How were they used?

One of a pair of card racks made of decorated cardboard, French, c. 1820, at Attingham. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

Our curators have been puzzled by a group of objects in the collection at Attingham, in Shropshire.

One of a pair of card racks made of decorated cardboard, J. & P. Munn, New Bond Street, London, c. 1820, at Attingham. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

These small, dainty containers, made of cardboard and porcelain, have been described as card racks. They seem to date from around 1820.

One of a pair of card racks made of decorated cardboard, French, c. 1820, at Attingham. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

They were clearly designed to be hung from a wall or another vertical surface, but as they are only about 15 cm tall they could not have held anything larger than calling cards or small items of stationary.

One of a pair of card racks made of decorated cardboard, English or French, c. 1820, at Attingham. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

Their varied and sophisticated designs seem to indicate that they were fashionable objects which played a role in the social life of the house. 

One of a pair of card racks made of decorated cardboard, French, c. 1820, at Attingham. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

Were they used to collect visitors’ calling cards? If so, why were there so many of them in the same house and why did they come in sets of twos and threes?

One of a set of three card racks made of porcelain, this one showing a view of Attingham, Coalport, c. 1820, at Attingham. ©National Trust/Claire Reeves

Do leave a comment if you know more about the use of these Regency relics.

51 Responses to “How were they used?”

  1. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    One reader has just suggested that these racks were for playing cards. Where they have two slots and come in pairs each slot might have held one of the four suites of cards. In the case of the porcelain racks there may originally have been four rather than three (an even number being more usual for such sets of objects), with one perhaps having been broken at some point.

    The same reader also alerts us to a four-slot japanned playing card holder in the Black Country Museum: http://bit.ly/dV4Wt9

    Thank you very much, gentle reader :)

  2. Janet Says:

    Isn’t it amazing how quickly everyday objects can fall into oblivion! Wonderful photographs.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Hopefully we can resurrect their meaning!

    I particularly like the first, third and fifth one, where decorative form and utilitarian function meld so beautifully.

  4. warksmuseumnetwork Says:

    i wonder if they are for member of the household to deposit their letters/messages waiting for servants to pick them up and take them, either to other members/places within the house or to places beyond. a kind of highly localised post box. worth asking the postal museum and archive? http://postalheritage.org.uk/

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    An interesting possibility – I will ask the Postal Museum as you suggest, many thanks for that.

  6. Libi Astaire Says:

    I found a mention of cardracks in a 1833 review from the London Literary Gazette of the book “Gale Middleton: a Novel.” Card racks are mentioned in the third column of the page, in a quote from the book. They seemed to have been “testimonials of friendship” given from one lady to another, so perhaps there were so many card racks at Attington because the ladies were very popular (or amenable to flattery). If the long link below doesn’t work, you can easily find the review. I simply Googled “card racks 1820s England” and found the mention right away. http://bit.ly/eCZaBm

  7. Libi Astaire Says:

    In my above comment I wrote “Attington” when of course it should have been “Attingham”.

  8. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    According to one online mention of Rudolph Ackermann, owner of Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Ackermann was a publisher, print-seller, and “manufacturer of fancy articles” (e.g. screens, card racks, flower stands). So perhaps card racks were simply decorative items that were purchased to add color and interest to a blank space on a wall, or given as birthday presents or hostess gifts.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Libi and Jolie, thank you very much indeed for those interesting clues. Your Googling skills are obviously better than mine :)

    That review in The London Literary Gazette (30 November 1833, p. 759) does indeed set the social context for these objects as being ‘smart’ things that were used as gifts among ladies. The Pemberley Jane Austen website shows an 1809 view of Ackermann’s shop in the Strand in London where, as Jolie says above, you could buy card racks and other fancy goods (http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/1809ackm.jpg).

    But that still doesn’t quite explain what these racks were for. They were certainly decorative, but like any must-have accessory they surely had a ‘real’ function as well, however frivolous.

    We are getting closer, though :)

  10. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    Perhaps in this case the obvious usage is the correct one. I found this definition on Charles Dickens World: http://boblines.com/c.html

    Card rack

    Card racks were essential in a society where everyone gave everyone else a card on every imaginable occasion. Invitation cards for dinner parties were given out a month in advance and needed to be kept at hand for easy reference. Gentlemen carried personal cards – in often highly decorative card cases – which they gave to friends and acquaintances. Ladies, too, had heir own cards and would often, when visiting without their husbands, leave his card as well as their own with an apology for his absence. Personalised cards were presented as a matter of course when making a first visit to someone newly arrived in the neighbourhood; when calling for the first time on newly weds; when paying visits of condolence; when making a visit to one’s host following an outing, party or ball.
    MC:48

    I’m not sure what the “MC:48″ refers to – perhaps it’s a reference to Martin Chuzzelwit, page 48. Anyone have a copy on hand?

