Museum at Home: Visiting Cards

With businesses, restaurants, and public places like museums reopening to the public, families are now often asked to give their name and contact number to the places they are visiting. While contact-tracing is a new practice that we are adjusting to today, sharing this kind of information reminds us of a popular social trend that people exchanged as far back as 300 years ago: the visiting card.

In this Museum at Home activity, you will learn about the history of visiting cards and how you can make visiting cards for your family to share the next time you visit a restaurant or another place that asks for contact-tracing information. 


  • Paper or construction paper (the more colourful the better!)
  • Scissors
  • Pencil crayons

What is a Visiting Card?

A visiting cards, or sometimes called a calling card, is a small card used for social purposes. The ink and paper form of this practice can be traced back to France in the 1700s, and eventually made its way over to Canada and the United States by the 1800s.

Visiting cards were personalized with an individual’s name, and sometimes an address.

While generally visiting cards were quite plain in style, over time, as printing technology and photography progressed, visiting cards could become quite elaborate. Some included colourful and decorative artwork, embossed lettering, and even a photograph of the bearer. These designs were a way for individuals to showcase their personality and status in society.

Check out a few visiting cards in the Museum Collection:

Calling card for E. Goodman, no date. The symbol in top left corner signifies his membership in the Knights of Templar Fraternity. STCM 1981.23.14
Visiting card fir R.H. Dyer, c. 1860s. A watchmaker and jeweler in St. Catharines, Dyer would have been a useful addition to your social circle! STCM 2006.77.1193.
Visiting card for H. Biddel of St. Catharines. This could be the Henry Biddel listed in St. Catharines City Directories as a photographer – another opportune option for your circle!. STCM 2006.77.1200.

The exchange of visiting cards was very popular among the fashionable upper classes of Canada and strict social etiquette surrounded the trend. Leaving and accepting visiting cards in the 1800s was kind of like texting today. A person would deliver their card to someone’s home to give warm regards in celebration of a milestone, extend a thank you for hosting a recent gathering, send condolences for an illness or death, or to say hello. If the recipient “wasn’t home” the card would be left in a tray in the entrance hall.

Visiting cards were symbols of status, influence, and popularity. The fuller the tray of cards, the larger your social circle was. Never mind that whose cards were in your tray mattered! Often the cards of the wealthiest or most influential people in your circle were purposefully displayed at the top of the stack to impress future visitors.

Furthermore, individuals with visiting cards had to follow a strict set of rules as to how to use them. Typically, women of these upper class families had the responsibility to deliver or accept visiting cards – even sometimes delivering her husband’s cards to the master of the house on his behalf. There were also formalities as to when you could leave a calling card, how long to wait until returning the call with your own card, and the messages sometimes left on the cards. 

Despite the dizzying amount of social customs accompanying such a small piece of paper, the visiting card was a brilliantly effective way for individuals to share their contact information with each other. However, as technology advanced into the twentieth century, the visiting card eventually gave way to a newer, more glamourous way of communicating: the postcard.

Activity: Design Your Own Visiting Cards!  

Since reopening the Museum’s doors to the public, we’ve noticed more and more families with their own versions of a visiting card. Some give us the cards to keep, while other pull the card out of their purse or wallet and display it like a fashionable badge before tucking it back into its keeping place. In the shape and size of a business card, these twenty-first century calling cards usually have a photo of the couple or family on the front, and their contact information on the back. One of our favourites that we’ve received here at the Museum even comes with a quote: “Live. Laugh. Love.”

We invite you to help us bring back the visiting card trend! Make your own cards for your family to use the next time you visit a restaurant, a museum, or any other place asking for contact-tracing information. Here’s how you can make your own family visiting card: 

1. Select your paper type and colour.

2. Cut your paper into approximately 2.5 x 3 inch pieces, or a size that can fit easily into a wallet or purse. Historically, visiting cards were sized small enough to fit into the breast pocket of a man’s suit jacket, or in a tin container carried by a woman. 

3. Decorate the top-side of your card. The style is up to you. Maybe you get creative with how you write your family’s last name. You could also draw a picture that you think best represents your family, your favourite place to be together, or a family portrait. Make a few different cards, one for each of the adults that take you to fun places.

4. On the back of your card, have a parent or guardian help you decide what kind of contact information to share. Restaurants and other public places usually ask patrons for a name and a phone number. Keep this contact information safe.

There you have it, a family visiting card! Give a visiting card to the adults in your family that you go out with. Be sure to only ever show your family’s visiting card with your parent or guardian present. This is important information, and it should only be shared with establishments collecting contact-tracing information​.

We hope you have fun creating your family visiting card! We’d love to see your designs! Share on social media, and tag us on Twitter or Instagram at @stcmuseum #stcmuseum or find us on Facebook!

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