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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Battle Of The Cards

Title:     The Battle Of The Cards
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

The great winter's contest of the visiting-cards recommences at the end of every autumn. Suspended during the summer, or only renewed at Newport and such thoroughbred and thoroughly sophisticated haunts, it will set in with fury in the habitable regions of our cities before the snow falls. Now will the atmosphere of certain streets and squares be darkened--or whitened--at the appointed hour by the shower of pasteboard transmitted from dainty kid-gloved hands to the cotton-gloved hands of "John," and destined through him to reach the possibly gloveless hands of some other John, who stands obsequious in the doorway. Now will every lady, after John has slammed the door, drive happily on to some other door, rearranging, as she goes, her display of cards, laid as if for a game on the opposite seat of her carriage, and dealt perhaps in four suits,--her own cards, her daughters', her husband's, her "Mr. and Mrs." cards, and who knows how many more? With all this ammunition, what a very _mitrailleuse_ of good society she becomes; what an accumulation of polite attentions she may discharge at any door! That one well-appointed woman, as she sits in her carriage, represents the total visiting power of self, husband, daughters, and possibly a son or two beside. She has all their counterfeit presentments in her hands. How happy she is! and how happy will the others be on her return, to think that dear mamma has disposed of so many dear, beloved, tiresome, social foes that morning! It will be three months at least, they think, before the A's and the B's and the C's will have to be "done" again.

Ah! but who knows how soon these fatiguing letters of the alphabet, rallying to the defence, will come, pasteboard in hand, to return the onset? In this contest, fair ladies, "there are blows to take as well as blows to give," in the words of the immortal Webster. Some day, on returning, you will find a half-dozen cards on your own table that will undo all this morning's work, and send you forth on the warpath again. Is it not like a campaign? It is from this subtle military analogy, doubtless, that when gentlemen happen to quarrel, in the very best society, they exchange cards as preliminary to a duel; and that, when French journalists fight, all other French journalists show their sympathy for the survivor by sending him their cards. When we see, therefore, these heroic ladies riding forth in the social battle's magnificently stern array, our hearts render them the homage due to the brave. When we consider how complex their military equipment has grown, we fancy each of these self-devoted mothers to be an Arnold Winkelried, receiving in her martyr-breast the points of a dozen different cards, and shouting, "Make way for liberty!" For is it not securing liberty to have cleared off a dozen calls from your list, and found nobody at home?

If this sort of thing goes on, who can tell where the paper warfare shall end? If ladies may leave cards for their husbands, who are never seen out of Wall Street, except when they are seen at their clubs; or for their sons, who never forsake their billiards or their books,--why can they not also leave them for their ancestors, or for their remotest posterity? Who knows but people may yet drop cards in the names of the grandchildren whom they only wish for, or may reconcile hereditary feuds by interchanging pasteboard in behalf of two hostile grandparents who died half a century ago?

And there is another social observance in which the introduction of the card system may yet be destined to save much labor,--the attendance on fashionable churches. Already, it is said, a family may sometimes reconcile devout observance with a late breakfast, by stationing the family carriage near the church-door--empty. Really, it would not be a much emptier observance to send the cards alone by the footman; and doubtless in the progress of civilization we shall yet reach that point. It will have many advantages. The _effete_ of society, as some cruel satirist has called them, may then send their orisons on pasteboard to as many different shrines as they approve; thus insuring their souls, as it were, at several different offices. Church architecture may be simplified, for it will require nothing but a card-basket. The clergyman will celebrate his solemn ritual, and will then look in that convenient receptacle for the names of his fellow-worshippers, as a fine lady, after her "reception," looks over the cards her footman hands her, to know which of her dear friends she has been welcoming. Religion, as well as social proprieties, will glide smoothly over a surface of glazed pasteboard; and it will be only very humble Christians, indeed, who will do their worshipping in person, and will hold to the worn-out and obsolete practice of "No Cards."

[The end]
Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Battle Of The Cards