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    The Postal Museum have just confirmed that their curators don’t recognise these racks as being postal-related. So that seems to close one possibility.

    Regardless of their actual use, the fact that so many of these racks have been preserved at Attingham in relatively good condition might indicate that one of the female members of the Noel-Hill family bought them during a London shopping trip in order to have a cache of presents ready for future use, but that some of them remained unused in the back of a wardrobe. But that is pure speculation on my part, of course.

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Jolie, your suggestion is very convincing: the card rack as a kind of elegant feminine Filofax (which already feels so twentieth-century) or Facebook page. Thank you so much for taking the trouble to search out these references – this post is turning into a good example of online knowledge-sharing :)

  13. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    Were they really found in the back of a wardrobe? That definitely sounds like something I would do – buy several items of something I like for future gifts, and then forget all about them!

    Meanwhile (since I’m a mystery writer), here’s another another literary clue, this time from Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” http://www.americanliterature.com/SS/SS10.HTML :

    “At length my eyes, in going the circuit of the room, fell upon a trumpery fillagree card-rack of pasteboard, that hung dangling by a dirty blue ribbon, from a little brass knob just beneath the middle of the mantel-piece. In this rack, which had three or four compartments, were five or six visiting cards and a solitary letter. This last was much soiled and crumpled. It was torn nearly in two, across the middle – as if a design, in the first instance, to tear it entirely up as worthless, had been altered, or stayed, in the second. It had a large black seal, bearing the D– cipher very conspicuously, and was addressed, in a diminutive female hand, to D–, the minister, himself. It was thrust carelessly, and even, as it seemed, contemptuously, into one of the uppermost divisions of the rack.”

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That’s wonderful: an actual description of a cardboard card rack in use, and containing letters as well as cards. I like the contemptuous use of ‘trumpery’ to characterise the frivolous prettiness of the thing, and the ‘dirty ribbon’ to suggest gentility gone to see.

    I am a bit puzzled by how it is described as dangling beneath the middle of the mantel-piece – does that mean it is hanging in front of the fireplace opening – which seems odd – or on the wall above the fireplace?

    I see that this story by Poe was published in 1845, so card racks must still have been in use then, although perhaps the seedy atmosphere of this story indicates they were not so fashionable any more.

    The card-racks being forgotten in the back of a wardrobe at Attingham is purely my speculation, but I can see the mystery writer in you likes the image :)

  15. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    I was wondering about that, too. But there is a reference in Thackery’s “Vanity Fair” to “empty card-racks over the mantlepiece” as opposed to “on” the mantlepiece. So perhaps that was a Victorian decorating style and the cardrack dangled from the mantlepiece a bit like a Christmas stocking, as in this photo: http://bit.ly/hEuEBL
    Another option is that the mantlepiece had several tiers, and so the cardrack dangled from a higher shelf, as in this photo: http://bit.ly/fWMA85

  16. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks again Jolie, that Vanity Fair reference is very useful as well. I understand that the colleagues at Attingham are planning a Regency-themed small exhibition, so all this information will be really useful for that.

  17. Maggie McKean Says:

    This enquiry has produced a most interesting response. I personally feel that these card-racks were most likely used as containers for personal visiting cards, and their eye-catching decoration probably made them fashionable favourites with the ladies for whom the social etiquette of visiting was an art form in itself. Far from being an item of frippery, the Coalport version showing Attingham Park itself is a significant item of luxury and durability, being made of porcelain rather than of transient pasteboard. It’s interesting to note that they all seem to date from the period when Sophia Dubochet, the daughter of a Swiss clockmaker, was Mistress of Attingham Park, having bewitched the 2nd Baron Berwick into marrying her. Her reputation for being amongst the fast set led by the Prince of Wales lent her great notoriety. Her sister recalled: ‘Sophia, having the command of more guineas than ever she had expected to have had pence, did nothing, from morning till night, but throw them away’. Perhaps these pretty little card-racks were some of her personal extravagances.

