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Collecting Card Cases

cardcase2In the day of genteel manners and formal introductions, the exchange of calling cards was a social custom that was essential in developing friendships. The custom of carrying calling or visiting cards began in France in the early 1800’s. It quickly spread throughout Europe, and then became vastly popular in the United States, especially the New England area from 1840-1900.

Calling cards were carried primarily by the “well-to-do” ladies who made a point to go calling on friends and family on a specified day of the week or month, depending on their location and proximity to neighbors.

In the 19th and early 20th century, social interaction was a richly cultivated, well-mannered affair. The tool that facilitated these interactions was the calling card. Calling cards streamlined introductions and helped remind people of new acquaintances and needed visits. The calling card also served as a way to brand your social identity. The way your card looked and felt or the way you handed it to someone communicated your standing and relationship with the receiver.

To the unrefined or unbred, the visiting card is but a trifling and insignificant bit of paper; but to the cultured disciple of social law, it conveys a subtle and unmistakable intelligence. Its texture, style of engraving, and even the hour of leaving it combine to place the stranger, whose name it bears, in a pleasant or a disagreeable attitude even before his manners, conversation, and face have been able to explain his social position.

During the 1800’s and early 1900’s the practice of “calling” upon or visiting one’s relatives, friends, and acquaintances was a middle and upper class social ritual governed by countless rules and traditions. Central to visiting etiquette was the use of the calling card. Every gentleman kept a ready supply of calling cards with him to distribute upon his visits.

When calling upon a friend, a gentleman gave his card to the servant answering the door. The servant would be holding a silver tray and the card would be placed upon it. If the person the gentleman was calling upon was home, the servant would take the card to them and they would come meet the gentleman. If the person being called upon was not home, the servant would leave the card for when they returned.

A calling card was also used when a gentleman was desirous to see someone at a hotel or parlor. He would send up his card while he waited in the reception area or office for his acquaintance or business associate to come and greet him.

A man’s calling card was simple and plain in design. About the size of a playing card (they were toted about in a carrying case tucked in one’s breast pocket), they bore a man’s name, and later on, his address as well. The name was written in the center, sometimes with a middle initial and sometimes not. A young man did not preface his name with “Mr.” A military officer included his rank and branch of service.

A physician could include his professional title, as in “Dr. Robert Smith,” or “Robert Smith M.D.” But honorary titles such as Prof., Hon., and Esq. were not acceptable. The card sometimes also included the name of the gentleman’s club or fraternal organization a man belonged to.

Early calling cards were created one at a time by a skilled penman. Each card displayed the bearer’s name written in calligraphy with a bit of flourishing. Doves, wheat, and flowers were commonly added as ornamentation on these early cards. On each of these cards, the pen was held perfectly still while the card itself was rotated. This cherished and highly skilled craft of calligraphy and embellishment of that era is unsurpassed today.

Although the tradition of leaving a calling card began at the turn of the 19th century, the fashion for chic cases really took off in the 1840s. However, their popularity lasted through to the 1930s: at Christie’s New York in 2012, a 1930s Cartier French-jade card case, embellished with a platinum, ruby and diamond clasp, sold for $16,250, far exceeding its $4,000 to $6,000 estimate.

What do people collect? While most card cases assume a standard form - a narrow rectangular box with a lid that slips on and off, or is hinged - it is the almost limitless variations and their ease of display that make them so collectable.

Mother-of-pearl and tortoiseshell are most common (a Birmingham directory of 1873 lists 38 mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and ivory workers producing visiting card cases to meet the demand), but card cases provide in miniature the full gamut of techniques, styles, materials and fashions that were popular in the decorative arts during the Regency, Victorian and Edwardian periods.

A remarkable number of different mediums were included: tooled kid leather from Morocco, pierced and carved bone and ivory exported to the West from Canton (China) and Vizagapatam (India), sandalwood from the Middle East, French porcelain, mauchline and tartan wares from Scotland, Tunbridgeware, shagreen (sharkskin), papier-mâché, needlework, abalone, filigree, embossed and engraved silver and silver gilt, EPNS, gutta percha, lacquer and penwork.

Often different materials and techniques, such as leather and petit point needlework, tortoiseshell, silver and mother-of-pearl, are seen in combination. Calling-card cases can be made out of everything from gold, agate or leather to sharkskin or wood. But rare designs, mint condition and refined provenance make surviving examples reach top prices. A Fabergé Imperial Romanov enamel card case with gold and seed pearls (1899-1903) sold at Sotheby’s in 2009 for £181,250, which was 15 times the highest estimate; it was made for the Empress Maria Feodorovna, the wife of Emperor Paul I of Russia.

cardcase1British silver cases also command a premium and can be a more practical choice, being more robust than those in ivory or mother-of-pearl. “The most valuable are known as ‘castle tops’, as they have an engraved or stamped image of a castle or monument in high relief,” says Alexis Butcher, director of silver at Lawrences Auctioneers in Somerset. They were especially popular as souvenirs in the late 1830s, and it’s not surprising that “common designs are Windsor Castle and Abbotsford, the Scottish home of Sir Walter Scott”, says Michael Prevezer, head of the silver department at Christie’s South Kensington. “But it is the value of the rarer castle tops that is on the up.”

Other respected makers in this creative hub include Alfred Taylor, George Unite, Taylor & Perry and Edward Smith. At a specialist Christie’s sale in March, an 1860 card case by Alfred Taylor, the front chased with a relief of Buckingham Palace, trebled its estimate, selling for £3,500. An outlier is Henry Wilkinson of Sheffield; his 1851 case with an image of a lady outside Norton Hall, Yorkshire, reached £4,750 at the same auction, far exceeding the £1,000 to £1,500 estimate.

Due to Victorian trading links between the UK and the Orient, there is also a rich array of Japanese and Chinese card cases made of delicately carved ivory, which were exported to meet British demand. “Some examples of Chinese carved-ivory cases can now fetch several thousand pounds at auction due to rarity, craftsmanship and a new market of avid Chinese collectors,” says Marco Carvalho of London calling- card-case specialists HL & HL Antiquities, whose current stock of over 500 includes a Cantonese ivory card case (c1880) for £400.

Source:, & thecardcaseforum.


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