Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Duty Calls! (part 1)

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.


Anonymous said...

You really put calling into perspective. I never really thought of it as social networking. Thanks!

Marissa said: "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”."

Did you know that here in Newport, RI, Mrs. Astor, the Queen of Society, had her summer cottage built with a circular driveway and had a list of the 400 people she would admit. If you were not on that list, you could just drive right around the driveway and back out the way you came!

Caitlin said...

Fantastic blog!
Something I was wondering: would a visit to a close friend that lasted longer than 15-30 minutes also be considered paying a call?

Marissa Doyle said...

Caitlin, I think that once you got to "close friend" status, things got a little weren't paying calls so much out of adherence to social rules as you were out of friendship and wanting to hang out together...but if your best friend gave a big party and you went to it, you'd still pay a "thank you" call...does that make sense?

QNPoohBear--The whole Mrs. Astor and Ward McAllister "list" thing just floors me...but boy, is it fun to visit Newpot and see the "cottages"!

Rebecca Herman said...

This blog is very interesting! I can't wait to read Betraying Season, I wish the date hadn't been pushed back. :(

Marissa Doyle said...

Me too, Rebecca, but it was for a good reason--so that a paperback version of Bewitching Season could be released at the same time. Which is pretty cool!

But stay tuned for some contests later on this spring involving Betraying Season ARCs as prizes...

QNPoohBear said...

last time I visited Astor's Beechwood, they had an actor playing Mr. MacAllister and he hit on my friend! He invited her to sit next to him at dinner and share his whatever it was he had hidden inside his walking stick!! It's fun to be admitted as a temporary member of the 400 club. I can't imagine what it must have been like to be one of London's haut ton if American Society was that lavish.

Marissa Doyle said...

The funny thing was, English society wasn't as rigid or as over-the-top lavish as American society was--American society was regarded as vulgar and money-grubbing, while birth/noble descent still counted in England...having a fortune that came from "trade" was definitely not comme il faut. Which is part of what makes the Bingley sisters in Pride and Prejudice so funny--they look down on the Bennets, but their family's money most likely comes from trade a generation or so back (probably factory owners in the north of England).

Oh my goodness--reenactors really shouldn't be stepping out of character like that...especially since there were rumors about Ward McAllister... :)

Rebecca Herman said...

Ooh contest for ARCs! I will have to make sure to check back!

QNPoohBear said...

I'm glad to hear English Society wasn't quite as lavish as Mrs. Astor and her American Society.

I wrote down the conversation with Mr. McAllister as far as we remembered it.
He said to my friend: "I can tell by your hair that you are a young lady who enjoys drinking alcoholic beverages!" When she replied that yes, she did, he asked what she enjoyed drinking most. She replied "Chardonnay" and he responded "Well, yes, of coures! Mrs. Astor always and ONLY serves wine at her dinners... but what do you like that's a little stronger?" When she couldn't come up with an answer, he asked if she enjoyed scotch. She said yes and he opened up the top of his walking stick to reveal a flask! He invited my friend to sit beside him at dinner to share his flask... for his wife NEVER comes to these things! He also tried to hook up any of the young debutantes with his son, who is "enormously wealthy" but not all together there in the head, but no matter because he has more than enough money to make up for it!"
Here's a photo I took of him

Marissa Doyle said...

My, sounds like he was really getting into it!!

Darn. Now I want to down there and visit, and all my weekends for the next month and a half are booked.

Merry said...

The Victorian life has always been a bit sketchy to me. I read what the history books said about paying calls, leaving cards, and whatnot; but it's one thing to read historical facts, and quite another to have them put into perspective.

Thanks! ;)

P.S. I've read The Bewitching Season. I loved the witty dialogue, the deep but restrained passion between Penelope and Lochinvar, and basically everything. I'll definitely be looking forward to her sister's story soon!!!! :D