  18. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    The curator for Attingham, Sarah Kay, has just told me that these card-racks were recorded at Attingham in 1827 as being in a number of different rooms, especially the ‘feminine’ rooms. There tended to be a pair of them per room, so perhaps hanging on either side of the fireplace. So that proves that they were actually being used (and not just kept as presents as I was speculating) and that there could be lots of them in one household.

  19. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    I wonder if this means the family had an internal postal system. Perhaps a servant distributed all of the family’s “incoming” cards and invitations to the “incoming” cardrack in the room of the appropriate family member. After the lady had written her letters perhaps she put them in the second “outgoing” cardrack for “pick up” by the servant, who would then have all the family’s letters delivered. It would be nice to know if all the rooms that had card racks also had in them a desk or table suitable for writing.

  20. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    A kind of elegant ‘inbox’ and ‘outbox’ system – that would seem a possibility. I will try to find out some more details about the rooms the card racks were recorded in.

  21. Christina Brooke Says:

    I found a reference in Google Books to how they were made, and it said they were for holding notes or cards, made to stand on the shelf or hung on a wall. Family magazine: or Monthly abstract of general knowledge: Volume 4 – Page 466

    There is another reference to a confidential letter having been left in the card racks of a lady’s parlour.

    I just went to Google books and searched the exact phrase ‘card rack’ between 1800 and 1840 and found quite a few references. Hope that helps! http://tinyurl.com/4vfx3j4

  22. Sara Lindsey Says:

    Fascinating stuff!

    From what I can glean from Google Books, for men the card racks were probably larger and functioned as rolodexes/bulletin boards – one could stick a reminder note there.

    For women, the card racks were a craft to make and bestow in friendship and were also used to display one’s status – showing off cards of visitors, invitations received and the like…

    From WHAT IS GENTILITY?: A MORAL TALE by Margaret Bayard-Smith (1828)

    Maria, to conceal her inclination again to laugh, jumped up, and arranging the cards in the card rack, “Look Catharine,” said she, “how charmingly I have managed to display every name in due order!”
    This, as she expected, gave a new turn to her dear friend’s thoughts, and dispersed the gathering storm.
    “Charmingly indeed,” she replied—”but they do not make half as grand an appearance, as if the ministers cards were among them. The plain Madames and Mrs.’s are nothing compared to the titles on the gentlemens’ cards. Indeed, indeed, Timothy, you must call on all the ministers; Colonel Lenox or Mr. Benson, will be so kind as to introduce you, and then if they an’t told any thing about you, or where you live, they will think you some stranger, perhaps a stranger of distinction, and leave not only cards at this gentlemen’s lodgings, but invitations too—oh, how delightful that will be; do Timothy, that’s a good soul—do call on them all.
    “Hang it,” said Timothy, “what kind of a figure would I make before Barons and Counts and Excellencies, and I don’t know what all; the very thought puts me all in a shudder; hang it, I will make no such fool of myself.”
    “Well, that is very ill-natured of you Tim, so it is. Only imagine now, how our mantle-piece would look, if in the card-rack, were displayed the large elegant cards of the ministers, all flourished over with “His Excellency the Ambassador from ——; Mr. ——, minister of his Britannic majesty; Count ——, ambassador and minister plenipotentiary from ——; Count
    Nicholas ——; Baron de ——; Chevelier de O—— ,” and then all the secretaries of legation, and private secretaries in the bargain—oh, it makes my very heart beat to think of it. Do, Maria, use your influence with my brother. One thing more, Maria, I have to ask of you, to let me have the card Mrs. M—d—n left for you, to put up here—I know you won’t care, because you know, as there are several ladies at your house, there must be several of Mrs M—d—n’s cards, and no one will know which is yours.”
    “Oh, if you wish, you may have all the cards that are left for me, and the notes of invitation too, to put in your card racks. I heard the other day of a lady that filled her card-racks in that manner.”

  23. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Christina and Sara, you have managed to unearth yet another treasure trove of references – fabulous. It shows what a powerful tool Google Books can be.

    In these references we can see in more and more detail what an important role card racks played in the social networking of the Regency and early Victorian periods. I have been trying to spot card racks in pictures of interiors of the period, so far without succes, but there certainly seem to be quite a lot of literary references.

