Not so many years ago, a lady or gentleman, young girl or youth, who failed to pay her or his “party call” after having been invited to Mrs. Social-Leader’s ball was left out of her list when she gave her next one. For the old-fashioned hostess kept her visiting list with the precision of a bookkeeper in a bank; everyone’s credit was entered or cancelled according to the presence of her or his cards in the card receiver. Young people who liked to be asked to her house were apt to leave an extra one at the door, on occasion, so that theirs should not be among the missing when the new list for the season was made up—especially as the more important old ladies were very quick to strike a name off, but seldom if ever known to put one back.
But about twenty years ago the era of informality set in and has been gaining ground ever since. In certain cities old-fashioned hostesses, it is said, exclude delinquents. But New York is too exotic and intractable, and the too exacting hostess is likely to find her tapestried rooms rather empty, while the younger world of fashion flocks to the crystal-fountained ballroom of the new Spendeasy Westerns. And then, too, life holds so many other diversions and interests for the very type of youth which of necessity is the vital essence of all social gaiety. Society can have distinction and dignity without youth—but not gaiety. The country with its outdoor sports, its freedom from exacting conventions, has gradually deflected the interest of the younger fashionables, until at present they care very little whether Mrs. Toplofty and Mrs. Social-Leader ask them to their balls or not. They are glad enough to go, of course, but they don’t care enough for invitations to pay dull visits and to live up to the conventions of “manners” that old-fashioned hostesses demand. And as these “rebels” are invariably the most attractive and the most eligible youths, it has become almost an issue; a hostess must in many cases either invite none but older people and the few young girls and men whose mothers have left cards for them, or ignore convention and invite the rebels.
In trying to find out where the present indifference started, many ascribe it to Bobo Gilding, to whom entering a great drawing-room was more suggestive of the daily afternoon tea ordeal of his early nursery days, than a voluntary act of pleasure. He was long ago one of the first to rebel against old Mrs. Toplofty’s exactions of party calls, by saying he did not care in the least whether his great-aunt Jane Toplofty invited him to her stodgy old ball or not. And then Lucy Wellborn (the present Mrs. Bobo Gilding) did not care much to go either if none of her particular men friends were to be there. Little she cared to dance the cotillion with old Colonel Bluffington or to go to supper with that odious Hector Newman.
And so, beginning first with a few gilded youths, then including young society, the habit has spread until the obligatory paying of visits by young girls and men has almost joined the once universal “day at home” as belonging to a past age. Do not understand by this that visits are never paid on other occasions. Visits to strangers, visits of condolence, and of other courtesies are still paid, quite as punctiliously as ever. But within the walls of society itself, the visit of formality is decreasing. One might almost say that in certain cities society has become a family affair. Its walls are as high as ever, higher perhaps to outsiders, but among its own members, such customs as keeping visiting lists and having days at home, or even knowing who owes a visit to whom, is not only unobserved but is unheard of.
But because punctilious card-leaving, visiting, and “days at home” have gone out of fashion in New York, is no reason why these really important observances should not be, or are not, in the height of fashion elsewhere. Nor, on the other hand, must anyone suppose because the younger fashionables in New York pay few visits and never have days at home, that they are a bit less careful about the things which they happen to consider essential to good-breeding.
The best type of young men pay few, if any, party calls, because they work and they exercise, and whatever time is left over, if any, is spent in their club or at the house of a young woman, not tête-a-tête, but invariably playing bridge. The Sunday afternoon visits that the youth of another generation used always to pay, are unknown in this, because every man who can, spends the week-end in the country.
It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that not alone men, but many young married women of highest social position, except to send with flowers or wedding presents, do not use a dozen visiting cards a year. But there are circumstances when even the most indifferent to social obligations must leave cards.