Even the most opaque historical “mystery” can offer clues to its meaning, if one takes the trouble to look carefully. Such is the case with the Philadelphia Album, a Victorian-era collection of portraits in tintype, carte-de-visite and cabinet card formats that I first ran across and catalogued in 2016. All but one photo in that collection lacks any identification of its subject, but most have the photography portrait studio imprinted. Based on the location of most of these studios, I dubbed this collection the Philadelphia Album. You can view a multimedia presentation of the photographs in this collection by clicking here.
A few non-photographic items in the collection do give us an idea of the individual or family who might have put it together. These items are calling cards, also known as visiting cards, and they were a big part of the development of social relationships in the Victorian era.
The calling cards of the Victorian era evolved from 17th century European business cards. The latter were much larger than modern business cards; merchants printed them to announce a forthcoming visit to a town or city. They were the size of playing cards and were printed with as much information as could be squeezed onto them, much like a handbill but with better paper stock and elaborate motifs. Often, the back of the card was printed with a map showing the location of the business, something quite useful in an era when many businesses and homes did not have addresses.
Over the next three centuries, business cards gradually became smaller in size and more succinct in their content, if no less ornate in their trimming. They also gave rise to another phenomenon: the exchange of calling cards, a popular custom that began with the upper classes in 18th century Europe and crossed the Atlantic, gaining traction in the eastern U. S.
In the Victorian era, calling cards were all the rage with the moneyed classes. In the U. S., that meant anyone who could afford to maintain at least one servant that was available to answer the door, as we shall see in the scenario below.
Calling cards were part of the elaborate choreography that was Victorian social etiquette. Middle and upper class ladies pursuing a social relationship with someone of the same rank or higher would first require an introduction on neutral ground (tea at the home of a mutual acquaintance, for example). The women would exchange calling cards, each engraved with the name of the owner, on a background that could be plain or overstuffed with ornamentation in the distinctly Victorian manner. More importantly, the back of the card would printed with visiting hours: typically never before 3:00 PM (just before tea time), and only on specified days of the week. The restrictions were a matter of self-preservation; a popular hostess would otherwise be receiving callers all day long, since turning them away could be construed as being rude. It would not be considered rude, however, to turn away a caller who ignored the visiting hours printed on the hostess’s card. By the same token, if one wished to pay a social call, the restricted visiting hours had to be respected; not doing so would be tantamount to social suicide.
One could not expect to be admitted to visit on the first call, unless explicitly invited. The prospective visitor’s card would be left with the hostess’s maid or manservant; if delivered personally by the prospective visitor and not her servant, it was customary to turn a corner down to indicate that fact. The prospective visitor would then wait to receive a card from the hostess, usually within a week if a visit was desired.
Upon arrival to actually pay a call, the visitor handed her card to the servant answering the door or placed it on a tray held by the servant, and let the latter know who she was. The maid or butler then led the caller to the parlor where visitors were received, and announced the caller’s name. The caller’s card was placed on a tray near the entrance, where other callers could marvel at the number of persons the hostess had received. The most socially prominent of the visitors had their cards placed on top of the heap to add to the hostess’s prestige.
There were many other rules to adhere to: how long to stay, how soon to relinquish one’s seat next to the hostess, how soon to return a social call after receiving one, etc. Implicit in this choreography is that social relationships, particularly visits to the home, were managed by women, regardless of whether the initial contact was made by two men.
By the 1920’s in the U. S., most households had long since relaxed the rules of etiquette around social calls, and the use of the calling card as a facilitating tool waned considerably.
At this point, if your head hasn’t yet begun to ache from following the complexities of Victorian-era social etiquette, you may be wondering what relevance all of this has to Milton history. The connection is tenuous, but it can be found in a few of the items in the Philadelphia Album.
There are a number of calling cards imprinted with the name of four members of the Dunlap family, and one of their friends. There are three siblings, Thomas, Sarah, and Mary Dunlap; a brother-in-law, Robert Boucher, Jr.; and an acquaintance, Annie Long. All were close in age and apparently caught up in the custom of using calling cards.
The connection among the Dunlaps and Robert Boucher, Jr. was revealed pretty conclusively through examination of genealogical records. Thomas Dunlap (1861 – 1938), a Philadelphia machinist foreman, was the son of Jackson Dunlap (ca. 1839 – 1896), a Philadelphia brick maker and Civil War veteran (Company F, 186th Pennsylvania Infantry). Rob Boucher is Robert Boucher Jr. (1864 – 1920), a woodworker; he was Thomas Dunlap’s brother-in-law. Rob’s father, Robert Sr., was an immigrant from Canada who enlisted in the 8th Maryland Volunteers regiment, and was wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. The fact that the senior Dunlap and Boucher served in the Union Army during the Civil War is probably why there are so many cartes-de-visite[i] of soldiers in uniform in the Philadelphia Album.
Sarah Dunlap (1864 – after 1943) and Mary Dunlap (1866 – ?) were sisters of Thomas. Not much is known about either of them.
Annie Long (1863 – 1943) is the only native Delawarean among the persons whose names are on the calling cards, having been born to Lewes area farmer Robert Long. She is the closest we can get, at present, to a connection between Sussex County and the Philadelphia Album; a connection to any Milton family remains elusive. Annie married George Miller Wiltbank (1864 – 1924) in 1888, and together the couple prospered. Upon her death in 1924, with no direct heirs, she bequeathed $25,000 to charities and another $25,000 to various friends and relatives.
[i] A carte-de-visite (literally “visit card”) should not be confused with the calling cards or visiting cards described in this post. A carte-de-visite was about the size of a modern baseball card and was mostly comprised of a photograph of someone, often with the name of the photography studio printed on the bottom or the back. Very popular during the Civil War era and into the 1870’s, millions were printed. The Philadelphia Album contains numerous examples of soldiers in uniform as well as women, children an male civilians.