    That description of ‘borrowing’ someone else’s cards for your own rack is wonderful: social fraud :)

  24. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    I would love to see some pictorial references, too. All I could find online was this rather unlovely pre-1864 illustration from Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” (which does solve the question of where the card rack was placed, at least according to this illustrator.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Purloined_Letter

  25. Vic Says:

    Hello Emile,

    It seems that young ladies and emigres decorated these card racks from the turn of the 19th c. until 1830. Unfortunately, there are no descriptions of uses, other than they were made for charity to be purchased to support those who needed to supplement their incomes. I will send you this info by email as well. Vic

    I found this reference in Our village: sketches of rural character and scenery, Volume 4 By Mary Russell Mitford, 1830:

    “With regard to accomplishments she knew what was commonly taught in a country school above twenty years ago, and nothing more: played a little, sang a little, talked a little, indifferent French, painted shells; and roses, not particularly like nature, on card-racks and hand screens; danced admirably; and was the best player at battledore, and shuttlecock, hunt the slipper, and blind man’s buff in the county.” p. 131

    In English coloured books, 1906, Martin Hardie shared this interesting tidbit:

    “During the period when the French emigres were so numerous in this country, he (Rudolph Ackermann) was one of the first to relieve their distress by liberal employment. He had seldom less than fifty nobles priests and ladies engaged in manufacturing screens, card racks, flower stands, and other ornaments.”

    This information comes from Persuasions Online: Thread-cases, Pin-cushions, and Card-racks: Women’s Work in the City in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, by Susan E. Jones:

    As David Selwyn points out, “[t]he giving of such things might be regarded as . . . a delicate recognition of shared activity,” and in Sense and Sensibility Fanny Dashwood gives away needle-books which she has purchased, an act which is coded negatively by the other women. Within the circle of the Austen family itself, needlework gifts were frequent, and several examples of Jane’s own gifts still exist. In the letters, Austen comments on gifts being sent back and forth, even gifts by young girls whose skills are not yet well formed, but who practice the self-sacrifice and discipline of sewing gifts within the family. The sentiment is correct even if the gift is not entirely lovely.

    One might argue that perhaps Nurse Rooke’s patients themselves are practicing charity by buying the thread-cases, pin-cushions, and card-racks. One finds, however, that they do not do so willingly. Nurse Rooke is skilled not only in invalid care, but also in sales. In the case of Mrs. Wallis, Nurse Rooke’s current invalid, Mrs. Smith says, “‘I mean to make my profit of Mrs. Wallis . . . . She has plenty of money, and I intend she shall buy all the high-priced things I have in hand now’” (156).

    Hope this helps.

  26. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    On the contrary, Vic, this is fantastic additional material. I am simply amazed by all the stuff about card racks that is out there – but then it does take Regency afficionados like you and the other commenters to ferret out these telling details :)

    The fact that Ackermann was employing French emigres to decorate card racks might explain the French appearance of some of the Attingham card racks.

    And the quote from Susan E. Jones is interesting in that it confirms again that these card racks were important not only as the visible ‘mission control’ of a lady’s social network, but also as something to be made by one’s own hand and given in order to strengthen that social network.

    Jolie, thank you so much for the reference to that seemingly rare image. Maybe card racks were so ubiquitous that they were not thought interesting enough to record.

  27. Sarah Kay Says:

    I am thrilled that so many people been able to contribute to this discussion- the Attingham collections of card racks is a beautiful, feminine social legacy and one which we hope to display in the near future and tell their story. All the ways in which they appear to have been used, and the sometimes ‘showing-off’ role they played in displaying cards from ‘posh’ and important people, makes me feel that they are a former way of neatly gathering together the invitatations, cards and social engagement reminders that some people leave on their mantelpieces today, in a manner that means they are both readily to hand, but also visible to others and a way of showing-off who has invited you to their social gatherings….!

  28. Vic Says:

    It occurred to me, Emile, that these card racks were largely homemade. Even your porcelain example seemed not to be painted by a master’s hand. Trinkets made by women were not especially revered, and, as with the many crocheted samples, doilies, and embroidered pin-cushions from my grandmother, these household objects were not regarded with enough reverence to be saved (unless they had sentimental value). After their use and if they were not in good shape, they tended to be discarded.

    My sense is that these card racks were designed for ladies drawing rooms for personal use to house visiting cards, especially those that one wished to keep for a while. But why would Regency ladies confine their use? Perhaps they used them to hold thread cards and needle cards, as well as notes, or anything else they wanted to keep conveniently in sight. In my house, I keep several objects similar to these card racks in my bedrooms and office to hold bills, notes and letters, keys, and even my television remote. Just a thought.

