What Exactly is an at Home Card? - Blog | Letter Press

November 24, 2014

There are many people who think that an at Home card must be a rather sad way of advertising the fact that you don’t have many friends and don’t get out that much: using expensive stationery to broadcast a cry for help. The truth, on the contrary, is that the “at Home” is a frightfully posh sort of social shorthand, a conventional type of wording which dispenses with a lot of verbose description which might otherwise clutter up what should be a smart invitation. However it did get to this position after a 150 years of social development, so much so that when today a customer comes to The Letter Press of Cirencester to get an “at Home card” printed, what they actually have in mind can differ widely, depending on where they come from.

The roots of the at Home card lie in the 19th century soirée, and are typically associated with the hostess, who combined the roles of chatelaine, muse and society beauty to attract around her – and her husband – a circle of the bright and the beautiful to decorate her drawing room. Such roles in the early 19th century would have been exemplified by characters such as Mme de Staël in Paris or Lady Holland in London. Thus the idea of “receiving” or being “at Home” on, say, Thursday evenings developed, and is most typically portrayed in the writings of Oscar Wilde and Henry James.

Through the nineteenth century the whole idea of being “at home” picked up a moralistic baggage: it became a key element in promoting the domestic ideal and reinforcing a conventional interpretation of what the role of women should be in society. It is significant that to this day the person inviting you on the at Home card is the wife and mother: typically,

Printed at Home Stationery

(the conventional lower case “a” and uppercase “H” are a hangover from a nineteenth century obsession for the Germanic capitalisation of nouns which I imagine Prince Albert was responsible for). An interesting book in this regard isAbsenteeism; or the Ladies’ Soirée (York, 1849), in which the anonymous (female) author extols the virtues of home in contrast to the temptations and corruption of the ale house. One did not go out: it was smarter to stay at home. This remained an ingrained prejudice of smart English society, and in my own experience as a young man in the early 1980s I remember being firmly put down, at a country house weekend in Suffolk, with nothing to do and the weather particularly miserable, when I suggested that a visit to the local pub might be in order.

So in the nineteenth century there developed the culture of being at home, and in tandem, the culture of calling on social acquaintances. The ritual of calling on people was formal in the extreme: again literature provides many examples, from Jane Austen onwards. The printer profited as well, with a large industry in printed calling or visiting cards, typically engraved: letterpress would be considered cheapskate. Most often the purpose of the visiting card was merely to signify that you had completed the formality of calling on someone: you never actually expected to be received and entertained by them, a card handed to a butler in a hallway fulfilled your social obligations. If you delivered the card in person you might fold over a corner of the card; if a servant had delivered it on your behalf it would not be so distinguished.

So the at Home card developed, to tell your acquaintance callers when you would actually be in and ready to entertain them, usually on a fixed evening repeated each week. In the United States the culture retained a strong association with the idea of home-making, and newly married couples would be expected to print and distribute at Home cards giving their new address as well as the times when visitors might call (see The Art of Correspondence by Joseph S Locke, Boston, 1884). This idea has developed so that in the US today the at Home card is printed merely as a change of address card for the newly married.

In the UK, on the contrary, it is the invitation function of the at Home card which has predominated, so much so that it is possible to print and send out “at Home” cards for an event which is taking place nowhere near your home: the following sample from The Letter Press is for a coming out or debutante party taking place at a smart London club:

Printed at Home Stationery

Thus Debrett’s Etiquette and Modern Manners (London, 1981 – but in this most conventional of areas, still modern) describes the at Home card: “By tradition, ‘At Home’ cards measure 4 x 6¾ inches and the heavier the card, the handsomer”: this certainly has not changed, and at The Letter Press in Cirencester we find ourselves printing on heavier and heavier boards, so much so that often we have to glue or “duplex” two heavy-weight boards together to achieve the required level of “handsomeness”. We even have one shop selling our printing services in Suffolk which reports that their customers will test the quality of the card by seeing if it is stiff enough to support a glass of champagne: a unique product test in the world of social printing!

Traditionally engraved, today invitation cards are also printed either with raised thermographic print, or flat, by letterpress print. Many options and combinations of finish and typeface can be seen on The Letter Press website (www.letterpress.co.uk); and these can either be ordered online or through our many retail outlets, typically the John Lewis group.

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