Gentlemen and ladies carried personal cards – often in highly decorative card cases – which they gave to friends and acquaintances. Personalized cards were presented as a matter of course when making a first visit to someone newly arrived in the neighborhood, when calling for the first time on newly weds, when paying visits of condolence, and when making a visit to one’s host following an outing or ball. Additionally, paper, hand-written invitations for dinner parties were given out a month in advance and needed to be kept at hand for easy reference. Enter the card rack. Card racks were small, only large enough to hold visiting cards or small notes, and were designed to be hung on a wall or over a fireplace mantle. Many were made from cardboard, yet sturdier examples exist made of porcelain and ivory. Why a rack rather than tucking into one’s desk cubbyholes or on card trays has faded from memory.
Another mystery, aside from their size being quite small, is that they frequently came in matched pairs or trios. This, along with their varied and sophisticated designs, seem to indicate that they were fashionable objects which played a role in the social life of the house. Perhaps as a way to pass messages from person to person within the household. References in literature and other commentaries give some clues.
“I was from home one Day when Dr Goldsmith called – he sate a while in the Room he was shewed to, but soon crossed the Stairs head to my Apartment – not a Bed Chamber – where my Things were set for dressing: there did he examine every Box upon the Toylet, every Paper upon the Card Rack, every thing in short with an Impudence truly Irish.” ~ From a June 1777 entry of “Thraliana”, a diary kept by Hester Thrale, a friend of Samuel Johnson.
Extant examples are rare, again a mystery. Were they not hugely popular, hence the few surviving hanging card racks? Or was the cardboard most often used simply too fragile to last the test of time? Whatever the case, the trend appears to have lasted for decades. Earliest references date to the 1770s and continue on into the Victorian Era.
A search through Google Books, as noted by one commentary on card racks, revealed that for men the card racks were probably larger and functioned as bulletin boards for sticking reminder notes. Conversely, for women the card racks were a craft to make and bestow in friendship, and they were also used to display one’s status by showing off cards of important visitors and notable invitations received. Consider this exchange from the 1828 novel What is Gentility?: A Moral Tale by Margaret Bayard-Smith–
“Well, that is very ill-natured of you Tim, so it is. Only imagine now, how our mantle-piece would look, if in the card-rack, were displayed the large elegant cards of the ministers, all flourished over with “His Excellency the Ambassador from ——; Mr. ——, minister of his Britannic majesty; Count ——, ambassador and minister plenipotentiary from ——; Count Nicholas ——; Baron de ——; Chevelier de O—— ,” and then all the secretaries of legation, and private secretaries in the bargain—oh, it makes my very heart beat to think of it.” …. “One thing more, Maria, I have to ask of you, to let me have the card Mrs. M—d—n left for you, to put up here—I know you won’t care, because you know, as there are several ladies at your house, there must be several of Mrs M—d—n’s cards, and no one will know which is yours.”
“Oh, if you wish, you may have all the cards that are left for me, and the notes of invitation too, to put in your card racks. I heard the other day of a lady that filled her card-racks in that manner.”
These interesting objects are mentioned in Persuasion by Jane Austen, always a trustworthy notation of the Regency Era.
“And she,” said Mrs. Smith, “besides nursing me most admirably, has really proved an invaluable acquaintance. As soon as I could use my hands she taught me to knit, which has been a great amusement; and she put me in the way of making these little thread-cases, pin-cushions and card-racks, which you always find me so busy about, and which supply me with the means of doing a little good to one or two very poor families in this neighbourhood. She had a large acquaintance, of course professionally, among those who can afford to buy, and she disposes of my merchandize.”
“At length my eyes, in going the circuit of the room, fell upon a trumpery fillagree card-rack of pasteboard, that hung dangling by a dirty blue ribbon, from a little brass knob just beneath the middle of the mantel-piece. In this rack, which had three or four compartments, were five or six visiting cards and a solitary letter. This last was much soiled and crumpled. … It was thrust carelessly, and even, as it seemed, contemptuously, into one of the uppermost divisions of the rack.” ~ “The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allen Poe (1845)