Part 2 of our virtual tour of the Styling an American Family Exhibition takes a look at the fashions and customs associated with visiting and receiving visitors in 1911 and 1912.
Entering the Log House from the front porch brings us into the living room where, grouped around Mr. Stickley’s hexagonal library table, we see a hostess and her daughter and three visitors who have come for a ‘formal call’.
Etiquette for visiting and receiving, if one were to follow all the rules, was extremely elaborate. Here, we can only scratch the surface of early 20th century customs, but you’ll quickly see that social interaction was very different.
Moreover, the way men and women socialized differed significantly a century ago. On a day-to-day basis, men generally made friends with business associates and members of the many clubs of which they were members. Membership in various men’s clubs was viewed as a necessary extension of business. A wife was, above all else, a representative of her husband; she was expected to be socially inclusive of the wives and families of their husband’s friends and associates.
The primary social interaction for ladies, other than letter or note writing, was calling or visiting. The purpose was to trade news of the family and life in general. Though it surely happened, it was considered improper to gossip when visiting.
In the days when the phone was still a relative novelty, a woman visited with friends and acquaintances at home, either hers or theirs, for specified amounts of time. The length of a call was strictly dictated and it was bad form to stray beyond the time allotted. Fifteen minutes was considered the standard amount of time to say hello, exchange pleasantries and news and make a graceful exit. Less time was considered rude and more was a drain on the hostess’s good graces unless you were a close friend. Even then, 45 minutes was the accepted maximum.
A woman would receive visitors during her weekly or bi-weekly day-at-home. At the beginning of a social season, of which there were two, winter and summer, the lady of the house sent her visiting card to friends and acquaintances, specifying her day-at-home either weekly or bi-weekly. Such an announcement would bind the issuer to be at home to receive visitors on those days at that time to receive guests.
When observing a standard day-at-home, a hostess was not expected to offer refreshment, but many often did. Refreshment could include tea or hot chocolate or punch and cakes or light sandwiches. However, if the hostess had sent out her visiting cards specifically noting: Tea, Thursday, 2-4pm., for example, the “tea” would be more formal, along the lines of British afternoon tea. It was always the hostess’s duty to give each visitor some special attention and bring the latest arrivals into the conversation with those already in the room.
Much of the customs around visiting and receiving depended upon which person made the first call during a social season. It was expected that anyone receiving a visiting card at the beginning of a season would make the first call to visit within two weeks. If a woman could not meet the obligation within this time, it was necessary for her to send a note with an acceptable excuse and say when she would be able to visit. Once a visit was made, and a visitor’s card was received, the hostess was then responsible for making a return call as soon as possible within two weeks time. Once a return call was made, the social obligation was fulfilled and no further visits were necessary. First calls and return calls were considered formal calls since they were part of social season etiquette.
Friendly calls were made by established friends and acquaintances and could happen during day-at-home hours or on other days during daylight. It was not considered rude to drop in on a friend or acquaintance, provided that it was not during mealtime, but a visitor took the chance of finding the lady of the house away or too busy to come to the door. If the lady was indeed at home but busy, she was required to offer apologies in person. In each case the visitor would leave a visiting card so her friend would know she had stopped by, much the way we leave voicemails for people today. The lady of the house was then expected to make a return visit within two weeks.
Except in certain situations, not returning a visit was considered a social snub. However, if a friend brought other friends to visit whom the hostess had not met before, the hostess was not required to pay them a return call. It also would have been the responsibility of the friend to ask permission to bring her friends prior to the visit. If, however, the hostess had found the friends worthy of becoming acquaintances, she could make a return visit to them at her leisure.
It was always customary to leave a visiting card for the hostess after a visit. A visiting card was a small, rectangular piece of fine heavyweight paper that contained the printed name of its barer in plain, readable script. It had no other information on it. A married woman always carried her own cards as well as her husband’s. A mother with daughters who had been presented at their coming-out balls would also carry large ‘double cards’ (so named because they were nearly twice the size of a standard visiting card). A married woman’s visiting card presented her as Mrs. John J. Payne, never using her first name. A young lady’s visiting card would give her full name with, or without “Miss”.
