Saturday, January 25, 2014


I’ve got an old trunk in my guestroom. It's small -- a trunk for a lady -- and it belonged to an ancestor of mine; it’s come to me through six generations.
It’s a small traveling trunk, hobnailed on the top (initials RG) and lined with flowered paper; it’s full of old letters, handbills, diaries, letters and photographs, etc. from both sides of my family.
Buried in this ladies’ trunk is a tiny envelope, stuffed with calling cards, all saved by Roxanna Adams, my great-great grandmother, who lived in Ashburnham, MA before the Civil War.
She was born on July 25, 1832, the daughter of Milton and Esther Gibson Adams. She had a rough start: her mother died when she was a year old; her father, being a “man of spirits” (now there’s a euphemism for you), unceremoniously dumped her off at the poor farm. She was, happily, retrieved by neighbors, Prescott Wilder and his wife, who took her in and raised her as their own.
By the time she was fifteen, she had added Wilder as her middle name; we’ve had Prescotts and Wilders in our family in every generation since!

These friendship calling cards were very popular among the younger set in the early- to mid-1800s. They were etched, printed in great quantity (one company was Dickson in Boston); young men and women purchased them in lots or individually.
One of Roxanna’s diaries mentions “card parties,” where young people spent an afternoon or evening around somebody’s dining table, hand-coloring their cards (watercolors, mostly); they gave them to each other as remembrance cards. Some were of a more congratulatory nature, others were exchanged as tokens of friendship; still others were intended to show romantic interest.

I’ve got cards from Melinda Willard and James M. Harris, both of Fitchburg; Nelson Whitney, Frances Maria Partridge, and a particular Lucius Henry Sabin, of Ashburnham.

One of my favorites is this last one: “May I See You Home!” This card was usually presented to a young lady by a gentleman with romantic  intentions; at some point during an evening, he would hand this card to her.
I don’t know who this gentleman was, but on the back of the card he presented to Roxanna, he wrote: “William the Conqueror.”
Such cheek!

Whoever he was, he didn’t conquer Roxanna – she was escorted home by Lucius Henry Sabin instead; they married in 1851.


  1. I loved this story deb! and hadn't heard of this before? It reminded me a little of the holy pictures we swapped as teens at my high school, but with no boys, there were no offers to be taken home. William the Conquerer indeed....cheeky devil.

    1. What I love the most, Pauleen, is watching customs evolve --from hand-colored "friendship" cards to calling cards to, now, business cards...perhaps these early cards are the first sign of what we now call self-promotion!