Susanna here. My elder son is moving in a few days, and that has me grateful that he lives in modern times, when he can freely move across an ocean to another country without having to navigate the complex social etiquette involved in introductions that our ancestors were bound by.
In another age, we’d have been busily rounding up letters of introduction he could carry over with him.
I’ve come across countless examples of these in my years of doing research for my novels, including including the one Admiral Thomas Gordon wrote in March, 1724 to General Dillon at Paris on behalf of a good friend who was leaving St. Petersburg, Russia, in which Gordon took “the liberty to recommend him to your favor the bearer hereof Capt. William Hay…If you can give him any assistance in your parts it will be agreeable to a great many of your friends, he is a gentleman of much honore and a great deall of worth and what friendship you show him you will have no occasion to be ashamed of…”
For a researcher like myself, these letters can be a treasure trove of details. That one by Gordon, for example, also told me Captain Hay had “serv’d his Imperial Majesty of Russia six years with much reputation, and…advanc’d the be the first Captaine of the fleet” and that Gordon himself had been in Paris “in the year 1717” where he’d been treated well by General Dillon (a man of influence, at the time, in the shadow court of the exiled Jacobite King James VIII).
But for “the bearer” who had to procure and carry them, letters of introduction must have been cumbersome, to say nothing of the fine dance of the etiquette involved when you produced them at your destination.
Something of this can be gleaned from the advice of Cassell’s Household Guide, published over a century and a half later, in the late Victorian period, which tells us:
"Letters of introduction are frequently asked of friends to their acquaintances, when a stranger is about to travel abroad, or reside in a new neighbourhood. These letters should always be given into the hands of the person seeking the favour unsealed. By doing so, permission is tacitly given the recipient to read the contents, in order that he may see precisely the light in which he is presented to his future acquaintance. Letters of introduction should be closed when presented. The most usual mode of forwarding such letters to their destination is by enclosing them in an envelope containing a card bearing the name and address of the new corner. If the person; to whom the letter of introduction is addressed desires to honour his correspondent's recommendation, he loses no time in calling at the address indicated, and offering such civilities as may be expected. The most friendly forms of such offers consists in an invitation to dine; which, under ordinary circumstances, should be declined, unless the invitation be accompanied by very forcible reasons. Whether an invitation to dinner be given or not, the visit should be returned within at least three days from the time one has been received, or earlier if possible. The above rules apply equally to ladies."
And there is more, according to the Cassell’s Household Guide:
"On a stranger or a family arriving in a neighbourhood, it is the duty of the elder inhabitants to leave cards. If. the acquaintances thus presenting themselves are desirable, it is usual for the visit to be returned personally, or cards left, within one week. The latter rule is very conducive to good feeling in remote neighbourhoods, where it is now-a-days mostly in force. In the suburbs of large towns a less hospitable reception generally awaits strangers, causing acquaintanceship to be deferred till something is known of the new comers. These opportunities are of frequent occurrence, and need but a little cordiality to become occasions of forming an agreeable society. In proportion to the number of residents who are of the latter way of thinking, suburbs are more or less desirable localities to reside in.
Visitors to large towns, where their acquaintances are necessarily much scattered, usually announce their arrival by simply enclosing their address-cards to any persons whom they may wish to receive. Intimate acquaintances are not expected to wait for similar announcements, but call as soon as they learn the arrival and address of the expected visitor.
In all cases, it is the person who is the new comer that first receives offers of hospitality."
So yes, as quaint as calling cards and visits are, I’m kind of glad we’ve moved beyond that to a more informal age, where neighbours say “hello” the first time that you pass them in the hallway, and don’t wait to find out whether you’re “desirable”.
Besides, I’d never remember which order to do things in!
How about you? Would you have been able to navigate the world of introductions and calling cards, or are you a say-hello-over-the-back-fence type of person?