When visiting the home of a friend or acquaintance, visiting cards were never handed to the lady of the house upon arrival, but instead were left on a tray or in a bowl near the front door on the way out. It was customary to leave a card for each person one had visited, plus one for the man of the house. If Mildred, Marion and Hazel Stickley had been home to entertain visitors with their mother during her day-at-home,
a visitor would have left five cards: one each for the four women, plus one for Mr. Stickley, even though he was not at home. If a visitor were married, she would leave the same number of her husband’s cards in his absence, since a wife was, of course, a representative of her husband.
Visiting cards left as a courtesy for a husband didn’t require him to return a visit to a lady, however it implied he ought to communicate with the visitor’s husband within a reasonable time. Since many of a wife’s visitors were wives of his friends and business associates, a casual but pointed comment was enough for both men to know their wives had been in contact, i.e.: “Mrs. Tilly mentioned to Mrs. Finch that you were under the weather earlier this week. I pray you are feeling better.” Men would return the calls of male friends at their own discretion.
Visiting cards could act as a means of introduction in a person’s absence. Let’s say June Tilly and Gertrude Finch were good friends in Syracuse. Gertrude knew the Stickleys but June did not. Gertrude recommends that June meet the Stickleys while visiting relatives in Morristown. By writing “Introducing Miss June Tilly” on her own visiting card, Gertrude would guarantee June a warm reception during Mrs. Stickley’s day-at-home.
As with black mourning dress, visiting cards indicated the status of a widow or widower by use of a black border. The more recent the death, the wider the border, starting at 1/8” thick and decreasing slightly every six months until only a fine line remained. For dress, the minimum period of mourning for a widow was one year, but the black border would remain on visiting cards until a woman or man remarried or passed away. Visiting cards with colors or images were available but were frowned upon by the upper middle class and the wealthy.
Leaving a card was most important if a visitor dropped by for a ‘chance call’. If the person she was hoping to visit was not home, the visiting card she left served as a message that she had been there.
Dress for receiving and visiting, like everything else, was tightly prescribed. Our hostess wears a brown silk day dress trimmed with brown silk velvet. Although this dress is from 1911, the silhouette reflects an adherence to earlier styles. The older woman, in any situation, dressed of her own taste and was not concerned with being fashionably ‘of the moment.’ The young women receiving guests with her mother wears a more fashionable ensemble with a short train; a pale lilac silk reception dress with chiffon overlay from 1912. The hostess was not required to wear gloves or a hat, since she was in her own home.
When visiting, a woman would wear a visiting outfit proper for the time of day and season, generally a reception gown with no train, or a suit of matched jacket and skirt with a shirtwaist or blouse, and coordinating hat and gloves and a parasol, if needed for sun protection. Here, the three ladies visiting are wearing day dresses suitable for an afternoon visit in the late summertime. On the left, she wears a day dress of plum ribbed silk faille with chemical lace detailing (c. 1911) and an oversize tan straw hat, and carries a plum and cream cotton sateen parasol with oak handle. In the middle, she wears a day dress in pale yellow ribbed silk with a china silk front (c. 1911) and a cream cotton mushroom hat, and carries a white embroidered cotton parasol with oak handle. On the right, a day dress in dark lilac printed silk decorated with chain stitch embroidery (c. 1911), and a picture hat of grey straw trimmed with ivory lace and gray ostrich plumes (c.1910).
Coats, dusters, parasols and umbrellas were left in the front hall of her destination, but during the visit, hat, gloves and suit jacket were rarely removed. If the room was warm and the hostess offered it, a visitor was allowed to remove her jacket. If soft finger food, like cake, was offered, one glove could be removed while eating, then quietly replaced. A gentleman caller removed his gloves and hat, but would never remove his jacket.
By the 1950’s the elaborate process of calling or visiting had all but disappeared as social strictures loosened, home telephones became the norm and women entered the workforce in ever increasing numbers.