DEAR MISS MANNERS: I recall reading in one of your works about the system ladies used to use when paying social calls -- that after a while, because it was boring, people would just leave their cards, and had a system of bending the corners to signal various things.
Well, I am not in a position to revive the custom, but I am a biomedical informatics student designing a software program that involves boxes used to give information and for which a corner-based way of signaling various things would be very useful. (This is part of my PhD dissertation work.)
I've found that information systems that humans develop over time and experience can be better than things that a single person just dreamed up, so I was wondering if you would be willing to describe the old system.
GENTLE READER: It is a relief to Miss Manners that you do not intend to revive the system of social calls. It was enormously time-consuming, for both the callers and the horses, and thank goodness someone finally invented the telephone. That was a nuisance in its own way, and thank goodness someone finally invented e-mail.
It really is necessary to keep in touch with one's acquaintance, however, so we use available tools. Dealing with the daily e-mail from people who want to keep in touch by sharing rumors, jokes, wedding pictures, health scares, baby pictures, wish lists, political diatribes and party pictures is probably not much more time-consuming than ordering the carriage and driving around, scattering cards at people's houses.
The original system consisted of actual calls paid in the late afternoon for not more than a quarter of an hour each. In addition to next-day calls to one's hostess of the night before, there were obligatory calls to congratulate, to condole, to say goodbye when one was leaving town, to meet the new neighbors and so on. As they all had to be returned, you can imagine how sick of one another people became.
So the custom was abbreviated, as you noted, to leaving cards -- inquiring whether someone was home, being told she was not and escaping immediately, leaving behind a pasteboard card with one's name for proof of intention. The sentiment once conveyed directly was reduced to the symbol of the bent card edge: The upper left indicated that you were just paying a visit, the upper right that you offered congratulations, the lower right that you offered condolences and the lower left that you were taking leave.
How fortunate we are that we have a range of tools for different situations. We can offer serious thanks and congratulations with handwritten letters and trivial ones by e-mail. Condolences still require a visit from intimates and a letter from other acquaintances, but moving away requires electronic notification so that new addresses may be entered into the computer. Unless, of course, you are moving away from a romance. That still requires a visit, or at least an attempted visit.
Miss Manners hopes this has contributed to your scholarship.