  29. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    Vic, your comment about trinkets made by women not being especially revered might help explain the reason why there don’t seem to be many examples of card racks shown in illustrations from the period – perhaps the male illustrators simply ignored them. But I would love to look through the book “Ackermann’s Regency Furniture and Interiors” (1984, Crowood Press). Since Ackermann’s made card racks, I wonder if he showed any in his illustrations of Regency interiors. Does anyone have a copy?

  30. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Vic, yes some of them seem to have been made privately, but others were made commercially, for instance for Ackermann’s or for the J&P Munn of New Bond Street who is listed on the ‘eagle’ card rack shown above.

    And as for other uses of these racks, we have to go by the evidence available, and so far I haven’t seen any description of them being used for sewing and needlework implements (although I haven’t yet read all the references that have been so helpfully provided above). Didn’t ladies have special work boxes and work tables which included storage for that sort of thing?

    Jolie, the puzzling thing is that the nineteenth-century interior views do show many ‘feminine’ aspects of interiors, and some of the artists were women, so it would seem to be difficult to prove a definite male bias against showing card racks.

    As you say, there may/should be some depictions of card racks in Ackermann’s publications – yet more leads to follow up :)

  31. Maggie McKean Says:

    Our enquiry has elicited a terrifc response. Thanks so much to our contributors to this research for their highly revealing insights. Hopefully this will have put Attingham Park on the map as a place of social refinement and gentility. Jane Austen fans will be in for a treat when they visit this wonderful house with its superbly atmospheric Regency interiors.

  32. Vic Says:

    I found this online book: The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics (1809), Rudolph Ackermann:
    http://www.archive.org/details/repositoryofarts913acke

    “No. 3 is a new embossed gold
    seed-paper. It is used, in a variety
    of ways, for ladies’ fancy work — in
    card-racks, hand and fire-screens,
    chimney ornaments, boxes, watch –
    stands and cases, &c. It is manu-
    factured by Mr. S. Solomon, and
    sold, wholesale and retail, at R.
    Ackermann’s Repository, No., 101,
    Strand.”

    I just wanted to add, Emile, that I did not mean to imply that these wonderful examples of card-racks from Attingham Park were not beautiful. They are. I am perplexed, however, that there are so few good examples of early 19th c. paper or card board hand made card-racks available today for view or whose purpose has been described, so my conjecture had more to do with the handmade objects mentioned in two of my sources.

    This link to a Christie’s site shows a pair of ironstone ware card-racks http://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=4153728

    This link from Ruby Lane is fascinating. This Mauchline ware wood card holder is obviously a souvenir item from the second half 19th century, but it has a similar basic design as your card-racks, and at 5 1/8″ in height, and could not hold anything larger than business or visiting cards.
    Mauchline Ware was produced for the Victorian tourist industry. I know this is a sidebar, but I found the shape and size interesting. See the object at this link:
    http://www.rubylane.com/item/460327-JL967/19th-Century-Mauchline-Ware-Wooden

    Once you discover the purpose of card-racks, I will be curious to know what it is! Vic

  33. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yet more examples – you are a mine of information, Vic :)

    Yes I take your point that there don’t seem to be that many examples of these card racks left, considering that they seem to have been so popular back then, as expressions of ‘women’s work’, as gifts, as accessories and status symbols.

  34. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    I still haven’t found an image of a card rack from the 1820’s, but I did find something of interest at the website of British History online. Per the Oxford English Dictionary, the first usage of the phrase “card rack” was in 1826.

    Card rack

    A rack for holding MESSAGE CARDs and other similar cards such as business or visiting cards. The card rack, like the CARD PAN, was one of the fashionable accessories to FURNITURE that were often made using new techniques of decoration such a LACQUERing.

    OED earliest date of use: 1826
    Sources: Newspapers, Tradecards.

    British History online also has an entry for “card pan”:

    Card pan

    A card pan was a flat, tray-like receptacle, presumably intended to be placed in the entry hall to receive the cards of those paying formal visits. [Patents (1786)] indicates that they were among the fashionable knick-knacks that were made out of new materials like PAPER MACHE.

