manufacturing screens, card racks, flower stands, and other ornaments.” – English coloured books, 1906, Martin Hardie

Rudolph Ackermann kept on hand in his Repository the supplies ladies needed for making hand made items:

No. 3 is a new embossed gold seed-paper. It is used, in a variety of ways, for ladies’ fancy work — in card-racks, hand and fire-screens, chimney ornaments, boxes, watch–stands and cases, &c. It is manufactured by Mr. S. Solomon, and sold, wholesale and retail, at R. Ackermann’s Repository, No., 101, Strand.” – From The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics (1809)

And of course I found a Jane Austen connection. In Persuasion, Mrs. Smith makes pin money by creating hand made items:

One might argue that perhaps Nurse Rooke’s patients themselves are practicing charity by buying the thread-cases, pin-cushions, and card-racks. One finds, however, that they do not do so willingly. Nurse Rooke is skilled not only in invalid care, but also in sales. In the case of Mrs. Wallis, Nurse Rooke’s current invalid, Mrs. Smith says, “‘I mean to make my profit of Mrs. Wallis . . . . She has plenty of money, and I intend she shall buy all the high-priced things I have in hand now’” Thread-cases, Pin-cushions, and Card-racks: Women’s Work in the City in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Susan E. Jones, Persuasions Online

Ironstone ware card rack. Image @Christie's

More speculation and information about card racks can be found in the comment section of the National Trust post. (I have included only my own findings.) It is fascinating to learn how quickly a once popular pasttime has lost its meaning. If anyone can help the staff at The National Trust, do go over and leave a comment.

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