In her wonderful post on Friday Regina gave you a taste of just what it was young ladies did all day during the season. All the shopping certainly sounds fun, but another frequent activity does not: making calls. Yet in many ways it was one of the most important things people did: it was the glue that held society together.
Think about it this way: today’s women (and I include teens in that) have lots of opportunities for networking, being together, establishing friendships and acquaintances. They work, go to school, volunteer in their community—all great ways to meet and get to know other people on a casual, daily basis.
But the majority of teens and women of the 19th century didn’t work outside the home, didn’t go to high school or college, didn’t help out in schools or libraries or shelters or wherever. If you were anything more than living in poverty, you were constrained by your social class to more or less stay home…but you could have a social life. And that’s where the importance of paying calls comes in.
Paying a social call was the 19th century equivalent of chatting for a few minutes by the water cooler, or between classes, or in the aisle of the grocery store. It was how you stayed plugged in to your world. So when you came out in society, your mother took you around to pay calls on her friends and acquaintances to announce that fact. If you were leaving town for a while, or when you returned, you paid calls to let everyone know that you were going or had come back. When you had accepted someone’s hospitality the night before at a dinner or party, you paid a call on your hostess in the next day or two to thank them. And while you sat for the 15 to 30 minutes that was considered polite, you gossiped, shared confidences with close friends, got to know less familiar people…all the things we do today in a very different way.
As the century progressed, an elaborate etiquette around the paying and receiving of calls evolved, partly in response to the perceived encroachment of the growing wealthy middle classes into upper class society—a way to separate “them” from “us”. I’ll go into the etiquette and proper form of calls in future posts.