    Not found in the OED
    Sources: Patents.

    http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=58717#s10

  35. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    I was troubled by that OED reference to 1826. Jane Austen wrote Persuasion in 1816, so obviously “card rack” was in use by then. But I found this reference from 1825, again from our good friend The Literary Gazette, speaking about the invention of a flower-drawing aid called the “Myrianthea”:

    “Thus baskets, urns, card-racks, and all those pretty toys and trinkets which so adorn the drawing room or the boudoir, are readily fashioned.”

    It does therefore seem that the card rack might have might have been, at least for some people, a purely ornamental object.

    http://bit.ly/gSNIdk

  36. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes it is odd that the OED hasn’t picked up earlier references such as the one in Persuasion, but at least it confirms how card racks were used. And how interesting to learn of ‘card pans’.

    And the reference to the Myrianthea again shows how card racks often seem to have been made and/or decorated in the home.

  37. Margaret Says:

    What an absolutely fascinating read – and a brilliant set of comments. I was imagining they would be used a bit like a rolodex – I have a receptacle on my desk where I tuck business cards but also sometimes note cards from people that need dealing with. It sounds like they were used for something similar but customised prettily – maybe the equivalent of giving a jar of homemade sweets to someone at Christmas?

  38. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Margaret, yes I think you are right – and isn’t it fascinating in what it tells us about life in the early nineteenth century?

  39. Chris Squire Says:

    Jolie, Emile: the full Online OED [http://www.oed.com subscription or library membership in UK required] has:

    ‘card-rack n. a rack for holding business or visiting cards.
    1790    Pennsylvania Packet 11 Dec. 3/2   *Card racks or containers.
    1803    Lett. Miss Riversdale III. 198   As to sending one’s name to grace her card rack, I don’t think there’s much in that.
    1826    M. R. Mitford Our Village (1863) 2nd Ser. 342   Painted shells and roses‥on card-racks and hand-screens.’

    ‘ . . III. 5. c. bearing a person’s written or printed name, or name and address. More fully with prefixed n. indicating the special purpose, as  (a) visiting card: used chiefly for presentation on making a call, or to be left in token that a call has been made. Phrase, to leave a card on (a person) . .
    1795    S. Rogers Words Mrs. Siddons 51   A thousand cards a day at doors to leave.
    . . 1856    R. W. Emerson Eng. Traits vi. 110   If he [sc. an Englishman] give you his private address on a card, it is like an avowal of friendship.
    1888    N.E.D. at Card,   Mod. He called, and sent up his card.

    The OED is a compilation of what its many readers have sent it since 1857 [http://www.oed.com/public/reading/reading-programme] so if you can find a use of ‘card rack’ pre-1790, you should send it in.

  40. bluecrabfla@comcast.net Says:

    Is it possible that that date reflects the first date the term “card rack” was actually defined in OED? I know that new words and phrases are around for quite awhile before they are accepted into a dictionary (if they ever are).

  41. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Chris, thank you very much indeed for checking the full OED for us. 1790 is much more logical as the first date for ‘card-rack’ to appear in print.

    Blue Crab, as you say a word may be ‘around’ before it gets printed somewhere, so presumably ‘card-rack’ was in use verbally prior to 1790.

  42. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    Chris and Emile, I did find an earlier mention! “Card rack” is mentioned in a June 1777 entry of “Thraliana”, a diary kept by Hester Thrale, who was a friend of Samuel Johnson. Here is the excerpt:

    p 81 June 1777 I was from home one Day when Dr Goldsmith called – he sate a while in the Room he was shewed to, but soon crossed the Stairs head to my Apartment – not a Bed Chamber – where my Things were set for dressing: there did he examine every Box upon the Toylet, every Paper upon the Card Rack, every thing in short with an Impudence truly Irish.

    I found the Thraliana excerpt at this web site: http://geriatrikiter.blogspot.com/2010/08/thraliana-extracts.html

  43. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    By the way, although I suppose we’d all like to think card racks were always used for some elegant purpose, such as to store invitations to a dinner party or a ball, I did find a reference to a less elegant usage in the Old Bailey’s records for November 1831. A man and two women were charged with pickpocketing a man named John Lock, and this is part of a police officer’s testimony:

    I searched her room, and found some duplicates, but not belonging to the prosecutor – I found on her 1 1/2d., which she said was all the money she had, and that she was going to pawn a cloak that morning to buy her some soap, but on seaching her room I found three shillings in a card-rack over the fireplace.

    http://www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?id=t18311201-91&div=t18311201-91

  44. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    The social transgression of examining someone’s card-rack too closely – wonderful!

    Perhaps you should contact the OED to tell them of your discovery of an earlier date.

