Instead of Cheesy Pickup Lines, 19th-Century Americans Gave Out Calling Cards

Let’s face it: dating has always been tough, whether you’re trying to decide if you should swipe right on a Tinder match or striking up a conversation at a bar. Add in the elaborate social conventions that dictated late 19th-century behavior in America and you have a whole new set of rules governing how best to approach that special someone. But for those men looking to invite a lady along for a walk without being screened by her chaperone, there was the “flirtation card”: a small calling card often printed with a relatively bawdy pickup line, Becky Little writes for National Geographic.

A coy card reading “May I. C. U. Home?” could be easily slipped into a young woman’s palm, while a much more direct one stating the bearer was “Not Married and Out for A Good Time” would avoid any confusion that might arise during more traditional courtship. In Victorian-era America, most high society ladies’ interactions were governed by strict rules and watched closely by chaperones any time they were out of the house. Under this kind of scrutiny, it was nearly impossible for eligible bachelors and single ladies to meet without a formal introduction by a mutual acquaintance, unless they committed a major social faux pas by speaking to each other directly. So in order to get around these strict conventions, some turned to sneaking these flirtation cards (also known as “acquaintance” or “escort” cards) into the hands of the people they fancied, says Little.

“The exchange of calling cards in the late 19th century served as a formal means of maintaining social contacts,” collector Alan Mays tells Little. “In contrast, acquaintance cards were lighthearted and humorous, and they parodied the conventional etiquette associated with calling cards.”

It’s not clear how seriously people took these cards, but they range from the fairly harmless to the ribald (by Victorian standards, at least). For every card that asked "May I be permitted the blissful pleasure of escorting you home this evening?" there was the more direct "Let's get acquainted for fun and results," Linton Weeks writes for NPR....more