Miss Manners

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dear Miss Manners:

A calling card fell out of my copy of a 1905 edition of Edith Wharton's "The House of Mirth" when I cut one of the many uncut pages (the better to read). The card measures roughly 2 by 3 inches and has the name "Miss Wallace" in the center, "125 East Twenty-Fourth Street" on the bottom right corner, and "Fridays" on the bottom left corner.

I was able to determine that the address on the card is now St. Francis Residence, a shelter for the homeless mentally ill described as a "reconverted 100-room SRO hotel." The current structure was built around 1910. It might have been an apartment building or an office building in 1910. In 1905, it is possible that the address belonged to a private residence.

Does the word Fridays indicate that Miss Wallace was prepared to accept visitors on that day? Or does it indicate that Miss Wallace was a professional of some kind whose services were available on Fridays? I have not been able to find any information on the early 20th-century conventions for listing days at home on calling cards, but I am confident that you are well versed in such matters.

Indeed.

What fun you have had with this. Miss Manners hopes that Miss Wallace's great-grand-niece will come forth and tell family stories about the Friday that Mrs. Wharton dropped by and the hostess praised her book, not realizing that the author noticed the uncut pages. Or at least about the Friday that Miss Wallace's friends cautioned her not to read it because it was dreadfully harsh on polite society.

Had Miss Wallace been offering commercial services (and Miss Manners would certainly not speculate what those might be), reading "The House of Mirth" would have been humiliating. Its heroine, failing to make an advantageous match, is pathetically reduced to becoming an enabler to social climbers and then (although Miss Manners considers this more respectable) a milliner, failing at both.

However, this is unquestionably a social card, indicating that although Miss Wallace may not have made an advantageous marriage, she was not out trimming hats, but at leisure to receive any of her friends who cared to stop by on Fridays.

Her card is exactly correct. Its omissions enable Miss Manners to make a few modest contributions to your detective work:

Miss Wallace does not include her given name because she is the eldest or only daughter of her family; any younger sisters would have had to state theirs. Her address is given without city or state because she does not expect train-setters (as opposed to jet-setters) from such social outposts as Boston to show up without elaborate introductions. Her visitors are expected to know the rules and will not surprise her while her hair is still in curl papers, so she does not need to put "Fridays after four," as some did.

Miss Manners can even guess at the conversation. No such gathering at the time would have been complete without deploring the tendency of people -- not only the newly rich, but "people one actually knew," as they would have said -- to abandon their townhouses and move uptown, some of them even choosing to live in -- gasp! -- apartments. Mrs. Wharton, if she were there, would then have made her departure. For uptown, and then back to France.


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