1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Visiting Cards

VISITING CARDS. The use of cards of personal identification for social purposes is generally supposed to have had its origin at the court of Louis XIV. of France, that centre of the etiquette of the 17th century. But there appears to be little doubt that, in a rougher and ruder form, this mark of intercourse dates from much earlier times, and that the Chinese, and possibly other Oriental nations also, had in bygone ages employed such mediums of communication on calling at the houses of absent friends. When and where visiting cards first came into vogue in Europe is a matter of some uncertainty. It is probable, however, that they were first used in Germany—and as early as the 16th century. A German visiting card recently discovered in Venice bears this inscription: Johannes Westerholt Westphalus scribebat, Patavii, 4 Martii 15 x 60. Concerning this, Professor Dr Kirmis (Daheim, September 30th, 1905) remarks that the German students in Padua were wont, on quitting the university, to pay farewell calls at the houses of the professors, and, in the event of not finding them within, to leave their names on paper billets; and he adds that the custom must, until that time, have been unknown in Italy, for this card of the student Westerholt was sent by Professor Giacomo Contarini on the 15th of January 1572 to Venice as a curiosity. Under the reign of Louis XIV., however, the fashion appears to have become firmly established in France. Small strips of paper were at first employed for the purpose of the communication, but gradually they attained a more elaborate finish and execution. Ladies especially seem to have been the pioneers in this direction, and to have embellished their cards with hand drawings, sometimes taking the form of “hearts” and other amorous tokens of affection. Under Louis XV., the reign of exquisite extravagance and refined taste, visiting cards were furnished with delicate engravings, frequently masterpieces of that art, showing some fanciful landscape, or a view of the town or place where the person resided. A further stage in the development of this custom was the autograph signature at the foot of the card beneath the engraved view. England followed the lead of France, and visiting cards became a universal fashion in Europe towards the close of the 18th century. But though in almost every European country there are variations in the size and shape of the card and the way of describing the quality of the person whom it represents, the modern tendency is everywhere in favour of simplicity and the avoidance of ostentation.

A valuable collection of visiting cards is that of the Gabinetto della Stampe in Rome and the Museo Civico in Venice.