Friday, February 1, 2008

The Lost Art of Social Calls

Edwardian Promenade has a fascinating post on social calls. I remember my grandmother telling me about how her mother had an "At Home" day every Wednesday, meaning that on that day the other ladies were welcome to drop by for tea. Everyone used "calling cards." But people do not really visit anymore, not the way they used to, anyway. Everything is business oriented, and quite utilitarian. Some friends and I are trying to change that, by getting together for tea at least once a week.

In the old days calls could be a bit rigorous; they could make or break you. It is a good thing that many such social conventions have fallen by the wayside, although they are fascinating to read about as historical curiosities. As the article says:
If a lady progressed past the stage of leaving cards and was invited to an “At Home,” the pressure had increased. Not only was she on display for the hostess, but most likely, the hostess’s own social circle, which meant she had to please and impress everyone. Furthermore, she had only fifteen minutes in which to do it. When she arrived at the house, she gave her card to her footman, who then handed it in at the door. If the mistress was willing to receive guests, the lady would enter the house and be led to the drawing room, where she would be introduced and promptly seated in the nearest vacant chair to her hostess. The question uppermost in the minds of the hostess and her friends was whether the newcomer make people feel awkward. Things that could create awkwardness included a lack of required family background, a lack of wealth (though a good background made up for poverty), a lack of assurance, lack of an acceptable moral reputation, and most important, the lack of ability to conform to the group’s social demands.

To be truly accepted into the new circle, the lady had to prove that she lacked nothing in all five respects; to fail one prerequisite would mark oneself as a red-flag that the quiet drawing-room could suddenly fall into chaos. However, since her very presence indicated a modicum of acceptance, there as another hurdle to leap over: was her voice pleasant; how did she speak (did she say “father,” rather than the correct “my father”); does she gush; does she wear the right clothing for the occasion; does she flutter and keep gestures to a minimum; and above all, does she carry herself with a poise the proclaims her a potential member of the circle as of right?



Anonymous said...

This lost social function was part of the leveling or equalizing of social strata that followed WWI. When I was young the reigning adult generation tried to pass these arts of social grace onto us, but we would have none of it. I had ballroom dance lessons, learned to pour tea and wore white gloves and a hat, but the age of 'the working class' was upon us and these things interferred with 'making a living'. The coming of the 'Baby Boomers' totally overwhelmed any other efforts to maintain social graces, and now we are witnesses to the effects this has had on our society, if one can call it that.

elena maria vidal said...

Very true. It is a shame that such social graces are lost.

My Irish Catholic grandmother recalls her mother's "At Home" days well into the 1920's, because she would be asked to dance the Charleston for the guests.

Anonymous said...

Oh what a coincidence that you post about social calls! I was discussing this the other day with my daughter about how this was the norm in the old days even in America, as _Anne of Green Gables_ so beautifully illustrates! Today in India it is still expected of people to make social calls, mostly to elders, but here it is falling by the wayside as well.

elena maria vidal said...

Remember in "Little Women" Amy and Jo go calling-- and Jo kept deliberately embarrassing Amy--it was pretty funny.

Enbrethiliel said...


I was just about to mention that chapter from "Little Women"! =)

Yes, it was very funny, and I think I would have been as difficult as Jo, had I been in her place; but it also demonstrates how calls "could make or break you." If I remember correctly, it was because Jo couldn't behave properly when calling on Aunt March that she didn't get to go to Europe.

Today, hardly anyone meets friends at home. It seems to be all about the mall or some other public "social" spot.

elena maria vidal said...

That's right, Jo missed out on going to Europe because of her behavior when calling on Aunt March. Amy got to go instead. I had almost forgotten.

Anonymous said...

It's been years since I'd read Little Women, but I do faintly recall the old aunt -- always dressed in black, wasn't it? Time for a re-read, for sure.

Anonymous said...

Elena, I love the idea of restoring this custom esp so women can visit, though I'm not that fond of "visiting" or chatting unless people wish to talk about meaningful topics, but if you open your own home and direct conversations yourself as the hostess then gossip sessions could be avoided----maybe that's a lost skill----how to re direct conversations that are turning into gossip?

elena maria vidal said...

It is so true, SF, so often today gatherings of women deteriorate to gossip sessions. Conversation about meaningful topics is a lost art. Last night my husband and I had drinks with a lovely couple who kept guiding the conversation onto interesting subjects-- we talked for so many hors we lost track of time!