Paying calls was, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the social glue of female society in the 19th century. But of course, this being the 19th century, a whole slew of customs and rituals and unspoken rules evolved around the process as the century progressed. Let’s consider why that happened for a moment.
One thing I think it’s very hard for 21st century Americans to understand is just how much social class mattered in 19th century British society…the truth is, it mattered enormously. In the first decades of the century, class was pretty straightforward: if you were born in a farm worker’s family, it was almost certain that you yourself would grow up to be a farm worker. If your father was a shopkeeper, then one day you took over and became a shopkeeper in turn…and if you were a girl, you married another farm laborer or shopkeeper or whatever.
So what does that mean? A lot, because what class you were born into determined many things about you: where you lived, what you ate, your clothes, your education…but also less tangible things like your outlook on life, how you spoke, how you moved, even. You could line up a plowman, a miller, an attorney, and a duke, put them all in identical suits, and more than likely still be able to figure out almost immediately who was who. For the most part, people were happy that way; it was comforting to know where you belonged and easy to understand the people around you because they were just like you.
With the industrial revolution, this began to change. Farm laborers’ sons started working in the new factories that were springing up, and if they worked hard and showed initiative, could become supervisors and make a little more money. In time, some of them worked their way up to owning factories of their own and became very rich. But their speech and manners revealed their origins, even if they could afford grand houses and carriages and all the trappings of wealth that had formerly belonged to the upper classes.
And the upper classes were, on the whole, appalled at this development. Being a gentleman at that time meant that one did no labor nor performed a trade. Remember how we discussed 19th century medicine a few months back, and how physicians, who were considered gentlemen, resisted the use of newly-invented stethoscopes because they were tools, and gentlemen did not use tools? It was all right for a man to inherit a large fortune, but certainly not to go out and earn it with his own hands.
So say a Mr. Stubbins has worked his way up from being a coal-hauler to owning half-a-dozen textile mills and shares in a shipping firm, and has bought a splendid townhouse next door to Sir George Uppercrust. He could perhaps expect an exchange of polite nods in the street with Sir George. But the Stubbinses would never be invited to dine at their neighbors’ house, and Sir George’s wife and daughters would not call on Mrs. Stubbins and her daughters. No matter their wealth, the Stubbinses were not gentlemen...er, ladies... (well...you know what I mean!)
The problem was, the Stubbinses rode in a carriage that was just as fancy as the Uppercrusts’ carriage, and Mrs. Stubbins wore clothes just as elegant as Lady Uppercrust’s. How could people like the Uppercrusts keep the world from confusing them with people like the Stubbinses?
The answer was manners and etiquette. The behaviors that were considered to be "proper" and "well-bred" by the upper classes gradually became more complex over the century, something that you it would be hard to master unless one were born to it…which is why how-to books on etiquette and how to behave in polite society became so popular as the century progressed, from nearly none in the Regency era to a handful in the late 1830s to dozens by the 1860s and 1870s and beyond.
I hope this sets the stage a little for next week, when I’ll talk about "at homes", the corners of calling cards, and what a gentleman did with his hat and umbrella.