    And that police record is poignant – the opposite end of the social scale, but even so they were still using card-racks. Fascinating.

  45. Vic Says:

    The Old Bailey reference seems to indicate that some people back then used card-racks for their own purposes, much like people today reuse small containers and vessels for purposes other than for what they were intended.

  46. Chris Squire Says:

    The OED says:

    ‘How can I send evidence of a new word or sense to the OED?
    We can assess examples of new words and senses that are not illustrated in the OED, providing the information is sent through the OED Online website http://www.oed.com/public/contribute/contribute-to-the-oed, in the appropriate form. This captures the quotation and its accompanying citation details, and transmits the information in a format that our editing system can interpret, which therefore enables our editors to make use of the evidence.’

    Unfortunately, they haven’t got it working yet:

    ‘Contribute to the OED: On this page the OED will shortly provide a customized template for readers who wish to contribute fresh evidence. This will enable the project to store submissions in a format consistent with the editing system.
    Thank you. OED Online’

  47. Jolie Beaumont Says:

    Vic, that was my original thought when I saw how many card racks there were at Attingham. When card racks were so pretty, who wouldn’t want to have one or two in a room – and store in them whatever you liked?

    Chris, I sent off an email to the OED just seconds before you posted your comment about how to submit a new citation. Since I’m not a subscriber, I just used the “general comment” option. I wonder if they will respond.

  48. Linda Says:

    I don’t have anything to add to the discussion, but I wanted to say that this is absolutely fascinating! You guys are incredible researchers and reading the comments on this entry has given me a new insight into the world of Regency and Victorian England.

  49. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Hear, hear!

  50. hmbhistoricalromance Says:

    I’ve been reading through results for card racks in a couple of archives I have access to. They’re something I’d never heard of before seeing this blog post, but seem to be a fairly common item with various overlapping uses. Some of the racks are clearly being used by gentlemen from their context, so perhaps that is why pairs are found: his ‘n’ hers.

    The earliest citation I found was 1776 in a classified ad (items being auctioned in a closing-down sale). In a novel (Joan!!!, 1796, and yes it really has three exclamation points on the title page) they are “a more elegant alternative” to sticking calling cards in the frame of a pier glass, and a place to gather cards from your most impressive callers. Another novel (The Mourtray Family, 1800) shows them in use to store/organise invitations. From the same year (Horatio, of Holstein, a novel) a character helps himself to an unopened letter which has been left for the lady of the house in her card-rack for when she comes home. In Paris, 1818 (La Belle Assemblée), you could purchase elegant red morocco card racks to fix to the wall, which were divided into the days of the week. “Underneath the rack is a small box of bergamot, with a lock
    and key; one marked south, the other north; and in which, letters are deposited that come from either quarter.” (I am not sure what “one” refers to here, perhaps slots for posting the letters into?)

    In 1841, Punch magazine refers to card racks stuffed with invitations to dine out (a way of living well but at very little personal expense). In the 1850s and beyond I found several ladies’ magazines showing directions on how to make decorative card racks, along with other craft projects such as embroidery, knitting, etc. They are made from materials such as velvet- or satin-covered card, or fretwork. One design using wire and beads is touted as a solution to the problems of making them from “drawings, card-board, and gold” which were too susceptible to be damaged by dust and sunlight when the card rack was hung in a room.

    In 1895 (Hearth and Home magazine) a young bride is being advised on how to cope with the etiquette of paying calls, and remembering who is At Home on each day of the week. “You would find it a great help to put up all the visiting-cards on a card-rack against the wall; you know the kind of rack I mean. You could make one by covering a board with plush, and nailing narrow ribbons across it from each side. Hang up your rack in your dining-room or dressing-room, and then you can give it a glance in the mornings, and see who is at home that day.”

    Otherwise I have found card-racks advertised for sale (made of every material you can think of), and used as prizes for sporting gentlemen (along with clocks, ink wells, etc).

    Finally, a joke (1861, Fun magazine):
    JUDICIAL JOKE.–Torture for card-sharpers–the card-rack.

  51. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gemma, thank you very much indeed for sharing these finds with us. I will alert Sarah Kay (the curator for Attingham) to the fascinating references you mention. It is particularly interesting that some card-racks were divided into slots for the days of the week, so that you could use it as a kind of diary or calendar, and that men also used card-racks. And the ‘judicial joke’ is so lame it’s funny :)

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